MAGIC: The Untold Story of U.S. Intelligence and the Evacuation of Japanese Residents from the West Coast During WWII

David D. Lowman

Athena Press, Inc., 2000


     David D. Lowman retired as Special Assistant to the Director of the National Security Agency after a career as an intelligence officer, during which he received the Exceptional Civilian Service Medal, the NSA's highest award.  He was a major witness before the congressional committees that in the early 1980s reviewed the history of the American evacuation of the Japanese-American population from the West Coast during World War II.

     This book is, in its principal dimension, a compendium of the intelligence information that lay behind the Roosevelt administration's decision to order the evacuation.  "MAGIC" was the designation given to the United States' breaking of the Japanese diplomatic and espionage codes and ciphers in 1940 – a feat of the highest magnitude, since it not only helped immensely against the Japanese, but also enabled the United States to keep abreast of the highest-level planning within Nazi Germany, as that planning was conveyed to Tokyo throughout the war by the Japanese ambassador to Germany. 

     In addition to the MAGIC diplomatic cables, known to only a select few at the top of the administration, there was much additional information gathered through the more ordinary intelligence processes.  Lowman provides copies of the pertinent Japanese cables and U.S. intelligence reports, making this a source-book of considerable value.

     While the book is almost entirely informative rather than argumentative, it is motivated by a profound anger over the disinformation given to the American people since the 1960s about the evacuation.  (Most Americans have been given to believe that 112,000 patriotic Japanese-Americans were "interned" in "concentration camps" during the war.)  Lowman writes that "the failure of the U.S. government to present the facts involved in the wartime decision to evacuate the Japanese and to defend the honor of our country and its wartime leaders is nothing short of an outrage." 

     He points to an on-going phenomenon: the funding of "public indoctrination which portrays a flawed accounting of actions taken in the urgency of war." $5 million was set aside at the federal level for that purpose, and Lowman tells us that "California presently appropriates millions of dollars in support of the ‘official' history of Japanese evacuation."  Such continued funding of a skewed telling of history by federal and state governments and by tax-exempt organizations, all propelled by politics and ideology, exacerbates a problem that in lesser forms has long bedeviled serious scholars.  When prior generations, for example, have enshrined specific and often highly partisan perceptions in monuments, cemeteries, and public commemorations of all kinds, they have promoted a certain "received history."  That version has then become the mythology of the age that has followed.      

     A question for Americans today is just why they would wish to perpetuate an alienated mythology about the relocation of the Japanese-Americans.  This isn't the place, however, to review that issue in its entirety; the author of this review did that in a lengthy article on the subject in the Spring 1993 issue of this Journal.

     Within the scope of this review, it will be most helpful to highlight certain specifics:

     1.  The evacuation was not to internment camps but first to assembly centers and then to relocation camps.  Approximately 30,000 chose to move away from the camps during the war, taking jobs in cities in the central and eastern United States, while the rest decided to remain. An actual internment camp did have to be set up at Tule Lake for those evacuees who were militantly pro-Japanese (and to house their wives and children, since the policy was not to split families).

     2.  Following legislation in 1948, the United States paid some $37 million to settle claims for property losses incurred by the evacuees.   

     3.  In the 1960s, militants began agitating for "reparations." That bore fruit in the 1980s with the creation of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.  The hearings of this Commission were almost unbelievably political and ideological.  John J. McCloy, who had been Assistant Secretary of War during the relevant period, was a witness before the Commission, and later wrote that "From my personal appearance,... I believe its conduct was a horrendous affront to our tradition for fair and objective hearings... Whenever I sought in the slightest degree to justify the action of the United States which was ordered by President Roosevelt, my testimony was met with hisses and boos [from the spectators]... Others had similar experiences."  One of these was Karl R. Bendetsen, the military officer in charge of the initial evacuation; the booing and hissing prevented him from presenting his full testimony.  He said "I knew it would be fruitless.  Every commissioner had made up his mind before he was appointed."

     4.  The "reparations" called for by the Commission eventually cost $1.6 billion.  $20,000 was paid to each of the evacuees.  These included the 4,300 who attended college at a number of American universities during the war, the 30,000 who resettled in the central and eastern United States, the 4,724 who voluntarily returned to Japan, the almost 10,000 who refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the United States, those who while in the camps "engaged in semi-military drilling and in Japanese patriotic exercises to the sound of bugles," the 6,000 who were babies born in the camps, the enemy aliens (not Japanese-Americans) who had been locked up in Department of Justice camps as security risks right after Pearl Harbor, and even the several hundred people who had been sent to the United States from Latin America as security risks.  Twenty-nine people declined to accept the $20,000.

     5.  The relocation was not unique to the United States.  "The British removed all people of Japanese ancestry from Singapore, sending them to India."  In early 1942, "Mexico removed all of its Japanese residents from Lower California and away from the coastal areas of continental Mexico."  At the same time, "the Canadian government began relocating the 20,096 people of Japanese ancestry from its West Coast in British Columbia."  Interestingly, Canada didn't permit them to return to the West Coast until 1949, four years after the end of the war. 

     6.  Lowman tells how "in China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia the resident Japanese had sided completely with the attacking Japanese armed forces.  Moreover, the conquering troops treated all resident Japanese as reunited brethren... In the Philippines there were about 30,000 Japanese residents on Mindanao Island alone, almost all of whom appeared to have completely gone over to the invaders...."  U.S. Naval Intelligence reports dated January 26, 1942, give the detail about how after the attack on Pearl Harbor a Japanese fighter plane crash-landed on the Hawaiian island of Niihau, where the pilot and two resident Japanese (one of whom was a Japanese-American) held the islanders captive until December 13, at which time the siege was broken when the pilot was killed and the Japanese-American committed suicide.

     7.  The Japanese cables revealed an established plan to use "second generation" Japanese for intelligence-gathering in the United States.  A cable from Tokyo to Washington on January 30, 1941, said that "in view of the fact that if there is any slip in this phase, our people in the U. S. will be subjected to considerable persecution, the utmost caution must be exercised."  A cable from Los Angeles on May 9, 1941, informed Tokyo that "we shall maintain connection with our second generations who are at present in the (U.S.) Army, to keep us informed of various developments in the Army.  We also have connections with our second generations working in airplane plants for intelligence purposes." Cables in August and September of 1941 reported specifics about the cargo of an American ship and about aircraft production in the factories of southern California.  An American intelligence report on January 21, 1942, said that "their espionage net containing Japanese aliens, first and second generation Japanese and other nationals is now thoroughly organized and working underground."   

     Necessarily, the book contains much more.  It takes its place as a major contribution to the literature on the subject, and should be available to everyone studying the issue.


                                                                           Dwight D. Murphey