Masthead small

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

And here arose the "problem" for the United States. If nations of the free world refused to concede to more balanced trade agreements with Japan, then surely the communists would. "This state of affairs may seem pretty remote to an Alabama field hand, a Pennsylvania miner, a Kansas farmer or an Illinois businessman," wrote Johnston, "[b]ut it concerns us all intimately." Working within a culture of integration, Johnston desired to educate American readers of Japan's plight, one that would soon affect the United States adversely. Japan's potential trade relations, particularly with China, would "invite political friction with the West," in which "the Reds could hope that political alliances could follow economic ties." "As a Red satellite," the article warned, "Japan would be the biggest prize of the Far East." To counteract such an undesirable situation, the writer offered global capitalism as the sure remedy: "The best guarantee of peace and strength in the Far East is expanded trade and expanding markets. It is in our power to help Japan determine her destiny." [26] This conclusion indicated that American investment, both monetary and military, was still essential in the region, if not for Japan's sake, then undoubtedly for U.S. national interests.

The level of anxiety about communist encroachment in Asia generally and about Japan's intentions in particular instigated a public debate within popular periodicals that differed mainly in intensity and tone. Some concurred with the Look magazine article that the responsibility rested on the shoulders of the United States to lift Japan out of its fragile economic condition. "What happens in Japan," wrote Helen Mears in a 1950 Harper's Magazine, "will seem like an unequivocal test of American sincerity and American capacity for constructive leadership." Indeed, "Japan will not be much of an advertisement for our American way, either among the Japanese or among the people of Asia in general" should the United States fail in preventing political and economic chaos from erupting in the Pacific theater. Other editorials sounded a similar note. Unhappy with the insufficient amount of aid Japan was receiving from the United States, the Nation warned in 1955: "If in the future the fearful cry goes up, 'Who lost Japan?' the American obscurantists [in Washington, D.C.] can look to themselves for the answer." The writer harkened back to the rhetoric used when China became communist, urging a strengthened American commitment to Japan to halt a potential repeating of history. [27]

Others feared the repercussions of Japan trading with China, but also wondered about the consequences for Americans at home. U.S. News & World Report noted in 1950 that were it necessary to block any agreements made between the two Asian nations, "it would cost U.S. taxpayers about $200 million dollars a year to compensate Japan for its loss of trade in Communist China." The American public, the article suggested, could not possibly support such a financial burden over an unspecified amount of time. Yet within the same essay, the magazine displayed a map of the Pacific theater in which a thick line labeled "The Outer Line of U.S. Defense" encompassed the islands of Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south. This imaginary boundary separated Japan from the menace posed by the Soviet Union, North Korea, and China, proving its importance to U.S. interests in the area. Then there were Japan's own self-interests to consider. Four years later, the same periodical worriedly noted: "The Japanese, after years of depending on American aid and promises, are beginning to look around, to wonder if they might not do better by cutting some U.S. ties and coming to terms with Communist Asia." The editorial intimated that the American public had to seriously ponder the questions surfacing about U.S.-Japan relations. To what extent would Americans be disposed to invest in Japan to retain its loyalties? Could the Japanese be trusted even with the bounty of U.S. aid? Whatever the costs or consequences, Collier's magazine put the equation succinctly in 1956: "A Japan harnessed to Russia and Red China could lure what is left of independent Asia into the Red camp and tip the scales fatally against the West. A prosperous Japan on the side of the free world remains a valuable ally." [28]

As a Cold War text, Go for Broke belonged in part to these ongoing debates about portraying Japanese Americans as model minorities and about U.S. foreign policy initiatives in Asia during the 1950s. At the time of the film's release, internment still resonated as a disquieting topic. Some editorial hand-wringing over democracy's failures continued to focus on the need to rectify the nation's evacuation and internment of innocent civilians. Writers remarked on the irony of fighting totalitarian regimes during the Second World War while incarcerating some Americans simply because of their ethnic origins. One author for a 1949 Saturday Review observed that internment "is not an account of Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy but . . . of how we penned up 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry—two-thirds of them American citizens." [29] In light of this view, several film critics remarked that Go for Broke spoke to the heart of the American creed: that freedom and democracy would prevail over other ideologies because of the nation's tolerance for its ethnic minorities. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the film was "an eloquent preachment for the American democratic process as a leveler of racial barriers." The New Yorker chimed in: "Besides being entertaining, the picture should be enlightening to those Americans who tolerated the wartime program of tossing non-combatant Nisei into prison camps euphemistically known as relocation centers." [30] For these critics, the film indicted internment and racial hatred as insufferable to the democratic process since the Nisei practically embodied and advertised the nation's best attributes.

Go for Broke emphasized the integration of the Japanese Americans into a national narrative that called for ethnic pluralism and patriotism in the fight against totalitarian societies. But the consequence of presenting such a storyline that exclusively focused on Nisei soldiers meant that the greater internment experience would become invisible. Interestingly, Dore Schary revealed in his autobiography Heyday that he originally planned to produce a drama on the internment camps. Much of his motives stemmed from his outrage when Japanese Americans became "victims of terror and panic, losing their homes, farms, equipment, and security." "That crime against them," he continued, "we wished to report." Robert Pirosh liked the idea, but never could develop a screenplay to either his or Schary's satisfaction. [31]

Despite this setback, Schary continued to search for a marketable topic, still committed to bringing the project to fruition. After debating other possible ideas with his director, Schary decided on the more uplifting story about the all-Nisei combat unit. One major reason for this shift, as he recounted, centered specifically on "the tensions of the 'cold war'." From this short but explicit statement, we can see how Schary's remembrance may have disclosed other possible reasons for his failure to make a film about internment. On the international front, to offer such a production at this time would have overtly compromised the integrity of American democracy in its propaganda war with communist states. How would it appear to the rest of the world when a supposedly freedom-loving society incarcerated its own citizens? Furthermore, Schary may have been swayed in filmmaking choices by memories of his confrontations in 1947 with the House of Un-American Activities Committee over the Hollywood blacklist. Appearing before the committee, the producer defiantly insisted that he would work with any talented individual, communist or not. Contemplating ideas for a film on the Japanese American experience a few years afterward, Schary may have thought that depicting internment camps would have invited more hyperbolic attacks on his patriotism and criticism of the nation. [32] Preferring instead to film the 442nd regiment's story, Schary subcribed to the Hollywood cliché of underdogs successfully overcoming an obstacle, here racial hostility, to showcase American openness to ethnic diversity.

This narrative had mass appeal for both American and overseas filmgoers. Schary later boasted about Go for Broke, "The picture was a success; as an ironic lagniappe, it was a roaring hit in Japan." [33] The reminiscence again is brief and undeveloped, but his intentions are clear about the film's impact. The Cold War had become an important factor in influencing his decisions about movies that indirectly encompassed both domestic and foreign policy debates. Other films like Japanese War Bride (1952), Tea House of the August Moon (1956) and Sayonara (1957) expressed similar sentiments about the reciprocal interest that Japanese and Americans had toward one another at this time. In 1950, Commonweal declared that after the Second World War, "the Japanese became people again" as opposed to the disparaging stereotypes of war propagandists. This new perspective affected the realm of popular culture, wherein "Hollywood used handsome Sessue Hayakawa in a Humphrey Bogart picture, and the photographers began to concentrate on Tokyo jitterbuggers, baseball players and the easy-to-look-at Oriental chanteuse." In 1955, the Saturday Evening Post agreed, emphasizing that "the American occupation of Japan has aroused American interest in things Japanese perhaps as much as it aroused Japanese interest in things American." [34] Possibly in this way, Go for Broke's success in Japan helped to assure its occupied inhabitants that Americans, despite their initial prejudices and faults, were fair-minded and appreciative toward their own citizens of Japanese ancestry, and thus indirectly, toward their Asian allies overseas.

Because of this altered mindset toward Japan, Hollywood as a whole acknowledged more sensitivity when portraying former adversaries of the United States. When reviewing Go for Broke, film critic for the New York Times Thomas F. Brady also considered how war pictures would be affected by the Korean War, thematically linking Schary's production about Nisei soldiers with U.S. foreign policy efforts in East Asia. He specifically noted the "changed orientation of the world" because of the ongoing conflict. With Japan now a U.S. ally in the fight against communist foes, Japanese atrocities during the Second World War were problematic to translate onscreen, and films about the Pacific theater became complicit in tweaking public memory. Brady reported on rumors that Twentieth Century Fox's production, American Guerilla in the Philippines (1950) "would be re-edited to minimize the villainies of the Japanese." On another front, RKO's re-issue of China Sky (1945) "caused a good many raised eyebrows because of the insidious comparisons it contained between the Chinese and the Japanese and because of its constant repetition of the epithet 'Nipponese devil dwarfs'." [35] In fact, the State Department, acting on behalf of the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, requested that the Motion Picture Association of America not distribute these and other films in Japan. [36] In light of this situation, Go for Broke, because of its glorification of the Nisei, performed well for Japanese moviegoers. Then again, Flying Leathernecks, produced in the same year as Go for Broke, could not be released in Japan since it showed John Wayne and other Marine characters battling the Japanese over Guadalcanal. Now that the communist Chinese were the enemies and the Japanese were U.S. allies, memories of the Second World War, in which the roles between these Asian nations were reversed, had to be reconceived for both domestic and overseas audiences that inhabited an age with altogether different foreign policy initiatives. [37]

Go for Broke reflected these new contexts and viewpoints. While charting the Nisei's experiences in training and combat, the plot also follows Lieutenant Michael Grayson (Van Johnson) as a bigot placed in charge of leading the Japanese American soldiers. Because of the Nisei's valor under fire, the lieutenant and other doubting white infantrymen become convinced that Japanese Americans are worthy citizens who had been unjustly treated. Several reasons for this major plotline can be easily discerned. MGM studios marketed Go for Broke as the successor to Battleground, another film that Van Johnson headlined. Accordingly, the promotion strategy behind Go for Broke was to attract viewers already familiar with Johnson's work in his earlier films. Go for Broke also belonged to the popular trend of the "race picture." In this formula, the main character, usually a white male, renounces his former prejudices against a particular group, especially when having his life saved under extreme circumstances by one or more of the persecuted minority. "Hollywood's current concern with the problem of racial and religious prejudice," the New York Times noticed in September 1950, "continues to lead movie-makers into new explorations of this apparently inexhaustible subject." Having already dealt with issues like anti-Semitism (Gentlemen's Agreement, 1947) as well as African Americans (Pinky, 1949; Home of the Brave, 1949), "the screen now is about to speak in behalf of the Japanese-Americans, or Nisei" in Go for Broke. [38]

1 | 2 | [3] | 4 | 5 | »

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

View Complete Archives