Street Law, Inc. and The Supreme Court Historical Society present

Landmark Cases of the U.S. Supreme Court

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Background Summary & Questions (•)

The port of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by the Japanese in December 1941.  After this, the American government was worried that the West Coast of the United States would also be attacked.  Many Americans were angered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor and blamed Japanese Americans who were living in the United States.  Some people thought that the many Japanese and Japanese Americans who lived there would help the Japanese military.  But at the time, there was no known case of espionage from any person of Japanese descent.

In February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066.  This order allowed the military to use curfews and to move Japanese and Japanese Americans to special camps.  Japanese Americans were only allowed to bring very basic items with them.  Moving people to camps is called internment.

Fred Korematsu was an American citizen.  He was born in America and had Japanese parents.  He wanted to be in the United States military, but he was not healthy enough.  Korematsu did not want to go to the internment camps.  He moved away and changed the way he looked to avoid the order.  But he was arrested later and sent to a camp.

Korematsu took his case to the courts.  He said that Congress, the President, and the military authorities did not have the power to send people to internment camps.  He also said that the government was discriminating against him because of his race. 

The government argued that the evacuation of all Japanese Americans was necessary because there was evidence that some were working for the Japanese government.  The government said that because there was no way to tell the loyal from the disloyal, all Japanese Americans had to be treated as though they were disloyal.

The federal appeals court agreed with the government.  Korematsu appealed this decision and the case came before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Questions to Consider

  1. Why was Korematsu (and other people of Japanese descent) forced to go to an internment camp?
  2. Look at a copy of the Constitution.  Which part (Article and Section) describes the war power of the President?  Which Article and Section describes the war powers of the Congress?
  3. The United States was also at war with Germany and Italy. People of German and Italian descent were also interned in the United States, but there were fewer people interned from these groups than who had Japanese ancestors.  Why do you think people whose ancestors were from Japan were treated differently?
  4. In times of war, governments have to balance national security with citizens’ rights.  In your opinion, did internment of Japanese descendants strike a good balance?

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