By Steven Wright
On August 10, 1988, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into
law by President Ronald Reagan. "The Act was passed by Congress to provide
a Presidential apology and symbolic payment of $20,000 to the internees,
evacuees, and persons of Japanese ancestry who lost liberty or property
because of discriminatory action by the Federal government during World
War II" (Department of Justice 1).
Over 120,000 Japanese Americans of all ages had been forced from their
homes in California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona pursuant to Executive
Order 9066, issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942, which
decreed that no one of Japanese ancestry could be allowed to remain
on the West coast of the U.S. during its war with Japan. Some Japanese
Americans were simply relocated eastward, but most were forced into
Facing imminent removal, Japanese Americans living in the West were
obliged to quickly liquidate their assets, usually at a fraction of
their real value. Consequently, at the end of the war, most emerged
from the internment camps with no homes or property, no jobs, and little
in the way of savings (Kim 329).
As soon as they were set at liberty, many outraged Japanese Americans
looked to their government for some redress of the grave injustice and
material loss they had suffered in the internment process.
In 1948, Harry Truman responded to the situation by signing into law
an evacuation claims bill that allowed Japanese Americans to make claims
for "damage to or loss of real and personal property" (Kim 330).The
process for reviewing the internees' cases was hopelessly inadequate,
however. By 1950, only 210 claims had been cleared. Although, the legal
process was later expedited, in the end, victims of internment who filed
claims received an average compensation of only $340 per person (Wei
For years, Japanese American activist groups urged the government to
take further action on behalf of the internees. Finally, in 1980, Congress
created the Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians
to examine possibilities for redressing the injustice of the internment
camps. The commission recommended substantial monetary compensation
as well as an official Presidential apology to those who had suffered
under Executive Order 9066, but the legislation died in Congressional
committees in 1984. The following year, a new Congress was presented
with another redress proposal, this time named "H.R. 442," in honor
of the Japanese American 442nd regiment, which had emerged as the most
decorated combat unit in World War II.
After years of Congressional debate, the Civil Liberties Act was finally
accepted by the House of Representatives on August 4, 1988 and sent
to President Reagan for his approval (Hatamiya 58). Even after the bill
was passed, authorizing a total of 1.25 billion dollars for distribution,
appropriating funds for this purpose proved to be very difficult. In
1988, Reagan suggested allocating a sum of $20,000,000 of the national
budget for redress payments, only enough to pay 1,000 individuals.
Finally, in 1990, a bill spearheaded by Senator and 442nd regiment
veteran Daniel Inouye ensured that all redress payments would be made
within the next three years. When it was discovered that there were
about 80,000 eligible individuals instead of 60,000, the figure on which
previous assessments had been made, more funds were allocated through
the Civil Liberties Act Amendments of 1992 (Hatamiya 188). When, on
October 9, 1990, the first 9 redress payment checks were issued, "the
Japanese American community erupted in celebration" (Hatamiya 186).
Japanese Americans had achieved a major victory in a battle for justice
that had spanned almost 50 years.
I believe the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 is significant because it
was a sincere attempt on the part of the U.S. government to redress
the fundamental injustice of the internment and evacuation of Japanese
Americans solely on the basis of their race. By frankly admitting its
past failings and paying out substantial compensation, the American
government tangibly demonstrated its willingness to uphold the fundamental
rights of all United States citizens in the future.
The Civil Liberties Act is also significant because of certain inadequacies.
Twenty thousand dollars is hardly enough to compensate for the real
value (50 years of interest aside) of the houses and property internees
lost, much less the years of imprisonment and deprivation they suffered
at the hands of their countrymen. Moreover, this attempt at compensation
came more than 40 years after the fact, when most internees were either
dead or too old to really enjoy the benefits of reparations. In this
sense, while the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was a triumph for American
civil rights, it was also a travesty of American justice.
I first learned about the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 when I heard
about its passage on the news many years ago. Although, I was only 11
years old at the time, I still vividly remember being shocked by the
announcement. The first thing that impressed my prepubescent brain was
that $20,000 was just being given to people! Then, when my mother explained
the circumstances of the internment to me, I was disgusted. I couldn't
believe that the U.S. could legally imprison American citizens without
any sort of trial. I understood that blatant racism had existed in this
country, but (growing up in Southern California) I assumed it was a
phenomenon confined to a few backward states in the South-not something
that had ever tainted the progressive West!
Also, I had never imagined that Asian Americans would be discriminated
against. I had been brought up to see them as outstanding citizens who
demonstrated that, through hard work and diligence, the American dream
could still become a reality. The fact that institutionalized racism
against Asian Americans existed as late as World War II, and that the
American government was just beginning to really reexamine its official
policies in 1988, opened my eyes to a real problem in American society
of which I had been wholly unaware.
Hatamiya, Leslie T. Righting a Wrong: Japananese Americans and the
Passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. Stanford University
Press: Stanford, 1993.
Kim, Hyung-Chan. Dictionary of Asian American History. Greenwood
Press: New York, 1986.
Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Temple University
Press: Philidelphia, 1993.
(Department of Justice) http://www.usdoj.gov/kidspage/crt/redress.htm