‘Racism, fraud and murder,’ a dramatization of the WWII incarceration



By Kermit Roosevelt (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015, 400 pp., $27.95, hardcover)

One of the more unique fictional representations of the wartime incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the legal issues that stemmed from it, is Kermit Roosevelt’s compelling new novel “Allegiance.” Roosevelt, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who is himself a onetime Supreme Court clerk, presents these events through the eyes of the young Caswell “Cash” Harrison, a law graduate from a Main line Philadelphia family who successively serves as a clerk for Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, and then as a staff attorney in the U.S. Justice Department. In connection with the court’s actions with regard to the Gordon Hirabayashi and Fred Korematsu cases, involving challenges to mass removal by American citizens of Japanese ancestry, Harrison discovers conspiracies and skullduggery of various sorts: racism, fraud and even murder. In the course of his investigations, he meets J. Edgar Hoover, confers with Justice Felix Frankfurter, visits the Tule Lake Segregation Center and is present at Nisei draft resister trials.

Like the current Broadway musical play of the same name (with which Roosevelt’s novel is not connected), “Allegiance” recounts the history by means of a fictionalized story, though in this case Japanese Americans play only minor roles. This framework has the advantage of personalizing the issues and giving special richness to the debates in the Supreme Court over the Japanese American cases. While as a historian, I am ill-equipped to judge the overall dramatic value of the work, I do appreciate the way in which Roosevelt illuminates historical figures such as Justice Hugo Black and Attorney General Francis Biddle, and the important connection between their private lives and their public positions. He also evokes with skill a past era of life in ruling-class circles and society in wartime Washington.

I am bound to note that Roosevelt’s depiction of the Japanese American cases is marred by some minor factual errors, though in areas that are not essential to his fictional purpose. For example, in discussing the lead-up to the court arguments over Gordon Hirabayashi’s challenge to Executive Order 9066, the author unaccountably fails to make any mention of the simultaneous case of Minoru Yasui, in which the lower court judge had actually found a special curfew for American citizens of Japanese ancestry unconstitutional, though he declared Yasui’s own citizenship forfeit. The author also makes a major point of the troublesome results of the loyalty exams and the creation of thousands of “no-nos,” in guiding official attitudes toward Hirabayashi. However, it is not clear that the results of the so-called “loyalty questionnaires” were generally known by the time the briefs in the case were produced in April 1943, and they are nowhere mentioned in the final decision in the case. Similarly, Roosevelt asserts incorrectly that the War Relocation Authority announced the closing of the camps in December 1944, at the time of the Endo decision. While the decision gave the Army political cover to lift exclusion and permit Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast, the eight remaining “Relocation Centers,” plus Tule Lake, remained open for an entire year after the decision. The author also traduces Ernest Kinzo Wakayama, whom he portrays as a dissident at Tule Lake malignly bent on pressing others to renounce their citizenship while retaining his own, and thereby justifying Harrison in pressing him at gunpoint to renounce his citizenship. In actual fact, the story was more complicated. Wakayama and his wife Toki brought a habeas corpus petition against Executive Order 9066 in mid-1942 as American citizens, but by the time the case was set for argument the Wakayamas, weary of their treatment, had applied for repatriation. Still, the errors do not erase the value of the work in dramatizing the resonance of the Japanese Americans for those within government circles.

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