‘Composite history’ falls short



By John E. Schmitz (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2021, 430 pp., $65, hardcover)

Author John Schmitz sets himself the daunting task of putting together a composite history of the wartime internment and incarceration of people of German, Italian and Japanese ancestry in the United States during World War II. He proposes that the mass incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans in 1942 fit into a larger galaxy of government attempts to control perceived threats to national security. Indeed, the Western Defense Command initially planned to remove all German and Italian enemy aliens under Executive Order 9066. He likewise argues that more Germans and Italians than Japanese were “interned” and that the government acted in the same manner toward all perceived enemies in planning and carrying out their internment.

This argument is deeply flawed. It is certainly useful and illuminating to compare the treatment of German, Italian and Japanese nationals, but to study them together is quite another thing from putting them on the same plane. First, Executive Order 9066 was designed and implemented in the first instance, to target ethnic Japanese irrespective of citizenship. It is true that the Western Defense Command expressed interest in mass removal of German and Italian aliens (NOT U.S. citizens). However, as the author himself recounts, War Department and Justice Department chiefs vetoed the idea. Similarly, the author’s statement that more Germans and Italians than Japanese were subjected to “internment” represents “some terminological inexactitude” (to paraphrase Winston Churchill), since it conceals the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Furthermore, the author repeats the contentions of “internment deniers” such as Lillian Baker (whose discredited books he approvingly cites): “The relocation center’s primary purpose was to help evacuees relocate and continue with their lives. The vast majority of evacuees spent just a few months in WRA facilities.” In fact, the mass of Japanese Americans were subjected to official confinement throughout the war years.

By the same token, the author suggests that racism did not play a central role in the government’s actions against Japanese Americans, as its policies in regard to Germans were equally harsh. “Put briefly, there was never a racially based master plan geared toward depriving Japanese Americans of their civil liberties.” It is reductive in the extreme to speak of official actions as based on any racist master plan. Still, endemic prejudice on the West Coast (and the continuing false rumors of Japanese disloyalty) clearly helped inspire pressure groups to advocate mass action during spring of 1942. The racial basis of the official charges against Japanese Americans — Gen. John DeWitt made no bones about asserting that all ethnic Japanese were untrustworthy on racial grounds — led to the stunningly disproportionate nature of their exclusion and incarceration, as compared with other groups.

The author has gone through a mass of secondary sources, which he has united with oral histories, contemporary newspaper accounts and government records. If he had used his sources to bring greater complexity and nuance to the standard story, he might have succeeded better. However, his presentation is in the service of a premise that is simply wrong.

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