THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Deciphering the truth behind the JACL’s ‘800-pound gorilla’

This week’s column revisits a bit of “unknown history” and tries to determine whether it is true. Let me explain. On March 18, 2011, former Japanese American Citizens League Executive Director John Tateishi published a column in the Pacific Citizen. In this column, Tateishi recalled growing up critical of the JACL because of its policy of “cooperation” with the government’s wartime “evacuation” of Japanese Americans, which Tateishi referred to as the organization’s “800-pound gorilla.”

Tateishi ultimately joined the JACL and led their work on Japanese American redress during the 1980s. In the process, he got to know longtime JACL leader Mike Masaoka. Tateishi recalled that he finally asked Masaoka point blank what had possessed him and then-JACL President Saburo Kido to recommend “cooperation.” According to Tateishi, Masaoka then reassured him by explaining that they had been threatened into collaborating:

“He said that he and Kido were separated in one meeting with the feds, and he was told that the removal process was going to happen whether we cooperated or not. He was warned that if there was resistance, there would be bloodshed, that soldiers would be armed with live ammunition and bayonets, and Army tanks would be involved and used if necessary.”

Tateishi’s story of Masaoka attracted attention among scholars. I was alerted to it as part of a listserve, and was asked by a friend for my view. I think that my response might be interesting to look at now, not only for how it puts the JACL’s decision into context, but also as a little example of how historians work.

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Before I begin, I must state my own belief that the JACL’s position on cooperation seems in retrospect a justifiable one under the circumstances for a small and stigmatized minority group. As to whether resistance would have led to bloodshed, one can never be certain when it comes to alternate history. However, following my research on martial law in Hawai‘i, I am convinced that if Japanese Americans on the West Coast had resisted removal in any visible way, Army chiefs and local political leaders would at least have exerted great pressure for declaring martial law on the Pacific Coast and forcibly removing all Issei and Nisei.

That said, I am skeptical that such a meeting as Masaoka describes ever took place, and even if it did, that it alone made the major difference between the JACL’s cooperation and opposition. First, Masaoka told the story of the threat of military force at different times in later years, with somewhat different facts. Tateishi’s story, which seems based on what Masaoka told him in casual conversation, does differ in important respects from the version in the 1987 memoir that Masaoka published, “They Call Me Moses Masaoka: An American Saga.” There Masaoka states (pg. 90-92) that he and Saburo Kido were summoned to the Presidio in San Francisco some days after Executive Order 9066 was proclaimed. There Gen. John DeWitt told them they were there to receive orders, and then left. Another officer then came in and uttered the threat of military action if the JACL did not cooperate. As confirmation for his story, Masaoka then pointed to Karl Bendetsen’s June of 1942 address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, which stated that the Army had contingency plans for complete evacuation virtually overnight, if it had been necessary. (Frank Chin later challenged the accuracy of this story, and questioned whether the comments by Bendetsen confirm it. See Chin, “Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889-1947,” pg. 220-222; but see also Frank Abe’s review in Amerasia Journal questioning Chin’s analysis, www.resisters.com/study/bornusa_review.htm).

A key document here is Masaoka’s “apologia,” which he wrote during the war after leaving the JACL to join the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and which contained an extended and detailed justification of his actions (he apparently intended that if he did not return, the document would serve as his testament). The document, which is available at the Masaoka papers at University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, is the best contemporary source on Masaoka’s thinking. I do not currently have a copy of the text to refer to, so I may be mistaken, but to the best of my recollection there is no mention in it of any such meeting. (If indeed it does recount such a meeting, this would be the best place to go to for more precise details.) This absence of such contemporary documentation makes me cast doubt on the accuracy of the story.

Even aside from the lack of confirmation, the story does not entirely add up. After all, if the threat of military force had been the only factor in ensuring JACL support for official policy, the leaders of the organization would have logically acted in different fashion. For example, in such a case they would have had no reason to oppose any legal challenges to Executive Order 9066 once the initial removal was completed — the Gordon Hirabayashi trial did not take place until October of 1942 — instead of waiting until the cases were before the Supreme Court.

Rather, the JACL opposed challenges to removal, as its April 1942 circular makes clear, because it considered them counterproductive to the general need for the Nisei to demonstrate loyalty — which included as one factor the desire to ensure gentle treatment by the Army — as well as futile. (This did not mean that the JACL itself entirely supported government policy: the organization helped fund and distribute Norman Thomas’s pamphlet opposing incarceration, and favored the constitutional challenges of Mitsuye Endo and Ernest and Toki Wakayama, which did not challenge removal.)

My impression is that JACL leaders, faced with an emergency situation and deprived of the guidance of more experienced community leaders by the FBI roundup of the Issei, made the hasty decision to offer their cooperation. (Already on Feb. 19 1942, Rafu Shimpo editor Togo Tanaka, who was close to the JACL, wrote a headline in the newspaper, “Let’s Cooperate Cheerfully!”) Their reasons and motivations were complex, and cannot be broken down to a single factor. Still, it is easy to conclude from their words at the time that an essential element was the need to show loyalty and support the war effort at all costs, to avoid the stigma of disloyalty (however unjust), as well as the feeling that the JACL could serve to advise and ease the process by offering assistance.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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