Since World War I and the initiative of J. Edgar Hoover, and right up through all the no-fly and terrorist-watch lists of today, the U.S. government has kept unconstitutional lists of people, largely or in part on the basis of their national or ethnic heritage or their political activism. These lists were part of the process of interning in camps Germans and German-Americans during World Wars I and II, and Japanese-Americans and Japanese during World War II.
In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the creation by the Office of Naval Intelligence of a list of Japanese-Americans who would be the “first to be placed in a concentration camp” once a war could be started. In 1939 FDR ordered the ONI and the FBI to create a larger “custodial detention index” of primarily Japanese-, German-, and Italian-Americans, renamed and continued as the “security index” by Hoover after Attorney General Francis Biddle ordered it shut down.
The Alien Registration Act of 1940 required all non-citizen adults to register with the government. In early 1941 FDR commissioned a study of West coast Japanese-Americans, which concluded that they were no threat at all. He commissioned another study that reached the same conclusion. Yet, on December 7, 1941, FDR issued a proclamation stripping Japanese in the United States of rights (and the very next day for Germans and Italians). On January 14, 1942, FDR proclaimed in another proclamation that enemy aliens could be put in internment camps. On February 19, 1942, he ordered the internment of citizens and noncitizens alike.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this action, but those rulings were vacated in the 1980s when it was learned that the government had withheld relevant information from the court, and — perhaps more importantly — when World War II and its accompanying hysteria were long over. A 1943 government report had been altered; the original version had admitted that there had not been a lack of time to provide Japanese Americans due process; rather, it asserted, there is simply no way to determine the loyalty of such people, who must be kept away from the coats of the United States for the duration of the war.
From 1980 to 1983 a Congressional commission studied the history and concluded that Japanese-Americans and Japanese had been locked up in camps, not due to any evidence of a threat, but on the basis of racism and bigotry. The commission recommended $20,000 in reparations to each victim. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation authorizing those reparations payments, and apologizing to the victims. This law acknowledged “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” as the factors that motivated the crime.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush signed a law appropriating more finds for reparations payments. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor he issued another formal apology, which included this claim: “The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.”
In 2000, a memorial was dedicated in Washington, D.C., that includes, carved in stone, these words:
The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group.
–attributed to Daniel K. Inouye, U.S. Congressman and Senator
In 2001, Congress passed a law making 10 of the camps historical landmarks and stating that “places like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Amache, Jerome, and Rohwer will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency.”