My book offers a new look at a familiar subject, Executive Order 9066 and the removal and confinement of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II (commonly called the Japanese internment).
I realize that it may come as a surprise to readers that there is anything new to say after all the memoirs, histories, plays, documentaries, and so forth that have appeared on this subject. Part of it is that my book takes account of a whole mass of new scholarship, including my own research, and of different newly available sources. This new information deepens our knowledge of the wartime events, though it does not really change our view. What is very new and transformative about the book, on the other hand, is that it daringly breaks through the narrow framework of time and space in which the subject has always been discussed.
First, I go beyond the wartime period and discuss the postwar and prewar years. And not just as backstory—this is a main part of the narrative. In particular, the book reveals for the first time the massive government surveillance of Japanese communities during the 1930s, and the construction by the Army and the Justice Department of what were termed concentration camps for enemy aliens. All of this helps show how much of a momentum for mass suspicion and arbitrary treatment of Japanese Americans on a racial basis had been created even before the war.
More importantly, A Tragedy of Democracy is the first-ever North American history of confinement. The book breaks new ground by looking at the history of the camps in the United States alongside the Canadian government’s wartime removal of 22,000 citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry from the Pacific Coast of British Columbia. I also compare official policy toward Japanese Americans with that in wartime Hawaii, where fears of “local Japanese” led to a declaration of martial law after Pearl Harbor, the establishment of a military dictatorship, and replacement of civilian courts by military tribunals. I also shed new light on the histories of the Japanese Latin Americans kidnapped from their home countries and interned in the United States, plus the 5,000 Japanese expelled from Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
By studying Japanese American confinement within a continental—indeed international—pattern, we can learn more about its causes as well as the results for its victims.
“The apparent contradiction between tolerance and authoritarianism was in fact not so absolute: the military governor in Hawaii had indeed refused to round up masses of Japanese Americans, and had ultimately allowed Americans of Japanese ancestry to join the Army and prove their loyalty. Yet, almost in the same breath, the Army proclaimed that the presence of so many Japanese Americans at large was a danger.”
This book is the final product of a long train of circumstances and developments. It was more than ten years ago that I started doing research on the signing of Executive Order 9066, for what ultimately became my first book, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, published by Harvard in 2001.
At first, I was interested mostly in filling a hole in the existing historiography: books on the confinement of Japanese Americans ignored the role of President Franklin Roosevelt, while books on Roosevelt did not discuss Japanese Americans. In the process of research, I not only found much more new information than I expected—or that I could fit into one volume—but I realized just how much the wartime removal of Japanese Americans has influenced American society, literature, and law. In fact, it has become one of those central events in American life, a central historical reference point in public debate and the subject of numerous fictional works, exhibits and commemorations by both Japanese Americans and others.
Yet I realized that most ordinary people did not know a great deal about what happened. Thus, once I finished the Roosevelt book I decided to write a short study that would give a clear and easy-to-follow version of the scholarly consensus in regard to Japanese American confinement.
The need seemed even more pressing after the September 11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which reopened old debates about immigration, race, and patriotism. I realized just how vital the issue of Japanese confinement and its proper understanding was when the conservative columnist Michelle Malkin published a popular work challenging the consensus narrative and defending the government’s wartime removal policy as a successful instance of racial profiling.
My interest in retelling the story, though, was increasingly overshadowed by an uneasy sense that the accepted version was inadequate—though not mistaken—and that more needed to be done to flesh it out. As I said, my inspiration came in part from own experience of immigrating to Canada and teaching in Montreal, which led me to study American History from a North American point of view. As I learned Canada’s history, I saw both parallels and differences with developments in the United States. Both of these were useful to study, as they tested widespread assumptions by Americans that our national history and culture are unique. In the same way, as I read up further on the wartime treatment of Japanese Canadians, and discovered how deeply they had been victimized by their own removal policy, I was very surprised that no book had really examined the similarities and differences between the two. It dawned on me that a comparative North American study would be interesting.
Another revelation came when I visited Hawaii for the first time in 2006. I had always heard that Hawaii was a place of overall racial harmony and good relations, and that the Japanese Americans had been spared mass removal during World War II thanks to the enlightened policies of the military government in power during those years. During my trip, however, I heard some of the stories of martial law and of the military tribunals that had dispensed arbitrary justice.
I slowly realized that the apparent contradiction between tolerance and authoritarianism was in fact not so absolute: the military governor in Hawaii had indeed refused to round up masses of Japanese Americans, and had ultimately allowed Americans of Japanese ancestry to join the Army and prove their loyalty. Yet, almost in the same breath, the Army proclaimed that the presence of so many Japanese Americans at large was a danger.
Indeed, as the years went by after Pearl Harbor, and the threat of an invasion by Tokyo became less and less plausible, Army commanders increasingly played the race card, justifying military rule over civilians on the basis that the menace of Japanese Americans made it necessary. There was an essential connection between the military invasions of constitutional rights of Japanese Americans both on the mainland and in Hawaii. In the process, I realized that the book had to look at events in transnational fashion, to look beyond the mainland United States.
Ironically, even though I am recounting a seemingly familiar story, there is actually a rather more original research in this book than in By Order of the President. Part of this is that I had the good fortune to be around for the explosion of internet-searchable documents as a research tool over the past few years. I found all sorts of sources—newspaper articles, interview transcripts, legal briefs, census records, and finding aids. The information is also the result of several years of devoting considerable time to poring over sources from the period in different libraries and archives.
If I had to select at random a section to commend to a reader, I think I would choose the section of Chapter 5 that deals with the history of the martial law regime in Hawaii. I think this is my most original contribution, because it tells a story that most Americans are not aware of, yet has direct parallels with the present.
After Pearl Harbor the U.S. Army commander pushed through a declaration of martial law in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, suspended the U.S. Constitution, dismissed the elected government, and declared himself military governor. The Army meanwhile threw the judges out of the courts and created instead a set of military tribunals to judge all criminal cases, even those involving American civilians. Defendants had no due process or legal protections. Virtually all those accused were found guilty, and often given harsh or arbitrary sentences (for instance, they could reduce their felony sentences by agreeing to donate blood).
Eventually these military tribunals were challenged in court. The Army and the Justice Department, knowing that they had no possible chance to prove that there was any real military emergency or threat of imminent invasion from Tokyo, instead based their case for martial law on the threat of Japanese Americans. Eventually the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court as Duncan v. Kahanamoku (1946). In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court said clearly that military tribunals to judge civilians are unconstitutional, and the opinion of the Court contained some very strong language denouncing the Army’s action as tyrannical.
So the events in Hawaii not only present an interesting counterpoint to what happened to Japanese Americans on the mainland, but they also tell a kind of prehistory that we should be thinking about when we look today at Guantanamo and the military tribunals there. Yet the story of martial law and Duncan v. Kahanamoku is really absent, not just from popular discussion but also from law and American studies classes, the study of constitutional law, and legal briefs. It deserves to be looked at much more closely.
“Duncan v. Kahanamoku is really absent, not just from popular discussion but also from law and American studies classes, the study of constitutional law, and legal briefs. It deserves to be looked at much more closely.”
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.”
Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Associate Professor of History at l’Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. A specialist in North American Ethnic Studies and U.S. Political History, he is also the author of the book By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001) and coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” was a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Times newspaper.