Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Years of Infamy, the Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps. By Michi Weglyn. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1976. Illustrations. Appendices. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 351 pages. $10.95.
Reviewed by David V. DuFault, Associate Professor of History at San Diego State University.
Michi Weglyn tells the dramatic story of the incarceration of some 110,000 Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States during the Second World War. This included her own confinement in the Gila Relocation Center in Arizona. Influenced by this experience and by the “angry charges of government duplicity” in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, the author has put “. . . together what might be called the ‘forgotten’—or ignored—parts of the tapestry. . . ” of America’s concentration camps. She believes that the injustice done Japanese Americans “has been only partially perceived” and hopes that her account will remind Americans to be constantly on guard to protect their always vulnerable liberties.
Weglyn is rightfully angry that President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, in league with bigoted Westerners, banished Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast. In fact, the majority community, motivated by fear of Japanese military attack and racial hostility toward Japanese Americans, enthusiastically supported the government’s successful attempt to confine American citizens to ten remote concentration camps.
Of course, scholars and participants have told this story before-for example Roger Daniels, Concentration Camps, USA, and most recently, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s and James Houston’s personal account, Farewell to Manzanar. Thus Weglyn’s subtitle “the Untold Story… is misleading. Yet, despite this, Weglyn makes several interesting contributions to the “forgotten” parts of the story.
The author begins by emphasizing the report of Curtis Munson completed just prior to Pearl Harbor. Munson declared that the Japanese Americans were loyalthere was “no Japanese problem.” However, Weglyn claims, the government’s “wartime suppression” of the report kept its favorable picture of the Japanese Americans from the public; “the citizenry was denied the known facts, public opinion skillfully manipulated, and a cruel and massive governmental hoax enacted.” One wonders if the publication of a single report as ambiguous as Munson’s would have altered the racism and fears of those early days of the war.
The author then advances the provocative idea that the government might have rounded up Japanese Americans in order to use them as a “hostage reserve” to insure “more considerate treatment” of Americans held by the Japanese. Although she identifies this thought as a “personal conjecture,” it later becomes a “fact.” However, in conjunction with this idea, she traces the round up of the Japanese who lived outside the United States-a story seldom told in other accounts.
Weglyn is also successful in describing in detail the terrible conditions at the camp at Tule Lake, California where the government placed dissident Japanese Americans. Especially fascinating is her emphasis on the attempt of “underground activists” at Tule Lake to inform the Japanese government of their plight by sending messages via the Spanish government.
Finally, Weglyn adds to our knowledge by following carefully the attempts of Ernest Besig, the Director of the Northern California ACLU, and attorney Wayne Collins to improve conditions at Tule Lake and to aid those Japanese Americans who renounced their American citizenship. Collins fought until 1968 to win his battle to save many of the renunciants from deportation and to restore their citizenship.
Weglyn, a theatrical costume designer, has consulted an extensive list of primary and secondary sources. She concentrates on Federal records, legal cases, and on special collections at the University of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, Weglyn sometimes misuses her sources. While few would argue seriously with her general conclusions (the government’s racial and political motivation, the violation of constitutional principles, and the negative effects of the camps on the Japanese Americans), the author occasionally overstates her case or accepts conjecture or circumstantial evidence as certain proof. For example, did the “fate of our nation swing in the balance” during January and February 1942? Was the plan to resettle Japanese Americans from the camps to jobs in the Midwest and East encouraged simply “to cut camp expenditures”? What policy toward the Japanese Americans might Roosevelt have followed? Weglyn first writes that the “revered and charismatic” Roosevelt should have expressed “humane sentiments” and thereby led positively the public. Then she remarks that because of the war and hostile public opinion, the president “of necessity” maintained silence. And, in yet another example, did the Japanese government because of the “riot” at Tule Lake call “an abrupt halt to prisoner-exchange negotiations”?
The author does not explain clearly the shift in 1944 of the government’s attitude toward the Japanese Americans. “Tolerance and American-style fair play,” she writes, grew only because the army feared that continued “nativist passion” might lead “the enemy to retaliate on captive U.S. nationals…… Finally, did Roosevelt order the detention and exclusion programs to end only after the presidential election of 1944? Weglyn advances circumstantial evidence to support this charge. Here and elsewhere she relies on single factors to explain complex events.
Despite her sometimes uncertain use of sources and her tendency to view the experience in the concentration camps through the distrust of government engendered by Watergate, Weglyn movingly retells a dramatic story. She has achieved her most significant aims in writing: she forcefully reminds us of past injustice and of the fragility of our civil liberties.