A Nation’s Shame
Japanese-American Internment & Roosevelt’s Domestic ‘War on Terror’
A new book traces how America discarded civil rights in the name of security during the forced internment of Japanese-American citizens—and how the policy ruined families and lives.
In early 1942, a World War I veteran named Hideo Murata went to see his local sheriff. The two were old friends, and Murata wanted to know if the stories he was hearing were true, that every person of Japanese descent living on the West Coast would be evacuated to an internment camp. Murata came bearing an “Honorary Citizen” certificate awarded for his Great War service. He showed it to his friend. The sheriff told him that the order would apply to citizens and non-citizens alike, and even war veterans. He would be evacuated with the others.
Murata said goodbye to his friend, rented a hotel room by the beach, and shot himself in the head. When his body was found, Murata was still clutching the certificate. It read: “Monterey County presents this testimonial of heartfelt gratitude, of honor and respect for your loyal and splendid service to the country in the Great War. Our flag was assaulted and you gallantly took up its defense.”
The internment of Japanese Americans is one of the most overlooked tragedies of the 20th century, and Infamy by Richard Reeves picks up on the groundbreaking work of others (the title is a nod to Michi Nishiura Weglyn’s 1976 book, Years of Infamy, as well as to FDR’s speech) to provide a more complete portrait of what the internment process was like. Reeves tells the stories of those who made the policy and those who fought against it but focuses on those who lived it. He traces the lives of a dozen or so Japanese-American families from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the post-war years. While not all the stories are as tragic as Murata’s, they are all heartbreaking in one way or another.
These were farmers and fisherman and shopkeepers and students, and most of them lost everything—homes, businesses, belongings, careers—once they were evacuated to one of 10 camps situated in some of the most inhospitable land in the country. Infamy succeeds as a document of this terrible ordeal. From a narrative standpoint, however, each story is, unfortunately, very similar to the last. But the book’s true significance comes from its relevance to post 9/11 national security policy—particularly as a jarring reminder of how easily Americans can be frightened into swapping their ideals for security.
The role that the political and media classes played in creating an atmosphere amenable to internment, for example, is uncannily relevant to the way those classes purveyed fear in the lead-up to and in the aftermath of the Iraq War. As Reeves points out, the attack on Pearl Harbor was followed by a brief but vociferous outpouring of support for Japanese Americans. This is reminiscent of the fleeting unity Americans displayed after 9/11. Soon enough, however, West Coast politicians and media outlets realized that stoking fears of “the Jap” could garner votes and attract readers, and sentiment quickly changed. The actions of the media were particularly galling.
Many of the first newspaper articles following Pearl Harbor, in fact, warned against military overreaction and illegal searches and seizures. But almost immediately political, military, and agricultural interests (Japanese Americans owned a lot of farmland that others wanted) weighed in, and before long West Coast papers were “buying any story the military was selling.” Internment was a matter of “military necessity,” the papers suddenly clamored, and by early 1942 ludicrous articles about West Coast invasions and racist diatribes about the devious “Japs” far outnumbered articles warning of Constitutional violations.
Walter Lippmann is one of the book’s key villains. Reeves paints Lippmann, a highly regarded columnist of the era, as a Judith Miller-type figure. Miller, a Times reporter during the Iraq War, was criticized as having been influenced by hawkish politicians and military brass to terrify readers about WMD—helping to “sell the war” to the American people. According to Reeves, something similar happened with Lippmann. As the drums of Japano-phobia beat louder in California, Lippmann met with California Attorney General Earl Warren, who was advocating internment. According to another dinner guest that night, Lippmann’s subsequent column repeated “almost word for word” what Warren told him.
Reeves’s decision to focus on the column is a good one, because its Orwellian language is staggering. Lippmann wrote that the Pacific Coast was in “imminent danger” from “within and without,” and—in the kind of backward logic that characterizes much modern political speech—he asserted that proof existed that Japanese Americans were plotting sabotage because there hadn’t been any yet. By this logic, of course, you could indict anybody for anything. Nevertheless, this “no evidence proves they’re plotting something” mantra became a talking point among those pushing internment. The column went far in selling the policy. On the day after its publication, in fact, every Pacific Coast senator signed a petition to President Roosevelt advocating internment.
By mid-1944, the War Department seemed to realize the camps were not the best idea, and most Japanese Americans were freed by December. Reeves attempts a hopeful ending by citing later efforts at atonement. Presidents Truman and Ford would go on to repudiate the camps, and a 1980 Congressional Report concluded that the camps were not, after all, justified militarily. The report stated that the policy was born out of “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” As heartening as these events were, I wasn’t left feeling particularly hopeful. For all Americans’ talk about remembering the past and not repeating history, too much of Infamy feels contemporary.
In addition to the way, then as now, fear and xenophobia are used to subvert civil rights in the U.S, modern stereotypes of Latin Americans sound eerily like stereotypes of Japanese a century ago. Moreover, internment policy was ostensibly designed to protect America from traitors, but in fact the opposite occurred: It turned scores of loyal citizens against America, much like aspects of the War on Terror create more terrorists today. Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of the policy, however, was that the camps were used as propaganda by the Axis powers, however disingenuously, to argue that America, morally, was no better than they were—much like our policies of torture, rendition, and drone strikes are used to undermine moral arguments today.
At the end of Infamy, Reeves poses the question, “Could it happen again?” It’s hard to walk from the book without feeling like it could.