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From Internment to Containment: Cold War Imaginings of Japanese Americans in Go for Broke Edward Tang

Hollywood producer Dore Schary thought he had a terrific idea. Constantly alert for compelling storylines, he decided in 1950 to make a motion picture about the Japanese American experience during the Second World War. Writer-director Robert Pirosh, an Oscar-winner for his screenplay in Battleground (1949), a Schary production about the Battle of the Bulge, agreed to collaborate on the new project. The result was Go for Broke. [1] Released by MGM studios in 1951, the film revolved around the adventures of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a highly decorated, all-volunteer Japanese American unit that participated in the Allied campaigns in Italy and France. What distinguished Go for Broke from other war movies of the time was its subject matter, soldiers of Japanese descent who fought for the United States, and its predominantly Japanese American cast. Remarkable as well was the film's acknowledgement of internment, however sporadic and implied. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government suspected the loyalties of 110,000 immigrant Japanese (Issei) and their American-born progeny (Nisei) and forced them into concentration camps scattered across the western United States. That many of the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd were fighting overseas to prove their loyalty to the very nation that imprisoned their families made their stories all the more extraordinary. [2]

Yet Go for Broke was far from perfect in its telling of bravery and sacrifice under demanding circumstances. Just as the film honored the Nisei's military accomplishments, it also hid from view the broader tragedy of internment. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the unprecedented mass incarceration of the Issei and Nisei through Executive Order 9066. The directive came in part from pressure applied by local and state politicians in the West as well as farmers associations desiring Asian-owned property. [3] Early Japanese victories in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor only inflamed suspicion and fears about the Japanese Americans; few within mainstream society decried their removal from homes and businesses to imprisonment in the camps. Some Nisei consequently felt the need to display their allegiance by donning an American uniform. But many other Japanese Americans, acting from their own sense of patriotism, resisted the U.S. government's hypocrisy in calling them to arms. Audiences of Go for Broke therefore viewed the depiction of only a portion of eligible Nisei men who were prepared to sacrifice their minds and bodies in service to the state. [4] Beneath its "war film genre" veneer then, Go for Broke introduced a problematically selective narrative for mass consumption.

It was the Cold War, however, that guaranteed the picture's favorable reception. Once the Second World War ended, venues within American popular culture — films, books, and magazines — regularly constructed narratives that hailed democracy's victory over totalitarian regimes. Alongside Schary's Battleground and Go for Broke appeared such war pictures as Command Decision (1948), Halls of Montezuma (1950), The Flying Leathernecks (1951), and Battle Cry (1955), among others. [5] With communists at home and abroad replacing the fascists as enemies of the state, popular literature and film in the early Cold War period emphasized the United States as a benevolent, pluralistic, and freedom-loving nation. [6] Racist perceptions that the Japanese Americans were distrusted aliens who required incarceration ill-fitted this mythic framework. The recent triumphs over the Axis powers thus overshadowed memories of internment, regardless of the troubling inconsistencies that it exposed within national commemorations of the "Good War." If recalled at all, the removal of Japanese Americans to fenced, barren landscape was for many other Americans merely a regrettable moment of wartime hysteria. In this Cold War environment, the predominant imagery of Japanese Americans as unassimilable foreigners took a new turn. As this essay will suggest, popular storylines in the 1950s, including Go for Broke, began envisioning the Japanese Americans as early archetypes of the model minority stereotype. This tactic served to celebrate the opportunities available within a democratic society while also arguing for the need to contain communism overseas. [7]

Several scholars working in Asian American studies have situated the creation of a model minority stereotype within the social contexts of the 1960s. During this time, magazine articles first used the phrase "model minority" to trace the successful integration of Asian Americans into mainstream society through their education, thrift, respect for elders, and work ethic. Sociologists and other critics attributed this success to Asian values that honored family, discipline, and sacrifice. As a result, Asian Americans appeared to overcome racial prejudice and enjoy higher levels of material comfort and social status than other ethnic minorities. By emphasizing such a myth, these writers also offered a brazenly simplistic and harmful critique of the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and others who sought federal assistance for their plights, the magazine editorials argued, had only to emulate the methods by which Asian Americans attained prosperity in the United States. If one failed to advance economically or socially, then that failure was surely one's own fault. This pernicious line of thought, even if well-intended, meant to counteract the increasing presence of urban riots, black militancy, as well as the general social unrest that pervaded the decade. The model minority stereotype became a rhetorical and imagistic weapon designed to silence protest against the social structures that caused injustices and inequalities in the first place. [8]

Yet historian Robert Lee has contended that prior versions of the model minority stereotype arose during the late 1940s and early 1950s. He positioned this emergence within three distinct Cold War concerns: "the red menace of communism, the black menace of race mixing, and the white menace of homosexuality." [9] The domestic threats that fervent anticommunists made of labor unionists, civil rights advocates, and homosexuals went hand in hand with fears about these groups' perceived treasonous activities weakening national security. As proto-model minorities, Japanese Americans supposedly helped soothe these anxieties through their already tested loyalties and successful ethnic assimilation that all but guaranteed their complicity in maintaining the status quo. Once released from the internment camps, the Issei and Nisei simply wanted to rebuild their lives. Because of the collective shame and traumas endured — lost property and businesses, separated families, feelings of alienation and despair — Japanese Americans sought a return to normalcy and remained relatively quiet about their experiences. [10] As a cultural artifact of the 1950s, Go for Broke certainly belongs with Lee's argument for redefining, if not expanding, our understanding of how the model minority stereotype worked. The film conferred visibility to the Nisei volunteers as initial renditions of the model minority when they conquered German soldiers as well as American prejudice through their efficiency, loyalty, and hard work. Their military service for the nation then provided the way in which Japanese Americans as a whole became accepted into American society without threatening its stability. [11]

Missing from these discussions on the model minority myth though is how it functioned within a Cold War transpacific imaginary. Domestically, the reenacted wartime heroics of the 442nd in Go for Broke offered moviegoers a reassuring narrative, one that suggested that the American principles of freedom and democracy would remain ascendant in trying times whatever the nation's contradictory practices against its racial minorities. And the Nisei offered living proof of this enduring patriotism. [12] But the message was also vital to U.S. foreign policy initiatives in containing the spread of communism overseas. The film's portrayal of the Nisei as early model minorities was part of a broader debate within American popular culture about these global concerns. Seeking to enhance its international image, the United States competed for anti-communist allies in Asia, particularly in Japan after its defeat in the Second World War. Statesmen and cultural commentators alike purposefully advertised the benefits of an "American way of life," one that emphasized economic opportunity, material comfort, and political equality, to lure developing nations away from Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence. Occupied Japan, once a despised adversary of the United States, now proved a valuable asset in promoting American economic and military interests in the Pacific theater. In this sense, reinventing the image of Japanese Americans as loyal citizens implicitly corresponded throughout the 1950s with remaking the Japanese as loyal anti-communist allies.

It is no accident that the acceptance of Japanese Americans as prototype model minorities coincided with U.S. foreign policy initiatives in postwar Japan. Christina Klein's work on containment culture is useful here when she examines the intersection between popular culture and American foreign policy stances toward Asia. Both emphasized not only a culture of containment but also a culture of integration that educated Americans about the nation's fight against communist encroachment in the Pacific. "Eschewing containment's language of barriers," she argues, foreign policy makers "used the language of transnational 'flows' to illustrate this interdependence" of military alliances and global markets between the United States and Asia. [13] Novels, popular magazines, films, and plays about Asia corresponded with the strategy of winning hearts and minds within the United States by facilitating a sentimental bond between American audiences and Asian subjects. By creating more intimate knowledge about Asians through print, songs, and images, cultural producers participated in teaching the American public about the nation's political and economic investment in international relations. [14]

Klein's culture of integration can be applied to how American popular culture portrayed the implied relationship between Japanese Americans as model minorities and Japan as a model ally. Since occupying Japan in 1945, the United States wanted to secure its postwar successes by rebuilding its former enemy into a country that would limit the expansion of communism. During the Korean War, Japan provided key installations for U.S. military operations from 1950 to 1953. Because of an already developed industrial base, Japan was also becoming a significant trading partner in the region wherein the U.S. and its allies hoped to surround and potentially shrink Soviet and Chinese power through a global capitalist network. What must be amended to Klein's argument is that these aims reverberated within domestic perceptions of Japanese Americans and how internment became sidestepped as a problematic subject. Strangely enough, what hurt the Issei and Nisei most during the Second World War — their suspected national and ethnic ties to Japan — now appeared in a small way to help their public image when they posed as ideal American citizens. Not coincidentally then, the larger strategy for U.S. policy makers and within American popular culture necessitated integration on both domestic and international fronts: assimilating the once maligned Japanese Americans into the nation's population and incorporating a once defeated Japan into the anti-communist coalition. Doing so required sustained championing of a free global market as well as the ideals of liberty and equality. In turn, debates framed within this culture of integration minimized the visibility of internment within the United States and denied that Americans pursued neocolonialist objectives in the Pacific. [15]

One of the most popular of periodicals, Reader's Digest, informed its audience about these interrelated issues. That is, not only were Japanese Americans capable of giving their lives to the cause of democracy but Japan was also proving itself a reliable partner in the struggle against communism. A 1952 Reader's Digest article caught this moment of diplomatic and cultural transition between the United States and Japan with its sub-banner: "Our strongest bulwark against Soviet attack from the West may, ironically, be our former enemy." The writer, Major General Charles Willoughby, was the Chief of Intelligence for General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers during the occupation of Japan. To defuse any suspicion about this new American ally in the Korean War, Willoughby described the loyalty of the Japanese: "It would have been easy for [the Japanese] to cripple our war effort in the ports serving Korea. But not a single serious act of sabotage, no hint of political blackmail disturbed our operations. On the contrary, the Japanese worked for us willingly and cheerfully." [16] Here the general portrayed Japan as a model ally nation with a population eager and docile enough to serve American expansionist interests in the Pacific. Indeed, Willoughby's evaluation assured American readers that the Japanese wholeheartedly embraced their conquerors. This assessment would further discount any accusation, especially from communists, of U.S. intentions to dominate the region.

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Edward Tang is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama.

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