The XYZ Affair

How Michelle Malkin learned to stop worrying and defend the internment

I confess: I'm fascinated by Michelle Malkin. Not by her views, which are diametrically opposed to mine; nor by her columns, which have slid alarmingly from screed to outright rant; but by her evolution from a seemingly moderate campus libertarian into a klaxon of the rock-ribbed right.

In 1992, Oberlin grad Michelle Maglalang joined the Los Angeles Daily News as an editorial writer. She wrote mostly reasoned defenses of personal responsibility and the need for smaller government. Here's Michelle on the need for effective anti-violence programs: "A positive consequence of [the Toys for Guns initiative] is the collaboration between merchants and police . . . but it will not stop the slaughter. In the fight against urban violence, you must pick your weapons carefully."

Six years later she'd found national syndication and married her college sweetheart, Jesse Malkin. Her writing in 2000 already evinced the rectopundit's trademark disdain: "The Million Mom lobby wields a large arsenal of sad tales and emotional appeals, but they don't have a hankie big enough to conceal the facts about gun ownership." Malkin had indeed picked her weapon, and it was a flamethrower. Her titles reflected a Manichaean vision of the world: "Five reasons to fear the Democratic Party," "A closer look at left-wing thuggery."

Evacuees of Japanese ancestry attend Memorial Day services at Manzanar, California, in May 1942.
photo: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Evacuees of Japanese ancestry attend Memorial Day services at Manzanar, California, in May 1942.

She'd been picked by the Heritage Foundation as a pet pundit, become a Fox News regular, and established herself in the hard-right hemisphere of the blogging cosmos, where she is alternately condemned and lusted after. In 2002, right-wing book farm Regnery published her first feature-length diatribe, Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores.

Comes now the sequel—In Defense of Internment: The Case for "Racial Profiling" in World War II and the War on Terror. It purports to be a provocative reframing of the Japanese American internment during World War II as a necessary act, instituted without prejudice by Roosevelt and close aides with access to the MAGIC cables, a set of ultraclassified decrypted messages. Malkin sees these documents as ironclad evidence of a spy network on the American continent, incorporating first-generation Japanese alien residents (issei) and their second-generation U.S. citizen children (nisei). She argues that the internment was a direct consequence of this damning secret information—in contradiction to the orthodoxy imposed by "ethnic alarmists," which holds that the targeting of Japanese Americans was rooted in xenophobia and institutionalized racism.

She has written this book, she says, to show how commonsense acts of "threat profiling" are consistently being blocked by "civil liberties absolutists," who call any use of race, religion, or nationality in assessing terrorist risk a step down a slippery slope that ends at Executive Order 9066, which directed the forced evacuation of 112,000 ethnically Japanese individuals from the states of the Pacific Coast. With their hysterical obstructionism, these liberal Al Qaeda fellow travelers hinder our ability to fight the war on terror. Thus, the "vital" need for her "myth-shattering" book.

So let's fillet this fish, shall we? Out of 401 pages, a scant 40 discuss her urgent goal of making the "case for 'racial profiling' in . . . the war on terror." Another 125 recount the history of the WW II internment, as seen through the prism of the now declassified MAGIC decrypts. She asserts that the nisei were as likely to be imperial sympathizers as their immigrant parents; she identifies a handful of nisei who were involved in espionage plots or other anti-American activities, and uses these anecdotes to absolve the central tragedy of the internment—that the U.S. deprived tens of thousands of innocent citizens of their basic liberties by incarcerating them without evidence of guilt or disloyalty.

But the bulk of the book is documentation: reproductions of MAGIC cables and government memos, photos of key personages and places, exhaustive footnotes, and a 17-page index. Malkin's admirers point to this as evidence of scholarly rigor. A more objective observer might compare this avalanche of addenda to Styrofoam packing peanuts. Like said shipping materials, they protect and support vulnerable contents, they have little weight or worth in and of themselves, and they are copious and annoying.

Why dismiss the inclusion of this primary source material? First of all, many of the documents are irrelevant to Malkin's argument. For instance, there are pages of cables detailing fleet movements and ship descriptions, presumably meant to show the critical nature of the data being transmitted by the Japanese spy network. But there's no context to indicate whether this intel was of any real value, or if it required an insidious fifth column to obtain.

And the documents that are relevant to Malkin's case are painfully redundant. We read time and again how Japan is seeking to connect with agitators in the U.S., in a dialogue that resembles a bad knock-knock joke. "So—it is our understanding that you wish to do X, Y, and Z," says Tokyo. "Indeed, X, Y, and Z are our paramount aims," responds the consulate in L.A. "You are authorized to do X, Y, and Z . . . mmmmkay?" says Tokyo. Then we're treated to stiff official reports from American intelligence officials resummarizing the entire interaction.

The signal-to-noise ratio here is so slender that one is tempted to just accept Malkin's coy interpretation of them at face value. But in actually reading the evidence, Malkin's shell game becomes apparent. The appendix "Richard Kotoshirodo" excerpts the interrogation of a clerk at the Japanese consulate in Honolulu, who admits to assisting his employers by observing U.S. warships in the months prior to Pearl Harbor. Kotoshirodo was a kibei, born in the U.S. but sent back to Japan for schooling. This is an important distinction, as the Japanese-indoctrinated kibei were seen as more likely to have suspect loyalty. Yet in the caption to the blurry transcript, Malkin refers to "spy ring aide" Kotoshirodo as a "Nisei . . . [testifying] about his loyalty to Japan before an Internee Hearing Board." Casually eliding his kibei status lends weight to her assertions about nefarious native-born Japanese Americans. This is no accident; in the caption to the Kotoshirodo mug shot, she again IDs him as a nisei.

Far from flaunting his allegiance to the Chrysanthemum Throne, Kotoshirodo comes off as a clock-punching slacker: "Okuda said that . . . as long as you remain legally outside from any place where people cannot get in, just see what you can see from the outside, there is not anything that anyone can do. It is a natural thing that every country is doing. Okuda said that in Japan the American Consulate is gathering information." He denies knowledge of a possible war. As for loyalty, he answers that, while prior to the war he might have classed himself as "100% Japanese," he never took an oath of allegiance to Japan and "did not have any particular hate for the United States or particular favor for the Japanese Government."

A pattern of twisted interpretation runs through the book. Malkin cites the MAGIC decrypts as outlining plans to solicit saboteurs among Japanese "Second Generations" and "resident nationals" in the U.S., while clouding the fact that the cables clearly propose this as an inferior backup option to utilizing "U.S. citizens of foreign extraction (other than Japanese), aliens (other than Japanese), communists, Negroes, labor union members, and anti-Semites." She also invokes the specter of nisei dual citizenship as a sign of divided loyalty, while noting only in passing that this status was automatically awarded to all children born to Japanese fathers before 1924; because the process of repudiating this status was difficult, many nisei didn't go through the trouble of unwinding it. (Amusingly, Malkin herself is a dual citizen, as the Philippines bestows this status on the children of Filipino immigrants.)

The book's most brazen aspects relate to its very rationale for existence. Though titled In Defense of Internment, it isn't so much a defense of internment in general as a defense of the Japanese American internment—and indeed, Malkin is "not advocating rounding up all Arabs or Muslims and tossing them into camps," but rather the use of "racial profiling" in an era "when we are under attack." She never explains why a successful defense of the Japanese American internment would provide a case for racial profiling today. The unpleasant fact is that terrorists are not easily denominated by race or nation of origin, and one need only look back to Oklahoma City to remember that there are violent factions who share a mind-set with Al Qaeda, if not a common faith.

Given that Malkin doesn't have the will to propose wholesale detention, what remains isn't "myth-shattering," or even new; as she acknowledges, the gist of her thesis and evidence come from a 2000 title by former NSA official David Lowman. Ultimately, the book's only real value is as a sign that Malkin, who in 2000 wrote that she believed the internment to be "abhorrent and wrong," has sold off another sliver of her soul.


Jeff Yang runs the production company Cultural DNA. His most recent book is Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to Hong Kong, Mainland, and Taiwanese Cinema.

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