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Posthumous book is based on intercepted wartime communications with Japan.

A Provocative Defense of America's WWII Internment Camps

March 07, 2001|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Among the most heartbreaking moments in American history was the mass arrest and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese American men, women and children at the outbreak of World War II. Today, more than 50 years later, the rationale given by the U.S. government at the time--the threat of espionage and sabotage in support of the Japanese war effort--seems paranoid, if not plain phony. But David D. Lowman, author of "MAGIC: The Untold Story of U.S. Intelligence and the Evacuation of Japanese Residents From the West Coast During WWII" (Athena Press, $29.95, 400 pages), is willing to argue that the government was right all along.

Lowman's provocative study is based on a top-secret wartime intelligence project with the code name "MAGIC," a remarkable code-breaking operation that allowed U.S. intelligence analysts to intercept and decipher messages that passed between Japan and its diplomatic outposts around the world in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and throughout the war. His review of the intercepted message traffic and other declassified intelligence documents, many of them reproduced in facsimile, prompts him to conclude that the internment order was justified by urgent security concerns.

"Recently declassified MAGIC intelligence . . . clearly supports President Roosevelt's controversial wartime decision to issue Executive Order No. 9066, which served as the authority to evacuate more than 112,00 residents of Japanese descent from the West Coast of the United States at the beginning of World War II," argues Lowman, a former official of the National Security Agency, in his posthumously published book. "In addition to MAGIC, the president had available to him alarming assessments from the U.S. intelligence community which reported large-scale disloyalty, espionage and potential sabotage by U.S. residents of Japanese ancestry."

One especially inflammatory message, for example, was sent by a Japanese intelligence operative in Los Angeles to Tokyo on May 9, 1941. "We have already established contacts with absolutely reliable Japanese in the San Pedro and San Diego area, who will keep a close watch on all shipments of airplanes and other war materials, and report the amounts and destinations of such shipments," reads the deciphered message. "We also have connections with our second generations working in airplane plants for intelligence purposes."

But it is possible to read the MAGIC intercepts and come away with an entirely different impression of the evidence. All that Lowman is able to prove is that a few Japanese intelligence agents with high hopes and active imaginations proposed to enlist Japanese Americans in the imperial war effort, but there is nothing here that proves they actually succeeded in doing so.

Indeed, the same operative who sent the "smoking gun" message of May 9, 1941, concedes that there are other Japanese "whom we can't trust completely" and proposes to "make use of white persons and Negroes." Still other deciphered messages suggest the recruitment of "communists, Negroes, labor union members and anti-Semites." And yet it was only the Japanese and Japanese Americans--and, significantly, virtually all of them on the West Coast--who were arrested and interned.

Lowman was a controversialist, and so is his publisher. Both of them are incensed by the fact that reparations are being paid to the victims of the internment order, and they denounce the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that recommended the reparation program to Congress in 1983. "Since that time, in an effort to obtain money and rewrite history," writes Lee Allen, publisher of "MAGIC," in his preface to the book, "there has been an unrelenting effort to recast the reasons for the evacuation solely in terms of racism, war hysteria and lack of political will."

"MAGIC" frequently strikes the same shrill and troubling note. Still, the author and publisher of "MAGIC" are intellectually honest enough to allow us to come to our own conclusions after reviewing the wholly fascinating collection of historical documents and photographs that are presented here. Indeed, they even permit their adversaries to speak for themselves. Thus, for example, the appendix includes a statement by Angus MacBeth, general counsel for the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment, in which Lowman's argument is squarely and, I think, convincingly rebutted.

"It is very difficult to distinguish puffery from truth in the 'MAGIC' documents," writes MacBeth. "There is no indication in the 'MAGIC' cables of a sabotage or fifth column organization." And, after considering what is actually contained in the decrypted messages, MacBeth stands by the conclusion in the official report of the commission: "Not a single documented act of espionage, sabotage or fifth column activity was committed by an American citizen of Japanese ancestry or by a resident Japanese alien on the West Coast."

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