Thursday, August 05, 2004

The War: Revisiting the Japanese Internment

According to its publisher, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin’s controversial new book In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror in defense of the WWII incarceration of Americans of Japanese descent argues that decrypted Japanese message traffic indicated fifth column activities on the west coast in late 1941 and 1942 and justified the interment of these Americans on practical grounds.

After some research, I’ve come to disagree with the premise. From my reading of the intercepted message traffic Malkin references, I’ve seen little evidence of a conspiracy by American citizens to support a Japanese invasion. The traffic I’ve seen only speaks to vague generalities. At best, these intercepts indicate areas of caution and the need for further investigation—actions that ought to be standard during wartime. They do not justify the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus and forced relocation of a thousand people, let alone a hundred thousand. The government committed a massive error of judgment when it chose its policy of mass incarceration.

Worse, the legal safeguards that should have protected the rights of these citizens failed as well. In 1944, rather then question the government’s premise, the US Supreme Court chose to defer to the judgment of military commanders in upholding the incarceration through its decision in Korematsu v. United States. This deference was undeserved. I found this damning statement from General John DeWitt, the Army official in charge of defending the west coast and the key proponent behind the incarceration: "The Japanese race is an enemy race and while many second and third generation Japanese born on United States soil, possessed of United States citizenship, have become 'Americanized,' the racial strains are undiluted."

DeWitt’s words are shocking and explain much. I do not believe that they were poorly chosen; I believe they reflect a mentality that does not respect the existence of free will among the races.

There is a difference between sharing a common race with an enemy and sharing a common ideology. The first may make one a legitimate object of suspicion for the latter, but when it comes to the application of government force against its own people, suspicion is not a proxy for proof. The Americans of Japanese descent interned by the government were guilty of sharing the same race as the enemy and they should never have been incarcerated on that basis alone. The thinking that led to the internments should not be praised; it should be studied so that the same mistakes are never made again.

Additionally, Malkin misses a key strategic point. The Japanese were not defeated through the interment of American citizens—they were defeated through the destruction of the Japanese state. The war was not won on our shores—it was won on the shores of Midway, Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Malkin, wittingly or not, has fallen into the trap of becoming an apologist for the policy of homeland defense, a strategy of permanent siege instead of forward offense and victory.

I will need to read her entire book before I make my final judgment, but at this stage, Malkin has failed in her goal to justify the mass interment of American citizens. If her case for fighting the enemy today rests on her argument for the past, I don’t expect much.

Update: Guest blogger Eric Muler has a lot to say on this at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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