Interview with Greg Robinson, author of A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America

Historians in the News

The following is an interview with Greg Robinson, author of A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America

Q: Is there any need for a new book on Japanese Americans and World War II? Many have already been written, including one by you. Hasn’t everything important already been said about Executive Order 9066 and the camps?

Greg Robinson: Actually, this book contains a great deal of recently discovered material about Japanese Americans. Part of it is that new documents have been released on the wartime events, and books have not studied the period before and after World War II as an integral part of them. It changes your view of official policy toward Japanese Americans, for example, if you consider that the Army and Justice Department were already preparing to hold masses of enemy aliens—and building a set of what they called “concentration camps” for them—months before the United States entered the war. But what is even more new and vital about the book, I think, is that it is the first transnational study of the subject. It covers the removal and confinement of Japanese not just in the United States but in Canada and Mexico as well and also tells the story of the Japanese Latin Americans who were sent to the United States and placed in camps.

Q: Why should we care about the treatment of ethnic Japanese in other countries?

GR: What happened to Japanese Americans is part of a larger history, and it is useful to look at their experience alongside that of their counterparts elsewhere. Moreover, if we study events and official policies in Canada and Mexico, which are neighbors with certain similarities in their politics, culture and economies, we get a clearer idea of the causes and results of confinement in the United States. For example, in Canada the Army and Navy chiefs opposed mass removal, but it was ordered nonetheless. This tells us something about the importance of military opinion in the decision making process in those countries. In Mexico ethnic Japanese were ordered off the west coast in the beginning of January 1942, more than a month before Washington took similar action and several months before Mexico even declared war on Japan. If the Mexicans did this so quickly, why did the Americans wait?

Q: What do you feel is the most important single contribution of this book

GR: I think that the section on wartime Hawaii is particularly compelling, because it tells a story that is unknown to most Americans yet has direct parallels with the present. After Pearl Harbor the U.S. Army pushed through a declaration of martial law in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, abolished the U.S. Constitution, and suspended the elected government. The Army also closed down the courts and created instead a set of military tribunals to judge all criminal cases, even those involving American civilians. Defendants had no due process or legal protections. Virtually all those accused were found guilty and often given harsh sentences. Eventually these military tribunals were challenged in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. While there was no mass removal of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, the Army held on to arbitrary power long after any threat of invasion from Tokyo had ceased and justified its rule by claiming that Japanese Americans needed to be controlled. So the events in Hawaii not only relate in fascinating ways to the removal of ethnic Japanese on the mainland, but they also offer a prelude for thinking about the current situation at Guantanamo and the military tribunals there...
Read entire article at Columbia University Press

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