Why the Media Should Stop Paying Attention to the New Book that Defends Japanese Internment

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Robinson is Assistant Professor of History, University of Quebec At Montreal. He has helped organized the Historians' Committee for Fairness, an organization of scholars and professional researchers, which charges that Michelle Malkin's book represents "a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness."

Several years ago, I wrote a book on the decisions behind the mass removal and confinement of the Japanese Americans, commonly (if inaccurately), known as the internment, and in particular on the role of President Franklin Roosevelt. I based it on several years of research in a number of archives around the country. The book was published under the title, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001).  In the time since, I have preferred to let the work speak for itself. However, I have felt obliged by the publication of Malkin Malkin’s In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror, to break my silence. 

First, Malkin is a bestselling author whose book is being put out by an established publisher (Regnery), and her status as a celebrity will make many undiscriminating or unknowing people buy the book and take her arguments at face value. Also, Malkin, unlike all other writers I have seen, deliberately impugns the motives of those who disagree with her. She proclaims herself a disinterested seeker for truth with an open mind. However, she is gratuitously nasty towards all others:

Unlike many others who have published on this subject, I have no vested interests: I am not an evacuee, internee, or family member thereof. I am not an attorney who has represented evacuees or internees demanding redress for their long-held grievances. I am not a professor whose tenure relies on regurgitating academic orthodoxy about this episode in American history.

This is an outrageous slur, not only on Japanese Americans, but on scholars. I myself am in none of the categories she mentions, apart from being a professor, and I was not even that when I researched and wrote my book. (As far as my tenure is concerned, moreover, I can say with confidence that the University of Quebec does not take a position on the internment.) I am mindful, however, of Sidney Hook’s admonition: “[b]efore impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.” Since there is a great deal to criticize in Malkin’s arguments from a logical and historical point of view, I will focus on that.

An analysis of Malkin’s book should start with the material the author includes on MAGIC (the decrypted intercepts of the Japanese code), which by her own statement constitutes the heart of her argument. There is a certain repetition in my response here, since the author further states that her material is mostly if not entirely lifted from the work of the late David Lowman, to whom the book is dedicated. Lowman first tried in the 1980s to make a case that the MAGIC cables justified Executive order 9066. His work has been repeated and decisively refuted, most recently by James C. McNaughton, Command Historian of the United States Army, Pacific.

Since there is nothing new in the author’s case for MAGIC, my rebuttal will be brief. Let me divide it into three parts: first, that the MAGIC cables do not present the image of a Japanese American spy network; second, that the people who pushed the case for evacuation would not have had access to the MAGIC excerpts in any case; thirdly, that those who did have access to MAGIC did not base their decision on it.

First, an examination of the MAGIC cables provided by the author does not provide any solid case for implicating the Japanese Americans in espionage activities. Only a tiny handful of the thousands of decrypted messages detail efforts by Japan to build networks among Japanese Americans, and those list hopes or intentions more than actions or results. For example, the author relies most strongly on a memo from the Los Angeles consulate to Tokyo from May 1941. The author claims "the message stated that the network had Nisei spies in the U.S. Army” (p. 44). In fact, the message states: “We shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the U.S. Army…” This speaks of agents to be recruited. There is no evidence that any individuals had been recruited as agents, still less that they were actively giving information. Further replies from Los Angeles and Seattle state that they had established connections with Japanese and with “second generations.” Again, there is no description of agents, nor information from them.

The rest of the cables she cites recount information given to Japan in the fall of 1941, long after any discussion of recruiting Japanese Americans had ceased, with no clue as to the source of the information given. The sum total of the information is that Tokyo unquestionably tried to build a spy network in the United States during 1941. The bulk of their efforts were devoted to recruiting non-Japanese. One of the MAGIC cables instructed Japanese agents to emphasize recruitment of groups other than Issei and Nisei, particularly “Negro, labor union members, and anti-Semites.”

The vague mentions of Japanese Americans may have simply amounted to agents in the consulates puffing their activities for their bosses at home, or they may have tried to recruit Nisei. There is no evidence that they had any success. The American occupation authorities in Japan after the war who studied captured Japanese documents found no evidence of any giant spy rings among American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Next, those who made the case for internment did not rely on MAGIC. The author herself notes that access to the MAGIC encrypts was limited to a dozen people outside the decrypters. This leaves her in the position of asserting that the essential reflection and decision was made by those figures alone—i.e. President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Stinson and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy--and the reasons or motivations of any other actors were irrelevant. It defies credulity that in a military system the commander on the spot would not be relied on. In any case, the record amply demonstrates that West Coast Defense Commander General John DeWitt (and his assistant Karl Bendetsen) were largely responsible for making the case for evacuation, and that their judgment of the situation and their recommendation for mass evacuation overcame the initial opposition of McCloy and Stimson. DeWitt’s motivations for urging evacuation—notably his comment to McCloy that “a Jap is a Jap,” and his reliance on arguments about the “racial strains” of the Japanese in his Final Report justifying his actions—indicate that his conduct was informed by racism.

Finally, the MAGIC excerpts did not influence the figures who did have access to them to fear a Japanese American threat. Malkin does not, as she must, show any direct evidence of influence here--it cannot simply be assumed, with the burden of proof on the other side. (The 9/11 commission’s work demonstrates the fallacy of saying that since documentary evidence existed, and that government officials had access to it, they must have seen it and reacted accordingly—the president and his advisors had access to evidence that Al-Qaida planned to attack but did not act on it.) There is, instead, considerable evidence that leads to a contrary inference. Throughout all the confidential memoranda and conversations taking place within the War Department at the time of the decision on evacuation, transcripts which show people speaking extremely freely, the MAGIC excerpts are not mentioned a single time. Logic further refutes Malkin’s claims. If the prewar MAGIC excerpts had been all-important in establishing a threat from Japanese Americans, Roosevelt and his advisors would have ordered mass removal of Japanese Americans directly after Pearl Harbor, not two months later.

In sum, Malkin’s book is not a work of history but a polemical argument with evidence tortured or ignored to fit a predetermined and ideologically-driven thesis. Malkin must thus ignore significant evidence that cannot be reconciled with her argument. For example, she does not explain why the Canadian government, whose leaders did not have the benefit of the MAGIC cables, nonetheless went through the process of relocating and incarcerating their ethnic Japanese residents. Furthermore, she does not explain why immediate loyalty hearings were not granted to the Japanese Americans, whether citizens or aliens, the way that they were to ALL other enemy aliens, or how it was that if Japanese American loyalty could not be determined they eventually were granted hearings. Most of all, the author does not deal at all with the long, extensive, and very well documented history of anti-Japanese American racism on the West Coast. This absence is so glaring as to constitute bad faith.

Related Links

  • Eric Muller: So Let Me Get This Straight: Michelle Malkin Claims to Have Rewriten the History of Japanese Internment in Just 16 Months?

  • Michelle Malkin: Response to Her Critics

  • Jonathan Dresner: Why Did the U.S. Intern the Japanese During WW II?
  • Interview with Michelle Malkin at frontpagemag.com
  • Historians' Committee for Fairness: Signed Petition