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A Tragedy of Democracy
How the U.S. decided to intern 100,000 Japanese Americans.
By Tom Devaney

 

BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT:
FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans

By Greg Robinson C’88.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.
322 pp., $27.95.

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The same day that he delivered his stirring “date which will live in infamy” speech following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt “signed a proclamation authorizing the FBI to summarily arrest any aliens in the continental United States whom it deemed ‘dangerous to public peace and safety.’”

Two months later, on February 11, 1942, FDR granted Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson permission “to take whatever ‘reasonable’ action the secretary deemed necessary” concerning the “evacuation” of Japanese Americans. And eight days after that, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the removal of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast states.

Greg Robinson’s extensively researched and highly readable book, By Order of the President, tells the ignoble story of a highly troubling and little discussed episode in American history—what Robinson refers to as “the most tragic act” of FDR’s administration—“the internment of Japanese Americans.” The book is a serious and lucid work, presenting a harsh but not uncomplicated critique of FDR’s role in the internment; it also greatly resonates with our current historical situation and moment following the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

In his introduction, Robinson, now assistant professor of history at Université du Québec à Montréal, unknowingly dates himself when he writes:

It is difficult for many Americans at the turn of the twenty-first century to conceive how government officials who were fighting a war dedicated to the preservation of democracy could have become so caught up in the pressures of the wartime emergency that they implemented a profoundly undemocratic policy.

It is ironic that when a book as important and compelling as this one might be most useful, a receptive readership may be least likely.

By Order Of The President’s central focus is FDR’s responsibility for the internment, with an examination of the decisions that led to the “removal from the coastal areas of all people of Japanese ancestry,” citizens and resident aliens alike. The “evacuation of over 110,000 people during the spring of 1942” into internment camps was, Robinson tells us, “the largest group migration in American history.”

In seven concise chapters Robinson builds a formidable case that “Japanese Americans were singled out from other ‘enemy’ groups such as Italian Americans and German Americans as innately untrustworthy on racial grounds.” His central argument is that “Roosevelt’s concern for security was undergirded by an implacable belief” that all Japanese Americans were “dangerous and foreign.”

Robinson shows that “the bombing of Pearl Harbor did more than sink ships and kill soldiers; it left a deep wound in the American psyche. The surprise attack provoked nationwide anger and a desire for revenge against Japan.” Through internal memos, press conferences, personal diaries, and other key documents written by FDR and his staff, the book provides ample context for the steps and forces that formed a critical mass of public support for the evacuation of both first-generation Japanese Issei (immigrants) and second-generation Nisei (citizens).

Robinson brings to the surface “the powerful emotions aroused by the anti-Japanese hysteria—racial hatred, greed, mistrust, revenge, and the fear of further ‘treachery.’” Rumors of sabotage, espionage, and the “yellow peril” were at a high pitch as many feared the possibility of “a second Pearl Harbor on the mainland.” The anger fed public fears, racial and otherwise. In addition, Robinson tells us that “opportunistic politicians and commercial and nativist groups that had long resented the [Japanese Americans’] presence and economic success … gave birth to rumors of fifth column activity.”

Robinson is effective in showing how a tide of alarmist stories, in addition to strong pressure from West Coast agricultural interests that sought to eliminate competition, contributed to growing, and often “hysterical,” concern over people of Japanese ancestry. He shows a climate where even esteemed and influential commentators such as Walter Lippman urged that internment was necessary, among other reasons, “to protect Japanese Americans from mob violence.”

Robinson discusses a number of alternative and less drastic plans, which the administration considered but never adopted. For example, the Munson-Ringle plan called for Nisei (citizens) to control the property and “be responsible for the conduct” of the Issei (immigrants). The government would maintain control over the Japanese communities indirectly. The naturalized citizens would take custody of property and otherwise police the overall community. Simply put, the plan was “to utilize Japanese filial piety as hostage for good behavior.”

Within the two-month period leading up to internment, Robinson writes that “the question of removal” quickly moved into a “tug-of-war” within the administration. The War Department favored mass “evacuation,” while Attorney General Francis Biddle and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “contended that mass evacuation was unnecessary.”

Despite the lack of evidence of U.S. sabotage or even disloyalty, as informed by credible sources to Hoover and reports compiled by Biddle, and significant and documented evidence of Japanese-American loyalty, FDR sided with the camp arguing that “it was impossible to distinguish a loyal Japanese American from a disloyal one.” The great pressures that led to the drastic policy often spawned disturbing leaps of logic to justify internment: Japanese Americans were called to “evacuate” their homes, property, and lives as a part of their “patriotic duty.”

Robinson also touches upon the effects removal had upon the internees. He writes that many felt “stigmatized as disloyal” and says that the “older Issei generation reacted to events with resignation, using the phrase shigata gan-ai (“It can’t be helped,” or “Nothing can be done about it”).

Overall, Robinson’s goal is to place FDR’s actions in personal and immediate context. In his largely balanced examination, he is also careful to place the internment into a broader historical context, pointing out that:

Its human costs, in the blood and suffering of its victims, were insignificant compared with the military casualties of World War II or with the millions of civilians slaughtered in the Rape of Nanking and in the Nazi death camps. Even within the history of the United States, the treatment of the internees pales in comparison with the enslavement of African Americans or the destruction of Native American nations.

By Order of the President emerges as a focused work of history, which is intelligent, critical, and rich in important factual detail. But Robinson also has a story to tell. It is a story ultimately unsympathetic to Roosevelt’s role and actions, which he argues were “a blend of weak administration and deadly indifference”; it is a story of both a personal tragedy for over 100,000 Japanese Americans and, he writes, “a tragedy of democracy.”

Tom Devaney is the author of The American Pragmatist Fell In Love (Banshee Press, 1999). In the late 1990s he taught in the English and political science departments at Brooklyn College, and he is currently program coordinator at Kelly Writers House.

 


BRIEFLY NOTED

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

THE LANGUAGE OF WAR: Literature and Culture in the U.S. from the Civil War through World War II
By James Dawes C’91.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. 308 pp., $39.95.
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During war language is censored. Encrypted and euphemized: imperatives replace dialogue, and nations communicate their intentions dramatically through the use of injury rather than symbol. Talks are broken off, individuals are reduced to silence by traumatic experience, and witnesses are exterminated. War’s violence shrinks language and damages communication, which, in turn, enables more violence, this book argues. The Language of War examines primary features of violence in the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. Drawing upon literature, law, and philosophy, it analyzes how the pressures of violence in each historical moment gave rise to important changes in aesthetic forms and cultural discourses, and develops a theory of force and discourse that links specialized modes of verbalization to the deceleration of violence. James Dawes is assistant professor of English and American literature at Macalester College.

 

CASAS GRANDES:
Pre-Columbian Pottery Decoded: of Gods and Myths

By Ernest H. Christman M’60.
Albuquerque, N.M.: The Tutorial Press, 2002. 208 pp., $85.00.

Casas Grandes was the largest pre-Columbian civilization in northern Mexico with extension into Arizona and New Mexico. Written for the general reader and the specialist—and illustrated with more than 1,000 color photographs—this book explains the symbols on 320 diverse ancient pottery pieces representative of the Casas Grandes culture as well as the underlying myths. Dr. Ernest Christman retired from medical practice a decade ago and has actively pursued solving the enigma of the symbols on Casas Grandes pottery.

 

LEGAL USAGE IN DRAFTING CORPORATE AGREEMENTS
By Kenneth A. Adams L’89.
Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001. 232 pp., $69.95.
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From a corporate lawyer in private practice comes a detailed analysis of, and guide to, the conventions of language and structure in drafting corporate agreements. Kenneth Adams summarizes the traditional techniques of drafting and proposes alternatives that produce clearer, more efficient contracts. This book includes examples of different usages and explains in detail the reasons for favoring one over the other. Geared toward anyone who drafts, negotiates, or interprets corporate agreements, this work will find a place in the libraries and on the desks of practicing lawyers and law students alike. Adams works on mergers and acquisitions, securities, and general corporate matters for the New York law firm Kramer, Levin, Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

 

THINK TANKS & CIVIL SOCIETIES:
Catalysts for Ideas and Action

Edited by James McGann G’89 GCP’90 Gr’91 and R. Kent Weaver.
New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2000. 617 pp., $59.95.
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Government and individual policymakers throughout the developed and developing world face the common problem of bringing expert knowledge to bear in government decisionmaking. This has fostered the growth of independent public-policy research organizations known as think tanks. This book analyzes their growth, scope, and constraints, while providing institutional profiles of such organizations in every region of the world. Dr. James McGann is senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; president of the program and management consulting firm McGann Associates; and the author of Ending Welfare As We Know It: Context and Choice in Policy Toward Low-Income Families.

 

C»ZANNE: The Self-Portraits
By Steven Platzman C’88.
Berkley, Calif.: The University of California Press, 2001. 224 pp., $50.00.
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C»zanne has long been celebrated as the founding father of modern art. But there has never been a study devoted to his self-portraits. Now, for the first time, this book reveals the remarkable light these haunting works throw on the artist and his era. In C»zanne, Dr. Steven Platzman demonstrates that the expectation of a self-portrait from a master artist goes beyond color and structural analysis. He questions whether a C»zanne self-portrait reveals something of the artist’s emotions, or whether it obscures the feeling of the man whose celebrated and groundbreaking style altered the course of the history of art. Platzman, an independent art historian and dealer, also takes a new and radically different view of C»zanne’s so-called “narrative self-portraits,” exploring for the first time his relationship with the icon of the femme fatale. Through close visual analysis, readers will come to a greater understanding of the concerns, ambitions, and relationships that shaped C»zanne’s oeuvre.

 

ASSISTED SUICIDE:
Finding Common Ground and Guidance for Real-World Implementation

Edited by Lois Snyder, Faculty and Arthur L. Caplan, Faculty.
Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2002. 232 pp., $37.95.
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Assisted suicide, particularly physician-assisted suicide, is popularly supported and is now going on legally in this country. These facts do not make it “right,” argue Dr. Lois Snyder and Dr. Arthur Caplan, but some guidance about its practice is needed. Groups in the past who have come together to write guidelines have failed when the discussion shifted from how to do so, back to whether to do so. In the process, important policy considerations about how to keep physician-assisted suicide rare, alternatives to the practice, and the implications for the patient-physician relationship were not getting addressed. This volume attempts to advance the policy dialogue and assist those who will be dealing with these issues in practice. Snyder is on the faculty at the Center for Bioethics; Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics and the Trustee Professor of Bioethics in cellular and molecular engineering.

 

TREES MAKE THE BEST MOBILES:
Simple Ways to Raise Your Children in a Complex World

By Brandel France de Bravo C’82 and Jessica Teich.
New York: St Martin’s Press, 2001. 185 pp., $22.95.
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As mothers and longtime students of a unique parenting method called RIE (Resources for Infant Educators), authors Brandel France de Bravo and Jessica Teich believe that parents should be liberated from the notion that they must do something for, or with their babies at all times. This book helps new parents—who barely have time to return a phone call—learn to do less, listen more, and spend focused, fruitful time with their children. The book urges parents to treat every task—even diapering and feeding—as a chance to connect with their child, and gives advice about hot-button issues from pacifier use to temper tantrums. “As parents,” the authors write, “we tend to focus on what’s ahead, what we need to accomplish, even resorting to bribes or threats to expedite our goal. What children really want is someone to be with them now—not to judge, or even to participate, but to observe. For them, our presence, our focus, is our greatest gift.” France de Bravo is a poet and health educator.



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