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In Defense of Internment by Michelle Malkin

December 30th, 2004 · 10 Comments

As I said I would earlier this year, I read Michelle Malkin’s book, In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror, as soon as it arrived for me at the library last month. I particularly wanted to read it due to the controversy in our community concerning WWII history curriculum, which also caught the attention of NPR’s All Things Considered a few weeks ago.

A native of the Northwest, specifically Seattle, I grew up reading Monica Itoi Sone’s Nisei Daughter alongside Shakespeare and Robert Frost in seventh grade lit class. Now I live on Bainbridge Island, the first place where those of Japanese ancestry were forced to leave their homes. A national memorial is being planned here on the shore across from the ferry dock ( gate picture). The thought that the internment camps could be justified is a foreign one to me, yet I figured I should read the book and examine the ideas for myself.

I don’t have enough knowledge of history to critique the accuracy of her claims. But as a reader, I can summarize the arguments and state my impressions. The book was surprisingly thin, less than 170 pages, if I remember the number correctly, followed by an intense appendix of evidence, 100 pages or so.

Others wanted to read the book so back to the library it went. I’m left with my notes, quotes and memories to post. So I admit that since I don’t have the book with me, I may be making errors.

Michelle Malkin’s main points seemed to be along these lines…

1. Japanese cables intercepted and decoded by Americans (MAGIC cables) revealed spy networks of Japanese living in America, in strategic locations.These cables combined with events such as Japanese attacks on the West Coast proved the need for evacuation. The fact that Canada and Mexico acted in similar ways as the United States, removing those of Japanese ancestry from the West Coast, also confirmed the truth of the perceived danger.

2. Others were interned also. Germans and Italians were taken to the camps. Yet it wasn’t practical to evacuate all Americans of German or Italian descent (numbering in the millions) from the East Coast. Also much of the difficulty of camp life came from conflicts within the Japanese community as it did from conflicts with guards, according to Malkin. At one point (wish I had caught the quote) the author described the camps in a way that made them sound like pleasant places to be. I think, if I remember correctly, some of the Japanese in America asked to be taken to the camps, requesting internment so they would be safe there.

3. The decisions the United States government made decades later to declare the camps a mistake and issue reparations to those who were there involved bias and bureaucracy. Loopholes and exceptions were created. Testimony given in the committees was tilted in a certain direction, and little (or none at all? – can’t quite remember) military evidence was presented. It was also unjust, since Germans and Italians were not compensated for their time in the camps.
Michelle Malkin in her book often pointed out that the publicly-used figure of 120,000 in the camps was inaccurate. I didn’t see why the difference between 112,000 and an estimate of 120,000 was so critical to her argument. It was as if she wanted to use small errors to prove that larger ones were being made.

My main concern with Malkin’s book was her logic. At least once, while trying to prove the the illogic of the opposing perspective, she seemed to jump from one plausible situation to something ridiculous, making wild extrapolations. Some of the words she chose, such as describing Americans as an insatiable culture of blabbermouths seemed excessive and distracting. Perhaps she was trying to prove her point with a bit of sarcasm, but I would have appreciated a closer inspection of the facts, a lengthier book, and an even tone to her writing.

I did appreciate learning new information, such as the those of European descent who were also in the camps. In my schooling I don’t recall learning about the German and Italian internees. Years have passed since I last sat in a classroom and I’m not sure what I remember any more from what I was taught by teacher or text. But I thought that this was the first time I had heard of Japanese attacks on the West Coast and Hawaii.

Michelle Malkin’s application of World War II principles to our current times could have been expanded into further chapters. I would have liked to seen her perspective on Ian Spiers’ situation, for example (note: this does appear on her blog).

What I am wondering, after reading her book, is this question: If the internments during World War II were defensible and justified, then what should be done in our country where we find ourselves now? My initial-automatic reaction after reading Malkin’s book was to feel suspicious of immigrants. Perhaps that wasn’t a logical thought, but certainly after reading the examples she gave in the first chapters, one would not want to trust those who have come to our country recently. Would it be justified to intern Muslims? Recent immigrants? Those of the same ethnic background as the terrorists? What rights do we give up in war time? Which civil liberties should be sacrificed? What is required for our nation’s safety and security? What is necessary to preserve the Republic? to borrow Malkin’s phrase. However, I think that sorting people according to religious identity would be more difficult than using racial identity.

During my previous post on the local curriculum controversy, someone in the comments posted a link to this site Muller and Robinson on Malkin which critiques the book. I was also sent a link to this recent Salon editorial by Stanley I. Kutler. Forgotten history lessons Indefinite internment of prisoners of war is an invitation to abuse and humiliation. Why are we repeating our horrendous mistake of the past?

Through my recent readings on history, I know that at least during World War II and the Civil War, citizen’s rights were restricted in the name of preserving and defending the nation. Malkin believes that in this time and place where we Americans find ourselves, we should be willing to let go of our individual way of life for the greater good of the nation.

… civil liberties, however important, are not sacrosanct….In an age of unyielding terror coupled with weapons of mass destruction, we must steel ourselves for the possibility of a long-lasting reduction in the overall level of individual liberty we have heretofore possessed.

Quotes from the book:

In the camps…
“Ultra-nationalist hoodlums preyed on young girls and attacked elderly residents”. page 110

“the panel’s nationwide hearings were an untold embarrassment.” page 114

“Today it seems absurd to imagine that the Japanese might have invaded California. This seemed not at all absurd at the time. in 1988 we scarcely can imagine risks of sabotage and espionage. Reasonable men vividly perceived them then.” James J. Kilpatrick quote on page 118

Japanese enemy aliens individually arrested by the FBI immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack received compensation. But their German and Italian counterparts did not. German and Italian internees and their families who lived side-by-side with their Japanese counterparts in Justice Department-run camps were also denied reparations. page 120

As MAGIC cables and other intelligence revealed, similar spy rings operated in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. page 126

…Bu the evacuation issue was discussed in at least one cabinet meeting on January 30, 1942; the War Department, Justice Department, and the Provost Marshal General’s Office, among others, devoted countless hours to studying the situation; and the decision, far from being thoughtless, was based in large part on remarkable intelligence….with Japanese and German submarines looming off our coastlines and Axis forces advancing around the world, it is not hard to understand why FDR wanted decisions made quickly. page 127

Today, in our complacently open society, which has grown accustomed and entitled to knowing everything about anything – from the type of undergarments former President Bill Clinton wears to the location of pop star Britney Spears’ tattoos – the notion of maintaining secrecy for national security reasons is alien and discomforting to many. Even after the September 11 attacks, we remain an insatiable culture of blabbermouths. page 160

In the post-September 11 world, the belief that civil liberties must never be compromised has become a dangerous bugaboo. But in times of crisis, civil rights often yield to security in order to ensure the nation’s survival. What is legal and what is necessary to preserve the Republic often diverge. page 163

“But how will we protect civil liberties in a war without end?”
One answer is that civil liberties, however important, are not sacrosanct….In an age of unyielding terror coupled with weapons of mass destruction, we must steel ourselves for the possibility of a long-lasting reduction in the overall level of individual liberty we have heretofore possessed. page 164

Tags: books

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 paul // Dec 30, 2004 at 8:04 am

    I’m glad you read it, not me: I don’t know if I could have finished it.

    I haven’t read or thought much about internment, being from the East Coast, but on its face, it seems unAmerican. Nothing I’ve heard or read from Maglalang (her real name, by the way) suggests there is a defense other than hysteria. I met someone this past summer whose parents lived in rural Nevada, too far from the camps or cities to be interned, but they did have to deal with vandalism and attacks on their livestock by locals, emboldened by the national mood.

    Just the phrase “the camps” gives me the creeps.

  • 2 Rayne // Dec 30, 2004 at 9:01 am

    Thanks for reading and sharing, Julie. Every time I hear about Malkin’s justifications for internment, I think of Daniel Inouye – Senator Daniel Inouye. I cannot help but think how demeaning internment was to those who came to this land to participate in democracy, only to have it removed from them. Or those who were born here, like Inouye, raised in a democratic society, interned only because of their heritage without just cause. As a nation we’ve been asking ourselves at what point does the Constitution end; Malkin feels it clearly has limits. But is that a flaw in her fundamental understanding of the Constitution? The Constitution, after all, was not intended to place limits on people, but on the government that served the people. What is the limit of government?

    In the 1940’s we lacked intelligence technologies we have today, yet we could have simply done a better job at intelligence instead of internment. Today there is no excuse; 9/11 clearly showed us that our government could do the work of protecting citizens from a handful of individuals, but simply failed to do so. Rounding up entire groups of a particular race, ethnicity or national origin will not protect us from repeating these errors; if anything, it will simply compound the magnitude of errors. Which brings me to the other, real threat of terror: how would internment have protected us from Timothy McVeigh? or the still-real threat of other, similar terrorists among us, like Krar?


  • 3 Paul // Dec 30, 2004 at 11:07 am

    Internment was really nothing more than xenophobia and racism: as noted, German-Americans and Italian-Americans were not interned and Nisei soldiers fought as bravely as any for the Allied side.

    If this were written by someone less hysterical than Maglalang, it might have more credibility: from what I read of and about her, this book is offered in hopes of breaking into the inner circles of rightwing commentators. Who else would find its views compatible with their own?

  • 4 Ernest Prabhakar // Dec 30, 2004 at 11:50 am

    As a second-generaiton immigrant from India, internment — and racial profiling — fills me with disgust as well. Yet, I do think their advocates — despite their xenophobia and incompetence — raise a question that deserves answering: how much civil liberty is too much? Should we open our borders to anyone (as some Californians appear to advocate)? Do we allow carefully selected foriegners in, but refuse to track any of them? Is pervasive surveillance better than wholesale internment?

    In the end, I agree that internment is a lazy solution — and self-destructive, in that it requires de-humanizing others, and thus ultimately ourselves. But, we shouldn’t allow our disgust and fear of iternment and tyranny to justify avoiding the question of what are appropriate ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones. After all, fear and disgust are what led to bad solutions like internment in the first place.

    The only way out, I believe, is for people who hate both extremes to propose better solutions that reflect a deeper understanding of what makes for true liberty. Alas, such proposals (and understanding) seem few and fear between.

    Thanks for taking the time to consider both sides, Julie.

  • 5 Julie // Jan 1, 2005 at 12:06 am

    Other posts linking to this one:


  • 6 Rayne // Jan 3, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Julie, did you happen to see this post at Eschaton regarding Rep. Robert Matsui?


    Germaine, in light of this post and topic.

  • 7 Julie // Jan 4, 2005 at 1:07 am

    Thanks, Rayne. At breakfast this morning I was sad to read in the paper the news of Representative Robert Matsui’s death. The post you linked from Atrios is partcularly poignant. Robert Matsui’s story speaks truth and brings tears to me. Thanks for pointing it out.

  • 8 annie // Jan 4, 2005 at 10:34 am

    I’m sure plenty of freedom and liberty quotes are going around this debate, but here’s one that the NPR story led me to find:

    “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.”
    C.S. Lewis [American Rifleman, December 1991, pg. 14]

    Thanks so much for taking the time to summarize this book, I’m grateful for the exposure. Maslow held that experience is the true teacher. I’m betting that your family’s experience of the debate is very educational.

  • 9 Michelle Malkin // Jan 19, 2005 at 4:31 am


    The controversy about how Japanese internment should be taught continued last week on Bainbridge Island, Wash.: New and improved? Not everyone thought so as a revised curriculum for sixth-graders on Japanese internment was presented Thursday to the Bai…

  • 10 Michelle Malkin // Jan 19, 2005 at 4:32 am


    The controversy about how Japanese internment should be taught continued last week on Bainbridge Island, Wash.: New and improved? Not everyone thought so as a revised curriculum for sixth-graders on Japanese internment was presented Thursday to the Bai…