(The message American Japanese were confronted with after Pearl Harbor)

At a time when Donald Trump harangues the American electorate with his views on prohibiting Muslims from entering the United States in reaction to the horrific attack in San Bernardino, CA we find the Republican candidate as well as political pundits pointing to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which created “internment camps” for American Japanese during World War II.  If we are to accept what Trump says, then FDR’s actions set a precedent for going against the freedom of religion amendment to the United States Constitution.  With the repeated reference to the plight of American Japanese during the war on cable and network news it is propitious that veteran journalist and biographer, Richard Reeves’ latest book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese Internment in World War II has recently been published.  The story that Reeves unveils was not a shining moment for the United States, a moment that saw the US government wait decades to apologize for, and make somewhat of a restitution (in 1988 President Reagan signed a bill paying each living survivor of the camps $20,000).  Having visited the Heart Mountain Japanese Internment camp, located outside Cody, WY this past summer I find Reeves’ approach to his topic, providing a window into what life was like for the victims of America’s racist and xenophobic policy towards its own citizens extremely important.   The author bases the core of the book on the stories of the evacuated families who “were caught between those heroes and villians” who either used the situation for their own political or economic agendas or those whose values were repulsed, who spoke out against what was occurring.

(Japanese arriving at Heart Mountain, WY  internment camp in 1942)

From Reeves’ account the reader is introduced to a number of American Japanese families as they react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the government’s actions against them.  First, they must deal with “white” anger that is visited upon them through violent acts and destruction of their property.  Second, after FDR issues the executive order, they are rounded up by the military and police and are sent to assembly camps for a few months until the government could build the camps that eventually would house 120, 313 inmates.  Reeves’ is correct as he develops the political process that led to the executive order, in that, as he did with America’s response to the Holocaust, FDR wanted to separate himself as much as possible from the final decision delegating responsibility to American military officials rather than taking a public role himself.  Once the ten camps were built between March and October, 1942, the inmates were moved and families had to live in barracks with no plumbing.  Reeves’ describes in detail the effect on American Japanese families; loss of dignity, loss of property, loss of self-identity, and of course loss of civil rights.  Reeves has mined memoirs, documents, and conducted numerous interviews in creating an accurate narrative of what actually happened in the camps, events leading up to internment, and what the inmates experienced following their release.

Reeves does a commendable job introducing the major political and military figures who were at the core of the story.  Lt. General John DeWitt, an army bureaucrat and former Civilian Conservation Corps organizer, a man untrained militarily for his position, but was the head of the western command of the US Army in December, 1941. DeWitt believed that “A Jap is a Jap…You can’t tell one Jap from another.”  According to Reeves, DeWitt was not an especially bright individual who usually parroted the last opinion he heard as his own.  His second in command was Captain Karl Bendetson, who changed the spelling of his last name to hide his Jewish roots, and developed the plan that would result in the internment program.  Other important individuals include California Attorney General and later Governor, Earl Warren whose racist ideas led him to support internment.  However, later in his career as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court he oversaw Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision, and headed the most liberal court in American history.  Walter Lippmann, the well-known columnist whose column of February 13, 1942 pressured FDR to act as he argued if nothing was done a surprise domestic attack would occur as the enemy within was waiting for the critical moment to act.  Eleanor Roosevelt warned that Americans should not overreact and succumb to public hysteria.  Attorney General Francis Biddle who refused to implement the plan, Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes fought behind the scenes against the internment program, referring to them as “fancy-named concentration camps.”  Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson who agreed the action was unconstitutional but rationalized, as many other officials did, the camps were designed to protect American Japanese from the violence of vigilantes.  As Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy summed up, “If it is a question of safety of the country and the Constitution…why, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

(The reality of internment for Japanese children)

What drove the policy was fear and greed.  Fear of a possible Japanese invasion of the West Coast, a fear that should have disappeared after the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 when the damage to the Japanese fleet was such that they could no longer threaten the West Coast.  A part from fear, was greed; as California businessmen, fisherman, and farmers resented their American Japanese, and as Reeves describes saw an opportunity to seize property and profits once internment began.  Greed also motivated regular citizens as American Japanese were forced to sell their property and possessions at ridiculously low prices when they were given only 48 hours to get ready, and were told they could only bring what they could carry.

The conditions at the outset were abhorrent as the government was not prepared to receive so many inmates.  At the outset they were sent to race tracks, fairgrounds, and livestock auction sites until camps could be built.  The description of the constant odor of horse manure and urine reflects how American Japanese citizens were treated.  The program was instituted to prevent a “fifth column” of Japanese from hurting the war effort, but as historians have found, none ever existed.  To the credit of the inmates they did their best to show what patriotic Americans they were by dutifully responding to government orders, and peacefully cooperating as they were being rounded up and dispatched to camps.  One of the most interesting facets of the book is Reeves’ description of how the inmates did their best to make a bad situation better as part of their contribution to the war effort.  They created a “small town” atmosphere in the camps by developing hospitals, schools, movie theaters, to improve their situation.  No matter how ill-treated the inmates were, they tried to respond positively and make as little trouble as possible.  There were dissenters, and Reeves describes the law suits and legal battles that led to Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of FDR’s order.  Even a civil libertarian justice like William O. Douglas supported internment.

Importantly, Reeves explores the role of the American Japanese who were either born in the US, the Nisei, and the Kibei, those born in the US, educated in Japan and had returned.  The US military had a tremendous need for Japanese linguists and the role American Japanese played in the war in the Pacific was extremely important.  The linguists were used as interrogators, “cave flushers,” (men who went into the caves that Japanese soldiers had hidden in during island warfare and tried to convince them to surrender), combat, and other areas.  Perhaps their most important contribution to the war effort was in military intelligence.  The Japanese government felt that their language was so difficult that it was impenetrable.  As a result their codes were halfheartedly developed allowing the US to break them resulting in the victory at Midway, the death of Pacific Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who developed the plan and carried out the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and a number of other important victories.  Historians agree with Reeves that the intelligence contributions of these American Japanese saved American lives and perhaps shortened the war.  Another major contribution by American Japanese was as soldiers as the war progressed.  By 1943 they were seen as a solution to some manpower issues and the government began to encourage enlistment and later a draft.   Inmates were hesitant because of how they and their families were treated, in addition to the loyalty oaths they were expected to sign.  In all, 25,778 Nisei served in the military during World War II, roughly 13,500 from the mainland and the remainder from Hawaii.  Of that figure 18, 143 received combat decorations.  Between the 442nd  Regimental Combat Team that excelled in northern Italy and France, success as pilots, and their intelligence work, they made an important contribution to the war effort despite how they were despised by so many.

Another area that stands out is Reeves’ discussion as to how the inmates reacted once they were finally released.  Many felt they had nowhere to go as they realized returning to their homes and businesses on the West Coast was very problematical.  Others, mostly elderly, did not want to leave because they had settled into camp life, and the fact that housing, food, and comradeship were provided, as over time they began to feel more secure.  As Reeves accurately perceives it became “assisted living” for many.  Reeves does a remarkable job describing the experiences of the inmates who tried to return to the West Coast after the war, finding their property was destroyed or stolen, and being brought face to face with the remnants of the racism that had led to their incarceration.  It is interesting to note that 88% of American Japanese lived on the West Coast before the war, and after the war it declined to 70%, in a sense following FDR’s goal that the former inmates would be scattered throughout the United States after the war to avoid trouble.

(US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren)

It is important to note that six weeks after FDR’s reelection on December 18, 1944 the Supreme Court ruled that the government and the army acted constitutionally when it came to mass detention in the Korematsu case.   The day before the decision came down the government released everyone from the camps.  Interestingly, that decision had been reached a year before, but as usual for FDR, politics came first, and he would not allow the release until after his reelection.  The decision itself was predicated on a 6-3 vote supporting the mass incarceration.  Writing in dissent, Justice Frank Murphey wrote that the decision is a “legalization of racism, all residents of this nation are kin and in some way by blood and culture to a foreign land.  Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of a new civilization of the United States.  They must be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to all of the rights and freedoms granted by the Constitution…Such exclusion goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.” Perhaps Donald Trump should read this dissenting opinion, and Reeves splendid book before spewing his seemingly constant racist remarks.


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