The Civil Liberties Act of 1988

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 internment camps.

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 246).

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.

Works Cited

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)