The “ABC” List refers a system of classification used by U.S. counterintelligence agencies to identify individuals of Japanese descent who were suspected of anti American activities in the years leading up to and following Japan's involvement in World War II. The list was comprised of over 2,000 individuals in Hawai'i and on the U.S. continent who were ultimately investigated and apprehended for what institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) saw as behaviors that threatened American safety.
Although the forcible removal and confinement of some 120,000 Japanese Americans is often thought of in relation to the Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, the “ABC” List is important because it authorized the round up and detainment of targeted persons prior to that order, particularly in the days immediately following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition, the singling out of Japanese American business and cultural leaders on the “ABC” List points to the ways that Japanese culture was targeted under the guise of national security.
The development of the “ABC” List has its roots in Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931. As the United States saw it, Japan's move to occupy Manchuria and its subsequent invasion of China interfered with its own plans for imperial expansion and an “open door” policy with China. As a result, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Navy began preparing for an inevitable war with Japan. As part of their planning, U.S. intelligence agencies began to seriously consider what it would mean to have Japanese Americans living in the United States in the midst of an impending war with Japan. In particular, the FBI and the ONI began fearing that Japanese living on the West Coast and in Hawai'i would commit sabotage, spy, or provide information to the Japanese. In order to assuage those fears, both agencies began collecting names of individuals who they believed posed a threat to national security. By 1941, and with the United States and Japan inching closer and closer to war, the FBI and the ONI combined their list of potential suspects and created what became the “ABC” List.
It is important to note that the fears and anxieties that prompted the creation of the “ABC” List were almost completely unfounded. Japanese living in the United States, in Hawai'i and on the West Coast, were not engaged in any covert or subversive anti-American activities. The “ABC” List grouped individuals into three categories. Group A was considered to be “known and dangerous” threats that demanded immediate and close observation, and were to be immediately seized and detained at the onset of war with Japan. Importantly, this group was largely made
up of first-generation (issei) males who were fisherman, owned successful farming ventures, or led and participated in local Japanese cultural and religious organizations. That the targeted individuals were highly successful farmers and community leaders, with the exception of fishermen who allegedly knew the coastal waters, shows how the efforts of counterintelligence agencies went beyond their stated goal of protecting the United States, and instead waged a war on the community, culture, and economic success of Japanese Americans. Those who comprised the B group were identified as “potentially dangerous,” and group C were those who were believed to be operating on the margins of any anti-American activities. Groups B and C were largely made up of newspaper editors, active members of the community, Japanese language teachers, and instructors in martial arts. Thus while the list was formed under the guise of national security, the list ultimately worked to target anyone who showed any ties to Japanese culture and the Japanese American community.
Moreover, an erroneous and racist view held by many in the intelligence community was that Japanese Americans, being communal people, would not pose any risk without their leaders. Accordingly, unable to penetrate Japanese American communities and organizations, military and civilian intelligence agencies simply chose to single out the leaders. It was also clear, especially in Hawai'i, that making an example of Japanese American leaders by removing and confining them was designed to inspire fear, and with it obedience, among the masses of Japanese Americans.
Although the “ABC” List authorized the investigation of Japanese by counterintelligence agencies and the arrest of those classified in the A group immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, all individuals on the list were ordered by the president to be arrested and detained.
Irons, Peter (Ed.). Justice Delayed: The Record of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989.