Study Guide

Democracy on Trial

by Page Smith

Democracy on Trial Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The forced evacuation of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast during World War II has been etched into America’s popular consciousness. It stands as a blot on the remembrance of the so-called Good War. It has been likened to other shameful episodes in American history, such as the enslavement of African Americans and the displacement of Indians. There is scarcely a high school or college history text that does not focus on the internment of the Japanese. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan offered a formal apology to survivors of the internment camps, and Congress appropriated a token indemnity. A continuing stream of memoirs and films introduce new generations of Americans to the memory of that dark moment.

Like all memories, the popular conception of events fifty and more years in the past has been distorted by time and passion; hence the singular usefulness of Page Smith’s Democracy on Trial: The Japanese American Evacuation and Relocation in World War II. Smith, who died in August of 1995, was an accomplished historian with a gift for writing narratives for the general public. With this final work, Smith has produced an exhaustive, authoritative account of the experience of Japanese Americans during World War II. He paints a different picture from that often handed down to American schoolchildren. It is a more nuanced portrait, and a grayer one, lacking easily identifiable heroes and villains. Smith resists the temptation to use the injustices of the past as an excuse for easy sermonizing. He resolutely refuses to let the people he discusses harden into stereotypes.

Indeed, Smith approaches his subject with the sober spirit of a classical Greek or Roman historian. He informs his readers that he views history as a tragic drama. Thus history becomes a story, and the events described a stage, upon which the personages involved explore the limits of human possibility, whether degradation or nobility. Like a latter-day Thucydides or Tacitus, Smith writes of men and women struggling with their own hopes and fears against a background of circumstances always spinning out of their control. The lessons of such a vision are not polemical. Rather, such history takes as its purpose the illumination of human character and the elucidation of moral complexity. Thus, for Smith, the wartime evacuation and relocation of Japanese Americans become a supreme test, both of the endurance of the evacuees and of the strength and resilience of the democracy that condemned them. Democracy on Trial is a penetrating examination of the often fragile balance between justice and expediency in a free government.

Smith opens with an extended discussion of the tangled relationship between the United States and Japan in the decades leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was an American flotilla, under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry, that in 1853 decisively “opened” Japan to the West. The hitherto isolated Japanese realized that they would have to adapt rapidly to Western ways if they were to preserve their national independence. With incredible speed Japan underwent a political, social, and industrial revolution. Japanese modernizers saw the United States as the most compelling model of their hopes for their own country. There was, however, a countervailing trend. While many Japanese acknowledged the necessity of introducing certain Western technologies and institutions, they urged that the heart of Japanese culture not be sacrificed to the new order. As a result, the Japan that emerged on the world stage in the late nineteenth century was a delicately balanced amalgam of traditional ideals and modern aspirations. The center of the new system was an officially sponsored worship of the emperor, merging traditional Japanese hierarchy with an authoritarian and militaristic regime with a taste for Western-style colonial expansion.

Early American attitudes toward the Japanese alternated between curiosity and amusement. This patronizing posture faded somewhat with the rise of Japanese power. Victories, over the Chinese in 1894-1895, and the Russians in 1904-1905, turned Japan into a potent rival of the United States for control of the lucrative markets of the Far East. The powerful Japanese Navy threatened the dominance of America’s Pacific Fleet and its hold on such territories as the Philippines. President Theodore Roosevelt advocated a rapprochement with Imperial Japan, but a lasting accommodation of American and Japanese interests never emerged. The gulf between American and Japanese perceptions of international relations proved too great, and only widened with the passage of years.

Diplomatic ties were further strained by racial tensions. Beginning in the 1890’s, Japanese immigrants started arriving on the American West Coast. There they encountered a deep-seated anti-Asian prejudice. The segregation of Japanese schoolchildren and a law denying Japanese immigrants the right to own certain kinds of property profoundly offended Japanese sensibilities. Attempts by President Roosevelt to moderate these policies did little to assuage Japanese anger. In a...

(The entire section is 2098 words.)