Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Book Review Editor
Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians. Foreword by Tetsuden Kashima. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997. Notes. Index. xxx + 493 pages. $16.95 paper.
Reviewed by Sandra A. Wawrytko, Philosophy and Asian Studies Program, San Diego State University, co-author with Catherine Yi-yu Cho Woo of CRYSTAL: Spectrums of Chinese Culture Through Poetry (1995) and with Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson of The Buddhist Religion (1997).
Originally published as two volumes in 1982 and 1983, this book has been reissued as part of the Congressional commitment to “sponsor research and public educational activities” concerning the ill-advised and ultimately illegal measures invoked against both American citizens and permanent resident aliens during the Second World War. The report deals largely with the fate of individuals of Japanese ancestry (Part I. Nisei and Issei). However, some attention is paid to evacuations of Aleutians and residents of the Pribilof Islands in Alaska. Comparisons also are drawn to treatment of persons of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii (representing more than 35% of the population) and those of Italian ancestry on the mainland during this same time period, as well as German Americans during the First World War, highlighting distinct differences in policy. The inclusion of South Americans of Japanese, Germanic, and Italian heritage in U.S. internment programs is covered in an appendix.
A particular strength of the presentation is an investigation of long-standing historical conditions, grounded in both economic concerns and racist attitudes, which led to the disparities in treatment of individuals based on ethnic identity. The overall conclusion of the commission pointed to “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership” as the main causes of this miscarriage of justice. Fueled by cultural ignorance and myopia, those in positions of authority either acted on erroneous assumptions or failed to protest the misguided actions of others. The report specifically challenges the claims that “military necessity” accounted for the measures allowed by Executive Order 9066 as lacking in concrete evidence or even simple logic. For example, in February, 1942 General John L. DeWitt argued: “The very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will be taken.” Significantly, many of the key players in the decision-making process, including such legal luminaries as Earl Warren and William O. Douglas, later regretted their actions.
Using information gleaned from interviews with 750 witnesses, archival materials, and secondary sources, insight is given into the actual camp conditions. This includes the psychological, sociological, political, and ethical dilemmas faced by evacuees. Their day to day experiences, inclusive of administrative organization, educational and work facilities, and participation in the national war effort, are described, often in their own words. We hear the voices of those who volunteered for military service alongside those who protested their internment. Post-camp accommodations, such as the striving of Japanese-Americans to be the “model minority” that keeps a low profile, are reviewed. Differing reactions among the Nisei and Issei groups are noted, based on their varying perceptions of self-identity. The report also covers the little-discussed issue of the ending of exclusion, as conflicting camps within the War Department battled over the theoretical need for internment. Of special importance here was the proposal for a Nisei combat unit, which initially was staunchly opposed by General DeWitt. The influence of factors such as American successes on the battlefield and political considerations surrounding the presidential election of 1944 are noted. The report includes extensive notes filling nearly one hundred pages, and a concluding section of recommendations. An addendum, published separately from the original two volumes of the commission’s report, closes this single volume. In it Special Counsel Angus Macbeth addresses the role of Japanese diplomatic cables intercepted by the U.S. government in shaping its internment policies. This text is an invaluable addition to any library devoted to Asian-American or Asian Studies, as well as essential reading for those concerned about the U.S. legal and political systems.