John DeWitt, the army general in charge of Japanese American relocation in World War II, was born in 1880 at Fort Sidney, Nebraska, and reared on army posts. Eager to join the Spanish–American War of 1898, DeWitt left Princeton University in his sophomore year. The conflict left a lasting impact on DeWitt, and instead of returning to Princeton, he decided to join the regular army. His responsibilities in the military included work as a supply officer, desk duty, and Philippines tours of service before serving in France during World War I as director of supply and transportation for the First Army Corps. Dewitt served in the War Department from 1919 to 1930 in positions that included chief of the storage and issue branch, acting assistant chief of staff, and assistant commandant of the General Staff College. In 1930, he became quartermaster general and in 1937 was named commandant of the Army War College. Two years later, DeWitt became commander of the West Coast Fourth Army and the Ninth Corps Area.
General DeWitt’s appointment as commander on the West Coast and the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy would be important factors resulting in the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps. Prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, DeWitt had a history of racist behavior toward African Americans and Asians during his career in the then segregated army; he preferred that they serve in the more dangerous and combat-focused infantry units. Fueled by his disdain for minorities and by widespread fear of more attacks by the Japanese military, DeWitt put in place a plan to restrict the rights of Japanese Americans.
Although unsubstantiated by the other federal agencies, DeWitt made claims to government officials against Japanese and Japanese Americans that they were enemy aliens with no loyalty to the United States, had committed acts of espionage, and therefore had to be detained. As a result of public hysteria on the West Coast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 12, 1942, making it legal for the United States to confine Japanese Americans to internment camps in the western United States. General DeWitt directed the operation to round up approximately one hundred twenty thousand Japanese and Japanese Americans into internment camps.
Nearly fifty years after the internment of Japanese Americans, the U.S. government acknowledged that their internment had been a mistake derived from fear and prejudice. The Justice Department made the decision no longer to defend internment and Congress enacted a bill of redress for internment camp survivors in which President Reagan included an apology.
DeWitt’s career in the U.S. Army spanned almost fifty years. He retired in 1947 with the Distinguished Service Medal at the rank of lieutenant general. Seven years after his retirement, Congress promoted DeWitt to full general. He died in 1962 of a heart attack.
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