Sunday, February 06, 2005

In Defense of Internment – Book Review

Yes, I know I’m very late to this party. When opinions and reviews about this book were being batted around the blogosphere late last year, I actively participated in some of the discussions. But I’ve always wanted to post my own review of In Defense of Internment. And so here it is…

First of all, I want to state that I’ve actually read this book. This may sound like a stupid thing to say, but there were people who participated in the debate who obviously never actually read the book. They based their arguments on preconceived notions about this policy or else on what other people had said/written about this book. That’s a dangerous game to play. And second, full disclosure; my wife is of Japanese ancestry and her parents were residents of Vancouver, Canada before WWII. They were stripped of their business assets (her father was a fisherman) and relocated to a camp in central Canada. After the war, they, along with thousands of others, were paid reparations by the Canadian government.

Malkin’s arguments in this book are as follows; first, the United States government was justified in interning the Japanese during World War II on National Security grounds. Second, this policy was carried out as humanely as possible. And third, the reparations paid to the Japanese after the war were not justified and wrong. She then concludes that racial profiling, when employed as a tool in guaranteeing national security, can be a legitimate tool for a government to use. She makes, on the face of it, a persuasive and fact-filled case. She paints the Japanese living in Hawaii and the West Coast during WWII as being a real threat to National Security, especially if they acted in concert with a theoretical invasion of the mainland. She opens her book with an example of a Japanese family siding with a Japanese aviator shot down during the attack on Pearl Harbor (“The Turncoats on Niihau Island”). She discusses the real threat of Japanese espionage rings, the fact that many Japanese living in America were still considered citizens of Japan, etc. She uses information gleaned from the MAGIC cables, Japan’s diplomatic communications that were intercepted and decoded by American signal intelligence officers, as her clinching argument for this point. She also paints a convincing case that the relocation and internment was handled as humanely as possible. She notes that, at first, the Japanese were asked (not forced) to leave the West Coast military zone and relocate elsewhere in America. She describes how, once the camps were set up, some Japanese actually asked to be interned there rather than face the anti-Japanese racism that was real and pronounced at that time. And she is convincing in making the case that these were not “Concentration camps”, but rather minimum-security facilities where life was, while not ideal, certainly not draconian in any sense of the word. Since, in her opinion, the internment and relocation of the Japanese was justified, paying reparations for it was unjustified.

As persuasive as her arguments are, I think that, at the end of the day, she doesn’t make the case that Internment was necessary. IMHO, here’s the key question; was there a NATIONAL SECURITY NECESSITY to forcibly relocate these people? I think that the answer is no. As the columnist, author and blogger Vox Day has pointed out, the American military was fully aware that the Japanese military had no capability to launch an invasion of mainland America. They just didn’t have the horses to do it. They could wreak havoc in the Western Pacific, but an invasion of the US mainland was beyond their capabilities. I’ve done my own research on this, and have to agree with Mr. Day. Nevertheless, I don’t think it was an easy call for the people in power at the time to make. The Japanese were racking up victory after victory in the Pacific. Traditional powers such as Great Britain were getting their asses kicked. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Japanese submarines were conducting harassing raids on the US coast. People were scared. Anti-Japanese racism was pronounced. But forcible relocation of the entire population was still the wrong answer.

What should have been done? We were at war and the threat of Japanese-inspired espionage and sabotage certainly should not have been ignored but heightened surveillance and security was the answer, not mass relocation.

I’m more sympathetic to Malkin’s argument for Racial Profiling when it is truly done in the defense of National Security. But there is a right way and a wrong way to handle something that affects so many people and is so emotionally charged. The way the Bush Administration has dealt with America’s Muslim population, while not perfect, is much preferred. Survey them, gather intelligence, identify the ones that truly may present a problem and place them under heightened surveillance. And leave the rest of them alone. And remind Americans that our judicial philosophy is “innocent until proven guilty”.

Update 11Mar05 - I'm now doing a "5-Star" rating on all my book reviews and so am adding one here for this book;

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