"In Defense of Internment": In denial of role of race, paranoia
Special to The Seattle Times
Michelle Malkin argues in "In Defense of Internment" that the World War II imprisonment of 112,000 ethnic Japanese, 70 percent of them citizens, was done out of military necessity. The book, by a former Seattle Times editorial columnist, has raised a clamor. Former Seattle City Councilman Charlie Chong denounced it in the Northwest Asian Weekly, saying that he didn't intend to read it because he didn't want to contribute to the author's purse.
Malkin, née Maglalang, is of a Filipino family, and her critical eye is on the Japanese. Perhaps that makes her stand less surprising, because the Philippines suffered at the hands of Japan during the war; then again, she has tended to oppose people making claims based on their race. She is a conservative and an American nationalist. Her last book, on the crimes perpetrated by illegal aliens, was called "Invasion."
Her new book markets itself by staking out a startling position that it cannot justify.
Along the way she makes some valid points. There is folk belief that all ethnic Japanese in America were loyal to the United States, and it is not true. Several thousand Japanese Americans renounced their U.S. citizenship during the war, and there was an organization inside the camps promoting loyalty to Tokyo. Before the internment, there were incidents of loyalty to Japan.
Malkin recounts the story of one, of a Pearl Harbor attacker who made a forced landing in a remote part of the Hawaiian Islands and was befriended by three Japanese Americans. She also tells of young Richard Kotoshirodo, who was hired by the Japanese Consulate in Honolulu before the attack to keep tabs on ships in the harbor.
The author's mistake is in trying to squeeze far more meaning from these stories than is in them. She has Kotoshirodo's photo on the book's cover, next to Mohammed Atta, one of the hijackers who destroyed the World Trade Center on 9/11. Atta was a terrorist who killed thousands; Kotoshirodo was a naïf, assured by his employers that what he was doing was legal — which it was. The two are not comparable.
Much of her case is based on Japan's messages to its U.S. consulates, which were decrypted and sent to top U.S. officials. The messages show that in the year before Pearl Harbor, Japan was trying to recruit Japanese-American spies on the West Coast. But even the official whose job it was to catch spies, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, was not convinced that it was necessary to round up 112,000 people in California, Oregon and Washington and put them in government camps.
Key military figures, including Gen. Mark Clark and Adm. Howard Stark, opposed internment. The military commander for Hawaii, where another 100,000 ethnic Japanese lived, opposed internment there. Though Hawaii had been attacked, no internment occurred there. President Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese Americans here, on the West Coast — because it was wanted by the military commander here and by most of the public here.
German and Italian nationals were also interned, but not ethnic Germans and Italian Americans. There was an emotional difference: Japan had attacked America and Germany and Italy had not. There was a racial and cultural difference. Malkin argues that there was an important military difference — that Japan, with its aircraft carriers, had the ability to attack the U.S. mainland and Germany and Italy did not. Well, Japan might have mounted an air raid of the mainland United States, but not an invasion with a 5,500-mile logistical tail.
Malkin denies that the internment occurred because of war paranoia and racial fear. But she considers none of the evidence. For that, one might skim through old newspapers. Early 1942 was a dangerous and fearful time, in which Japanese in Asia and Japanese Americans here tended to get mixed together. Consider some Page 1 headlines from the Jan. 21 and 25, 1942, Seattle Times:
"Prisoners of Japs bound and stabbed" — in the Philippines; "Armed Jap hiding at pier arrested" — in Seattle (about a 17-year-old with a knife); and "Seize all West Coast Japs, solon demands" — the "solon" being a congressman from California.
Boiling the internment down to racism and hysteria does oversimplify it. Too often we use history as a bumper sticker in today's political battles. People making claims on behalf of their race sometimes do it, and Malkin, while complaining about that, also does it. The subtitle on her book is, "The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror."
There are extraordinary times when liberty has to be compromised. This book is a reminder that some people are far too easily persuaded that the time has come.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company