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Response to Review no. 983

I am pleased to commend Rachel Pistol for her excellent review of my book A Tragedy of Democracy. She clearly describes the goals of the work, and identifies most of what I myself consider its important contributions, as well as the present-day lessons to be drawn from the text. Ms. Pistol even proves clairvoyant in one respect. She states that A Tragedy of Democracy highlights the role of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in connection with Japanese Americans. While in fact I discuss Mrs. Roosevelt only briefly in my book, the subject of her wartime actions is of great interest to me, and lies at the center of my current researches.

While I have no cause to complain of my generous treatment by Ms. Pistol, I did want to add some clarification with respect to her opening argument regarding treatment of enemy nationals. It is true that today the United States arbitrarily confines foreign nationals, generally captured outside American shores, whom it declares to be ‘enemy combatants’. However, this is a rather different category from that of ‘enemy aliens’, a group status defined by international law and existing only in time of declared war. (In the United States, where foreign-born Asians were legally barred from naturalization, after Pearl Harbor all Japanese immigrants became enemy nationals by default.) Under the influence of fears heavily informed by racism, the North American governments arbitrarily displaced and dispossessed entire populations composed both of citizens and aliens. In Mexico, the national government did not even bother declaring war on Japan before removing the country’s West Coast Japanese population in early January 1942. Clearly, as Ms. Pistol herself suggests, the central issue is not so much how to treat enemy nationals in war as how to resist government encroachment on the civil rights of all in the guise of national security.

Furthermore, Ms. Pistol seems to suggest that Great Britain, because of its experience interning German males during the First World War, was better able to handle its enemy nationals during the Second World War than was the United States, which had no such experience. Great Britain’s system of examining enemy aliens to determine which to intern or leave alone (‘separating the sheep from the goats’ in Winston Churchill’s piquant phrase) was indeed a comparatively humane and successful one, though it did lead to internment of masses of German Jewish refugees who should have been free of suspicion of working for Nazi Germany, and in some cases their transportation to Canada or Australia. Still, the value of such past experience in shaping policy should not be exaggerated. Certainly neither Canada, which had previously interned thousands of residents of Ukranian ancestry during the First World War, nor Australia, which had interned ethnic Germans during the same period, was thereby restrained from confining ethnic Japanese en masse after Pearl Harbor. Conversely, the United States did not intern German or Italian aliens en masse, despite the mass sinking of American shipping by Nazi submarines during 1942. These facts strongly suggest that racial bias and not inexperience was the crucial determining factor surrounding these official actions.