75 Years Later: Allegiance and Executive Order 9066

Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. – Excerpt from Executive Order 9066. Signed February 19, 1942 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When I was in graduate school I was assigned Only What We Could Carry for a course on visual and material culture. This text used objects, poetry, photography, and art to reveal the wide ranging experiences of Japanese Americans (and permanent residents) that were forced, seventy-five years ago, from their homes into internment camps.

Members of the Mochida FAmily awaiting evacuation. | National Archives
Members of the Mochida Family awaiting evacuation. | Dorothea Lange via/ National Archives
One of the first artifacts photographed is an evacuation tag. At first glance looks like a label you would place on an inanimate object with basic reference information. For the evacuees forced to leave their homes, this tag removed identities paring individuals down to a name, family number, and a time and a place to report.

A year ago this evacuation tag was on display when I caught one of the last performances of the musical Allegiance on Broadway. In February of 2016 I saw this performance as an important but imperfect piece of art. A performance that had a solid grounding in history without a certain magic needed to propel it beyond a standard musical production.

Today on the anniversary of the order, I saw the musical again at a movie theater down the street from where I live, and walked out with a far more visceral reaction. From the moment Lea Salonga read off their destination on that evacuation tag to the final bow it was no longer about history. It was about our present day circumstances and how an executive order can change thousands of lives in the blink of any eye.

This is particularly evident when each character in the musical is asked to fill out a loyalty questionnaire which required internees to commit to military service and sign oaths of allegiance to the United States. Much of the difficulty with Questions 27 and 28 is addressed in the link above – but the ways in which the characters reacted in the show (by signing up, checking no-no, or resisting) emphasizes that love of country is presented in many ways and that the most patriotic thing you can sometimes do is stand up when the rest of the world says shut up.

Seventy-five years ago the U.S. Government made a decision to target citizens and permanent residents based on how they look or where they came from, and revealed that there are ramifications to acts of presidential power.  This single document, meant to protect Americans in the aftermath of a deadly attack, resulted in the stripping of dignity and livelihoods of loyal citizens 

We live in a time when many claim that to be secure and safe we must be willing to give up some of our civil liberties and accept that certain individuals will be inconvenienced because they fit a certain profile. But how far is too far? How much would you give up in the name of fear? We only have to hear the stories of history beyond our borders to see what could happen next. 

Listen well. 

A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.

In enacting a law calling for restitution and offering a sincere apology, your fellow Americans have, in a very real sense, renewed their traditional commitment to the ideals of freedom, equality, and justice. Letter to Internees, President George W. Bush, October 1990.

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