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So Let Me Get This Straight: Michelle Malkin Claims to Have Rewritten the History of Japanese Internment in Just 16 Months?

In her prefatory note to readers of her new book In Defense of Internment, Michelle Malkin says the following about the book's goal:

This book defends both the evacuation and relocation of ethnic Japanese from the West Coast (the so-called "Japanese American internment"), as well as the internment of enemy aliens, Japanese and non-Japanese alike, during World War II. My work is by no means all-encompassing; my aim is to provoke a debate on a sacrosanct subject that has remained undebatable for far too long.

Read just a bit further, though, and you'll see that the book is not just about "provoking debate." It's about "correcting the record" (page xv). By the time she finishes her retelling of the story of how the U.S. government decided to force 112,000 Japanese aliens and U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry from their homes and into camps in the interior, she maintains that "it should be obvious to any fair-minded person that the decisions made were not based primarily on racism and wartime hysteria" (page 80), but were based instead on information in top-secret decrypted cables from Japan to its embassies around the world (the so-called "MAGIC" decrypts) suggesting that certain people in the Americas (both ethnically Japanese people, including primarily Japanese aliens but also a handful of American citizens of Japanese ancestry, as well as people of other races and ethnicities) were secretly working as spies for the Japanese government.

I'll have more to say about her substantive claims about MAGIC and racism and hysteria in a moment. First, though, people ought to ask Malkin some very serious questions about the book's goal and the research methods that support it. In In Defense of Internment, Malkin "corrects the record" by telling a much broader story about a whole long set of government policies and decisions. She cites original documents from a staggering number of agencies and offices within agencies--the FBI, the Justice Department, the Office of Naval Intelligence, various branches of the War Department (including G1, G2, and the Provost Marshall General's Office), the State Department, the Military Intelligence Division, FDR's communications, and, of course, the voluminous MAGIC cables.

Malkin claims to have been inspired to start research on this topic after seeing a blog debate I conducted on the subject sixteen months ago. I can't imagine how she--or, indeed, anyone--could have done the primary research necessary to understand the record, let alone "correct" it in an informed way, as the book claims to do, in five or six years, let alone in one. Especially while doing anything at all in addition to researching the book (such as writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column and having a child, as Malkin says she did). To tell the story correctly and impartially, a person would need to sift through thousands and thousands of pages of archival material from all over the country and then piece bits together into a coherent story.

I have a hard time believing that Malkin did anything of the sort. I suspect that she derived much of the information that supports her account from secondary sources, and relies primarily on primary research done (or perhaps not done) by others. (I do not doubt, by the way, that the documents to which Malkin cites actually exist; I'm not suggesting she's making them up. What I suspect--indeed, what I know from my own experience--is that there must be thousands of additional documents in the archives that are relevant to a full understanding of the government's wartime decisions, and that massively complicate the simple story she narrates). A person certainly can "provoke debate" (uninformed debate, at least) by going about things in this way. But a person can't "correct the record" in this way, or report history in a way that anyone ought to believe. It's just not possible, and it's not credible.

Now, turning to Malkin’s substantive claims, if you were of a mind to unsettle the settled understanding of what led to the incarceration of Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945, and restore some credibility to the now-discredited claim of military necessity, you'd need to do two things.

First, you'd need to make at least a prima facie case of causation--that is, you'd need to persuade people that the various government actors whose actions produced the decision had well-grounded suspicions of subversion by American citizens of Japanese ancestry, and that those well-grounded suspicions of subversion were what led them to take the actions they took.

Second, you'd have to undermine the settled understanding, supported by several decades of comprehensive research by numerous scholars, that racism, economic jealousy, and war hysteria led these actors to take the actions they took.

As for the first, as Greg Robinson shows, there is no evidence that those who made the decisions were influenced by the MAGIC decrypts. The record tells us nothing about who actually reviewed which of the intercepts, or when, or what any reader understood them to mean. The record is just silent on these issues--reflecting, in a way, the silence of the actors themselves on MAGIC at the time. One might well say (and Malkin does), "but they couldn't talk or write about the MAGIC decrypts; they were ultra-secret and everybody was keen to keep them that way." That may well be so. But that doesn't mean we can fill in the silence in the record with our own suppositions about what they must have read and what they must have thought about what they read. In short, Malkin's book presents no evidence--because, apparently, there is none--to show that MAGIC actually led anybody to think or do anything.

Then there's the much larger problem: the program we know as the Japanese American internment was not a single decision but rather a long series of decisions taken over a period of months (or, if you count some of the pre-war preparation for action against the ethnically Japanese in the USA, a period of years). And we know--for certain--that many of those decisions could not conceivably have been influenced by concerns for military necessity supported by MAGIC. To take just one example, the government’s decision in April 1942 to institute indefinite incarceration (rather than relocation and settlement outside the West Coast, as originally planned) was prompted by the refusal of Western state governors to allow settlement by Japanese Americans (whom Idaho Governor Clark called “rats”) in their states. These governors were not privy to information from the MAGIC cables.

As for the second, the influence of racism and hysteria, Malkin presents nothing. Not a thing.

Malkin's purpose in writing the book, you'll recall, was to "offer a defen[se] of the most reviled wartime policies in American history: the evacuation, relocation, and internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II." (p. xiii) "Even with the benefit of hindsight," she argues on page 80, "it is not at all clear that mass evacuation [of all people of Japanese ancestry, including U.S. citizens] was unwarranted." Why? Because information (especially from the MAGIC decrypts) about subversive activities by Japanese Americans (which, she notes, happen to be just like the sorts of subversive activities that Arabs and Muslims are engaging in) provided a "solid rationale for evacuation." (p. 141.)

So here's what I don't get.

On page xxx of the book's Introduction ("A Time To Discriminate"), Malkin tells us to "[m]ake no mistake": she is "not advocating rounding up all Arabs or Muslims and tossing them into camps."

She's not?

Related Links

  • Greg Robinson: Why the Media Should Stop Paying Attention to the New Book that Defends Japanese Internment

  • Michelle Malkin: Response to Her Critics

  • Jonathan Dresner: Why Did the U.S. Intern the Japanese During WW II?