Roger McGrath’s article “American MAGIC and Japanese-American Spies” (Sins of Omission, October 2002) deserves a reply.

I am not ignorant of the MAGIC?intercepts, but I insist that the United States was wrong to put the Nisei into concentration camps.  California Japanese born in Japan did become enemy aliens on December 7, 1941, subject to internment.  But their children, born in the United States, were U.S. citizens.  Placing them in concentration camps was a terrible violation of the Constitution.

Although a few Nisei were traitors, most were utterly loyal to the country their parents had adopted, as demonstrated by their performance in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II.

Why weren’t Nisei in Hawaii jailed?  Was the danger of attack greater in California or in Hawaii?  Did Hawaii law forbid Orientals to own property?  No.  But California law did.  Franklin D. Roosevelt was a politician who did whatever it took to get votes, pandering to the racism of Californians at the time.

As terrible as Roosevelt’s interning of thousands of U.S. citizens was, that crime pales in comparison to what he did to the American spirit.  FDR taught Americans to look to the federal government to solve their problems.  The reparations program is only a small part of his legacy.

        —Jim Ware
Baton Rouge, LA

Before December 7, 1941, the United States was not at war with Japan, so sending any information back to Japan was neither a crime nor evidence of disloyalty.  Nor, by the way, were Saturday Japanese schools or Shinto priests.  My immigrant ancestors always talked fondly of their German heritage, read German-language newspapers, and ate German food.  If that was all the excuse the government needed, they could have locked up my whole family, because we continued to behave that way through the war and into the 1950’s.

Dr. McGrath makes it clear that the number of Japanese informants was relatively small compared to the much larger number of Japanese-Americans interned.  Even the U.S. government would concede that most of the people interned were innocent.

Even if there was some justification for interning all of these Japanese-Americans, what was the justification for stealing their property—which amounted to much more than $20,000 per person 40-some years later?

How did anyone know then, and how do we know now, that the MAGIC intercepts were true and that this reported information was of the slightest value to anyone in Japan?  If Japanese intelligence had been all that effective, Hirohito would have waited a week and nailed the aircraft carriers that arrived right after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  But, then, if our code-breaking intelligence was that good, how come we didn’t have a clue that this huge Japanese fleet was sailing across the Pacific and parking 200 miles from Honolulu?  

Even if the government was worried about a Japanese attack on the West Coast, the Battle of Midway (May 1942) ended that threat.  Midway, by the way, is about 1,300 miles west-northwest of Hawaii—not exactly on San Francisco’s doorstep.  And that battle was also not a very good example of anyone’s intelligence-gathering abilities.  Neither commander seemed to know the whereabouts of the other guy’s fleet.  We got lucky.  They didn’t.  Has anyone claimed that the reason we won was because we locked up 100,000 Japanese-American civilians?

Anyone who reads history is familiar with the government excuse that “We’re taking this illegal and unpleasant action because we have information and knowledge that you don’t, and we aren’t sharing it.  Trust us.”  Why should I?  It is not as if the government has had a great track record in that regard.

        —David R. Kluge
Sheridan, OR

Dr. McGrath Replies:

It is a great irony that I find myself defending President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  My instincts are with Jim Ware and David R. Kluge.  I fear the power of big government, which tends to become oppressive, even tyrannical.  No president since Lincoln set us more on that path than FDR.  Both excused their actions by citing national security and the exigencies of war.  However, with respect to the resident Japanese, I don’t know what other course FDR could have taken.  The MAGIC decryptions revealed that hundreds of Japanese, both citizens and resident aliens, in California, Oregon, and Washington were acting as spies for the emperor.  If Roosevelt had directed the FBI to target the individual spies, the Japanese would have known that we had broken their code.  Faced with a similar decision, Churchill allowed the people of Coventry to suffer a Luftwaffe attack without warning.

The only Japanese who were “interned” were those who declared their loyalty to the emperor.  They numbered nearly 17,000.  A stunning one third of them were American citizens who had formally renounced their U.S. citizenship.  At one point, it was thought that the internees might be exchanged for American prisoners held by the Japanese.  The other resident Japanese were subject to an evacuation order that required them to relocate outside of the Western Defense Zone, an area that included California, the western halves of Oregon and Washington, and a small portion of Arizona.  Those who were not able to move to another part of the United States were ordered to assembly centers, from which they were eventually taken to “relocation” camps.  German and Italian aliens on the Pacific Coast were also subject to the evacuation order but, because of their small numbers, were simply told to relocate outside the Defense Zone within six weeks or face internment.  Those suspected of enemy activities were interned.  This included their minor children who were American citizens.

Most Americans today do not seem to understand that any Japanese, including aliens, could leave a relocation camp if they could reestablish themselves outside of the Defense Zone.  Some 35,000 Japanese did so during the war.  Those who relocated on their own by the end of March 1942 were not required to spend any time in the camps.  The parents of Tokyo Rose, both Japanese aliens, were living in Los Angeles at the time of Pearl Harbor.  They moved to Chicago and opened the Toguri market, which they operated throughout the war.  More than 4,300 Japanese left the relocation camps to go to college at government expense, and thousands of others left the camps to work on farms.  Meanwhile, in the relocation camps, the death rate was lower and the birth rate higher than those for the American population as a whole.  So was the graduation rate from high school.  To use “concentration camps” to describe such places makes a mockery of Auschwitz and Treblinka.  At the time, the Japanese-American Citizens’ League  praised the government for providing the relocation camps.  Moreover, to call the evacuation and relocation “unconstitutional” is contrary to several Supreme Court decisions, which have never been reversed.

It is also popular to point out that the Japanese in Hawaii were not evacuated or relocated.  Such a course of action was unnecessary because martial law was declared in Hawaii, and the Army ruled the territory with a military fist, something that is always left unmentioned.

The 1988 Civil Liberties Act that grant–ed each Japanese relocated or interned $20,000 was not compensation for “stealing their property” but a product of political grandstanding and pandering.  It had nothing to do with property losses, which were settled long before, under the American-Japanese Claims Act of 1948.  The U.S. government confiscated no property.  Japanese claims were the result of being forced to move before they could harvest their crops, or before they were able to liquidate merchandise in their markets, or other such losses.

Contra Mr. Kluge, Midway was a brilliant example of intelligence gathering.  Cmdr. Joseph J. Rochefort of the Navy’s Combat Intelligence Unit at Pearl Harbor partially decrypted JN-25 and discovered that the Imperial Combined Fleet was preparing for a massive attack on “AF.”  The meaning of AF was a mystery: the Aleutians? Hawaii? the West Coast?  In a clever ploy, he had false messages transmitted that the Japanese intercepted and repeated in code, which, in turn, revealed that AF was Midway.

The question of resident Japanese loyalty is difficult to assess.  Those Japanese-Americans who served in the 100th Battalion and later in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team fought with distinction, and often with heroism, although their exploits have been embellished and exaggerated.  However, the real question is not what an elite volunteer unit did in Italy but what the great bulk of the resident Japanese would have done had the Japanese waded ashore at Santa Monica and occupied California.  In Korea, China, Manchuria, the Malay Archipelago, and the Philippines, the resident Japanese aided and abetted the Japanese invaders.

If I were a loyal American of Japanese descent, I certainly would not have been happy with the evacuation order.  However, as a wartime sacrifice, it does not seem to have been the greatest suffered.  Just ask those Marines who clawed their way through the Pacific, beginning with the muck, stench, death, and horror that was Guadalcanal, “not a name but an emotion.”