The internment taboo

R. A. Hettinga rah at
Sun Sep 19 21:55:11 PDT 2004


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The internment taboo
John Leo (back to web version) | Send

September 20, 2004

 Thanks to columnist Michelle Malkin, we are at last moving toward our
first national discussion on the wisdom and fairness of interning 100,000
ethnic Japanese during World War II. For at least a generation, the issue
has been positioned as closed and undebatable--the evacuation of Japanese
aliens and Japanese-American citizens from the West Coast was simply due to
racism and wartime hysteria. This orthodox view is reflected in histories,
textbooks, fiction, and museums. Plausible reasons for the evacuation are
almost always dropped from these presentations, and racism is simply
assumed ("Ancestry Is Not a Crime" is one curriculum title).
In her book In Defense of Internment, Malkin argues that President
Roosevelt's order to move ethnic Japanese from the coast was at the very
least a close call and can be viewed as a reasonable and mild decision,
given the vulnerabilities of the United States to raids and attacks
supported by a small minority of Issei (Japanese aliens) and Nisei
(Japanese-Americans, many of whom held dual citizenship).

 With most of the U.S. fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor, the Pacific became
a Japanese pond, and in a series of raids, Japanese subs sank U.S. ships
off the coast, shelled California's Goleta Oil Fields, and torpedoed a ship
that escaped by running aground in the mouth of the Columbia River. In the
view of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, "It was quite impossible to be sure
that the raiders would not receive important help from individuals of
Japanese origin."

 The core of Malkin's book concerns the so-called Magic
messages--intercepted and decoded Japanese messages sent to and from Japan
and kept secret by the United States until 1977. The Magic messages were
startling. By mid-1941 the Japanese had set up an extensive espionage
network along America's West Coast, recruiting Issei and Nisei and
surveilling near military bases, shipyards, airfields, and ports. A
Honolulu cell provided important last-minute help to the attackers at Pearl
Harbor. Though the U.S. intelligence community knew that the vast majority
of ethnic Japanese in America were no threat, it also knew that the
Japanese government was beaming messages of ultranationalism, sometimes
calling on Nisei to return to Japan for political or military training--the
madrasahs of the day. A secret U.S. government estimate said perhaps 3,500
ethnic Japanese in America were active supporters of the Japanese war
effort. After the war, Japan said that 1,648 Japanese-American citizens had
fought in Japan's Army. Other estimates set the number as high as 7,000. In
1944, when the United States gave American Japanese a chance to renounce
their U.S. citizenship, some 5,620 did so, and 2,031 left for Japan.

 Orthodox anti-internment historians generally discount the role of the
Magic messages. Canadian historian Greg Robinson, who recently denounced
Malkin's "crackpot book," mentioned the messages glancingly in two
sentences of his 2001 book, By Order of the President, and spent a great
deal of space musing about FDR's racial attitudes.

 In February of1942, Roosevelt issued the order that led to the evacuation
of Japanese and members of other ethnic groups from the West Coast, as
Canada and Mexico had already done. German and Italian aliens accounted for
14,183 of the U.S. internee population. Because of the intercepted Magic
messages and the Japanese raids along the coast, the United States was
primarily concerned with the Japanese population, but neither the stats nor
the language of the order sustains the charge of racism.

 The initial evacuation was only on the West Coast. Nisei and Issei further
east were left alone. The U.S. government assumed, or hoped, that evacuees
would find suitable jobs and homes in the interior, but only 5,000 to
10,000 did. The camps were set up when most evacuees either couldn't or
wouldn't move east on their own. As Malkin points out, evacuees at first
were free to leave the camps if they found work or educational
opportunities outside--some 4,300 left the camps to attend college. Camp
conditions were often harsh, and the evacuation attached a harmful stigma
to all Japanese in America. But Roosevelt, much of America's liberal
establishment, and the Supreme Court signed off on evacuation as a
reasonable step taken under extreme wartime pressure.

Malkin's point is that if the threat to the survival of America is severe
enough, some civil liberties must yield. She is right that the internment
issue is currently being wielded as a club to prevent reasonable extra
scrutiny of suspect Arabs and Muslims. But the twin towers were not brought
down by militant Swedish nuns. It is always reasonable to look in the
direction from which the gravest danger is coming. It's also reasonable and
important to open an honest discussion of internment, past and present.

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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