NEW YORK — Concerns are being raised about a New York Times museum review of the new Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center in Wyoming.
Written by cultural critic Edward Rothstein, “The How of an Internment, But Not All the Whys” was published on Dec. 9 and can be viewed on the newspaper’s website.
In a message to friends and colleagues, Jennifer Hayashida, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College, City University of New York, wrote, “The strange title is clarified towards the last third of the article, where Rothstein takes great pains to elaborate on possible justifications for the internment of Japanese Americans, clearly drawing upon fringe pundits such as Michelle Malkin (whose work is linked in the online version of the article).
“Not only is such editorializing uncalled for in what is supposed to be a relatively unbiased review in a paper of record, but it is obviously at odds with all serious scholarship on the subject of WWII internment of Japanese Americans.
“Given the general invisibility of mainstream news coverage of Asian American history and/or experience, this kind of misrepresentation of civil rights history, to me, represents an egregious disregard for the place of Asian Americans in U.S. society, past and present.”
While generally complimentary, the review faults the museum for telling the story of Heart Mountain from the internees’ point of view and not providing a larger context.
“Heart Mountain certainly looked like a prison,” Rothstein wrote. “Yet we also read of its newspaper editors working in Cody and of other jobs held outside the camp. How common was such employment?
“Internment actually had fairly large loopholes. In the 10 internment camps, more than 4,000 students left to attend college. In addition, if a family found a place to live in another part of the country outside the West Coast or other militarily important areas, they were free to move; 30,000 did. At least one company, in New Jersey, even recruited employees here …
“A congressional commission that examined the camps in the 1980s endorsed the explanation, now standard, that they were a result of wartime hysteria and racism … But wartime internment was more the rule than the exception. During World War I many European countries incarcerated citizens of opposing nations; the United States, too, imprisoned ‘enemy aliens,’ including Germans who were not citizens.
“During World War II Japanese Canadians were put in camps. In Britain, even Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany were interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man. What made the situation of the Japanese in the United States more complicated is that while the Issei, forbidden to become naturalized, were classified as enemy aliens whose internment was legal, their American children, the Nisei, were citizens. But surely the other examples of wartime internment would help us understand why Executive Order 9066 was widely supported.
“It would help, too, to have a clearer understanding of the prewar Japanese American population, which is now portrayed as homogenously assimilationist. But we know that 1930s Japan was a racist, militant society, convinced of the emperor’s divinity, and that a considerable number of Nisei were sent there to study.
“‘Loyalty to the emperor,’ we learn at the Japanese American National Museum, was a cherished value for the Issei. Even the use of terms like Issei and Nisei shows careful attention to Japanese connections. In addition, American military and FBI reports describe a number of Japanese American organizations on the West Coast that were financially and ideologically devoted to the mother country and its policies.
“All of this would have amplified suspicions. In addition, the government had decoded dispatches from Japanese agents referring to their plans and successes. On May 9, 1941, one from Los Angeles read: ‘We have already established contacts with absolutely reliable Japanese in the San Pedro and San Diego area.’
“Two days later, a dispatch from Seattle said, ‘We are securing intelligences concerning the concentration of warships within the Bremerton Naval Yard’; Japanese residents were relocated from that area in 1942.
“Moreover, the Japanese were known for similar espionage elsewhere, including the Philippines. A treasonous example of assistance from residents of Japanese descent also occurred just after Pearl Harbor, in which a couple on a remote Hawaiian island tried to help a downed Japanese pilot escape. The threat was palpable: a Japanese submarine had sunk American ships and shelled a California oil field.
“I am not suggesting that such factors justified the relocations. Almost all of the internees were surely innocent, and most deserved the rights of citizens. The policy was racially tinged and hysterical in its sweep. But at the very least, the context demonstrates that the relocation was a response — an extreme one — to a problem. There was a geographical rationale, not simply a racial one.”
Rebuttals to Rothstein
Some of the responses from the academic community have been posted by C.N. Le, professor of sociology at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, on his website, www.asian-nation.org.
• Greg Robinson, associate professor of history, Université du Québec a Montréal: “He insists that because Japan engaged in widespread espionage, and decoded Japanese messages (in reality a mere handful) spoke of contacts, surely Japanese Americans were implicated in espionage. In fact, Tokyo’s spymasters shied away from using Americans of Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty to Japan they rightly suspected, and made use of non-Japanese. Col. Kenneth Ringle, the prewar agent of the Office of Naval Information who broke the most important Japanese spy ring in Los Angeles and was in a position to know the facts, was an outspoken defender of the loyalty of Japanese Americans.
“Similarly, Rothstein declares that the Japanese ‘threat was palpable’ since a Japanese submarine had sunk American ships and shelled a California oil field. In fact, only a single American ship was sunk, compared to the hundreds sunk by German submarines off the East Coast, and the single shelling incident took place after the order to remove Japanese Americans had already been issued.
“Worse, Rothstein argues that the ‘treasonous’ conduct of a Nisei couple in Hawaii validated the fears of government authorities about West Coast Japanese Americans. The absurdity of this statement is easily demonstrated by the fact that there was no mass roundup of the large Japanese community in Hawaii itself.
“Although he insists that he is not justifying removal, cultural critic Rothstein sadly displays not only a carelessness toward history, but reveals how much the baseless ideas about ‘Japanese’ disloyalty that led to mass removal still remain in the culture.”
• Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, assistant professor of English and Asian American studies, University of Connecticut: “Dismissing the ‘now standard’ evaluation of the internment as the ‘result of wartime hysteria and racism,’ Mr. Rothstein offers an allegedly ‘clearer understanding of the prewar Japanese American population’ rooted in familiar characterizations of yellow peril takeovers, perpetual foreign frames, and traitorous subjects. What is especially remarkable and distressing is that Mr. Rothstein manages — quite irresponsibly — to take NYT readers ‘back in time’ to aforementioned ‘wartime hysteria and racism.’”
• Jennifer Ho, associate professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Rothstein fails to account for the fact that mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans did not occur at the site that propelled the U.S. into WWII — Hawaii. Indeed, all reputable scholars of the Japanese American Internment note that it was wartime xenophobia and racism that spurred Executive Order 9066 — an order that never specified ethnic ancestry and that effectively nullified the constitutional rights of every person living on the West Coast during WWII. FDR ordered the military to target Japanese Americans using EO 9066. If that’s not a racial rationale, I’m not sure what is.”