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No defense for policy born of prejudice

by Jeff Kingston

THE TRAGEDY OF DEMOCRACY: Japanese Confinement in North America, by Greg Robinson. Columbia University Press, 2009, 408 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)

This is a superb history about one of the more shameful chapters in U.S. history. Given all the books and articles about the internment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II, one wonders if there is really anything new to say about this subject, but Greg Robinson rises to the task and tells the story uncommonly well.

His gaze extends from the pre-WWII era to postwar legacies, but the heart of the book focuses on the wartime era and how it affected Japanese Americans in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Latin America. The author, who teaches at the University of Quebec, emphasizes throughout the text that though the U.S. treated its internees poorly, the even more racially charged atmosphere prevailing in Canada saw those in British Columbia dealt with far more harshly.

Robinson reveals the extent of prewar surveillance and the deep suspicions government officials harbored toward all Japanese Americans, based on nonexistent evidence of disloyalty. In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt, noting that Japanese sailors frequented Hawaii and mingled with local residents, wrote: “Every Japanese citizen or noncitizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble.”

The attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, provided the pretext for herding 112,000 Japanese American citizens and long-term residents on the West Coast into remotely located internment camps, where many remained for the duration of the war. Concern, extending at times to public hysteria, about Japanese espionage efforts intensified after the outbreak of war, and some authors have claimed that the decoded Japanese diplomatic cables known as the “Magic intercepts” implicated Japanese Americans in spying. Robinson refutes this point, arguing: “Not only do the Magic intercepts not provide any specific information about any Japanese American spying, they tend to discredit the possibility.” At the time, however, anyone of Japanese ancestry was considered suspect as “they became handy stand-ins for the Japanese enemy in the public mind.”

Despite Roosevelt’s inclinations, Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not singled out for wholesale confinement, and many made significant contributions as war workers or as soldiers. However, mass confinement was averted only due to local officials’ stubborn resistance to orders from Washington. At the time, residents of Japanese ancestry comprised 40 percent of the territory’s population and were critical to the economy.

Hawaii was placed under military rule for most of the war, and military tribunals replaced civilian courts in criminal cases. Robinson makes clear that military dictatorship delivered “drumhead justice, unfettered by rules of evidence, presumption of innocence, or constitutional safeguards of fair trials.” There was a stunning 100 percent conviction rate in cases where a defendant pleaded not guilty between 1942-43.

The removal of Japanese Americans meant that many lost their land, businesses, housing and cars. People facing removal were forced to sell at fire-sale prices or entrust their property to white friends or church groups, and in too many cases subsequent restitution was not forthcoming. Property stored in government warehouses was often vandalized and pillaged.

Life in the barbed-wire enclosed camps was an embittering experience amidst very basic living conditions. Understandably, “the injustice of being dispossessed and confined unjustly, and the boredom and futility of camp existence, preyed on the inmates.” Discontent mostly fed apathy and cynicism, but also resistance and riots.

For government-employed social scientists the camps represented a fascinating laboratory, but officials were more concerned about assessing loyalty. This became critical once the War Department decided they would accept Nisei soldiers but only in segregated units. Problematically, inmates were asked to swear absolute loyalty to a government that was violating their rights as citizens. Differing responses to the loyalty questionnaire generated considerable rancor and left internees “marked for decades in their careers, material circumstances, and social relationships.”

Military service was the most effective way to demonstrate patriotism, but came at a steep cost — unusually high casualty rates were sustained by all-Nisei units (33,000 enlisted) out to prove just how loyal they were. Their sacrifices were widely acknowledged and even drew presidential praise. Barred from military service in Canada, ethnic Japanese there did not have a similar chance to embarrass the racists.

In a war fought to protect democracy and freedom, the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans were sacrificed on the altar of national security in 1942 by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which facilitated their internment. Robinson provides numerous fascinating accounts of legal challenges to this decree and how the government lied and manipulated evidence to justify its actions, even well after the war.

It is a tawdry tale of a racist policy justified under the pretext of national security at the cost of civil liberties, the stature of the courts and government agencies involved, and the property of ethnic Japanese. Redress settlements made in 1988 were symbolic and vindicating, even if they could not right the wrongs inflicted. The author closes by sketching the parallels with the Bush-era “War on Terror,” arguing that the lessons from WWII highlight the “importance of maintaining constitutional safeguards, even — especially — in wartime.”