Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The daring night raid that vindicated Japanese Americans

FEB 12, 2017

In the wake of Pearl Harbour, a secret intelligence report could have stopped the mass internment

Andrea Pitzer

In spring 1941, months before the bombing of Pearl Harbour, a team led by US naval intelligence officer Kenneth Ringle broke into the Japanese consulate in Los Angeles.

One man stayed downstairs to guard the elevator while the rest snuck upstairs using skeleton keys to make their way to the back rooms. They brought along a safecracker - a convicted felon sprung for one night to help them - as well as local policemen and FBI agents, who set up patrols outside during the operation. Once the safe was open, Ringle's crew photographed its contents item by item, putting everything back in place before leaving the building.

Though the United States had not yet entered the war, it had launched espionage efforts with an eye towards the possibility. The Navy had chosen Ringle to assess the Japanese threat in 1940 because he had previously lived and worked in Tokyo and was one of only a handful of US sailors who could speak Japanese. He had gone on to build a network of contacts on the West Coast, determining which cultural organisations were harmless and which might be dangerous.

As a result of the break-in, Ringle made two key discoveries. The first was that he now had the consulate's list of agents and secret codes. The second was knowing the Japanese government distrusted the Nisei, the generation born in the US to Japanese immigrants, and was thus unlikely to make use of them as spies.

Ringle's discoveries that night should have been powerful enough to prevent the internment of Japanese Americans during the war. But, in wartime, his knowledge would prove an insufficient weapon against manufactured hysteria and deference to the Army.

After the devastation of Pearl Harbour, the chief of naval operations assigned Ringle to write a report on the loyalty of US residents of Japanese ancestry. He delivered a 10-page report six weeks after the attack stating that "the entire 'Japanese Problem' has been magnified out of its true proportion", largely due to racial prejudice. "(The) removal and internment in concentration camps of all citizens and residents of Japanese extraction..." he wrote, would be "not only unwarranted but very unwise".

It was an insightful, detailed assessment. And nearly all of its recommendations would be ignored.

The story of the detention of nearly 120,000 residents of Japanese descent during World War II has become a mythic narrative, giving Americans the impression that it was an inevitable error born of simple ignorance and fear. Acting in haste after Pearl Harbour, the story goes, US officials had no idea that concentration camps would be unnecessary and counterproductive.

But, in fact, senior Cabinet members and the president himself had accurate information, and some did not favour internment.


Long before the attack, the federal government had developed a plan for the treatment of enemy aliens in the event of war: Targeted individuals would be rounded up and detained by the FBI, then provided a hearing before a review board, which would determine whether they should be given liberty without restriction, liberty on parole under the supervision of a sponsor, or continued detention. Just three days before Pearl Harbour, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt - who also held the official position of assistant director for the Office of Civilian Defence - announced that non- citizens with "no criminal nor anti- American record" had nothing to fear in the event of war and would not be interned.

In the wake of the bombing, the government stuck to its plan at first. Ringle worked with FBI agents coordinating arrest squads in the hours after the attack, capturing those known or suspected to be spies from his lists. Restrictions and extra guards were put into place in sensitive military areas.

But other voices spread disinformation. A week later, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who had advocated internment long before Pearl Harbour, accused Japanese Americans in Hawaii of betraying the nation, announcing without evidence that outside of Europe, "the most effective Fifth Column work of the entire war was done in Hawaii".

On Dec 19, the man put in charge of the Western Defence Command, Lieutenant-General John DeWitt, first declared his intention to exile all Japanese Americans over the age of 13 from the West Coast. But he initially baulked at his subordinates' request to detain the entire Japanese American community, saying: "An American citizen, after all, is an American citizen."

As he worked on his report after the bombing, Ringle had the support of presidential adviser Curtis Munson, who advocated a measured response. The Washington Post concluded near the end of January that "the alien programme is working well", noting that only those actually suspected of espionage had been arrested.

But in the background, other dramas were unfolding. US Attorney- General Francis Biddle closed the Mexican and Canadian borders to all incoming Japanese individuals, and authorised raids of Japanese immigrant homes without warrants. In the days after Pearl Harbour, many Japanese Americans lost their jobs and lived in fear of violence or arrest. It was particularly bitter that white Americans accused Japanese immigrants of disloyalty, when US court decisions had universally barred them from receiving citizenship for decades.

By end-January 1942, two factions had emerged. The Roberts Commission, appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to investigate Pearl Harbour, delivered its report on Jan 23, making vague claims of "Japanese spies". It did not distinguish the nature of the spying or whether it was committed by US citizens or aliens. Yet rumours of espionage were seized on by opportunists to inflame prejudice across the country. The governor of California, Culbert Olson, announced that his state's residents "don't trust the Japanese, none of them". In mid-February, journalist Walter Lippmann argued in a column that the lack of any real sabotage by Japanese residents along the coast to date was actually evidence of a future planned attack.

Pushed by zealous staff members, DeWitt requested control in early February over all citizens and aliens in zones set up under his command. That spring, he would reverse his statement about an American citizen being an American citizen, explaining that: "A Jap is a Jap."

Meanwhile, Ringle's supporters pressed the case for restraint. On his side were crucial Cabinet members: Despite harsh measures taken against some non-citizens under his authorisation, Attorney-General Biddle backed measures focused on aliens rather than citizens. Even FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man not known for moderation, agreed that calls for universal internment rose out of political pressure rather than necessity.

Ringle turned in his assessment just days after the Roberts Commission filed its report, and it appeared FDR agreed with Ringle's supporters. But with Navy top brass unwilling to oppose the Army, by the time Ringle's assessment wound its way to the White House three weeks later, public outrage and DeWitt's demands had interceded.

Though Eleanor Roosevelt still stood against internment, her husband ultimately sided with DeWitt. On Feb 19, 1942, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, sealing the fate of not just Japanese aliens but also of some 70,000 Japanese American US citizens. The Ringle Report had failed to block the Army's drive for mass internment. But it would play a role in post-war events.


The shift towards internment began with the division of the exclusion zone into segments, in which Japanese American residents were given as little as two days' notice to prepare for departure to temporary detention centres - mostly improvised camps at fairgrounds and racetracks. The War Relocation Authority was soon established, and before the end of 1942, purpose- built camps had been set up in isolated locations around the country, from Arkansas to Wyoming.

As Japanese Americans were forced from the West Coast, they had to sell their businesses and belongings, while the community argued over whether or not to protest. Nisei journalist James Omura condemned the policies of relocation and internment, drawing the wrath of Japanese American cultural organisations that did not want to appear disloyal to the US. Other Japanese Americans launched legal challenges to the curfew and exclusion orders that barred them from their rights as citizens. The most famous among them, Korematsu versus the United States, became the landmark Supreme Court case on the question of wartime internment.

When Korematsu was heard in 1944, a government attorney alerted US Solicitor-General Charles Fahy to the existence of the Ringle Report, noting that failure to acknowledge it in his filings to the Supreme Court "might approximate the suppression of evidence". But Fahy ignored this warning and directly indicated to the court that all US government and military assessments were unanimous in support of internment.

The Supreme Court expressed discomfort with mass internment's failure to address individual guilt or innocence, but was prone to defer to the executive branch and military leaders in wartime. Unaware of the additional evidence which had been withheld, the court accepted the Army's argument of the "military necessity" of detention.

The public and the court would not learn of the Solicitor-General's omission until decades later, when a reporter found material in archived files. By then, Ringle was dead, with a funeral wreath sent to his widow by the Japanese American community in honour of his efforts to protect them.

It wasn't until the 1980s that his report, which should have settled the question of universal internment, became the central piece of evidence used by the original plaintiffs to demand justice in court. And it would take three more decades until acting US Solicitor-General Neal Katyal wrote a public repudiation in 2011 of his predecessor's actions in Korematsu.

If the Ringle Report could not prevent the tragedies that had been suffered - the degradation of US citizens, the financial losses and mass dislocation - its reappearance did at least set the historical record straight.

Andrea Pitzer is the author of The Secret History Of Vladimir Nabokov and is currently writing One Long Night, a century-long history of concentration camps. This article first appeared in Zocalo Public Square, a project of the Centre for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and a not-for-profit "ideas exchange" that blends live events and humanities journalism.

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