Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

House Select Committee Investigates Japanese Evacuation and Relocation

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese military attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, pulling America into World War II. On February 13, 1942, referencing the presence of Japanese Americans and immigrants living on the West Coast, the congressional delegation from those states recommended to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that “the critical nature of the situation and its latent subversive potentialities are so compelling as to justify the taking of extreme and drastic measures.” They called for a policy that became one of the darkest chapters in American history: the forced imprisonment and internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans.

John H. Tolan/tiles/non-collection/5/5-7-John-Tolan-LoC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Representative John H. Tolan, a Democrat from California, chaired the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration.
Beginning in 1939, a select committee chaired by Representative John H. Tolan of California, called the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration and informally known as the Tolan Committee, examined the interstate movement of people seeking employment in the wake of the Great Depression. Because of the committee’s experience studying internal mass migration, the attorney general and other federal officials tasked the committee with studying the potential issues of large-scale evacuation and relocation of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

Before the select committee members (Tolan, John Sparkman of Alabama, Laurence Arnold of Illinois, Carl Curtis of Nebraska, and George Bender of Ohio) could even travel to the West Coast to begin their work, on February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the creation of “military zones” on the West Coast from which “any or all persons” could be excluded. Despite the broad language of the order, the government’s intention was to target people of Japanese ancestry for removal.

House Resolution 6758/tiles/non-collection/5/5-7-HR-6758-p1-NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration House Resolution 6758, which became Public Law 77-503 on March 21, 1942, created a penalty for persons violating restriction orders related to the military zones.
Following the executive order, the question of evacuation was no longer “if,” but “how.” The select committee held hearings from February to March 1942 in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle to investigate “the total number of persons involved in the evacuation, the liquidation of their property and holdings, the protection of their property against fraud, forced sales . . . costs of their transportation, the availability of relocation sites, and other questions.” About 150 witnesses appeared to give testimony for and against evacuation. Some witnesses in favor of evacuation largely based their arguments for wholesale removal of Japanese-American citizens and immigrants on the impossibility of proving their loyalty to the United States. Others claimed that loyal citizens should eagerly consent to the evacuation as a display of their patriotism. The hearing also included testimony from Japanese-American citizens, including the Japanese American Citizens League, as well as labor, religious, and civil rights organizations, intended to temper the rising anti-Japanese hysteria. Although the committee seemed to grasp the enduring complications of wholesale revocation of the rights of citizens under the guise of wartime necessity, the committee ultimately endorsed the President’s executive order. The endorsement was in seeming contradiction to evidence and testimony gathered during the hearings, as well as the recommendations of military leaders that Japanese Americans living on the West Coast posed no threat. The select committee also side-stepped taking full ownership of a recommendation to relocate Japanese Americans, saying “The committee does not deem its proper province to encompass a judgment on the military need for present (and any subsequent) evacuation orders,” and “We earnestly hope that every effort will be made by the Federal Government to resettle them in normal and productive ways of living.”

Letter from John P. Ferle to Representative John H. Tolan/tiles/non-collection/5/5-7-Letter_John_Ferle_to_Rep_Tolan_Japanese_relocation_1-10-1942_001.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration These two letters sent to the Tolan Committee during its West Coast hearings show the range of public opinion on evacuation of the Japanese.
Letter from Mr. and Mrs. H. Lee Sutton to Representative John H. Tolan/tiles/non-collection/5/5-7-Letter_Lee_Sutton_to_Rep_Tolan_Japanese_relocation_5-4-1942_001.xml
Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration These two letters sent to the Tolan Committee during its West Coast hearings show the range of public opinion on evacuation of the Japanese.
Many citizens living on the West Coast who didn’t take part in the hearings expressed their concerns to the committee in letters that reflected the region’s long history of anti-Asian prejudice. A common refrain among supporters of evacuation was “This is war,” and that internment should begin immediately. Some writers disparaged the Japanese in their communities, repeating common racist stereotypes. An attorney living in Seattle, Washington, wrote to the committee: “Instead of action, we have meetings to see how the politicians think on the question. What a blessing the Japs have not attacked while our Neros have been playing with their fiddles,” referencing the legend that the emperor of Rome was idly playing music while his city burned. Often letters in support of the Japanese came from citizens who worked closely with them, at school or in church. Some presciently raised concern about long-term damage to the Japanese-American community that would be caused by relocation, as well as to their relationship to the United States by instilling a permanent feeling of betrayal and distrust. A couple in Berkeley, California, pleaded to the committee: “We just cannot allow our war to take on a race character. If we do we only indict our cause. We are fighting a just, right war and we must continue to do so.”

In early 1942, although the select committee’s findings were still incomplete, the House took up H.R. 6758 (which became Public Law 77-503 on March 21, 1942) imposing a penalty of a $5,000 fine and misdemeanor conviction with the possibility of up to one year imprisonment for persons violating restriction orders related to the military zones. The bill was quickly passed with little debate or dissension. The disconnect between the work of the committee, which had only just begun, and the demands of the White House for which internment was already a foregone conclusion, was plain.

Farmer Holding a Lease/tiles/non-collection/5/5-7-Japanese-farmer-with-Lease-in-hand-NARA.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration In this 1942 photograph taken by Dorothea Lange, a field investigator for the Tolan Committee interviews a farmer. The farmer holds a lease to his land, which he’s given up to comply with evacuation orders.
By May 13, 1942, the committee issued its extensive fourth interim report, “Findings and Recommendations on Evacuation of Enemy Aliens and Others From Prohibited Military Zones.” At this point, the committee’s calls for restraint became more strident: “[I]t has become clear that a curtailment of the rights and privileges of the American-born Japanese citizens of this country will furnish one of the gravest tests of democratic institutions in our history.” Still, however alarming their language, the committee deferred to the President, but expressed hope that a “sense of looking forward” and a focus on the “preservation of liberties” by the War Relocation Authority would “go far toward fashioning the whole pattern of our policy on racial and minority groups now and in the post-war world.” These exhortations were largely unheeded.

By the time the select committee issued its final report in January 1943, even these concerns seem to have subsided. Perhaps with internment underway and the war at its height, they no longer seemed relevant. The final report only briefly touched on relocation issues, and it did so in a self-congratulatory manner: “There are many indications that the careful handling which the Federal Government, including military authorities, has given the entire question of evacuation has been guided and strengthened by the temper of public opinion and that this in turn has derived much of its direction from the report.” Following the final report, the committee closed down. It ultimately did little to prevent the suffering and hardship it knew would come. Timing and a willingness to acquiesce to presidential initiative undercut the committee’s ability to fulfill its critical oversight role.

Roughly 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, including American citizens and Japanese citizens legally residing in the United States, were interned before the relocation order was rescinded in 1944.

Explore additional records related to the history of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Records Search.

Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, 76th and 77th Congresses, Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives; George P. Perros, Preliminary Inventory Number 71, Records of the Select Committee of the House of Representatives Investigating National Defense Migration, 1940-43 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, 1954); National Defense Migration. Preliminary Report and Recommendations on Problems of Evacuation of Citizens and Aliens From Military Areas. Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rept. 1911, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (19 March 1942); Fourth Interim Report of the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. Findings and Recommendations on Evacuation of Enemy Aliens and Others From Prohibited Military Zones. Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rept. 2124, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (May 1942); National Defense Migration. Final Report of the Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. Select Committee Investigating National Defense Migration. U.S. House of Representatives, H. Rept. 3, 78th Cong., 1st sess. (January 1943); Shaffer, Robert. “Tolan Committee.” Densho Encyclopedia, 19 March 2013, https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Tolan%20Committee/; Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps USA: Japanese Americans and World War II (Hindale, IL: The Dryden Press, 1971); Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Page Smith, Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995).