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The Internment Taboo

September 19, 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 of 1942, 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.

From → Immigration, Victims

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