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Casualties of War

EMPIRES ON THE PACIFIC: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia By Robert Smith Thompson, Basic Books: 434 pp., $30 FREE TO DIE

FOR THEIR COUNTRY, The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters in World War II, By Eric L. Muller, University of Chicago Press: 230 pp., $27.50 BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans, By Greg Robinson, Harvard University Press: 322 pp., $27.95

January 13, 2002|TOM ENGELHARDT

EMPIRES ON THE PACIFIC: World War II and the Struggle for the Mastery of Asia

By Robert Smith Thompson, Basic Books: 434 pp., $30

FREE TO DIE : FOR THEIR COUNTRY, The Story of the Japanese American Draft Resisters

in World War II, By Eric L. Muller, University of Chicago Press: 230 pp., $27.50

On Sept. 2, 1945, an armada of almost 260 Allied warships lay at anchor in Tokyo Bay. Aboard the battleship Missouri, Allied generals and admirals, including Douglas MacArthur, William F. "Bull" Halsey and Chester W. Nimitz, who had led American forces to victory in the Pacific, awaited Japanese officials who were to sign the surrender documents. It had been a war fought under a simple dictum suggested by Halsey as he assumed command: "Kill Japs. Kill Japs. Kill more Japs." Just ashore, the capital city of Japan lay in charred ruins, as thoroughly gutted as Japan's imperial ambitions.

The ceremony itself was heavy with the victor's symbolism. Behind the triumphant Allied command stood the skeletal figures of American Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, who had surrendered the fortress island of Corregidor in the Philippines, and British Gen. Arthur E. Percival, who had surrendered the "impregnable" island fortress of Singapore as the war began. Both had just been released from Japanese prison camps. With a superb eye for the telling detail, Robert Smith Thompson points out in "Empires on the Pacific" a final small humiliation for the Japanese: Above them fluttered the old "thirty-one starred American flag that had flown over the flagship of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry," the American who "opened" feudal Japan to the West in 1853.

Not so long after war's end, Tom Noda arrived in occupied Tokyo and found work as a Japanese interpreter for U.S. Army court-martial proceedings. There was irony in this. As Eric L. Muller tells us in his fascinating "Free to Die for Their Country," Noda had been through a grim wartime odyssey known to few Americans. A Nisei, or second-generation Japanese American, he watched his family's ranch go to a white farmer for a penny on the dollar as West Coast Japanese Americans prepared for internment during a wartime panic. A teenage citizen, he soon found himself behind barbed wire, guarded by soldiers at a "relocation center" in Wyoming, one of 10 internment camps for Japanese Americans in the West. Later, he dutifully followed his despairing father, who had requested repatriation to Japan, to a camp meant to segregate "troublemakers" where, rights and property gone, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.

Though many Americans know of the bravery of the all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the Army's most highly decorated unit, next to none know of the grit of Noda and other young Japanese Americans who refused to fight for a government that unjustly imprisoned them and their families. He joined hundreds of Nisei resisters who were brought to mass trials in Western states and regularly sentenced to long prison terms. Uniquely in his trial, though, a California judge found the indictments "shocking to his conscience" and freed "the American born Japs," as the local paper termed them, to be returned to their barbed wire camps. ("As courtroom victories go," Muller comments, "this was a decidedly Pyrrhic one.")

Finally, Noda was among the 20,000 Japanese Americans in those camps who, with Japan's defeat already inevitable, despairingly or defiantly requested expatriation or repatriation; and one of 5,000 actually sent to Japan after the war, though he later regained his U.S. citizenship. Noda and his compatriots were but a few overlooked casualties among millions of lives destroyed in what Thompson terms "the struggle for the mastery of Asia."

That struggle was in progress less than a century before Noda's arrival in Tokyo Bay when Perry's modest four-ship flotilla, backed by a rising continental power, first appeared off Japan. Perry came offering trade and threatening war. In the nearly century-long exchange of goods and blood that followed, oppressive European empires--Russian, Dutch, French and British--crumbled, Japan's brutal "Co-Prosperity Sphere" peaked and collapsed, and the Pacific was transformed into an "American lake."

Perhaps Perry had already dreamed as much. Pointing to America's triumph in the Mexican war, he warned his Japanese counterparts, "Circumstances may lead your country into a similar plight." The Japanese hardly needed to look to distant Mexico. Only a few years earlier, the Western powers led by Great Britain had fought their way into China, turned its great coastal cities into foreign-controlled "treaty ports" and established the inviolability of Westerners from Chinese courts. The Japanese took the hint and "opened" their land. On Perry's return, Thompson tells us, "the press likened him to Columbus, Vasco da Gama, and Captain Cook." And why not? He was an apt symbol of expansive American dreams that would barely outrace reality.

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