Review:  Days that live in ‘Infamy’: U.S. treatment of Japanese in WWII

American Japanese registere for evacuation.
(Dorothea Lange, Library of Congress / Henry Holt and Co.)

“The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken,” warned Lt. Gen. John DeWitt of the Western Defense Command of the United States Army in a February 1942 memo calling for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to authorize the incarceration of “potential enemies of Japanese extraction.”

That DeWitt could not only write that sentence — which proves that Joseph Heller was reporting on the military as much as he was satirizing it in “Catch-22" — but have the argument repeated by the most powerful men in the land is indicative of what happens when stupid men stumble into the fog of war. In this case, the result was among the greatest violations of civil liberties in the history of the United States: Executive Order 9066, authorizing the detainment of Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent in a system of concentration camps scattered throughout the American West.

If a tale is only as good as its villains, then noted historian and biographer Richard Reeves’ “Infamy,” a compulsively readable, emotionally rich and passionately written account of the internment of 120,000 American Japanese in concentration camps during World War II, is as cathartic as “Antigone.”

There is the above mentioned Gen. DeWitt, a bumbling, racist, careerist officer fretting about being relieved of his command who spends the early days of the war cabling Washington with unsubstantiated rumors of Japanese farmers planting their tomato crops pointing at U.S. air bases. Then there is his venal underling, Maj. Karl Bendetsen (he had changed his name from Bendetson that it would sound less Jewish), an attorney always there to whisper in the general’s ear the supposed perfidies of Japanese Americans when he wasn’t busy firing off memos of his own to Washington, claiming that what worried him most of all were American Japanese offers to cooperate. (Throughout the early months of the war, government officials would cite American Japanese overt patriotism and eagerness to contribute to the American war effort as proof of their traitorousness.)


While Reeves acknowledges the real panic and fear that caused, for example, this newspaper to run a headline “L.A. Area Raided! Jap Planes Peril Santa Monica, El Segundo, Long Beach,” after a night of Los Angeles-area antiaircraft guns firing hundreds of rounds into the sky at what turned out to be a U.S. Navy weather balloon, he concludes the hysteria brought out the worst in Americans. Literally, as mediocre men with bad intentions seemed to get their way in nearly every branch of the government responsible for dealing with “the Japanese problem.”

The list of those who urged the deportation of American Japanese include California Atty. Gen. Earl Warren, the future governor of California and U.S. chief justice, and Walter Lippmann, the influential newspaper columnist who may have done more to persuade Roosevelt of the necessity of rounding up American Japanese than anyone else. (Among the minority who opposed the deportations were Atty. Gen. Francis Biddle and, remarkably, FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.) Other U.S. government officials were more concerned with the constitutionality of imprisoning American citizens for no reason other than their ancestry and went to great pains to find some constitutional cover for their actions, until Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy cut through the legal arguments, declaring, “The Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

Reeves never mentions the Patriot Act, the detention center in Guantanamo, the surveillance excesses of the NSA, the legal obfuscations of the George W. Bush administration in justifying torture or the Obama administration in killing American citizens in drone strikes, but every reader who has lived the post-9/11 era will immediately notice the parallels as government officials cite real and imagined threats as justifications for previously unconstitutional actions.

By the time Bendetsen conceived the creation of Military Zones in which Army brass could decide who stays and goes (the first of which included the entire Pacific Coast and part of Arizona), public opinion was very much in support of the deportation of “Japs,” regardless of citizenship. Newspapers were already calling for the establishment of concentration camps, and some congressmen were demanding the sterilization of all American Japanese. Roosevelt himself speculated that the reason Japanese were “devious” was the shape of their skulls and wondered if that was a problem that could be addressed surgically. Meanwhile, Hoover’s FBI, usually not a bastion of restraint, had deduced that Japanese on the West Coast posed no threat.

Threat or no threat, American Japanese were being rounded up as early as January 1942, and by the spring the wholesale deportation of American Japanese was underway. Bendetsen was particularly zealous, authorizing federal agents to expel the elderly from hospitals, infants with “Japanese features” from orphanages and even babies of Japanese ancestry adopted by Caucasian parents.

The stories Reeves uncovers of American Japanese families — farmers, merchants, doctors, ice cream parlor owners — being uprooted with only what they could carry, loaded onto trains and moved to remote, primitive detention centers will make even readers familiar with the history shed a tear. This reader broke down when an 11-year-old Norman Mineta, the future congressman and secretary of Commerce, who had proudly worn his Cub Scout uniform on his way to the assembly point for American Japanese, had his baseball bat confiscated by a soldier. American Japanese kids were allowed to bring gloves and balls but no bats. “What did I do to scare the government?” he asked his father.

That thousands of American Japanese would serve in the U.S. armed forces during World War II, many of them volunteering straight from Manzanar, Heart Mountain, Poston and the other concentration camps spread through California, Arizona, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Arkansas, was testament not only to the loyalty of American Japanese but to their heroism. The 442nd Infantry Regiment, made up almost entirely of American Japanese, remains the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. history. (Proof to Gen. DeWitt, no doubt, of some greater treachery to come.)

In one of the most fascinating ironies of the war, on April 22, 1945, advance units of the 442nd were the first to liberate one of the satellite concentration camps clustered around Dachau, Germany. When Pvt. Shiro Kashino, who had joined from Minidoka Internment Camp, first saw the huts and barbed wire, he marveled, “This is exactly what they built for us in Idaho.”

Reeves’ excellent “Infamy,” the first popular, general history of the subject in more than 25 years, reminds us that not only can it happen here, it did.

Greenfeld is the author of eight books of nonfiction and fiction, including the forthcoming novel “The Subprimes.”

The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II

Richard Reeves
Henry Holt: 368 pp., $32