The banality of evil

The relocation of Japanese Americans

By William Wetherall

A review of
Richard Drinnon
Keeper of Concentration Camps
(Dillon S. Myer and American Racism)
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987
xxviii, 339 pages, hardcover

A version of this article appeared as
"Behind the high fences" in
Far Eastern Economic Review, 136(20), 14 May 1987, page 63

An earlier version appeared as
"The Banality of Evil" in
Asahi Evening News, 23 January 1987, page 7

Blue phrases were cut from the FEER version.
Purple phrases were added to the FEER version.
Other phrasing may also differ from the AEN version.

See DeWitt's Final Report, 1942 for the best example of the "banality of evil" that characterized both the civilian and the military leadership and bureaucracies of the United States government during the Pacific War.

Japanese Americans have something in common with American Indians, according to Bucknell University history professor Richard Drinnon.

It is a big country. After the European invaders had overrun much of it, they attempted between 1824 and 1844 to make it literally a white man's country -- save for the Afro-American chattels -- by removing more than 100,000 Native Americans from the East and relocating them westward in what was to be, as long as the waters flow, Indian Territory. A century later those "trails of Tears constituted the prototypes for the removal of more than 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans from the West Coast and, in a reversal of direction, their relocation eastward in the intermountain states and beyond.

During World War II, about 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, nearly two-thirds of them Americans by birth, were forced to move from their California, Oregon and Washington homes to 10 "relocation camps" in remote parts of the US. These camps were called "our worst wartime mistake" by a journalist writing in 1945. A former interior secretary later said that the government's effort to "terminate" American Indians, by eliminating them through total assimilation, was "our worst peacetime mistake."

Drinnon disputes such attempts to make the treatment of American Indians and Japanese Americans seem "a careless miscalculation, inadvertence, or aberration" through this study of the life of "professional remover and relocator" Dillon Seymour Myer (1891-1982). Myer, a career bureaucrat, received the nation's Medal of Merit for his "successful" directing of the relocation centres from their opening in 1942 to their closing in 1946. He served as commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs from 1950-1953.

In 1945 Myer called the relocation of Japanese Americans "an exciting adventure in the democratic method." In 1953 he advised the incoming secretary of the interior to take "a strong hand" with the Native Americans, as he himself had during the three years he attacked tribal rights and identities through a policy known as "termination".

Drinnon contends that the Japanese American internment camp and the American Indian termination policies "had deep roots in our traditional racism that made them [like Myer] as American as the Stars and Stripes." He thus traces the institutional threads which tied the Japanese-hating 1940s to the Indian-hating past.

A case in point is California, where hordes of whites had rushed when gold was discovered there in 1849. The Modoc, one of 100 native tribes in a state first "settled" by the Spanish, learned "that his life was not worth much and that he had no rights the white man was bound to respect." Following the Modoc War of 1872-1873, the Modoc patriot Kintpuash, or Captain Jack, was executed by hanging and buried. His body was soon "dug up, embalmed, and exhibited at carnivals before being shipped to the US Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C.

"For understanding the historical reach of the later terror at Tule Lake," Drinnon continues, "it matters that the most infamous of the WRA [War Relocation Authority] camps was on what had been Modoc land." During World War II, Tule Lake was the site of a relocation camp mainly for Japanese Americans who Myer called "trouble-makers" and "agitators" -- by which he meant those who had not given the desired answers on a special loyalty questionnaire.

Drinnon believes that Myer's biography offers important insights into the grey, dull character of American racism. "Normality personified, Myer was emphatically not a monster and not even an interesting villain and therein lies a difficulty." To wit, how to detach "the man from the similarly colored background to which he cleaved" and then to establish his "responsibility for his actions."

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were

easily identifiable villains of stature commensurate with their crimes against humanity. No longer the transgressions of exceptionally cruel individuals, evil has been bureaucratised by the 20th century state and made the charge of relatively faceless administrators, small in character and comprehension. In the West, in the East, and in the Third World, natty figures in suits or uniforms have carried out monstrous suppressions, uprootings, and scatterings without entering the pages of history as striking despots.

As head of the relocation camps and then of Indian affairs,

Myer was director and commissioner of twin calamities. His career enables us to bring together vast bodies of evidence on the treatment of Native Americans and of Japanese Americans -- materials too often studied separately -- and trace these to their common matrix.

Drinnon claims that "racism" is difficult to define. He then defines it as "habitual practice by a people of treating, feeling and viewing physically dissimilar peoples -- identified as such by skin colour and other shared hereditary characteristics -- as less than persons."

Such emphasis on physical differences serves little purpose. The same visceral contempt is commonly expressed in ethnic discrimination between members of the same nominal "race" in Drinnon's biologically-limited sense of the word.

This critical book is not a merciless attack on Myer as a racist individual, but is instead a well-documented analysis of how racism has been expressed in US domestic policy by ordinary civil servants who have done wrong while personally convinced they were doing good. Drinnon believes that his study confirms Hannah Arendt's insights into "the banality of evil".

But is also proves that new flesh can be put on an old skeleton in America's immigrant closet: the wartime camps for citizens whose only crime was to be of Japanese ancestry. And it is timely, as Japan-US relations start to chill again. Trade friction, and Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's remark that Japan is a more "intelligent society" than the US because the latter has Hispanic and Black minorities, have brought Americans of Japanese descent an undeserved backlash from compatriots of all colours who mistake them for the "enemy" in Japan.