There are at least two things that make it very difficult to accurately evaluate historical events. The first is that hindsight is 20/20. In other words, we tend to judge what happened in the past without taking into account all of the knowledge that we have acquired after the fact. For example, when we look back at WW2, not only do we know how everything turned out, but we have decades of extensive research to rely on that the actors on the world stage during that conflict did not have access to.
Furthermore, we as human beings often look at historical events through the prism of today’s conditions and standards. Put another way, it’s hard for those of us who live in the world’s most prosperous and powerful nation to truly imagine what life was actually like back in World War 2. We may THINK we know, but there are many things of import that we are wont to discount or shrug off simply because they’re no longer of concern.
Which brings us to the Japanese internment during WW2.
Until recently, there has scarcely even been any public debate about the issue. The Japanese Internment has been written off by most people as another sad, racist, chapter of our history that was wholly without merit.
However, Michelle Malkin argues in her new book, “In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War 2 and the War on Terror,” that things are not as black and white as we’ve been led to believe. To the contrary, Malkin argues that “the national security measures taken during World War 2 were justifiable, given what was known and not known at the time”.
In order to prove this assertion, Malkin paints a picture, quite effectively I might add, of a situation in which the Japanese internment is one of several not very pleasant options that Roosevelt had to choose between. Here’s what I consider to be the crux of the case that Malkin makes….
– The attack on Pearl Harbor severely damaged our Pacific forces and brought America into WW2 – on the side that was currently losing. And this was not like the Gulf War or Vietnam, we could not simply choose to “go home” and end the war. Losing would have likely meant — at some point — marauding Axis armies marching through the countryside raping, murdering, and pillaging everything in their path. The stakes don’t get any higher than they were in a conflict like World War 2.
– On December 11th of 1941, the freighter SS Lahaina was sunk by a Japanese sub off of Honolulu. Another Japanese sub sank the SS Manini in Hawaiian waters 6 days later. On December 18th, another sub sank the SS Prusa near the “big island”. Several other December attacks occurred within 20 miles of the California and Oregon coastlines. On February 23rd, a Japanese sub shelled the Ellwood oil fields in Goleta, California. At least one “high ranking Japanese military official–Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi…was eager to carry the war to the U.S. mainland”.
Secretary of War Henry Stimson also wrote this in his diary on February 10, 1942
“…I think it is quite within the bounds of possibility that if the Japanese should get naval dominance in the Pacific they would try an invasion of this country; and, if they did, we would have a tough job meeting them.”
In other words, Japanese forces were close and the danger to our homeland was very real.
– Richard Kotoshirodo, a Japanese American and John Mikami, who was Japanese, gathered extensive amounts of information while they were spying that was very helpful to the Japanese forces that attacked Pearl Harbor. Japanese-Americans (Yoshio and Irene Harada) aided a Japanese pilot who landed at Niihau island, Hawaii after being shot down while attacking Pearl Harbor.
Cables decoded from the Japanese in May 1941 said in part,
“We have already established contacts with absolutely reliable Japanese in the San Pedro and San Diego area, who will keep a close watch on all shipments of airplanes and other war materials…”
That same cable also stated that the Japanese had Japanese-American spies in the Army and that they were watching traffic crossing the American / Mexican border.
A January 3rd, 1942 army MID memo states, “‘there can be no doubt that’ most of the leaders within the Japanese espionage network of Japanese clubs, business groups, and labor organizations “continue to function as key operatives for the Japanese government along the West Coast”.
So we knew that the Japanese had a spy network in America before Pearl Harbor and we believed it was still operating after the attacks.
– While we clearly couldn’t trust citizens of Japan (or other Axis nations) to run around unsupervised while we were in the middle of a fight to the finish with their home-countries (hence the 11,229 Japanese citizens, 10,905 German citizens, 3,728 Italian citizens and a few others who were rounded up and interned), American born citizens were of course a different matter. Certainly, most of them were loyal. Curtis Munson who was been sent to investigate the issue, estimated that 90-98% of Japanese-Americans could be trusted (although he had his doubts about 9000 Kibei — Japanese-Americans schooled in Japan).
However, Munson also noted that even a very small number of saboteurs could do a cataclysmic damage to the war effort,
“…The harbor at San Pedro could be razed by fire completely by four men with grenades and a little study in one night. Dams could be blown and half of lower California might actually die of thirst. One railway bridge at the exit from the mountains in some cases could tie up three or four main railroads…”
Here’s more on the damage that could be caused by saboteurs from Provost Marshal General Allen Gullion,
“If production for war is seriously delayed by sabotage in the West Coastal states, we very possibly shall lose the war….from reliable reports from military and other sources, the danger of Japanese-inspired espionage is great.”
– America and other nations traditionally interned “enemy aliens” during wars. For example, in World War 1 more than 6300 “European-born civilians” were interned. Moreover, Mexico and Canada both chose to move ethnic Japanese away from their coasts. Also, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that interning Japanese citizens was constitutional.
– Furthermore, Malkin revealed that in 1944, disturbingly “28 percent (of draft age Japanese-American evacuees) refused to swear allegiance to their country or forswear allegiance to the emperor of Japan” and when given the opportunity, 5,620 Japanese-Americans chose to abandon their U.S. citizenship.
– Last but not least, there were no easy options for dealing with the situation. Mere monitoring of suspect Japanese citizens would have likely be too difficult given the number of people involved, the consequences of failure, and the demands of a world war. Criminal prosecutions of suspected spies would have been nearly impossible because intelligence sources couldn’t be revealed and it would be extraordinarily difficult to prove someone who was say simply watching ship movements (so they could later report them) was committing a crime. Another possibility would have been some sort of “quasi-judicial military tribunal,” but there would have been constitutional questions about that and it couldn’t possibly be as effective as evacuating and/or interning Japanese-Americans along the West Coast.
In a nutshell, that’s the dilemma that Malkin is trying to put in front of people with this book. Was it worth causing great inconvenience & infringing on the civil liberties of the Japanese-Americans who were interned, most of whom were loyal, patriotic, Americans, in order to stop the potential loss of countless American lives as a result of the actions of comparatively small numbers of disloyal Japanese-American saboteurs & spies?
In today’s world, even in the context of the war on terrorism, that’s an easy question to answer and indeed Malkin specifically states that she does not support rounding up Arabs or Muslims and putting them in camps. But, given the circumstances we faced in World War 2, Malkin argues that there was justification for interning of Japanese-Americans during World War 2. After reading her book, I can’t help but come to the conclusion that she’s right.