As free as a cabbage

Free to Die for their Country - Order of the President

June 14, 2002

The response of the American people and their government to the events of September 11 2001 demonstrates again the fragility of their commitment to civil liberties, to the rights guaranteed by their constitution and to the protection of the minorities who live among them. Under threat, they shed their vaunted American exceptionalism. Before the war on terrorism it was the cold war and McCarthyism that demonised the minuscule American left. In the first world war they targeted German-Americans and sauerkraut (renamed liberty cabbage). After Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese Americans became the victims of fear exacerbated by racism and greed. Greg Robinson and Eric Muller examine separate features of this latter travesty.

In February 1942 the president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, signed an executive order intended to authorise the army to uproot more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry from their homes on the Pacific Coast and relocate them in camps. Nearly two-thirds of these men and women were Niseis, native-born American citizens. Security concerns, exaggerated by the military, prompted the decision to force these people to abandon their homes - despite assurances by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that they constituted no threat.

Politics, catering to the racism and greed of Californians in particular as he prepared to run for re-election in 1944, played a role in Roosevelt's decision to leave Japanese Americans in the camps when there was no longer any conceivable threat from Japan. Robinson demonstrates persuasively that a president justly renowned as a great humanitarian was personally culpable for much of what Japanese Americans suffered from 1942-45.

At best Roosevelt was guilty of indifference to the humanity of Japanese Americans. More likely, Robinson argues, he was hostile, doubting that men and women of Japanese ancestry could be loyal Americans. He suggests that Roosevelt's mistrust can be traced back to the influence of the navalist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and to tensions with Japan during and immediately after the first world war. In spring 1936, as Japan intensified its pressure on China, Roosevelt, fearing espionage, ordered investigations of Japanese Americans in Hawaii and on the Pacific Coast. He was not persuaded when his investigators assured him that Japanese Americans were loyal to the US. Nor was he persuaded by the arguments of his wife, who spoke publicly on behalf of Japanese Americans and opposed their mass deportation. Robinson argues that Roosevelt was "willingly" misled by hysterical, false accounts of subversion, especially from his secretary of war, the greatly respected Henry Stimson.

And worse, perhaps, than his decision to evacuate Japanese Americans from the coast was his decision to do nothing to protect their property. They were forced to abandon most of the household and personal goods they were unable to sell at fire-sale prices. Limited storage was provided in government warehouses, for which no agency assumed responsibility. An estimated 80 per cent of goods stored were stolen or vandalised. Robinson finds Roosevelt guilty of weak administration and "deadly indifference".

In 1943, partly to meet manpower needs, partly to counter Japanese propaganda about US racism, Roosevelt agreed to allow Niseis to volunteer for the army. The young men he had put in the camps responded with less enthusiasm than anticipated. Nonetheless, enough of them stepped forward and joined with Japanese Americans from Hawaii to form the 442nd Combat Regiment - which, fighting in Italy and France, became the most decorated unit in the US army.

In 1944, the US government had the audacity to begin conscripting Japanese Americans into the army. Several hundred young men refused to serve. These resisters are the subject of Muller's book.

The decision these men reached was not applauded by Japanese Americans eager to demonstrate their loyalty and patriotism. In particular, the Japanese American Citizens League, dedicated to promoting Nisei interests, condemned their actions and refused to forgive them for decades after they had been pardoned by president Harry Truman. They were dismissed as cowards by many Nisei who fought with the 442nd.

During the war they were prosecuted by the US government and most were sentenced to prison. Those brought to trial in Wyoming and Idaho faced hostile, racist judges. Court-appointed defence counsels failed to defend them. The exception was Lawrence Goodman, a California judge who acquitted the defendants on the grounds that the government had committed a violation of the due process clause of the constitution. Muller, a law professor, applauds Goodman's moral courage, but has reservations about his legal analysis.

These books add to our knowledge of a depressing episode in America's past and will be of particular interest to students of US history and society.

Warren I. Cohen is professor of history, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, US.

Free to Die for their Country

Author - Eric L. Muller
ISBN - 0 226 54822 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £17.50
Pages - 229

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