Why the Media Should Stop Paying Attention to the New Book that Defends Japanese Internment

Fact & Fiction

Mr. Robinson is Assistant Professor of History, University of Quebec At Montreal. He has helped organized the Historians' Committee for Fairness, an organization of scholars and professional researchers, which charges that Michelle Malkin's book represents "a blatant violation of professional standards of objectivity and fairness."

Several years ago, I wrote a book on the decisions behind the mass removal and confinement of the Japanese Americans, commonly (if inaccurately), known as the internment, and in particular on the role of President Franklin Roosevelt. I based it on several years of research in a number of archives around the country. The book was published under the title, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001).  In the time since, I have preferred to let the work speak for itself. However, I have felt obliged by the publication of Malkin Malkin’s In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror, to break my silence. 

First, Malkin is a bestselling author whose book is being put out by an established publisher (Regnery), and her status as a celebrity will make many undiscriminating or unknowing people buy the book and take her arguments at face value. Also, Malkin, unlike all other writers I have seen, deliberately impugns the motives of those who disagree with her. She proclaims herself a disinterested seeker for truth with an open mind. However, she is gratuitously nasty towards all others:

Unlike many others who have published on this subject, I have no vested interests: I am not an evacuee, internee, or family member thereof. I am not an attorney who has represented evacuees or internees demanding redress for their long-held grievances. I am not a professor whose tenure relies on regurgitating academic orthodoxy about this episode in American history.

This is an outrageous slur, not only on Japanese Americans, but on scholars. I myself am in none of the categories she mentions, apart from being a professor, and I was not even that when I researched and wrote my book. (As far as my tenure is concerned, moreover, I can say with confidence that the University of Quebec does not take a position on the internment.) I am mindful, however, of Sidney Hook’s admonition: “[b]efore impugning an opponent’s motives, even when they legitimately may be impugned, answer his arguments.” Since there is a great deal to criticize in Malkin’s arguments from a logical and historical point of view, I will focus on that.

An analysis of Malkin’s book should start with the material the author includes on MAGIC (the decrypted intercepts of the Japanese code), which by her own statement constitutes the heart of her argument. There is a certain repetition in my response here, since the author further states that her material is mostly if not entirely lifted from the work of the late David Lowman, to whom the book is dedicated. Lowman first tried in the 1980s to make a case that the MAGIC cables justified Executive order 9066. His work has been repeated and decisively refuted, most recently by James C. McNaughton, Command Historian of the United States Army, Pacific.

Since there is nothing new in the author’s case for MAGIC, my rebuttal will be brief. Let me divide it into three parts: first, that the MAGIC cables do not present the image of a Japanese American spy network; second, that the people who pushed the case for evacuation would not have had access to the MAGIC excerpts in any case; thirdly, that those who did have access to MAGIC did not base their decision on it.

First, an examination of the MAGIC cables provided by the author does not provide any solid case for implicating the Japanese Americans in espionage activities. Only a tiny handful of the thousands of decrypted messages detail efforts by Japan to build networks among Japanese Americans, and those list hopes or intentions more than actions or results. For example, the author relies most strongly on a memo from the Los Angeles consulate to Tokyo from May 1941. The author claims "the message stated that the network had Nisei spies in the U.S. Army” (p. 44). In fact, the message states: “We shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the U.S. Army…” This speaks of agents to be recruited. There is no evidence that any individuals had been recruited as agents, still less that they were actively giving information. Further replies from Los Angeles and Seattle state that they had established connections with Japanese and with “second generations.” Again, there is no description of agents, nor information from them.

The rest of the cables she cites recount information given to Japan in the fall of 1941, long after any discussion of recruiting Japanese Americans had ceased, with no clue as to the source of the information given. The sum total of the information is that Tokyo unquestionably tried to build a spy network in the United States during 1941. The bulk of their efforts were devoted to recruiting non-Japanese. One of the MAGIC cables instructed Japanese agents to emphasize recruitment of groups other than Issei and Nisei, particularly “Negro, labor union members, and anti-Semites.”

The vague mentions of Japanese Americans may have simply amounted to agents in the consulates puffing their activities for their bosses at home, or they may have tried to recruit Nisei. There is no evidence that they had any success. The American occupation authorities in Japan after the war who studied captured Japanese documents found no evidence of any giant spy rings among American citizens of Japanese ancestry.

Next, those who made the case for internment did not rely on MAGIC. The author herself notes that access to the MAGIC encrypts was limited to a dozen people outside the decrypters. This leaves her in the position of asserting that the essential reflection and decision was made by those figures alone—i.e. President Roosevelt, Secretary of War Stinson and Assistant Secretary of War McCloy--and the reasons or motivations of any other actors were irrelevant. It defies credulity that in a military system the commander on the spot would not be relied on. In any case, the record amply demonstrates that West Coast Defense Commander General John DeWitt (and his assistant Karl Bendetsen) were largely responsible for making the case for evacuation, and that their judgment of the situation and their recommendation for mass evacuation overcame the initial opposition of McCloy and Stimson. DeWitt’s motivations for urging evacuation—notably his comment to McCloy that “a Jap is a Jap,” and his reliance on arguments about the “racial strains” of the Japanese in his Final Report justifying his actions—indicate that his conduct was informed by racism.

Finally, the MAGIC excerpts did not influence the figures who did have access to them to fear a Japanese American threat. Malkin does not, as she must, show any direct evidence of influence here--it cannot simply be assumed, with the burden of proof on the other side. (The 9/11 commission’s work demonstrates the fallacy of saying that since documentary evidence existed, and that government officials had access to it, they must have seen it and reacted accordingly—the president and his advisors had access to evidence that Al-Qaida planned to attack but did not act on it.) There is, instead, considerable evidence that leads to a contrary inference. Throughout all the confidential memoranda and conversations taking place within the War Department at the time of the decision on evacuation, transcripts which show people speaking extremely freely, the MAGIC excerpts are not mentioned a single time. Logic further refutes Malkin’s claims. If the prewar MAGIC excerpts had been all-important in establishing a threat from Japanese Americans, Roosevelt and his advisors would have ordered mass removal of Japanese Americans directly after Pearl Harbor, not two months later.

In sum, Malkin’s book is not a work of history but a polemical argument with evidence tortured or ignored to fit a predetermined and ideologically-driven thesis. Malkin must thus ignore significant evidence that cannot be reconciled with her argument. For example, she does not explain why the Canadian government, whose leaders did not have the benefit of the MAGIC cables, nonetheless went through the process of relocating and incarcerating their ethnic Japanese residents. Furthermore, she does not explain why immediate loyalty hearings were not granted to the Japanese Americans, whether citizens or aliens, the way that they were to ALL other enemy aliens, or how it was that if Japanese American loyalty could not be determined they eventually were granted hearings. Most of all, the author does not deal at all with the long, extensive, and very well documented history of anti-Japanese American racism on the West Coast. This absence is so glaring as to constitute bad faith.

Related Links

  • Eric Muller: So Let Me Get This Straight: Michelle Malkin Claims to Have Rewriten the History of Japanese Internment in Just 16 Months?

  • Michelle Malkin: Response to Her Critics

  • Jonathan Dresner: Why Did the U.S. Intern the Japanese During WW II?
  • Interview with Michelle Malkin at frontpagemag.com
  • Historians' Committee for Fairness: Signed Petition

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    More Comments:

    Stephen Thomas - 10/29/2004

    The black women I know are vehement is their anger at black men who dare to marry outside their race.

    The New York Times constantly prints articles about this, and seems to believe that black women have a legitimate complaint. Black women are never reprimanded as "racists" in there articles for declaring that black men have a responsibility to marry black women.

    What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

    Mr. Tomei, if you want to call this racist behavior when a white engages in it, I suggest that you also call it racist behavior when a black engages in it.

    leo galang - 9/13/2004

    One thing I can say further about American intelligence methods just before the 2nd World War was that they were not probably as sophisticated as they are now today. It was thru trial and error that American inteeligence is more probably more astute in dealing with foreign intelligence networks, a process learned thru its long confrontation with the KGB. We know that although American authorities knew that there were Russian spying activities in this country b4 the Second World WAr, Russian spying continued unabated during the 2nd World War. Alger Hiss and the Los Alamos network was evidence of this. If the FBI and other US intelligence agencies were competent in ferreting out these Soviet activities, then it should be as competent in ferreting out Japanese espionage activities in this country. it seems that the record shows otherwise. What this thing is suggesting to me is that American intelligence were at best making intelligence estimates with something not based on cold hard evidence. So the real problem here was FDR's reading of the MAGIC intercepts and other intelligence assesments.
    There waw I believe a failure on the part of FDR.

    leo galang - 9/11/2004


    Sorry I was interrupted in my previous post , I had to do domething urgently. I'd like to continue my comments further. Even among the Japanese - Americans who relocated to the East Coast, I would suspect that if there agents among them working for Japan, they would would find means
    to communicate with Tokyo . As far as I know there were no documented attempts of sabotage ( i.e. blowing up facilities ) on the part of the Japanese - American community during the 2nd World War. If FDR based his Executive Order 9066 on MAGIC intercepts , then there must be something very specific or or very detailed that would have prompted him to order that exectutive order.
    Otherwise, I would believe that FDR exerecised poor judgement in that executive order. The subsequent testimony of McCloy claiming that the order was based on assesments of MAGIC intercepts are just that . a justification based on assesments. He probably was trying to justify his actions regarding Japanese - American internment during that period. WE now are more proficient
    in collecting HUMINT AND SIGINT info compared to the tools
    available to the intelligence community during that period. The way i look at the intelligence data being presented by you Michelle, is that they belong more to the realm of intelligence estimates which may or may not be true rather than cold,hard factual evidence. We know for example that even advanced technology did not prevent the intelligence failure of 9-11. The lists provided by the G-2 units of suspected Japanese agents is just that a list. It smells more of " guilt by association " rather than cold hard evidence. Michelle, many intelligence apparatuses even nowadays, still compile lists of possible recruits, possible enemy symphatizers and agents etc. When I lived under the Marcos dictatorship, you could get your name listed under a "suspect " list just because your neighbor did not like you. Just because you belong to a taiko drumming group or a bonsai society it seems, could possibly put you in the list of possible enemy agents at that time. I saw the list of names provided in your bibliographical sources, just being a priest in a Buddhist temple or being a member of the Japan Association in America does not necessarily mean you are a Japanese agent. I will not put too much reliance on these "suspect
    lists " unless they are backed by hard evidence. The compiling of lists is a lock, stock and barrel of the intelligence trade. What I need is hard evidence. And if FDR based his decision on those lists and intelligence assesments, then I am of the opinion that he was not very discerning and inherently gullible.

    leo galang - 9/11/2004


    Now that I had read the full transcript of your reply to your critics and other commentaries made by people in this forum,let me offer these following observations. I would suggest that we view this matter from the perspective of war and military intelligence, rather than make conclusions about whether the internment was right or wrong first. I had said before that war is a terrible thing with many unpredictable results that brings out the worst in people, the Second World War was no exception. We now know from the writings of Adm. Yamamoto that it was really unlikely for the Japanese Imperial General Staff to launch an invasion of the West Coast. What is probably more important is to learn how intelligence agencies performed during the Second World War on all sides of the war, since you are saying that the MAGIC intercepts was a primary factor in FDR's decision to order the internment of the Japanese. I am not an expert on military intelligence but here are some views I have on how military interlligence performed in the Second World WAr. All intelligence apparatuses be it the G-2 , Abwehr, NKVD, Surete, MI6 or MI5 or Special Branch or whatever had their own strings of failure and successes. American military inteligence for example were initially unable to diagnose the ability of the Japanese
    military's mastery of destroyer torpedo tactics, the construction of fortresses and bunkers using all kinds of available material etc. The American military paid for it dearly in lives and material in the military campaigns of of the South Pacific as most historians would agree. That does not mean however that the American military did not try hard to get as much information as possible about the Japanese enemy.The downing of Yamamoto's plane in the
    Rabaul area and his subsequent death in that Betty bomber was due to American knowledge of Japanese military codes.
    The Japanese were unable to break American codes if any at all. There are historians who say for example, that Macarthur's eventual success in the Pacific was due his knowledge of Japanese plans and intentions thru military decrypts rather than his own generalship. The Japanese enemy did not have the same kind of advantage over him.
    I looked at your links and footnotes regarding the MAGIC intercepts and other pertinent intelligence data that you suggested. These are my conclusions about them. First of all, they are written in intelligence beaurucratese, virtually all intelligence apparatuses in the world are guilty of that even now. When the G-2 says and I shall paraphrase , " The Japanese intelligence community are still operational in this country and they still have an intelligence network in this country..... ". What does that really say? Any intelligence agent would understand that it is based on perceptions and generalizations even if it is based on specific evidence.Anyone can say the same thing about Al Qaeda or other jihadist organizations. "They have agents or "sleepers " in this country etc. " Anyone can say that sort thing. The real problem is finding out as to who these agents and ' sleepers ' are, what are their plans etc. ? The problem that I have about the MAGIC and intelligence data that
    you are presenting is that they do not contain anything specific about intelligence agents working in the Japanese - American community at that time or their plans.
    Unless new light should come out from the declassified
    MAGIC material, then I would find it hard to believe you
    with regards to the extent of the Japanese espionage network in this country at that time. Suppose the Japanese
    espionage network was extensive at that time in America, what do you think I would do if I were the supervisor of
    Japanese intelligence operations. I would immediately order the sabotage and blowups of military installations,
    shipyards, oil refineries, productions plants etc. that presumably would be useful to America's future war effort. Remember , war started in December 1941 and the Executive 9066 order was signed in February of the next year. In my eyes as an intelligence officer, that would be plenty of time for my operatives to inflict as much damage as possible to the American enemy. Furthermore, the
    Japanese - American community in its entirety was not "relocated " or "interned " until a few months later.
    If indeed there was a good number of agents in the Japanese - American community at that time. there was even more time for them to engage in all forms of sabotage
    etc. Remember that in the Second World War, all forms of partisan groups sprung up in Europe to resist Germany. Just before D -DAY in Normandy and thereafter, there was a general order for all French resistance groups in engage in all forms of sabotage against the German occupiers be it the railways, telegraph lines etc. In Norway, the Telemark operation destroyed the heavy water facility that prevented any future German A-bomb. The same thing happened in Eastern Europe and Russia during the German occupation, partisans in the forests ambushed
    German units etc. Even in the direst of times, intelligence operatives were engaged in furious activity to get the info that they want. The war in the Pacific
    did not prevent Richard Sorge and his Japanese collaborators from supplying intelligence data to the NKVD. The Red orchestra spy ring of Leopold Trepper in Europe continued to transmit their radio messages long into the duration of the war. The guerilla resistance in the Philippines and China against the Japanese is very well documented

    Joe Tomei - 9/9/2004

    I'm sorry, I didn't use the word racist and I did not say that they couldn't run all white dating services or the like. I merely gave a link to an article that discusses the philosophy of the founder of a publishing house that has recently published a book that defends the internment of Japanese-Americans in WWII. That seems to be pertinent information. If a publishing house run by Japanese-Americans that suggested that the internment did not result in the extermination of Japanese-Americans only because the war was over so quickly, and I found them to be funding programs that featured Tanaka Masaaki and Hata Ikuhiko (2 well known deniers of the Nanking Massacre) I would pass on that information as well.

    Joe Tomei - 9/8/2004

    I am not sure if this if appropriate for this discussion, but participants should be aware of Regnery Press and the people who fund it. This link is from the Southern Poverty Law Center.


    David Lion Salmanson - 9/8/2004

    I think the idea was to move from local to general in terms of charges. So the first charge was that all previous histories were biased because of XYZ, Robinson shows he is not XYZ, next whether a spy ring existed, next whether anybody knew a spy ring existed and so on. I would have left the first part for lasted and turned the question around. So what's Malkin's agenda and how does she stand to benefit? Call it the Checkers strategy.

    Charles V. Mutschler - 9/8/2004

    This is getting to the point, but it takes too long to get there, and the first three paragraphs, including the block quote are unnecessary. The opening paragraphs are not helpful to the argument that Malkin's book is full of factual errors. They come across as 'preachy' and they might be construed to be hypocritical, since one might infer, rightly or wrongly, that the author is impugning Malkin's motives.

    Bringing in issues like the differing publishers is not an issue here. Sure, some books by the trade press are historical garbage. Knopf didn't exactly do the historical profession any favors with _Arming America_, but are all history books published by the trade press poor history? Doubtful. I don't think that argument would stand up. So why get into that debate, which has nothing to do with the quality of the Malkin book under discussion?

    Likewise, why open the subject about the veracity of history by people from other backgrounds? I think it would be very hard to show that only people with a Ph.D. in history can write good history. So why add that to the discussion of this book? It really does not support the case, and it diverts attention from the real issue - the factual veracity of the writing, and the logical soundness of the analytical aspect of Malkin's book.

    Unfortunately, the opening paragraphs of this essay have the same effect for me that the letter from the committee appears to have had on others. It comes across as a defense of turf, and it detracts from the critical analysis of Malkin's writing.

    Charles V. Mutschler

    Jonathan Dresner - 9/6/2004

    Without going back to the original, but as a speaker of Japanese, I would say that line was ambiguous. Japanese and bureaucratese being what they are, and with a long Japanese history of trying to use its consulates to maintain ties with (and some control over, with mixed and decreasing success) Japanese citizens and their descendants in the US, I think Robinson's interpretation is much more convincing.

    Moreover, Malkin's apparent decision to cite her conclusion but not include the original in her text when such ambiguity exists is, as historical practice, poor.

    John H. Lederer - 9/6/2004

    "The author claims "the message stated that the network had Nisei spies in the U.S. Army” (p. 44). In fact, the message states: “We shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the U.S. Army…” This speaks of agents to be recruited. There is no evidence that any individuals had been recruited as agents, still less that they were actively giving information."

    One always must be cautious with translations, but "maintain connection" to me means that there is an existing connection and that it will be continued.