Even with the first image on the first wall, Smithsonian Curator Tom Crouch and his colleagues refused to soften their story. The schoolchildren stand, with two small Japanese American girls prominently up front, hands over their hearts, captured by photographer Dorothea Lange as they stare at an unseen American flag. On a wall of glass in front of the photograph appear the words of the U.S. Constitution, in their familiar, graceful 18th-century script. It takes a moment to notice the thin lines of barbed wire, across the children, across the Constitution.

"This is a tough show," Crouch says. "We have to let visitors know that right up front."

"A More Perfect Union," a permanent exhibit opening today at the National Museum of American History, tells what happened to the 120,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese ancestry and their immigrant parents who were incarcerated during World War II. It is also the Smithsonian's entry in the bicentennial celebration of the Constitution. Filled with voices of frustration and anger, pictures of American citizens imprisoned for years with no trial or evidence of disloyalty, interactive videos that allow visitors to "ask" former internees specific questions, tales of those who tried to fight internment through civil disobedience, protest and the courts, "A More Perfect Union" may be the most sobering and intriguing -- and certainly the most controversial -- event to come out of the Constitution's anniversary.

"This is to say, 'You think your Constitution guarantees certain things to you,' " Crouch says. " 'Well, it's worth exactly what the general mass of Americans wants it to be worth. Come times of racist hysteria and prejudice, it can be abrogated, if that great mass wants it to be.' "

The United States in the '40s seemed unable to distinguish between the actions of a foreign nation with which it was at war and the descendants of that nation, American citizens though most of them were. And yet, despite the European conflict, German and Italian Americans as groups were never relocated or interned.

"Fundamentally," says Crouch, "this is about a group of people to whom awful things happened, who refused to give up on the system."

I was just 18. It's hard for me to believe other people who would have been older didn't think that we had lawyers in our community who could fight this. I just had the feeling this was something the whole community was going to go through. I thought maybe this was the best way to say we were loyal and going to do whatever we needed to do for the war effort.

-- Sue Kunitomi Embrey, from the exhibit

Thousands of Japanese Americans were expected to take part in four days of activities marking the opening of "A More Perfect Union," including a Smithsonian reception last night, a ceremony on the steps of the Capitol this morning, banquets for Japanese American World War II veterans, and Friday's public screening of a new documentary, "Color of Honor."

The exhibit comes as the internment is under reconsideration in both Congress and the courts. Just two weeks ago the House voted to offer the nation's apology and approve $1.2 billion in reparation payments to those sent to relocation camps (half of whom are still alive); the Senate is expected to vote on the bill soon. Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Gordon Hirabayashi's key 1942 conviction for defying the curfew and relocation laws. For many, "A More Perfect Union" is further evidence that American society is at last confronting what it did to thousands of its citizens.

But not everybody approves. Since museum officials announced plans for the exhibit, they have received negative letters and phone calls, some confusing Japanese Americans with the enemy who led the Bataan death march and killed Americans in the Pacific, others disturbed by a show they felt would point to the failures of a system rather than its virtues.

Museum Director Roger Kennedy counters the varied criticisms with a combination of restrained irritation, sympathy and exuberance.

"There are many people who suffered deep and profound injuries from 1939 to 1944-45," he says. "Some of those people are not able, because of the depth of their hurt, to understand the distinction between our fellow citizens of Japanese ancestry and those they fought against. We would be extremely lacking in human understanding ... if we didn't understand there are people who are hurting out there ...

"It's also true some people have seized on this opportunity to demonstrate their abhorrence of the Bill of Rights," he says.

But Kennedy insists, "This is about as unabashedly patriotic a display as you're going to see this year, maybe this decade ... The difference between American culture and most others is we have a long tradition of self-correction, a long tradition that I believe from the beginning distinguished us from tyrannical systems."

Funding for the exhibit, more than $900,000, came in slowly, as government and private sources struggled to understand just what the Smithsonian wanted -- and why. "It would have been so easy to do another Philadelphia costume exhibit," says Kennedy. "There are people who would prefer to dress up models and have them wander around pretending they are Jefferson and Madison."

There are no 18th-century frills and ruffles in "A More Perfect Union." Instead: a reconstructed Los Angeles grocery store with signs reading "I AM AN AMERICAN" and "Closing Out Evacuation Sale"; a program from a camp dance; a barracks based on plans from Topaz Relocation Center -- complete with sandpaper walls, and medals won by soldiers while their parents were interned. All in all, there are more than 1,000 objects and documents.

Some of us had to take extraordinary steps which the Constitution did not require to prove to our neighbors we were worthy of being called Americans.

-- Sen. Daniel Inouye, from the exhibit

During a tour before the exhibit opened, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii paused before a picture taken on the border between France and Italy of a young man in uniform, smiling.

"I was 20 years and 2 months old," he said. "Shaved about twice a week."

Inouye was a member of the Army's 442nd "Go for Broke" Regiment, the almost exclusively Japanese American unit more decorated for valor than any other unit of its size. The curators devoted a good deal of the exhibit to the Japanese Americans who fought in the war, including one extensive display on the tools and weapons they used.

Says Edward Ezell, curator of the Armed Forces division, "Let's face it, beneath the surface there is still a lot of prejudice against Japanese Americans. This shows they were part of the common experience. Many American GIs never saw any Japanese Americans in uniform -- this will introduce that to them."

As he looked at the show, Inouye said he had heard little in detail about the relocation on the mainland until well into the war, "when the full horror was known. After that, seeing all of this" -- he gestured at the objects and documents around him -- "many of us could not understand what motivated these mainlanders to volunteer. We had good reason to volunteer. Life was good. We from Hawaii always asked ourselves the question 'Would we have volunteered?' It was a question no one could answer."

And it is a question that has caused pain for 40 years and remains a divisive issue for many Japanese Americans. Those who fought for the country that was keeping them from their homes hoped their actions would prove them truly loyal to the United States. But fighting meant leaving parents and families behind in the camps and possibly incurring the anger of other friends and relations.

William Hori, a Chicago word processor and the named plaintiff in United States v. Hori, a class-action suit that seeks redress for losses during the internment, believes an inordinate amount of attention has been paid to the approximately 1,000 who voluntarily left the camps to fight and not enough to those who wouldn't.

"I think they made a very clear stand on the Constitution," says Hori of the resisters. "They said, 'Free us, and then draft us, but free us first.'

When presented with the loyalty statement all internees were forced to complete, Hori himself answered "no" to the question whether he could swear "unqualified allegiance" to the United States.

"I said no government deserved unqualified allegiance, and certainly not the United States government," he explains now. " 'Unqualified' was a term I didn't like. After that experience, I think you have to say, 'Wait a minute, there have to be qualifications.' "

They look up at me with their big eyes and ask, again and again, was great-grandpa really guilty when they put him in the concentration camp?

-- Mary Tsukamoto, from the exhibit

When asked where she was born, Aiko Herzig's daughter always answered Sacramento. "She was born in the camp," says Herzig. "She didn't know how to explain, so she picked a city not too far from the camp -- Sacramento. I think that's a pretty good example of the trauma our children feel."

Herzig had just graduated from high school in Los Angeles when the relocation order came. She spent time in three camps: Manzanar, Jerome and Rohwer. When the internees were released in 1945, she, like most others, could do little more than care for her family and attempt to establish a new life. But later, after her children were grown and she had remarried and moved to the Washington area, she began to frequent the National Archives. Her work there has proved pivotal to the past decade's reexamination of the internment. When the congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment was formed in 1980, she was hired as chief researcher, and both she and her husband Jack served as consultants to "A More Perfect Union."

"I knew in my heart that it was wrong," she says. "The liberty we were being deprived of -- I didn't know until I actually got into the camp what it meant. Before the relocation, to have curfew imposed on us, for example, was just a deathly experience. The kind of snubbing we got from our neighbors, and I'm sure they didn't all mean it, but they were so afraid of being pointed out as 'Jap lovers.' All of a sudden, we were like lepers.

"Having been considered less-than-loyal, second-class citizens -- it's a stigma that has been carried by the people who were in the camps. The children ask, 'Why? Why?' Many of our Japanese Americans don't know what hit them yet. A lot of them don't understand the traumatic psychological damage they've been carrying."

And for many years, in fact until very recently, few people who had been in the camps spoke about them. Children could drag out only the simplest facts, the barest anecdotes from their parents; they compare the reticence to the shock and desire to forget that follows a rape or other act of violence. Some allude to the silence about the past that engulfed many survivors of the Holocaust, that surrounded some veterans returning from war.

Says Herzig, "Many of our children are saying, 'How come you didn't pick up a gun and fight?' But things have changed. They have to realize that the environment we grew up in was very anti-Asian."

The congressional commission held hearings around the country, bringing the stories out and to the public's attention. Its 1983 report estimated the internees' economic losses at $2.5 billion to $6.2 billion and recommended compensation and a formal statement of apology from Congress. By that time, the dam had already begun to break. Newly declassified documents disclosed that some of President Franklin Roosevelt's personal advisers, including J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI and other officials of the Justice Department, knew the Japanese Americans posed no security threat, yet the Army recommended the massive relocation and internment and Roosevelt acquiesced. A number of cases have been brought to court to clear records and seek redress. The civil rights movement of the '60s raised the collective consciousness of Japanese Americans, and as the next generation grew up, members pressed their parents for memories and answers they had been denied.

"They're more American," says National Japanese American Historical Society member Phil Ishio. "The first generation was very submissive. The second generation was influenced by the first. But the third is very American."

The students from Berkeley would come to Tanforan. They would say, 'Oh, how terrible, Professor Obata, you are behind the fence!' They cried, poor things, so he would tell them, 'From my perspective it looks like you are behind the fence.'

-- Haruko Obata, from the exhibit

The Topaz barracks rebuilt at the Smithsonian looks too comfortable, too pleasant, May Ishimoto said. The floorboards should have been made of green wood that contracted to leave wide cracks through which bugs and dust flew in. And the furniture -- few internees had such solid and attractive pieces. But beyond those criticisms, the woman who met her husband in camp and saw her mother die there said the exhibit was distressingly accurate.

"The reality of it has such an impact," she said, during a preopening tour. "I think I've been pretending it really wasn't as bad as it really was ... We lived there and just existed from one day to another. It was only much later I discovered I had frozen inside. My mother was very sick at the assembly center, with high blood pressure. She died in Jerome, only waiting long enough for her oldest son to reach her for a visit. He was in the Army; he volunteered the day after Pearl Harbor. After she died, I wondered why I didn't cry."

And then, recently, she read an article about the camps.

"Part of my heart melted a bit when I read that article. I realized, 'Of course. That's what happened. I had just turned to stone.'