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September 21, 2004

The Muller-Malkin Debate on Japanese Internment: Where's the Economic Theory?

I come very late to the Muller-Malkin debates over Japanese internment in World War II, but maybe that's not a bad idea, since they've written summary posts by now. I've only skimmed, but they don't seem to address what interests me most: whether internment can be explained simply as a special interest economic grab.

...Muller's wrap-up has a lot of weak, peripheral objections to Malkin's book--- things like the complaint that since she wrote the book in 16 months, it can't be good. That's a dumb criticism. Her claim is not that through years of research she has found some subtle problem in the conventional wisdom; it is that the conventional wisdom is massively wrong and misguided. If she is right on that, her advantage is in a fresh point of view analyzing existing secondary literature, and her points won't depend on archival research.

But Muller has some points that are good, if correct, hidden in his less cogent complaints. His killer complaint is this one:

Michelle is undoubtedly aware that the two most prominently voiced criticisms of the government's program are these:

1. The government evicted all American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their West Coast homes and placed them into camps, but took no action affecting American citizens of German or Italian ancestry. (In other words, if your name was, say Joe Kaminaka or Lou Matsumoto, you were evicted and confined; if your name was, say, Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig, well, uh, you know.)

2. The actions taken against Japanese Americans were absurdly disproportionate to the scope of any security risks of which the government was even arguably aware.

If you're going to defend the program, this is what you've really got to defend, because this is what scholars most commonly and cogently criticize.

How does Michelle's book handle these two tasks?

The quick answer (a longer answer follows): As to (1), the 165-page text includes a single paragraph (on page 64). As to (2), the book says nothing at all.

(He doesn't mention what I would add as 3. The Japanese-Americans in Hawaii weren't interned, even though the security risk was vastly greater there, with more Japanese-Americans and military facilities closer to the front line. Other critics mentioned (3) though)

Michelle Malkin's reply is unconvincing on (1). She says California had lots of strategically important sites. Well, so did a lot of East Coast states-- and, in fact, we had a lot more trouble with the enemy off the East Coast (from German submarine attacks) than off the West Coast, as Malkin mentions further down in her post. And while Japan did have a stronger surface navy than Germany, they never came close to sending aircraft carriers beyond Hawaii, which would have been utterly insane.

Muller himself seems to frame the debate as being between two theories of internment:

A. It was to protect U.S. national security against saboteurs and spies.

B. It was racism against Orientals.

Both of those seem wildly implausible to me. Muller does a good job of attacking (A). The non-internment of the Japanese in Hawaii is unexplained by either theory. Reason (B), racism, implies a degree of foolishness I find implausible, plus the U.S. was notably friendly to China and the Philippines during the war, and to Chinese and Philipinos. In any case, what I find most plausible, but would like to see more evidence on, is a third reason:

C. It was to get cheap land from Japanese immigrants, a politically weak group, and eliminate competition from them.

Theory (C) explains features (1), (2), and (3). On (1): there were too many Italian and German-Americans, and it would have been politically dangerous to go after them. Roosevelt would have lost the 1944 Presidential election if he had. On (2): security risks were merely an excuse, necessary only to fool the average uninformed voter into thinking that internment was for a noble motive. On (3): there were too many Japanese immigrants in Hawaii, and it would have disrupted the economy too much to intern them, plus, perhaps, fewer owned land and so interning them would not have resulted in a sudden need to sell land at cheap prices.

It could be that I'm misinformed and nobody made any money off the internment. But I will repeat the quote from Murphy's dissent in the Korematsu case that upheld the constitutionality of internment, something I quoted on February 4, 2004

Special interest groups were extremely active in applying pressure for mass evacuation. See House Report No. 2124 (77th Cong., 2d Sess.) 154-6; McWilliams, Prejudice, 126-8 (1944). Mr. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, has frankly admitted that "We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. . . . We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over. . . . They undersell the white man in the markets. . . . They work their women and children while the white farmer has to pay wages for his help. If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we don't want them back when the war ends, either." Quoted by Taylor in his article "The People Nobody Wants," 214 Sat. Eve. Post 24, 66 (May 9, 1942).

I'd like to see Muller and Malkin address the economic theory. Muller doesn't do a good job of defending the racism theory in his posts (he concentrated on knocking out the security theory), and Malkin doesn't do a good job of defending the security theory (mainly because of problems (2)and (3) above, the excessiveness of internment as a solution to potential spying). Muller seems to think that if he knocks out Security, Racism is the only theory left standing; Malkin seems to think that if Racism can't explain it, then even a weak Security theory is the best we can do to explain an otherwise loony internment policy. But if there were indeed special interests that benefited economically from internment, then we don't need to resort to sudden anti-Japanese-but-not-anti-Chinese racism or to overkill against a few potential saboteurs.

Posted by erasmuse at September 21, 2004 11:12 PM

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