Indefensible Internment

There was no good reason for the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII.

In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror, by Michelle Malkin, Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 416 pages, $27.95

Since 9/11, some civil libertarians have denounced every antiterrorism policy that singles out Arab men as a repetition of the terrible mistake the government made after Pearl Harbor, when it evicted tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes and banished them to barren camps in the interior. Supporters of profiling have a reasonable response to this comparison with what we've come to call the Japanese-American internment: There is a big difference between asking Arab male airline passengers some extra security questions and forcing American citizens behind barbed wire in the high desert for three years.

As obvious as that answer might seem, it is not the answer that conservative columnist Michelle Malkin gives in her book In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror. She argues instead that the desert imprisonment of virtually all of the West Coast's Japanese-American men, women, and children for three years was the right thing to do: It was a sound military judgment that Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his top war advisers made on the basis of solid intelligence that Japan had organized untold numbers of Japanese resident aliens (the "Issei") and their American-citizen children (the "Nisei") into a vast network of spies and subversives.

Over the last several decades, historians have shown that the chief causes of the Japanese American internment were ingrained anti-Asian racism, nativist and economic pressures from groups in California that had long wanted the Japanese gone, and the panic of wartime hysteria. As the Presidential Commission on the Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians said in its 1981 report to Congress, "The broad historical causes which shaped [the decisions to relocate and detain Japanese Americans] were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership." Malkin contends that this history is a big lie--a "politically correct myth" that "has become enshrined as incontrovertible wisdom in the gullible press, postmodern academia, the cash-hungry grievance industry, and liberal Hollywood."

That passage alone should tell the reader this book is not a trustworthy work of history but a polemic--The O'Reilly Factor masquerading as the History Channel. At the heart of Malkin's account are breathless allegations of widespread Japanese-American treason grounded primarily in the "MAGIC decrypts"--Japanese diplomatic cables that American military intelligence intercepted and decoded. These cables--to which President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and his assistant John J. McCloy had access--revealed what Malkin describes as a "meticulously orchestrated espionage effort to undermine our national security [that] utilized both Issei and Nisei, in Hawaii and on the West Coast, before and after the Pearl Harbor attack." It was primarily this intelligence, says Malkin, rather than racism or wartime hysteria, that led this trio of men to approve and implement the eviction, exclusion, and detention of all people of Japanese ancestry along the West Coast.

Malkin's evidence simply does not support the enormous weight of the argument that she builds on it. First, many of the men who proposed and implemented the internment did not have access to the ultra-secret MAGIC cables. Lt. Gen. John DeWitt, the chief architect of the eviction of Japanese Americans, did not see them. Neither did the governors of the Mountain West states, who in April 1942 rejected the federal government's request to allow Japanese Americans freedom of movement and instead insisted that any Japanese Americans in their states be kept behind barbed wire and under military guard. Plainly, the MAGIC intelligence could not have influenced them.

More important, we know nothing at all about how the few men who did have access to the tens of thousands of decrypted cables actually used them or understood them.

Nothing in the historical record shows that Roosevelt, Stimson, or McCloy attached any particular significance to any specific MAGIC decrypt, let alone to the vanishingly tiny fraction that mentioned a desire to enlist Nisei spies.

What this means is that the evidence Malkin deploys to "debunk the great myth of the 'Japanese American internment' as 'racist' and 'unjustified'" is--at best--mere speculation. This speculation might be worth a moment's reflection if Malkin also addressed the voluminous historical research that has shown the impact of racism, nativism, political pressure, economic jealousies, and war panic on the government's policies toward Japanese Americans.

Greg Robinson, for example, a historian at the University of Quebec at Montreal, carefully traces the development of Roosevelt's view of Japanese Americans as immutably foreign and dangerous in his 2001 book By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans. And at least half a dozen works by Roger Daniels, a historian at the University of Cincinnati, document the intense lobbying for evacuation by California nativist groups and white agricultural interests as well as the extraordinary viciousness of America's leading newspaper columnists in demanding that Japanese Americans (in the words of one of them) be "herded up, packed off, and given the inside room in the Badlands."

But Malkin does not so much as mention any of that evidence, except to say that a reader can find it elsewhere in "pedantic tomes" and "educational propaganda." She dismisses what she cannot rebut.

These objections to Malkin's handling of the evidence are the concerns of scholars and historians, and some may think them unfair measures for the work of a political columnist. "I am neither a historian nor a lawyer," Malkin reminds her reader in the book's prefatory note. But even political columnists are bound by ordinary rules of inference and logic, and it is on this score that her book fails even more spectacularly.

Let us posit, for the sake of argument, that FDR relied on concrete evidence of Japanese-American spying when, in mid-February of 1942, he signed the executive order that authorized the military to exclude people from sensitive military areas. At most, that would mean that the government had a basis for doing something to detect and prevent Japanese-American spying. It would not mean that the government had a basis for doing what it actually did, which was to evict more than 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (including tens of thousands of U.S. citizens) from their homes without charges or hearings, exclude them from the entire coastal region, and detain them in desolate camps for years after any threat of a Japanese assault on the U.S. mainland had evaporated.

The financial costs to Japanese Americans were enormous; estimates run well above $150 million (in 1940s dollars) for property loss alone, and that figure does not include loss of income or opportunity. Neither, of course, does it reflect the incalculable emotional losses Japanese Americans suffered through stigmatization and incarceration. Almost all of the financial losses went uncompensated; a government program for paying claims for documented property loss ultimately paid out an average of 25 cents on every claimed dollar. Token redress payments of $20,000 to surviving internees in the late 1980s were a pittance given the actual losses. Surely a handful of ambiguous diplomatic messages cannot support the infliction of this amount of suffering.

Malkin might have written a book called In Defense of Limited Measures to Protect against Japanese-American Subversion. But she instead wrote In Defense of Internment. This is not a technical distinction. What supported the confinement of Japanese Americans through 1942, 1943, 1944, and a good part of 1945? It was certainly not the MAGIC cables, or any other intelligence source.

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  • ||

    Very well written article in criticism of this quack of a historian's view on this Unforgettable American Tragedy!!

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  • Bigads01||

    Actually, there were "programmatic actions" taken regarding Germans and Italians; Google "German American internment camps". It was not as large as the Japanese action and certainly not as well known, but did occur.

  • hermit||

    My father and my aunts and uncles, and my grandmother were all interned. They lost everything. And, only because my grandmother was full blooded Japanese who had been born and raised in Hawaii. Later moving to Central California.

    When they knew it was going to happen, they burned all there chopsticks. They threw away all things Japanese in the hopes they would be able to convince people they loved America. They didn't know what to do.

    FDR made his decision.

    My grandfather served honorably in the U.S. Navy and was awarded many medals and American Citizenship for his efforts.

    He was a very proud American. But, alas he died too soon. And, because of it, my grandmother and all the family had everything taken from them, and they were carted off to the camp in Fresno.

    For this, they got 20,000 dollars that makes them feel shame. Not, makes them whole again.

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