Blogs > HNN > Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Eric L. Muller's American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese-American Disloyalty in World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Mar 3, 2008 1:26 am

Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of Eric L. Muller's American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese-American Disloyalty in World War II (University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

[Jeremy Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History, Bucknell University.]

Besides yielding a devastating effect internationally, America’s involvement in foreign wars has resulted in major domestic abuses in the name of preserving national security. Notorious examples include Abraham Lincoln’s invocation of martial law during the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson’s enactment of the Alien and Sedition Act during the First World War and George W. Bush’s ignominious rendition program and creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Eric L. Muller’s excellent new book, The American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese Disloyalty in World War II sheds new insights into another dark moment in American history – the persecution of Japanese citizens during the Second World War. He focuses particular attention on the role of federal bureaucracies in supporting the internment process and contributing to the violation of human rights through the enactment of a draconian system of loyalty testing.

Muller’s work builds on previous scholarship on the topic, including Roger Daniels,’ Concentration Camps USA, which exposed the harsh conditions of the detention camps and the racism underlying their establishment. A professor of law at the University of North Carolina, Muller’s previous scholarship focused on Japanese-American draft resistance. Through an analysis of bureaucratic case files, he argues convincingly that a large majority of Japanese citizens detained under FDR’s Executive Order 9066, including first generation Issei and second-generation Nissei, were loyal to the U.S. war effort and held little sympathy towards the imperial agenda of Japan’s military leaders. In most cases, they had little connection to their homeland at all, and in spite of experiences with racial exclusion and bigotry, adapted themselves well to American society. They were usually charged with disloyalty based on spurious accusations, discretionary interpretations of loyalty questionnaires and poorly worded and misleading questions. A jingoistic climate and the search for internal scapegoats for the Pearl Harbor catastrophe further sealed their fate.

Muller’s major contribution is to show that the internment process was not one merely shaped by high-level government officials from “above,” but was carried out with the crucial support of state attorneys, local governors and mid-level government bureaucrats who served as a vehicle of state repression. He traces the history of the War Relocation Authority (WRA) and several other crucial government agencies responsible for overseeing the system and designing the loyalty tests used to measure patriotic devotion. These were crucial in providing legal and moral justification for the internment and rationalizing the violation of individual civil liberties on national security grounds. The supposed evidence of disloyalty that they gathered was also later used to fend off legal challenges, including the case of Fred Korematsu, whose constitutionalist argument went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Muller’s study ultimately points to the dangers of overweening nationalism all to relevant to our own times (as he himself notes) and of the embrace of a national security ideology that trumps human considerations and rights. He might have benefited from a more detailed portrait of some of the key government officials responsible for overseeing the loyalty tests as a means of gauging their motivation, ideology and susceptibility to government propaganda, as well as their ordinariness, and perhaps decency in other realms of their life. In this respect, he might have procured comparisons with other examples of systematized state repression (including those with more deadly and severe consequences) that relied on the collaboration of ordinary foot-soldiers and bureaucrats. He might also have directly addressed Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “banality of evil” which may be applicable in this context. Generally, Muller has written a valuable study with important contemporary ramifications. The book also adds to a growing literature on the Second World War challenging the self-righteous and triumphalist interpretations that have dominated popular discourse and questioning some of the means employed in the defeat of Fascist aggression.

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