Cover image of "Infamy," a book about the WWII Japanese-American Internment

Imagine that you live in a town of about 120,000 people. Berkeley, California, say. With only rumors and rumblings in the news media to warn you, an edict comes down from the Federal government that all the Muslims in town must be “relocated” to concentration camps monitored by the US Army. Why? Because, supposedly, the threat of terrorism is so great, and the behavior of many Muslims so troubling, that they must be removed from their homes and placed in detention for the duration of the War on Terror. Couldn’t happen here? Well, it did. The year was 1942. The event was the Japanese-American internment.

On April 21, 1942, the front-page story in the Oakland Tribune was headlined, “‘Japs Given Evacuation Orders Here.’ The article reported, ‘Moving swiftly, without any advance notice, The Western Defense Command today ordered Berkeley’s estimated 1,319 Japanese, aliens and citizens alike, to be evacuated to the Tanforan Assembly Center by noon, May 1.” These Berkeley residents were among a total of about 120,000 Japanese Americans who were interned, two-thirds of them United States citizens — including the adopted Japanese children of Caucasian parents.

Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese-American Internment in World War II by Richard Reeves (2015) 368 pages ★★★★★

No doubt you’re aware that, not long after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the removal of all American Japanese from a broad swath of California, Oregon, and Washington bordering the Pacific and moved them into what even many at the time called “concentration camps.” However, chances are you don’t know the half of it. I certainly didn’t.

In Infamy, Richard Reeves brings the full story to light for the first time, working from one-on-one interviews, unclassified files, records of legislative hearings, and published sources to put a human face on this shameful episode in American history. His accounts of the families who lost everything, the children who grew up bitter, and the courageous soldiers of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team are profoundly moving.

Today, many are aware that “the 442” was the most decorated unit in the history of the US Army and famously rescued the so-called Lost Battalion trapped behind German lines, losing as many as nine out of ten of its own men in some units to bring the surviving Texas National Guard members to safety. However, “[f]or most of the American reporters, the rescued not the rescuers, white men not Nisei, were the focus of the story.” The New York Times ran the headline “‘Doughboys Break German Ring to Free 270 Trapped Eight Days.’ The article did not mention that the ‘doughboys’ were Japanese Americans.”

FDR didn’t act alone in ordering the Japanese-American internment

FDR didn’t act alone in setting all this in motion. Far from it. Reeves unmasks the powerful people who lobbied and spoke out for the evacuation. My jaw dropped as I tallied the list: Earl Warren, then Attorney General, later Governor of California and Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court. Edward R. Murrow and other prominent broadcasters. Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Artist and writer Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss). Walter Lippmann and other, less influential but then-famous newspaper columnists. Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy (“‘The Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me'”), later president of the World Bank, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, and member of the Warren Commission. Plus every member of the Congressional delegations from California, Oregon, and Washington.

Warren, McCloy, and Lippman appear to have been the most influential in channeling into terms that could persuade the President the upwelling of vicious racism triggered by the attack on Pearl Harbor and early Japanese victories in the Pacific. (However, FDR himself was by no means immune to racism, as indicated by his decisions that adversely affected African-Americans and Jews.) Most of the nation’s newspapers — even the allegedly liberal New York Times — editorialized in favor of the evacuation. Within the Army, which managed the evacuation, the driving force was an ignorant and deeply prejudiced general named DeWitt and his top aide, a pathological liar named Bendetsen.

The mixed motives for the order

Why did they do this?  Those who championed the evacuation argued that “[t]he Pacific Coast is in imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without.” But economic motives figured in as well: the evacuees were forced to sell their homes, their farms, and their businesses for a pittance to their neighbors or other profiteers, who benefited hugely from the opportunity their government had given them.

There was dissent, but not much of it at first. The Navy objected because they knew perfectly well that the threat of invasion was an absurd fantasy; there was a single Japanese submarine off the Coast of California. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke out in her newspaper column. J. Edgar Hoover didn’t like the idea because he had already arrested everyone the FBI had tagged as potential spies and saboteurs starting the day after Pearl Harbor, and he wanted the credit; of course, Hoover’s idea of a “Suspect Enemy Alien” was wildly distorted. In the upper reaches of the Administration, only the Attorney General, Francis Biddle, spoke out forcefully and repeatedly in opposition — at Cabinet meetings and in letters to the President.

Some realized they’d made a mistake

In 1943, a year after the evacuation, some of its erstwhile backers realized they had made a huge mistake. Despite continued opposition from the Army, regulations were steadily relaxed at most of the camps, with 4,300 young Japanese-Americans released to attend those colleges that were willing to take them and 4,000 more were recruited into the Army to form the 442. (Those 4,000 men “had to be replaced nearly 2.5 times. In total, about 14,000 men served, earning 9,486 Purple Hearts.”) Meanwhile, Lt. General DeWitt and Colonel Bendetsen were quietly relieved of their duties and promoted. The general even received a fourth star.

Roosevelt charged McCloy and Stimson with drawing up the evacuation order with great care to avoid giving the impression that the action was racist. Naturally, that’s exactly what it was. There were no concentration camps for German and Italian immigrants on the East Coast.

This book fills a void in the history books

Reeves documents in abundant detail the hysterical wave of racism that swept through the West — in newspaper editorials, speeches by public officials, confrontations between whites and Japanese-Americans, and in the occasional violence directed at individual families.

Infamy fills a void in documenting a vital example of the racism that has scarred American history from the time the Pilgrims landed until the present day. The Japanese-American internment in World War II paled against slavery or the genocidal war against Native Americans. However, if the shameful treatment of immigrants over throughout our history — Irish, Germans, Italians, Jews, Chinese, and others — were to be ranked in order of severity, the incarceration of more than one hundred thousand Japanese-Americans would top the list. And after the war, thousands of the internees were deported to Japan!

For further reading

This is one of the many Good books about racism reviewed on this site, and you’ll find this book listed on my post, 10 top nonfiction books about World War II.

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