Review

Keeper of Concentration Camps: Dillon S. Meyer and American Racism

  • by Richard Drinnon. Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1987, 339 pp., $24.95. ISBN 0-520-05793-7.

Reviewed by John P. Strang

With the exception of the few months in which Milton Eisenhower ran the program, Dillon S. Meyer, a typical New Deal bureaucrat, was the chief administrator of the WRA, the "War Relocation Authority," which was responsible for the imprisonment of over 100,000 Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese ancestry (the second group making up the majority of those imprisoned). This notorious violation of our Bill of Rights has spawned a number of books, historical and popular, including Meyer's own Uprooted Americans. [1] Richard Drinnon's new book is a thought-provoking -- if somewhat subjective - biography of this rather unlovable man. After the war, Meyer ended up as head of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) where he carried out policies not unlike those in force when he was involved with Tule Lake, Manzanar, Leupp, et al.

Drinnon declares that his aim is to deal with Meyer as an epitome of Hannah Arendrs phrase about the "banality of evil." [2] The work is well-footnoted and-documented, and despite Mr. Drinnon's subjectivity and occasional lapses into excessive emotionalism, well worth the reading, even for someone already familiar with the controversy surrounding America's "noble experiment" with concentration-camp solutions to "social problems."

It is Drinnon's contention that Second World War "Jap"-hating went hand-in-hand with Indian-hating, and that both are integral parts of American mainstream culture. He is impatient with those who label either the wartime mistreatment of Japanese-Americans or the postwar treatment of American Indians as "mistakes." [3] This does not, of course, mean that Mr. Drinnon approves of either sort of hating -- he just tends to prefer to think that American culture is the mistake.

Indeed, the book makes a strong connection between anti-Indian and anti-Japanese racism (most convincing for me was the continuity of bureaucrats and personnel involved.) However, even Drinnon admits that much of the force behind the camps came from New Deal do-gooders eager to use the war as an excuse to engage in social experimentation. [4] (They would probably have welcomed a chance to pen up and forcefully "assimilate" and "Americanize" other minority groups such as the Chinese, Latinos, or Puerto Ricans in the same way, had a different excuse been forthcoming.) Such people are not admirable, but they are also not racists. (Presumably the last thing that diehard racists would want would be to "assimilate" or "Americanize" members of a hated and despised out-group.) Although Meyer did seem to have some quaint and stereotyped attitudes toward American Indians (a point Dillon makes a bit too much of ), [5] he was hardly one who subscribed to a "the only good 'un is a dead 'un," philosophy, either with Japanese- Americans or with Indians.

This is not to defend Meyer. The picture of him painted in Mr Drinnon's book is unlovable, and if one might doubt slightly the "evil" part of the definition (although only slightly - Mr. Drinnon does offer lots of evidence that Mr. Meyer was a liar [6] ), there is little question about the banality. But how much of a defense is it to say that someone is "only a little" racist? Nor is it really a defense of either Meyer or the WRA to argue that the camps could have been a lot worse, or that allegedly worse camps have existed in other countries. [7] Thankfully, Mr. Drinnon gives short shrift to such arguments.

He also gives short shrift to Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), and provides much disturbing information about the unholy alliance between the JACL, the government, and the "civil libertarians" of the New York City branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. This is welcome muckraking, and has not appeared in too many books before. So, too, is information about some of the bizarre racial theories of FDR, [8] and the serious doubts about the legality of the WRA and its programs expressed by none other than the FBI! [9]

The second half of the book, starting with the chapter titled "Commissioner," deals with Meyer's mistreatment of the American Indians as head of the BIA. Here I at first expected Mr. Drinnon to be on less firm ground -- and perhaps he is, but only slightly so. Meyer was one of the chief architects of the "termination" program that sought to "free" the Indians from their reservation ways -- and incidentally, to transfer millions of acres of their land to Whites. [10] Meyer fought tooth and nail any attempt by his "wards" to assert themselves, and, as he did with the Japanese-American camp internees, attributed such opposition to "troublemakers." The case is strong that there was a continuation of policy and attitudes from the WRA days -hardly surprising, considering the continuity of personnel. (Many of Meyer's former associates and underlings followed him from the WRA to the BIA, and many of the camp staff in the WRA days had been drawn from the BIA.)

While the connection clearly exists one may be slightly leery about attributing it all to "racism," however real and evil the treatment of both groups seems to have been. As pointed out previously, a pernicious sentiment of assimilationism was present in the treatment of both groups, and assimilationism can't be truly argued to be a "racist" trait

The implications of the title are also a bit unpleasant: Dillon S. Meyer once said that he did not want posterity to remember him as an administrator of American concentration camps. [11] The fact that Mr. Drinnon, aware of this quote, does entitle his book Keeper of Concentration Camps seem malicious, however merited it is that Mr. Meyer be so remembered. One is, in fact, reminded of some of the malicious remarks Mr. Meyer himself made about opponents such as Felix S. Cohen and Ernest Besig. [12] It is as if Mr. Drinnon deliberately chose the title that would offend Meyer's shade the most, and, much as this reviewer has no love for Dillon S. Meyer, he finals that disturbing.
 

Notes

     
  1. Uprooted Americans, Dillon S. Meyer, Tucson: University of Arizona Press,1971.
  2. Keeper of Concentration Camps, xxviii. Unless noted otherwise, page numbers cited in this review will be from Mr. Drinnon's book
  3. Op. cit., p. 266, for example.
  4. Op. cit., p. 60.
  5. Op. cit., pp. 21-25.
  6. Op. cit., p. 253, for example.
  7. The loss of life in the original concentration camps set up by the British to house Boer "troublemakers" was much higher than in the WRA camps.
  8. Op. cit., pp. 254-256.
  9. Op. cit., p. 51.
  10. The "relocation" of the Japanese-Americans also had the practical effect of transferring much of their real property to White (often actively anti-Oriental) interests -- and at bargain prices, and it is a weakness of Mr. Drinnon's book that he does not draw as much attention to this real and concrete parallel as he does to alleged parallels of philosophy and attitude.
  11. Quoted by Mr. Drinnon in op. cit., p. 249.
  12. For example, the quote from Meyer on p. 232.
     

From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1988 (Vol. 8, No. 2), pages 234-236.