The Perils of History

Eric Muller of the UNC School of Law has published a well-noticed new paper arguing that Department of Justice lawyers exaggerated the threat of a Japanese invasion to secure a Supreme Court decision upholding actions against Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast. He notes, correctly, that key military leaders like Eisenhower (then a staffer in Washington) thought the risk of invasion was non-existent even as they conceded the possibility of small, inconsequential raids. Muller finds in the willingness of civilian leaders like Henry Stimson, the secretary of war, to nonetheless believe in the possibility evidence of nothing more than racism:

There is no reason to think that Edward Ennis and Philip Burling preached or even consciously entertained the rabid depictions of the Asian horde that marked the Yellow Peril era.  But this account of the early-century zeitgeist is what makes Henry Stimson’s February 1942 diary entry so revealing of a turn of thought that may have been common after Pearl Harbor.  Stimson had access to all of the military’s data and reporting.  None of it foresaw or counseled preparation for a Japanese invasion of the coast.  Nonetheless, Stimson’s mind wandered to the thirty-plus-year-old, Yellow-Peril-inflected predictions of Homer Lea; suddenly they did not seem to him so fantastical.  This is powerful, and unusually direct, evidence of the operation of a racial schema:  the uncertainties of the day led Stimson’s mind past what he knew to something he had long latently feared, a Japanese invading horde.

There is only one problem with this analysis: It is incomplete. Reading it, one notes there’s no mention anywhere in it of the words “Singapore” or “Philippines.” And yet, contemporaneously with Stimson’s Feb. 10, 1942, diary entry, the Japanese Army had begun its push down the Malay Peninsula toward Singapore and was in the process of ejecting American forces from Luzon. Certainly in the Singapore case, the Japanese were acting in the face of apparent British military superiority. Meanwhile, it’s not like America’s armed forces in early 1942 had demonstrated any great degree of military competence. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until that May and the Battle of the Coral Sea that the US Navy began offering more than token resistance to the Japanese advance. Stimson and other civilian leaders until then had real cause to wonder if American forces were up to the job. Military leaders, to be sure, had few doubts. But until they started winning a few battles, their assurances were always subject to question.

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