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Sunday, October 14, 2007

"American Inquisition": A New Study of the Inner Workings of the Japanese American Internment

Muller_american1 I'm happy to announce that Monday, October 15 is the official publication date of my new book "American Inquisition:  The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II."  It's an account of the secret inner mechanisms of racism within the episode we call the Japanese American internment of World War II.

I ground the book in extensive new archival research in the records of the civilian and military agencies that passed judgment on the loyalties of American citizens of Japanese ancestry.  As historian Roger Daniels says, the book presents a new story of "bad news from the good war."

I'll be blogging about the book's claims here over the next several days.  Today, I'll start things off by offering a very brief account of how the federal government ended up in the business of passing judgment on the loyalty of more than 40,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry between 1943 and 1945.

If you've read Snow Falling on Cedars or seen The War, or have read or taught Korematsu v. United States, you know that a presumption of disloyalty forced the entire Japanese population of the West Coast – citizens and aliens alike – out of their homes and behind barbed wire in the late winter of 1942. The presumption was racial. "The Japanese race is an enemy race," said General John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command in explaining his decision to evict just the population of Japanese ancestry. "It was impossible to establish the identity of the loyal and the disloyal with any degree of safety. It was not there was insufficient time in which to make such a determination; it was simply a matter of facing the realities that a positive determination could not be made, that an exact separation of the 'sheep from the goats' was unfeasible."

Within a year, a set of pressures from both inside and outside the camps forced the government to reverse its position and try to separate the "sheep from the goats."

The pressures were complex. On the one hand, there were strong pressures to free some of the internees. Western farmers needed internees released to work their fields. The War Relocation Authority ("WRA"), which ran the camps, wanted to begin "relocating" internees into jobs in towns and cities across the central and eastern United States. And the military wanted to trawl the camps for volunteers into the segregated unit that would become the fabled 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

On the other hand, there were strong pressures to push some of the internees deeper into incarceration. The War Relocation Authority was running ten small cities and needed a mechanism for forcing those it viewed as "troublemakers" into segregation. The WRA was also setting up a courtroom defense to the pending habeas corpus case of Ex parte Endo, which challenged the detention of Japanese Americans, and needed evidence of disloyalty to bolster its legal theory supporting the detention program. In addition, occasional news articles in the national press alleging that the WRA was "coddling" the internees led to public demands for a crackdown. Finally, those within the military who had insisted at the outset that there was no way to tell a loyal from a disloyal Japanese American lobbied hard against release of internees and for the segregation of many internees into something approaching lockdown.

These pressures may have come from different places and pushed in different directions, but they shared one thing: a focus on "loyalty" and "disloyalty" as the deciding factor. All of the decisions about freedom and confinement would turn on an evaluation of the "loyalty" or "disloyalty" of the interned American citizens.

Later, or perhaps tomorrow, I'll continue this sorry tale with a quick look at how the government went about gathering the information on which it would rely for its loyalty inquests.

Questions? Comments? Please leave a comment or drop me a line.

Posted by Eric Muller on October 14, 2007 at 09:04 PM in Books | Permalink


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What were the ages of the "more than 40,000 U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry"? At the time we entered WWII, there were over 40,000 Nisei who were under the age of 20, who had to stay with their Japanese parents. Perhaps you are referring to the remaining older Nisei?

Posted by: Wes Injerd | Oct 17, 2007 9:13:22 PM

Dennis, because this book focuses on how the federal internment program functioned *after* it commenced, Earl Warren and the Native Sons of the Golden West play little role. There are other works focusing on the initial decision to set the internment program in motion that very usefully assess the matters you're interested in. Please drop a line if you'd like a couple of citations.

Posted by: Eric Muller | Oct 15, 2007 12:32:43 PM

I hope you get into the role of Gov. Earl Warren and the Sons of the Golden West in this dreadful part of our history.

Posted by: Dennis Tuchler | Oct 15, 2007 12:09:53 PM

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