American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II

By Howard, John | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II


Howard, John, The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II. By Eric L. Muller. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 216. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, $27.50.)

After eviction from their homes, expulsion from the West Coast, detention in makeshift compounds, and indiscriminate incarceration in ten longer-term concentration camps, Japanese Americans in 1943 were then questioned about their national allegiance-and were fully expected to demonstrate it. This ludicrous exercise and its many related absurdities are deftly examined by legal scholar Eric Muller, who exercises calm, sober restraint throughout. As his insightful monograph shows, this American Inquisition necessarily revealed a great deal more about the intentions of interrogators than the loyalties of captives

Muller's focus, therefore, is on the "loyalty bureaucracy," the four federal entities that assessed tens of thousands of cases (p. 2). The Western Defense Command (WDC), which had ordered removal, judged any potential return. In the interim, the Provost Marshal General's Office (PMGO) weighed suitability for employment in sensitive war industries; the War Relocation Authority (WRA) determined whether inmates could be released at all or were to be further segregated-that is, isolated at the reconfigured Tule Lake camp for so-called disloyals. For a time, the interdepartmental Japanese American Joint Board (JAJB) attempted to coordinate the efforts of all three.

Historians have long appreciated the significance of the federal government's ill-conceived registration program-"by any measure," Muller suggests, "a disaster" (p. 36). The form filled out by all adult inmates, particularly questions twenty-seven and twenty-eight about military service and national loyalty, divided households and multiplied dissent from behind barbed wire. What became of the forms-how they were used and misused-makes for fascinating reading. Muller maneuvers through the mountains of midlevel managerial memoranda to reveal farcical systems administered by agencies often at odds with one another.

For the WDC, the forms were unnecessary and potentially embarrassing, for "if the military now took the position that the loyalty of Japanese Americans could be [individually] ascertained, the public would want to know why" costly WRA camps had been established for wholesale confinement, "rather than screening the Japanese American population in the summer of 1942" (p. 33). Still, the questionnaires were answered, and the PMGO devised a point system to assess them. Since "perceived cultural assimilation [w]as a proxy" for loyalty, a second-generation birthright citizen of the United States would be awarded two points if "a Christian," for example, but deducted two points if able to read, write, and speak "Japanese good [sic]" (p. …

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