Documents: World War II

President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 in 1942 in his capacity as Commander in Chief of the nation’s armed forces. The order authorized the forced internment or imprisonment of 120,000 men, women, and children of Japanese ancestry including many who were American citizens living on the West Coast of the U. S. to “relocation centers” in the interior of the U. S. They lost their homes, their jobs, other property, and their freedom. None of the citizens or Japanese nationals were ever charged and convicted of any criminal offense. Many had never been to Japan and did not speak Japanese. The order stated that the detentions were necessary because “the successful prosecution of the war requires every possible protection against espionage and against sabotage of national-defense material, national-defense premises and national defense utilities.” The fear among many citizens and government officials on the West Coast was that these Japanese might become spies for the Japanese Empire with which the U. S. was now at war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Some people argued that the Japanese Americans who were interned were denied their liberty and property without due process of law as required by the U. S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. The Supreme Court however, in Korematsu v United States in 1944 upheld the constitutionality of the Japanese internment as a wartime measure. In 1988, Congress passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act in which the nation officially apologized for the internment, and the U. S. paid each of sixty thousand Japanese American survivors $20,000 to compensate them for their lost liberty and property.

According to Department of Labor estimates, fifteen million men and women in the armed services would be out of work at the end of World War II. Recognizing that wide-spread unemployment could cause an economic depression, the National Resources Planning Board recommended a series of programs to address the needs of ex-servicemen and women and, at the same time, strengthen the economy. The American Legion designed the main features of what became the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act. It became known as the GI Bill of Rights because it addressed basic needs of the returning servicemen and women. These included hospitalization, loans to purchase or improve homes and businesses, and grants to pay for education. The act not only benefited qualifying individuals but also stimulated the economy. The bill paid for itself in the form of taxes imposed on beneficiaries whose wages increased because of their education or training or whose profits grew from investments they made using government loans. The long-range, historical impact of the legislation is seen by looking at the statistics. By 1955, the Veterans Administration had granted 4.3 million home loans, totaling $33 billion. By 1956, when the original law expired, it had disbursed $14.5 billion to veterans for education and training programs. Congress has extended the GI Bill several times. Nearly 2.3 million Korean War-era veterans and more than 8 million Vietnam-era veterans have participated in the program.

The law contained four important components: (1) authorized up to 52 weeks of unemployment compensation at $20 per week with adjusted compensation for self-employed veterans restoring themselves in business rather than seeking jobs from others; (2) guaranteed 50 percent of loans up to $2,000 to veterans with interest not more than 4 percent to purchase a home or a business; (3) authorized $500 million for construction of additional veterans’ facilities, including hospitals; and (4) authorized allowances for four years of individual grants of $500 a year for training and education, plus monthly subsistence of $50 a month for single and $75 a month for married veterans. As commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the legislation in 2004 was given: “Representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, remarked … that “the original GI Bill of Rights ‘produced 450,000 engineers, 238,000 teachers, 91,000 scientists, 67,000 doctors, 22,000 dentists, and another one-million college-educated men and women.” He noted that “another five million men and women received other schooling or training on the GI Bill, helping to create the modern middle class.” Before the GI Bill, the great majority of Americans were renters. Now, most Americans live in their own homes. Half of the college students who used the GI Bill came from homes where neither of their parents had attended college, changing the face of higher education.