John Hughes Review of:
The Colonel and the Pacifist
Karl Bendetsen, Perry Saito and the Incarceration of Japanese
Americans during World War II
Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Summer 2004
When Perry Saito was operating the elevator in Aberdeen’s Finch Building in 1938, Karl Bendetsen was on his way up – to his law office in the Finch Building and way beyond. Neither had any inkling that in a few short years, they both would be figurative prisoners of war. One was the architect of the “military necessity” rationale behind FDR’s executive order mandating the evacuation and internment of 117,000 West Coast Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II; the other, a fledgling pacifist, was an internee. Both were exceptionally bright young men of immigrant stock. But Bendetsen’s ambition prompted him to hide his Jewish faith and blinded him to racism. He gained membership in a WASPish Stanford fraternity, earned a law degree, changed the spelling of his last name, invented gentile ancestors, worked 20-hour days, and at 34 became the youngest full colonel in the U.S. Army. Perry Saito couldn’t have hidden his Japanese ancestry even if he had wanted to. Because of the color of his skin and the shape of his eyes, he was yanked out of Aberdeen and sent to the windswept relocation camp at Tule Lake, California, together with his brother, sister and their widowed mother. Mrs. Saito had been arrested at the family’s Heron Street Oriental curio shop two days after Pearl Harbor. For weeks, no one knew where she had been taken.
Decades later, Perry Saito, who became a Methodist minister, would find himself in a historic confrontation with a thoroughly unrepentant Bendetsen as Americans took stock of how wartime hysteria had subverted their Constitution. This disquieting, altogether remarkable story is compellingly told by native Aberdonian Klancy Clark de Nevers.
The Colonel and The Pacifist is a major contribution to American history. It has special relevance to the present in light of the ongoing debate over civil liberties, domestic and foreign, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Iraq.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, champion of the downtrodden, comes out with his halo tarnished, having given Col. Bendetsen and his “a Jap is a Jap” commanding general, John L. DeWitt, “carte blanche” to cook up a reason to round up Japanese Americans, without any evidence of planned sabotage or imminent attack. The notorious columnist, Westbrook Pegler, appealing as usual to the worst instincts of his audience, declared, “… to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.”
Political cartoonist Theodor Seuss Geisel, who went on to become the benignly beloved Dr. Seuss, joined the chorus. The assistant secretary of war, John J. McCloy, stated, “ … If it is a question of safety of the country, [or] the Constitution of the United States, why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.” Earl Warren, future chief justice of a United States Supreme Court that struck the landmark blow for school desegregation, played the Jap card for all it was worth as he campaigned for governor of California. He came to regret the error of his ways but never said so publicly. Meantime, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover — despite his reputation as a red-baiter and keeper of political dossiers — is revealed as a moderate on the Japanese question, deeply troubled by the subversion of due process.
In the weeks following Pearl Harbor, the Aberdeen Daily World, happily, was one of many newspapers that tried to exert a calming influence. Editor & Publisher W.A. Rupp cautioned readers, “The FBI can take care of the fifth columnists; is doing so already, in fact ... If you believe you have reason for suspicion, tell it to the police; do not whisper it ... They can be used, these whispers, against any American — regardless of his forebears — used to ruin a competitor or to serve a private grudge. They are part and parcel of the Hitler method and do not belong in this country.”
But the specter of fear was powerful, especially when the craven enemy didn’t look “American.” Bendetsen parroted General DeWitt’s unsubstantiated claims “that every seagoing vessel that left a Pacific Coast port was met by an enemy submarine, and that unlawful radio transmitters were not being shut down.”
On the West Coast — Grays Harbor, in particular — many feared a Japanese attack was imminent, with yellow hordes storming the beaches here and on Willapa Harbor, then moving inland to set up an invasion hub at Centralia and Chehalis. A West Coast attack, hard on the heels of knock-out blows on Manila and Hawaii “was predicted 30 years earlier by Homer Lea. As the smoke cleared over Pearl Harbor, copies of his prophetic 1909 book, ‘The Valor of Ignorance,’ were unearthed from many a Harborite’s dusty bookshelves.”
After the FBI ransacked the Saitos’ store and apartment and hauled Mrs. Saito, 42, off to jail, “Rumors ran rampant on Heron Street. Mr. Saito was supposed to have had a searchlight in his chimney, pointing to the sky — it would direct ‘Jap’ planes to town, they said.” Mr. Saito, for the record, had been dead for five years. Proud of his adopted country, he had made his children memorize all four stanzas of “The Star Spangled Banner” as well as the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. There were also heartwarming examples of Harborites standing up to defend the Saitos.
Klancy Clark de Nevers, a 1951 graduate of Aberdeen’s Weatherwax High School, is a retired software engineer who lives in Salt Lake City. She was co-editor of Cohassett Beach Chronicles: World War II in the Pacific Northwest, a collection of Kathy Hogan’s remarkable wartime columns in the Grays Harbor Post, the weekly newspaper published by de Nevers’ family.
A painstaking researcher and talented storyteller, de Nevers carefully weaves the contrasting stories of two men on a collision course with history. The outcome is not flattering to Karl Bendetsen, a brilliant man who became an assistant secretary of the Army and chairman, president and CEO of Champion International.
As the movement for redress of Japanese Americans got under way in 1980, Bendetsen seethed at “arrogant militants” like Perry Saito, and flatly denied that he had devised the “military necessity” strategy that led to the mass internment. He died in 1989 at the age of 81. The Rev. Saito had succumbed to heart failure in 1985. He was only 64.
de Nevers pulls no punches, but anyone who accuses her of exercising politically correct hindsight will have ignored the facts she has documented so well. The Colonel and The Pacifist is a breakthrough in World War II scholarship — a tale of two star-crossed lives rooted on the Harbor, told with the added advantage of someone who grew up in Aberdeen during World War II.
John C. Hughes is editor and publisher of The Daily World.
A version of this review appeared on the front page of The Daily World, Thursday, June 3, 2004 and was picked up by the AP Western Wire. At publication, John C. Hughes could be reached at 360-532-4000, ext.145, or email@example.com.
Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Summer 2004, page 44-45. Published by the Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma, WA