Friday, November 23, 2012

Fifth Columnists

I am reading Brian Garfield's The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians (1969), and I found a most interesting item on page 8:
Japanese Intelligence was not so good as it might have been, because no Japanese spies in Alaska had communicated with Tokyo for months.  The eight or ten spies had been interned in the States, along with hundreds of innocent Nisei.
Garfield gives no source for this claim, and it is what I consider too popular of a history -- only some items are footnoted.  The fact that Garfield gives a rather exact number "eight or ten spies" does make me suspect that he had some authoritative source for this, perhaps speaking off the record because the information was still classified at the time.  Otherwise I suspect that this would have "some" or similar vague statement about Japanese spies in Alaska.

Michelle Malkin put herself in harm's way several years ago pointing out that information declassified in the 1990s showed that the U.S. government knew that there were some Japanese spies among the Americans of Japanese ancestry in the U.S.  At least, Japanese diplomats referred to them working in defense plants in dispatches back home, and the U.S. had broken the Japanese diplomatic code before the war.

The number was doubtless tiny, compared to the 100,000 or more Japanese citizens or American citizens of Japanese ancestry who were interned as a security risk.  It would have been better if the U.S. government had put more energy into identifying those who were disloyal, instead of locking up everyone -- the vast majority of whom proved their loyalty in spite of this mistreatment.  (Many proved their loyalty in the ultimate way, in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.)

It is also true that there were other motivations for the internment, including a long history of racism driven by unfair practices of Japanese farmers (such as hard work and intense agricultural practices brought from Japan), and more immediate hatred because of Pearl Harbor.  It is possible that these other motivations were actually the larger motivation, especially by the time the internment actually took place.  But to pretend that there was no national security concerns that played a part in the decision is just dishonest.

UPDATE: unfair practices "such as hard work and intense agricultural practices" is sarcasm.  Have we really so fully reached the Obamanation that I have to be explicit about this?  Oh what a tragedy.


asdf said...

"... a long history of racism driven by unfair practices of Japanese farmers (such as hard work..."

Not sure how hard work is unfair, or were you being sarcastic?

John said...


You might also be aware of the "Niʻihau Incident (or Battle of Niʻihau) which occurred on December 7, 1941, when Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi crash-landed his Zero on the Hawaiian island of Niʻihau after participating in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The island's Native Hawaiian residents were initially unaware of the attack, but apprehended Nishikaichi when the gravity of the situation became apparent. Nishikaichi then sought and received the assistance of three locals of Japanese descent in overcoming his captors, finding weapons, and taking several hostages. In the end Nishikaichi was killed by Niʻihauan Ben Kanahele, who was wounded in the process, and one of Nishikaichi's confederates, Yoshio Harada, committed suicide.
The incident and the actions of Nishikaichi's abettors contributed to a sense in the American military that every Japanese, even those who were American citizens or otherwise thought loyal to the United States, might aid Japan, and ultimately may have influenced the decision to intern Japanese Americans through World War II. The actions of the Niʻihauans were widely celebrated in the United States; Ben Kanahele was decorated for his part in stopping the incident." (shamelessly copied from Wikipedia)

Another reason for the internment.



Clayton said...

Yes, I first became aware of the Ni'ihau incident from reading Bill Hosokawa's Nisei: The Quiet Americans.

Anon Y. Mous said...

intense agricultural practices

I get that you were using sarcasm, and I get the sarcasm when you say "hard work", but what did you mean by "intense agricultural practices"? Extremely vigorous hoeing? :)

Rich Rostrom said...

The mass internment of Japanese-Americans had essentially no security justification.

In the immediate wake of Pearl Harbor, a substantial number of Japanese-Americans were interned who were known security risks. These were mostly Kibei: American-born ethnic Japanese who had gone to Japan for high school or college education, which included military training.

This group, which numbered at most a few thousand, was interned in December 1941. IIRC the FBI supervised this, having been responsible for tracking potential disloyalists and collaborators with Japanese diplomat-spies, and they considered the job done. In fact, J. Edgar Hoover considered the later internment orders a slur on his agency's competence.

However, General John Dewitt, head of Western Defense Command, was not satisfied. There were no acts of sabotage, but Dewitt insisted that this was evidence that those sneaky Japanese were planning such acts.

Under pressure from DeWitt and other hysterics, FDR issued Order 9066 which authorized military commanders to designate "military areas" from which "any and all persons may be excluded". Dewitt promptly declared the entire west coast such a region, and (entirely on his own) ordered all persons of Japanese descent "excluded". Then, under the rubric of "provid[ing]... food, shelter, and other accommodations...", Dewitt had all Japanese-Americans in the region forcibly confined in intermment camps.

The internments began in late March and continued into May - five months after Pearl Harbor, during which no evidence of espionage or sabotage by any Japanese-American was found.

As to Malkin's reference to the declassified messsages from Japanese diplomat-spies... I've read them, and they aren't evidence of anything.

The messages are very general claims by the spies that they have recruited (or intend to recruit) sources, including Japanese-Americans, blacks, Mexican-Americans, German-Americans, and even Communists (all considered "disaffected"). They claim that these sources work in defense plants and military bases.

None of the sources are identified. None of the target plants and bases are identified. No intelligence from any of these sources was ever reported.

In short, they aren't evidence of any actual success by the Japanese spies, and provide no justification whatever for Dewitt's actions.

Clayton said...

Actually, Malkin points out that the names of some of the sources are identified, and have Japanese names.

I do not doubt that reactions were extreme on this, and some of the motivations were not security related. But well into 1942, the U.S. had bases east of the Cascades and Sierras to carry out air raids on the West Coast, since they believed that a Japanese invasion might be unstoppable except at the mountain passes. It seems incredible today, but the experience in Singapore, French Indochina, and the Philippines had created a perception of the Japanese Army as unstoppable--and there were definitely fifth columnists in China and the Philippines. The reasons why Japanese immigrated to America were very different from the reasons that they immigrated to those other countries, but I can see why in a time of panic, there was a willingness to take extreme measures, both for national security and racism reasons.

Chris said...

I'm reading the same book, and while I concur regarding the distressing lack of footnotes it is a good read!

Windy Wilson said...

As to the government interning all Japanese Americans in the continental west, I'm not surprised. Think back in school when one or two wrong doers who were not ratted out resulted in punishment of everyone in the class. "ok, class, since we don't know who put the tack on my chair, the whole class will sit on the detention bench at recess."

Anonymous said...

None of the sources are identified.

Generally, it's bad practice to identify your agents in communications that might be intercepted and decrypted. You give them cover names. Also, you don't generally describe in detail where they work or live, as that is just as bad as naming them.

/Former SIGINT weenie.

Dennis said...

Having not read the book I can only guess its content, but if the story of the Aleutians is discussed nothing but racism could explain the form of slavery that was imposed on that people. It is terrible the things our government did to American citizens.

Clayton said...

Slavery imposed on the Aleuts? The book discusses World War II.