Oh, internment again.

This is something I wrote for my Asia-US migration class this week. We’re reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America. You can figure out which bits, I think…

You’d think, reading Lee, that most of the critical questions surrounding the internment of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans during WWII were pretty clearly settled. You’d be wrong: Joseph Shoji Lachman, “I can’t believe I’m responding to another pro-Japanese Incarceration piece.” 30 January 2017. Lachman’s frustration stems at least in part from the fact that this is an historical battle that has been going on for over a decade, since Michelle Malkin published her book In Defense of Internment: The Case for Racial Profiling in World War II and the War on Terror. This was in the relatively early days of blogs, and history blogs in particular were quite active. She was answered quite vigorously by a number of scholars, including myself: the most effective were Dave Neiwert (better known for his work on right-wing militias and conservative politics, which gave him a solid background in Malkin’s political foundations), Eric Muller (lawyer and historian, author of American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II) and Greg Robinson (who had already published one book on Japanese internment, and would go on to publish A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America which helpfully added Canada to the history, and which Lee has drawn on heavily in her Canadian sections). You can see one of Greg Robinson’s responses here  and one of Eric Muller’s here and even one of mine here If you want the full debate, you can still find Robinson and Muller’s joint blogging reviews

Fundamentally, defenses of internment boil down to a few core arguments, none of which I find persuasive:

  • Fear of unrest, because of panicking racist non-Japanese (which was a consideration, according to US officials at the time). Essentially a form of blaming the victim, or if you want to put it in the nicest possible way, sacrificing the rights of the minority to protect them from the majority.
  • Cautionary principle, based on extreme risk-aversion (a very popular argument right now, as it turns out), which basically allows any remotely plausible scenario to justify overwhelming force; actual evidence helps, but it isn’t necessary.
  • “It worked, didn’t it?” In other words, since the policy was carried out successfully, the necessity for it must be assumed. This is particularly popular in the debates about the use of atomic weapons in WWII as well.
  • Rational reaction to available information. This is more or less the tack that Malkin took, though she abused her sources viciously to arrive at her conclusions. This is an argument to which historians are really more sympathetic generally, because it involves taking the mindset (or mentalité, to use the original French) of historical actors seriously, but for it to work requires proving that the information was available and credible, that countervailing information was not (available or credible, or both), and that the reaction is rational and proportionate. Lots of moving parts, and lots of places where it can fail.

Of course, the historian’s job is easier if it’s about causality and complexity and not about justification. In fact, it could be argued that political justification and ethical considerations aren’t entirely appropriate historical theses. If all history was done by academic historians, it’s possible that they would never come up, but one of the great things about history is that it matters to everyone. People take their histories seriously, and use historical examples to justify their present actions. Ethics and politics are embedded in everything we do, sometimes subtly and sometimes terribly obviously. We are mostly narrative thinkers, and the stories we tell can be very persuasive.

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