LETTERS: Author ‘ignores … primacy of racism’

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Editor’s Note: The following letter was sent in response to the ‘“Enemies among Us’ author protests book review” letter to the editor Dr. John E. Schmitz wrote, published in the Jan. 20, 2022 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Dear Editor:

John E. Schmitz charges me with misrepresentations concerning his book. He denies what he calls my implication that he is “conflating the experiences of the groups subjected to relocation and internment.” Also, he states, “my book does not deny that racism and fear were causal factors in relocation and internment,” but insists that “causal dynamics in addition to racism” shaped the U.S. government’s treatment of Japanese, Italians, and Germans. He then charges me with falsehoods: “My book neither supports the contentions of “internment deniers” nor “approvingly cites” the 1990 book by Lillian Baker. Nor does my book make erroneous claims about the numbers of the three groups who were relocated and interned.”

In fact, Schmitz’s book does conflate the experiences of ethnic Japanese, Italians, and Germans, and performs sleight-of-hand over numbers and categories. In his introduction, Schmitz states: “Yet the government interned more German and Italian Americans than Japanese Americans, arrested them in greater numbers, and relocated members of all three enemy groups.” Shortly after, he adds: “Policymakers applied their relocation and internment plans, preparations, policies, and practices in an even, albeit heavy-handed manner to all perceived enemies.”

It bears noting that Schmitz refers to “German and Italian Americans,” not enemy aliens, as being interned. If more German and Italian aliens than Japanese aliens were taken into custody, it is because there were vastly more of them in the country (even leaving aside the point that German and Italian immigrants, unlike Japanese, could become citizens). A far higher proportion of Japanese aliens were detained. More importantly, If more German and Italian aliens were interned by the Justice Department (following hearings that provided a modicum of due process), many more Japanese aliens in total were confined — primarily in WRA camps, with no due process. Schmitz suggests that those “relocated” were not thereby treated as enemies, and were somehow privileged over those “interned.” In fact, internees were covered by the Geneva convention and could expect better treatment — but the overriding matter of confinement was the same in all cases.

I do not contend that Schmitz ignores racism. What he ignores is the primacy of racism. He seems unable to accept that the removal and confinement of the entire West Coast Japanese population — comprising over 110,000 U.S. citizens, predominantly underage, and middle-aged long-term residents — was fundamentally different from the treatment afforded several thousands of individual German and Italian nationals. How can we possibly explain that difference without assigning due (if hardly exclusive) value to racist hostility, especially when key supporters of confinement expressed it openly?

Finally, in his introduction, Schmitz lists “several innovative works that…broke new interpretive and analytical ground.” First among them is Lillian Baker’s “American and Japanese Relocation in World War II” (1990). (The author also lists works by Page Smith and Roger Lotchin which rationalize mass removal). As mentioned in my review, Schmitz contends, “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.”

This is a toxic falsehood: the WRA camps were sites of involuntary confinement, and 80% of those incarcerated there in 1942 remained confined in 1945. It is precisely such denialism that vitiates whatever value Schmitz’s work may hold.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., 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. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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