Greg Robinson


On his book A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America

Cover Interview of November 06, 2009


I have learned to restrain myself from trying to anticipate too much what consequences or implications a book will have.  My first book, By Order of the President, came out only a few weeks after the attacks of September 11, 2001.  Though I wrote the book long before the attacks took place, my message about the perils of overreacting in a climate of uncertainty and fear gained a special resonance and timeliness from them.  As a result, the book was reviewed and featured in places where normally such a work would not appear.  It has remained ever since the work that I am best known for.  I do not know whether A Tragedy of Democracy will speak as much to the issues of the moment, or exactly what people will make of it.

Most probably these two books will be compared, especially since both cover the removal of Japanese Americans.  Still, they are very different works.  By Order of the President was largely an executive history, which brought Franklin Roosevelt and the White House into the well-trodden existing narrative of the camps, and it had little to say abut the Japanese Americans themselves.  I made heavy use of the existing literature and available published documents, and was mortified when reviewers either praised or castigated me for my discussion of the larger history of the camps, as that part of things was mostly not original with me.

A Tragedy of Democracy is a more ambitious work, which attempts to synthesize a great deal of new information on the experience of Japanese Americans at the same time that it brings together histories of confinement in different countries—histories that have only been studied in isolation.  What I hope people take away from it is a sense of how fragile our liberties are—not just those of US Americans, but of people in democratic societies throughout the continent—and how easy it is in time of emergency to suspend judgment and give excess power to military authorities with a plausible claim of national security.

The case of the Japanese Americans underlines most strongly the wise words attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

© 2009 Greg Robinson