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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

20th Anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act / Japanese Internment During World War II

Feature Story by Clarissa Peterson - 8/18/2008

Residents of Japanese descent registering for evacuation at the Wartime Civil Control Administration station

Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned (forcibly relocated and confined) by the U.S. military following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

The U.S. government formally apologized for the internments with the Civil Liberties Act, signed into law twenty years ago on August 10, 1988. The law also granted reparations to surviving internees and their families.

Following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, many Americans began to distrust anyone of Japanese decent, believing that even those who were American citizens were ultimately loyal to Japan, and were a threat to the nation's security.

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that allowed the relocation of all people of Japanese decent who lived in designated military zones, one of which covered the entire Pacific coast (most of California, Oregon, and Washington).

Nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans (of which nearly 70,000 were American citizens by birth) were ordered to "assembly centers" near their homes, and then moved to military-run "War Relocation Centers," also called internment camps, often in remote and desolate areas.

Women, men, and children were all interned, with no determination of whether any were actually disloyal to the United States. People with as little as 1/8 Japanese ancestry could be interned (e.g., one great-grandparent of Japanese decent). Many of the American-born internees had never even been to Japan.

Some people of Italian and German decent were interned as well, but not nearly on such a wide scale as Japanese Americans.

People standing in line at the mess tent at Manzanar Relocation Center

Most of the Japanese Americans who were forced to go to internment camps lost their homes and nearly all of their possessions. They lived in crowded conditions in crude barracks, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guard towers, but tried to make their lives seem as normal as possible by creating their own schools and churches within the camps.

Japanese Americans were initially not eligible to serve in the military; they were classified as enemy aliens even if they had American citizenship. But in 1943, military-aged men were given the opportunity to join the Military Intelligence Service or a special segregated Japanese-American unit of the U.S. Army, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit in U.S. military history. Despite this evidence of their patriotism, the families of these men remained in internment camps.

In December 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to detain "loyal citizens," and the following month, internees began to leave the camps. Each person was given $25 and a train ticket to his or her former hometown, but many internees no longer had homes to return to.

Even after the war ended, people of Japanese decent faced widespread discrimination for many years.

In 1980, Congress created the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians to investigate the treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In an 1983 report, the commission concluded that the internment policies were not justified and recommended that Congress apologize and provide compensation to surviving internees and their families.

It was five more years before Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act. The act provided monetary reparations to surviving internees and their families, as well as created a fund to educate the public about the internment and "prevent the recurrence of any similar event." Around 60,000 surviving Japanese Americans received payments of $20,000 each.

Rep. Robert Matsui and Rep. Norman Mineta, who later served as secretary of transportation and secretary of commerce, co-sponsored the legislation in the House. Mineta and Matsui, the sons of Japanese immigrant parents, were interned with their family as children. 

In the Senate, the effort was led by Sens. Spark Matsunaga and Daniel Inouye, both of whom were wounded in World War II while fighting in the segregated 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

"The passage of the Civil Liberties Act shows the greatness of a country that is willing to acknowledge its mistakes and make a meaningful apology and redress," said Karen Narasaki, president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center. "The lessons learned from both the internment and the movement for redress continue to have meaning as we face similar challenges and choices today after 9/11."

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