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KEEPER OF CONCENTRATION CAMPS: DILLON S. MYER AND AMERICAN RACISM by Richard Drinnon (University of California; $24.95; 339 pp., illustrated)

January 18, 1987|Peter Irons | Irons' book "Justice Delayed," on politics and the Supreme Court, will be published by Free Press

Memories fade after 40 years, but some sights and sounds cannot be forgotten. During the night of Nov. 4, 1943, about 20 young men, Japanese-American inmates of the wartime concentration camp at Tule Lake, Calif., were brutally beaten by their jailers. Blood and hair covered the walls of the improvised torture chamber. One inmate, Tom Kobayashi, was literally brained with a baseball bat. Clifford Payne, a "security" officer, proudly related to inquiring FBI agents after this night of carnage that "I knocked my Jap down with my fist" and beat his head on the floor.

I recently talked with two doctors who tried to treat the bloody and bruised victims. Dr. John T. Mason, who described his revulsion at the assaults to the FBI in 1943, now lives in rural Tennessee and looks back on the wartime incarceration of 120,000 Japanese-Americans as "one of the most shameful things this country ever did." Dr. Paul Yamauchi, an inmate surgeon, remembers that he and Mason were ordered by military police with machine guns "not to touch or treat" the injured men.

This bloody episode forms the dramatic centerpiece of Richard Drinnon's biography of Dillon S. Myer, the "Keeper of Concentration Camps" for two of America's outcast minorities, Japanese-Americans and Native Americans. Myer, a faceless, gray bureaucrat, ran the War Relocation Authority (1942-1946) and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1950-1953). His career began and ended in government service, and Myer became a master of memoranda and bureaucratic politics.

Drinnon, a professor of history at Bucknell University, builds his account of the Tule Lake beatings from FBI records he dug up with the Freedom of Information Act. The records are revealing, but Drinnon stopped with them and did not track down or interview any of the participants.

Drinnon quotes Myer as assuring ACLU lawyers who were outraged by the beatings that a "thorough investigation" had turned up "absolutely no evidence" of undue force. Myer cajoled ACLU director Roger Baldwin into agreement that "rumors" of beatings "are untrue." Drinnon links Myer, Baldwin and compliant leaders of the Japanese-American Citizens League, who denounced the beaten men as "troublemakers," in a "triple alliance" that betrayed Japanese-Americans and ignored their constitutional rights.

Drinnon has a larger and deeper purpose than recounting the life of a dull, spineless bureaucrat. Myer serves for Drinnon as the occasion for "my report on the banality of evil, U.S. style." Implicit in this reference to Hannah Arendt's chilling portrayal of another gray bureaucrat, Adolf Eichmann, is the hint of an exploration of the similarities and differences in the American and German treatment of despised minorities.

But Drinnon shies away from comparative analysis; he cites Arendt's book in a footnote and avoids any discussion of the German experience. Perhaps he felt that any Eichmann-Myer comparison would make Myer look more respectable, compared to a true engineer of evil. Drinnon places Myer, who began government service as a county agricultural agent and who rose through the federal ranks as a protege of Milton Eisenhower in the Agriculture Department, squarely in the mold of New Deal liberals whose roots lay in Progressive-era racism and scientism. Myer's drives to "relocate"" the Japanese-Americans and "terminate" the Native American reservations flowed from progressive, not reactionary, ideology. Behind that liberal impulse was the subtle racism of the assimilationist, "Americanization" campaign that linked the eras of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.

Drinnon is bound to raise some hackles in labeling as "concentration camps" the barbed-wire compounds into which Japanese-Americans were herded at gunpoint. He chided me in print for avoiding the term in "Justice at War," my 1983 book on the internment cases that reached the Supreme Court. Many people still balk at any semantic linking of American "relocation centers" to German death camps. Certainly the differences are obvious. But in historical context, Drinnon has aptly used the correct words; both Myer and F.D.R. applied the term to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans.

Myer emerges from this book almost as a cipher. He lived on paper, not in person. He did the bidding of superiors; F.D.R. and Harry Truman are the real villains in Drinnon's mind. But the numbing detail of his account is its strength. Racism in America is more institutional than personal, and Myer did more harm to more people than Bull Connor and his dogs. It is the gray bureaucrats, Drinnon suggests, who pose the greatest danger to our society.

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