Exam preparation materials

Essay Question Types

You’ll write three essays on the AP exam. Everyone answers the same DBQ in Section II, Part

A. and you choose ONE standard essay from Part B and ONE from Part C in Section II. As in the multiple-choice section, the AP exam uses different formats in the essay section to test your knowledge of U.S. history. Here, the ways the questions can be asked are examined, and sample student essays, along with a reader’s comments, are provided. The sample answers for the DBQ and standard essays are not perfect; they are typical student responses, as the possible score noted after the reader’s comments indicates. Again, all the essays are scored on a 9-point scale.

Question Types for the DBQ

The DBQ is a special challenge. You are provided with evidence from a variety of sources that you must integrate into your essay along with information that doesn’t come from the documents. As already pointed out, the instructions make it very clear that you must provide outside information. A good way for you to remember this crucial point is to answer the sample DBQ in this section and those on the practice exams in two ways: first without referring to the documents and then using the documents. The first approach is a direct test of what you know about the period or topic.

You also need to be cautious about letting the documents control you. All too often, students present the reader with a summary of what the documents say, the infamous "laundry list,” and fail to analyze the sources in the context of the question. It’s important to remember that historians don’t give equal weight to all historical sources. They’ve developed techniques for evaluating the credibility of the information available to them. To give you an idea of how this process works, the value of each of the sources in the sample DBQ is reviewed. You should try to do this on your own with the DBQ documents on the practice exams.

The DBQ is much broader than the standard essay questions. No matter how well you can evaluate the documents or the depth of your knowledge of the period, the key to a high score is understanding what the question itself is asking. As with the multiple-choice questions, there are words and phrases that identify particular question types.

Assess the Validity DBQ

A challenging DBQ is one that asks you to “assess the validity” of a statement. The most direct form is a sentence taking a position on an event, personality, period, or movement in U.S. history followed by “Assess the validity of this statement.” For example:

The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt represented a radical change in the relationship between government and society.

Assess the validity of this statement.

The key point to remember is that there’s no right or wrong answer to an “assess the validity” question. The selection of documents and your independent knowledge of the subject allow you to agree with the statement, disagree with it. or come down somewhere in between. What the reader is looking for is how well you use the sources you’re given and outside information to support the position you decide to take.

In the example given above, “assess the validity” means determining whether or not the New Deal did indeed represent a “radical change.” The side of the question you come down on is your thesis and should be clearly stated in the first paragraph. You also need to define here what you understand “radical change” to mean. While the documents will not necessarily lead you to a particular conclusion, it’s important to recognize contrary evidence. This is the “give a little, take a lot” approach. Point out that a document or information you know about the topic may be valid, and then explain why this is not really the case.

Assess the validity questions come in different guises. Questions that ask you to examine the arguments for and against something, to measure the extent to which something is true or false, or to examine the success or failure of one person or thing against another all basically require you to take a position on a historical problem and provide the evidence to support that position.

The DBQ on the 1992 exam provides a good example of an assess the validity question phrased in a different way. It asked “to what extent” environmental factors determined the development of the West and affected the lives of the pioneers and how important other factors were. The documents, which included a physical map of the trans-Mississippi West and excerpts from the recollections of settlers, provided ample evidence of the powerful impact the environment had on the West and the people who lived there. Other documents were important clues to additional forces that were at work. President James Polk’s 1845 Message to Congress on the Oregon boundary dispute obviously raises the issue of Manifest Destiny. Sections of the laws passed by the Wyoming Territorial Legislature in 1869 and 1870 giving women the right to vote and control over property was another source. The relevance of this document in the context of the question was not that Wyoming recognized women’s suffrage but that the motive behind the legislation was to attract settlers.

Hints on handling additional question formats — compare and contrast and discuss/describe, for example — are covered in the discussion of the standard essays. The following sample DBQ gives you an analysis of the question itself and the documents as well as two student essays with a reader’s comments.

Sample Document-Based Question

“The decision to intern Japanese aliens and Japanese-American citizens living on the West Coast during World War II was motivated primarily by public pressure on government officials and military leaders.”

Assess the validity of this statement.

Use both evidence from the documents and your understanding of the period to compose your answer.

Document A

“... if we go ahead and arrest the 93,000 Japanese, native-born and foreign-born, we are going to have an awful job on our hands and are very liable to alienate the loyal Japanese from disloyal. ... I’m very doubtful that it would be common sense procedure to try and intern or to intern 117,000 Japanese in this theater. ... I told the governors of all the states that those people could be watched better if they were watched by the police and people in the community in which they live and have been living for years. ... and then inform the FBI or the military authorities of any suspicious action so we could take necessary steps to handle it ... rather than try to intern all those people, men, women, and children, and hold them under military control and under guard. I don’t think it’s a sensible thing to do... . I'd rather go along the way we are now ... rather than attempt any such wholesale internment. ... An American citizen, after all, is an American citizen. And while they all may not be loyal, I think we can weed the disloyal out of the loyal and lock them up if necessary.”

Source: Excerpt from a telephone conversation of General John L. DeWitt, head of the Western Defense Command, December 26, 1941.

Document B

A Jap is a Jap, and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen.

Source: Statement of General DeWitt before the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee on Housing, April 13, 1942.

Document C

Loyalty of alien Japanese or American- born Japanese who are Shintoists cannot be trusted it was testified yesterday by Togo Tanaka, young Japanese-American editor of the Japanese Daily Times, before the Tenney Committee on subversive activities at a hearing in the State Building.

Speaking, as he said, as an American citizen, he frankly admitted numerous subversive activities in which the Nisei, or second generation Japanese, had participated but explained that they themselves had felt they had been made tools of the older generation in many cases.

Testifying that he was in charge of the English language section, Tanaka admitted that some of the articles appearing during the past two years were subversive and that a Japanese yearbook and directory for 1940-1941 distributed by the paper was “nine-tenths subversive” in character.

Although he denied that the newspaper received any direct subsidy from the Japanese government, he said that he had sometimes felt that some individuals who worked on it might have been subsidized “because of some of the articles which were printed.”

Source: Los Angeles Examiner, March 25, 1942. 

Document D

The temporary separation of city employees of Japanese parentage from their employment should not be regarded as a serious or significant matter. Entirely too much attention has been directed to it. The employees were given an opportunity to make application for a leave of absence so that civil service status of each is fully protected and some, if not all, of the employees may be later returned to their positions with the City of Los Angeles

There will be no policy of harassment of Japanese people, whether born in Japan or in this country of Japanese parents. I feel that employment by a governmental agency is different from private employment, and hope that the action of the city will not be followed by local corporations, firms, or individual employers in dropping faithful and competent employees....

The Japanese people of this community may continue to have the respect of our people and full protection so long as they properly conduct themselves. They should remember, however, that the surest safety depends upon their own acts and conduct and seeing to it that no Japanese, whether born in Japan or California, does anything detrimental to the safety, peace and dignity of the people of America.

Source: Statement of Mayor Fletcher Bowron to the Japanese people of Los Angeles, January 28, 1942.

Document E

... we can be assured they [the Japanese] know everything about our resources, our industrial activity, and the military objectives in the southern California area. For what have the little brown men been doing all these years but getting information and sending it through the Japanese military and naval intelligence sources?

Now that the local Japanese population has probably done its duty well and has supplied information, the Japanese are being moved out of this area and a good job the Army is doing of it, too. While, by removing the Japanese from our midsts, we are reducing the means of securing and transmitting information from the West Coast, we may at the same time, be making it more probable an air raid, because Japanese bombardiers may soon know that if they release bombs over Los Angeles they may do so with assurance that they are not killing their own countrymen. Moreover, the agitation, the public demand for the removal of Japanese from this area, where we have had the largest concentration of Japanese population in America, has stirred up ill-wind and resentment, which undoubtedly the Japanese would like to express in an effective way in the form of an air raid.

Source: Radio address of Mayor Fletcher Bowron, April 23, 1942.

Document F

As time passes, it becomes more and more plain that our wartime treatment of the Japanese and Japanese-Americans on the West Coast was a tragic and dangerous mistake. That mistake is a threat to society, and to all men. Its motivation and its impact on our system of law deny every value of democracy.

Source: Eugene V. Rostow, "Our Worst Wartime Mistake,"

Harper's Magazine (September 1945). 

Document G

There is support for the view that social, economic and political conditions which have prevailed since the close of the last century, when the Japanese began to come to this country in substantial numbers, have intensified their solidarity and have in large measure prevented their assimilation as an integral part of the white population. In addition, large numbers of children of Japanese parentage are sent to Japanese language schools outside the regular hours of public schools in this locality. Some of these schools are generally believed to be sources of Japanese nationalist propaganda, culminating in allegiance to Japan....

As a result of all these conditions affecting the life of the Japanese, both aliens and citizens, in the Pacific Coast area, there has been relatively little social intercourse between them and the white population. The restrictions, both practical and legal, affecting the privileges and opportunities afforded to persons of Japanese extraction residing in the United States, have been sources of irritation and may well have tended to increase their isolation, and in many instances their attachments to Japan and its institutions.

Source: U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hirabayashi v. United States (1943).

Document H

The curious thing was that there was no serious suggestion to move the Japanese off the West Coast until five or six weeks after Pearl Harbor. There were a few sporadic suggestions by Army and Navy personnel that the government should evacuate the Japanese, but not from the men who eventually persuaded Secretary of War Stimson to take the step.

Take General DeWitt, for instance, who was later to act a leading part in the evacuation. ... He was apt to waver under popular pressure, a characteristic rising from his tendency to reflect the views of the last man to whom he talked. ... He kept his head at first, and resisted suggestions that the Japanese be herded out of the coastal territory, which was under his jurisdiction.

... He [DeWitt] was a soldier, and I suppose in the face of the public clamor he decided that he could not take a chance. But I doubt whether he ever formulated precisely what that chance was. Everyone was after him on the coast to get rid of the Japs — the American Legion, the California Joint Immigration Committee, the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, the Western Growers Protective Association, the California Farm Bureau, the Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, and the newspapers.

Source: Autobiography of Attorney General Francis Biddle, In Brief Authority (1962). 

Document I

Instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry living in the following area:

All of that portion of the City of Los Angeles, State of California, within that boundary beginning at the point at which North Figueroa Street meets a line following the middle of the Los Angeles River; thence southerly and following the said line to East First Street; thence westerly on East First Street to Alameda Street; thence southerly on Alameda Street to East Third Street; thence northwesterly on East Third Street to Main Street; thence northerly on Main Street to First Street; thence northwesterly on First Street to Figueroa Street; thence northeasterly on Figueroa Street to the point of beginning.

Pursuant to the provisions of Civilian Exclusion Order No. 33, this Headquarters, dated May 3, 1942, all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Saturday, May 9, 1942.

No Japanese person living in the above area will be permitted to change residence after 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Sunday, May 3, 1942, without obtaining special permission from the representative of the Commanding General, Southern California Sector, at the Civil Control Station located at:

Japanese Union Church, 120 North San Pedro Street, Los Angeles, California.

Such permits will only be granted for the purpose of uniting members of a family, or in cases of grave emergency.

The Civil Control Station is equipped to assist the Japanese population affected by this evacuation in the following ways:

1. Give advice and instructions on the evacuation.

2. Provide services with respect to the management, leasing, sale, storage or other disposition of most kinds of property, such as real estate, business and professional equipment, household goods, boats, automobiles and livestock.

3. Provide temporary residence elsewhere for all Japanese in family groups.

4. Transport persons and a limited amount of clothing and equipment to their new residence.

The Following Instructions Must Be Observed:

1. A responsible member of each family, preferably the head of the family, or the person in whose name most of the property is held, and each individual living alone, will report to the Civil Control Station to receive further instructions. This must be done between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 PM. on Monday, May 4, 1942, or between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 PM. on Tuesday, May 5, 1942.

2. Evacuees must carry with them on departure for the Assembly Center, the following property:

A. Bedding and linens (no mattress) for each member of the family;

B. Toilet articles for each member of the family;

C. Extra clothing for each member of the family;

D. Sufficient knives, forks, spoons, plates, bowls and cups for each member of the family;

E. Essential personal effects for each member of the family.

All items carried will be securely packaged, tied and plainly marked with the name of the owner and numbered in accordance with instructions obtained at the Civil

Control Station. The size and number of packages is limited to that which can be carried by the individual or family group.

3. No pets of any kind will be permitted.

4. No personal items and no household goods will be shipped to the Assembly Center.

5. The United States Government through its agencies will provide for the storage, at the sole risk of the owner, of the more substantial household items, such as iceboxes, washing machines, pianos and other heavy furniture. Cooking utensils and other small items will be accepted for storage if crated, packed and plainly marked with the name and

address of the owner. Only one name and address will be used by a given family.

6. Each family, and individual living alone, will be furnished transportation to the Assembly Center or will be authorized to travel by private automobile in a supervised group. All instructions pertaining to the movement will be obtained at the Civil Control Station.

Go to the Civil Control Station between the hours of 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., Monday, May 4, 1942, or between the hours of 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., Tuesday, May 5, 1942, to receive further instructions.

Source: Poster in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, May 1942.

Analysis of the DBQ Question and Documents

Analysis of the Question

The question presents you with a rationale for the internment of the Japanese living on the West Coast during World War II. You should know that the official reason was based on the assumption of a credible threat of sabotage and espionage in a highly sensitive military area. You have to determine whether or not the position posed by the statement is valid based on the evidence. There is important outside information relevant to the question. You must include a reference to the legal instrument of internment which was Executive Order 9066, issued by President Roosevelt on February 16, 1942. Also, you might want to briefly contrast the treatment of Japanese-American citizens with that of Italian- and German-Americans, and, again briefly, comment on the treatment of Japanese in the United States prior to World War II. The fact that many Japanese-Americans were allowed to enlist in the Army and distinguished themselves in the fighting in Europe may also be relevant.

Analysis of the Documents

Document A

General DeWitt was responsible for implementing the evacuation order as head of the Western Defense Command. The excerpt from his December 1941 telephone conversation shows that he was initially opposed to internment. Because the information comes from a telephone conversation in which we assume DeWitt was freely expressing his personal views, this source is extremely credible. You will see that this is confirmed in the autobiography of Attorney General Biddle.

Document B

DeWitt has completely changed his position by April 1942, after the decision to move forward with the evacuation. We don’t know if his statement reflected his personal feelings, but those feelings are really not relevant.

Document C

This testimony gives some credence to the idea that there was a credible threat from the Japanese living on the West Coast. However, the credibility of the source itself is somewhat suspect. Historians would go directly to the transcript of the testimony before the Tenney Committee rather than relying on an excerpt from a newspaper article. The attitude of the Los Angeles Examiner toward Japanese and Japanese-Americans is something we cannot get from the article.

Document D

Bowron’s statement is significant for several reasons: the date, before Executive Order 9066 was issued, the fact that Japanese workers had been let go from city jobs in Los Angeles, and the implied threat to the Japanese community to behave itself. There is no reason to believe that the document does not reflect the position of Los Angeles civic leaders at the time.

Document E

Bowron’s radio address clearly states there was a public demand for the evacuation of the Japanese.

Document F

Rostow’s statement indicates that at the end of the war the legitimacy of the evacuation was questioned, at least in some quarters. It’s not particularly relevant, however, to the question.

Document G

The Supreme Court decision upheld the constitutionality of the evacuation order. The Court justified the order in part because of the failure of the Japanese to assimilate, which it interpreted as evidence of the community’s strong attachment to Japan. The document might also be used to see the evacuation as part of a long-standing pattern of American discrimination against Japanese.

Document H

Biddle’s autobiography confirms DeWitt’s early position stated in Document A. It also states that public pressure was a significant factor in the decision, pointing to specific groups that wanted the Japanese removed from the West Coast. Historians treat autobiographies with care because the motives of the author may be suspect — for example, the author may have been willing to bend the truth a bit to improve his place in history. Also autobiographies are written some time after the events they describe, and the problem of memory surfaces. Since Biddle's statement corresponds with the information we have from a highly credible source, it is assumed to be credible itself.

Document I

The poster addresses the matter of the mechanics of the evacuation process and could be included to provide the reader a sense of the scope of the order.

First Student DBQ Essay

The evacuation of all individuals of Japanese ancestry, resident aliens and Japanese-American citizens, from the West Coast in 1942 was the result of public pressure rooted in a long-standing prejudice. Military necessity and the alleged threat of sabotage rationalized the action based on a fear of the “yellow peril.” This position is supported by the fact that similar action was not taken against other enemy alien groups, i.e., German or Italian-Americans, as well as the timing of the evacuation itself.

Racial prejudice against Asians was strong in the United States from the late nineteenth century. It was a key factor in ending emigration from China through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After this, Japanese in the United States felt pressure, particularly with Japan’s rise to a position of world power after the turn of the century. The decision of the San Francisco school board that required Japanese (as well as Chinese and Korean) students to attend segregated schools reflects this trend. The “alienness” of the Japanese was reinforced, as the Supreme Court decision in Hirabavashi v. United States upholding the evacuation order noted, by discrimination that restricted the “privileges and opportunities” available to the Japanese. The attack on Pearl Harbor brought to the surface intense anti-Japanese feeling. A California barber offered free shaves to “Japs” with the qualification that he was not responsible for accidents. The removal of Japanese from the West Coast must be seen in this context.

The evacuation was carried out under Executive Order No. 9066 issued by President Roosevelt in February 1942. At this point, General John L. DeWitt, who was responsible for carrying out the order on the West Coast as head of the Western Defense Command, had no trouble supporting the action even if it included American citizens. He told the House Naval Affairs Subcommittee in April, “A Jap is a Jap, and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen.” This is not the position he took in the weeks immediately after Pearl Harbor. At that time, he opposed interning all Japanese living under his command. The report of his telephone conversation on December 26, 1941 makes it clear that he believed that action needed to be taken only against those Japanese that were in fact disloyal. As the commander on the scene, it is significant that he saw no imminent threat of either espionage or sabotage that warranted the wholesale internment of the entire Japanese community on the West Coast.

The fact that internment was discussed by high military officials in December 1941 but not implemented for several months indicates that public pressure played a role in the decision. and that DeWitt himself succumbed to this pressure. In January, Los Angeles city employees of Japanese parentage lost their jobs; there is no indication that this applied to Italian-Americans or German-Americans, or that Mayor Fletcher Bowron’s warning to the Japanese was also given to these other communities. The underlying racism behind the action comes across in the Mayor’s April 1942 radio address, e.g., the reference to the Japanese as “little brown men.” Bowron also states that public pressure was a factor — “... the agitation, the public demand for the removal of Japanese from this area ...”

The clearest evidence on the role of public pressure is Attorney General Francis Biddle’s autobiography. He points out the significant pressure DeWitt was under from a diverse collection of groups — American Legion, California Joint Immigration Committee, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and the press — to “get rid of the Japs.” While we do not know Biddle’s position in 1941 and the statement was written at a time when the legitimacy of the evacuation was questioned, his evaluation of DeWitt is supported by other sources, particularly the December 1941 telephone conversation.

There may have been a legitimate concern over the threat of sabotage or espionage on the West Coast. Some Japanese in the United States may have felt their first loyalty was to Japan as the Los Angeles Examiner report on the testimony of the editor of the Japanese Daily Times suggests. Neither factor seems to have been as potent a motive for the wholesale internment of over 100.000 Japanese as public pressure abetted by wartime hysteria and prejudice.

Reader's Comments on the First Student DBQ Essay

This student makes effective use of the documents and adds significant amounts of “outside” information. The first sentence clearly states the thesis, followed by setting the topic in historical context. Factual information is stated succinctly and incorporates the documentary evidence. One problem here, however, is that the student doesn't identify the documents used by their letter designation as well. Remember that the readers can devote only a limited amount of time to the essays, and the documents you cite should be clear. Always refer to the document you’re using by adding the document letter at the end of the appropriate sentence — for example (Document B). The student demonstrates control over the documents by applying them to the argument, not applying the argument to the documents. Other possibilities concerning why the Japanese evacuation occurred are presented, but the essay closes with a strong restatement of the thesis.

Possible student score: 8

Second Student DBQ Essay

I agree that the decision to intern the Japanese on the West Coast was the result of public pressure on government officials and military leaders. This is clear from the documents.

Document A tells us that General DeWitt originally was opposed to the internment but soon changed his mind. He says in Document B that “A Jap is a Jap, and it makes no difference if he is an American citizen.”

Even before the evacuation order was issued, Mayor Bowron of Los Angeles had fired all Japanese from their city jobs. He also warned them to behave, implying that more drastic action would be taken if they did not. This is from Document D. This is an indication of the type of pressure that General DeWitt was under. Another document that supports this is the report in the Los Angeles Examiner. Here an editor from a Japanese newspaper published in the United States admits that articles published have been subversive. This probably added to the public pressure.

Document H, which is from the autobiography of Attorney General Francis Biddle, also makes a strong case for the idea that DeWitt was under public pressure. In fact, he lists the groups and organizations that wanted the Japanese evacuated. Even the Supreme Court case in Document G shows that even the highest court in the country felt that the Japanese living on the West Coast were probably loyal to Japan because they did not assimilate, and attended Japanese schools. While some people believed that the internment of the Japanese was wrong (Document F), these sentiments were only expressed when the war was already over.

Document I tells us how the evacuation was actually carried out in Los Angeles. By May 9. 1942, all Japanese living in a specific area had to leave their homes. They were told what they could and could not bring with them. They would get transportation to an Assembly Center or could take their own cars as part of a supervised group.

Based on the documents presented, I believe that the Japanese were interned because of public pressure. There was no military or security reason to do this. It was an example of wartime hysteria.

Reader's Comments on the Second Student DBQ Essay

This student has fallen into the common trap of writing a DBQ essay as a “laundry list” of documents, stringing them together to create an essay. In this sense, the documents control the essay. The student did not evaluate the worth or relevance or even the chronology of the documents. With one exception, the documents are presented in the same order as they appear in the question. The student’s thesis fails to assess the validity of the statement; instead, the essay is written as an agreement with it rather than a critical evaluation. There is no outside information.

Possible student score: 1

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!