Let’s open one of the ugliest chapters in American history. When we close it, it won’t be quite so ugly.
You don’t need Obama to apologize for America’s internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese-Americans living on America’s West Coast shortly after the Japanese Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Americans of all kinds have been throwing themselves on the floor in abject shame, apologizing for America’s “racial prejudice and wartime hysteria.”
There was, indeed, a lot of vengeful bigotry. Lt. Gen. John DeWitt declared at the time “A Jap is a Jap” and denounced the entire ethnic Japanese population of America as traitorous and treacherous. What curlicue in the American gene makes us omit any exculpatory evidence that might show us in a less malevolent light?
Those who defended the interning of the ethnic Japanese population cited fears that Japan would follow up the air attack with a land invasion of the Hawaiian Islands and possibly even the West Coast of the United States. And they were hissed and dissed for trying to spray-deodorize America’s racial prejudice against the Japanese.
Big surprise! There actually was a “Japanese invasion” of Hawaii, and President Roosevelt didn’t like the way it turned out. You’re 70 years behind, but it’s not too late to catch up with the “Ni’ihau Incident.”
Ni’ihau is a small, virtually unknown Hawaiian island. The pilot of a Japanese Zero attacking Pearl Harbor, Shigenori Nishikaichi, crash-landed his damaged plane on the sparsely inhabited island. The Hawaiians at the time didn’t know anything about the Pearl attack, but they took Nishikaichi’s pistol and papers. As word of the Japanese attack spread, the Japanese pilot appealed to the handful of Japanese on the island to help him, which they did. They found weapons, took hostages and “held” the island of Ni’ihau for six days. Then one of their prisoners, Ben Kanahele, who’d been shot three times, took advantage of the fatigue of the Japanese and jumped Nishikaichi, throwing him against a wall like the sheep he handled for a living and finished him off with his hunting knife. One of Nishikaichi’s Japanese confederates committed suicide, ending the “Japanese invasion” of Ni’ihau.
The lesson: Ethnic Japanese, even though American citizens, lost no time taking an active role on Japan’s side when the opportunity arrived. Good old Ben, on the other hand, became an American hero. There was even a locally popular song, “They can’t take Ni’ihau Nohow!”
Bureaucratic delay apparently missed the tackle, and the report rocketed its way to President Franklin Roosevelt’s desk. Post-Pearl Harbor America didn’t know what hit it, but knew it was made in Japan.
The Japanese military was slicing through the much larger and more populous China like a hot knife through butter. Japan had made no secret of trying to keep hold of their “children” overseas through schools, active outreach by Japanese consulates, cultural clubs and laws that allowed Japanese in America to hold dual citizenship. In a terrified Washington, the reaction of the Japanese on Ni’ihau was regarded somewhat like a tracking poll leading up to the New Hampshire Primary. What if Japan invaded America’s West Coast? And what if the Japanese living there also swung over to Japan’s side? By mid-February Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the War Relocation Camps.
Americans are grossly under-informed on the American side of the story. America’s critics make the common prosecutorial mistake of “over-charging,” in this case, implying that these internment camps were little different from Nazi German concentration camps. Sure, there must have been a lot of, “Get moving, Tojo!” and “Make it snappy! We ain’t got all day!” on the part of the American military. Norman Mineta, who later became America’s transportation secretary, was a 10-year-old boy deported with his family. He complained, “They took my baseball mitt.” But that’s about it. Even America’s enemies tend to stick to the racism angle and avoid accusations of cruelty and sub-human treatment.
Other Japanese-Americans served in combat, fighting, not their cousins in the Far East, but in Italy. It must have felt strange being one of those “Nisei” – Japanese-American – troops, sitting in a foxhole in Italy in an American uniform and addressing letters to loved ones in an American internment camp. “Strange” is the word; millions of concentration-camp prisoners in Europe would have loved to suffer conditions no worse than “strange.”
A whole lot was strange. If the subject ever comes up at a dinner party and you like to be the one capable of raising eyebrows, point out that one of the fiercest lobbyists for the internment of the Japanese was none other than Earl Warren, later chief justice of the Supreme Court – the “Warren Court” known for its liberalism. And guess who opposed America’s interning of the Japanese? Mr. Tough-Guy himself, FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover!
At one such dinner party, a well-briefed, non-apologetic American was challenged by a liberal demanding, “What, pray tell, was the difference between the Nazi German camps and our American camps?”
“For one thing,” replied the American, “in our American camps the inmates gained weight!”