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

This conversion narrative made for enlightening drama. But it also held larger implications for the global contest between democracy and communism, particularly if Americans conscientious about domestic racism had reservations about their nation's abilities to attract Japan's allegiance. The Nation posed a question in 1958 when documenting Earl Warren's career as California's Attorney General in the 1940s: "Can a man who looks upon the 'colored' races as inferior, or fundamentally different, change his mind?" Warren had suspected Japanese Americans as disloyal because of their ethnic ancestry and devotedly enforced internment as a necessary policy. He later renounced this view and as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presided over the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The article notably surmised that Warren's change in feelings toward Japanese Americans was due to their military service, which in turn made him more accepting of all racial minorities. As the Nation profile made clear, however, this reversal of earlier repugnant attitudes carried significance beyond any individual, given that the United States actively competed with communist states for potential allies. "[T]he larger part of the human population is colored," the writer stressed. "If we fail to overcome prejudice at home, our leadership will never be accepted in Asia and Africa and the Middle East." [39] In Go for Broke, Lieutenant Grayson's personal transition from bigot to appreciative soldier spoke to the Cold War culture of integration. Showing Grayson's acceptance of Japanese Americans as fellow Americans demonstrated a change of heart that, at least metaphorically, encompassed domestic and foreign policy concerns. As Cold War expectations went, those who had supported internment and then renounced their former racial views would join the rest of the nation in recognizing and welcoming Japan as a valuable ally.

Concerns with international relations converged with race relations in one key scene from the film when Grayson and his men capture a German position while campaigning in Italy. Taken prisoners after the skirmish, the German soldiers look in shock when they see American forces with Asian faces approaching. "What kind of troops are these? Chinese?" a confused officer asks Grayson. The lieutenant jokingly explains: "Japanese. Didn't Hitler tell you? Japan surrendered and they're fighting on our side now." Audiences would have recognized this statement as a reference to their own Cold War era since Japan was indeed a U.S. ally at the time of the film's appearance. The contexts of the Korean War would also have been familiar to the film's viewers. Particularly in 1950-51, when Go for Broke was produced and released, the military situation in Korea proved disastrous for the United States. North Korea had attacked its southern neighbor, pushing past the 38th parallel. But United Nations forces, mostly comprised of American soldiers, repulsed the invasion back north near China's border along the Yalu River. This engagement and proximity then brought Chinese troops into the conflict by the hundreds of thousands. The Red Army drove the Americans southward until in mid-1951 the Chinese were stopped and the war became a stalemate. To U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials, the situation demanded that Japan become an ever more vital player in the region, wherein attempts to rearm it intensified to provide an additional military presence in the American line of defense. [40]

The rearmament of Japan in one sense corresponded with the arming of Nisei during the Second World War. The sight of Japanese American soldiers battling Nazis in Go for Broke would remind audiences of a past that proved righteous and certain just as rearming Japan would ideally guarantee a stronger deterrent against communist forces in the Pacific. Film scholar Peter Biskind notes that because of the uncertainties of the Cold War — stalemate in Korea, indiscernible enemies domestic and foreign — movies about the Second World War nostalgically represented conflict in more clear terms of good and evil. [41] Go for Broke belonged to this postwar genre but on a grander stage since the Nisei soldiers had to overcome racism at home as well as Nazis abroad. This narrative pattern also suggested that selfless and faithful Nisei men and the Japanese overseas could be depended upon as staunch allies.

Go for Broke also prescribed to what Biskind has called the "corporate-liberal" war film of the 1950s, which "gave the army good grades, first because they were interested in prosecuting the cold war, second because it was an easy way of illustrating the necessity of sacrifice, and third because it was an organization permeated by the Social Ethic" of respecting the group over the individual. [42] Go for Broke adhered to this theme of consensus, but not in the usual way because of the film's subtext of internment and the racism that provoked it. The corporate-liberal principle, however, only reinforced what the film attempted to disclose about racial prejudice. This ethos dictated that Grayson submerge his faults and prejudices to the institution of the Army. Before his transformation to enlightened American, Grayson is a self-interested character who feels comfortable only with his fellow Texans. When first assigned to the Nisei regiment, he asks for a transfer to his old Texas division, noting with distinct glumness: "A guy gets into the war to fight the Japs and ends up fighting with them." Yet, along with the Nisei's determination and heroism, the Army also works on his prejudices, making Grayson conform to its wishes. Several times, Grayson's superior officers admonish him for his insubordinate outlook. The commanding officer at the training facility in Camp Shelby, Mississippi upbraids Grayson for his racism, rejects his request for a transfer, and lectures him about the Nisei's American citizenship. At another moment, Grayson has a prolonged flirtation with a woman in Italy and his unit moves along without him. Grayson manages to catch up, but the regiment's captain threatens him with a court martial, snarling: "Ever since you've joined the outfit you've been the one man in this company who's been out of step. You'd better pick it up, Lieutenant, and pick it up fast . . . !" This rebuke comes on the heels of the captain's praise of Grayson's men, who understand and carry out orders with efficiency.

Throughout the film, decisive moments reveal Grayson's progress. During one instance on the transport ship taking the troops to Europe, Grayson reads an army manual about his expected behavior toward the Italian civilians. The book warns him that the citizenry had been influenced unduly by fascist propaganda about the coarseness of American soldiers. The troops should then resist the temptation to reinforce that propaganda with their own biases. "Racial prejudice," the text announces, "is abhorrent to our American concept of Democracy." The telling words operate on two levels. Domestically, they reproach Grayson's and others' discrimination against the Japanese Americans because he reads the manual and then glances toward his men, presumably thinking about his past thoughts and behaviors. With regard to foreign policy, the manual also advises conscientious attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Italian populace suffering under a fascist government. Americans, the manual notes, "may gain the future consideration and support of the Italian people in our effort to restore world order." The timing of these words not only applies to the Nisei soldiers and the soon-to-be occupied Italians, but also forecasts future relations with other peoples and nations that either may be led astray by the communists or that now experience occupation by U.S. forces such as Germany and Japan. Here again, the film speaks to the Cold War period by merging domestic and foreign policy issues in which the treatment of racial minorities on the home front coincides with the broader agenda of integrating other cultures and nations into an anti-communist alliance.

Go for Broke reveals another turning point in Grayson's conversion through his encounter with a fellow Texan, Sergeant Wilson Culley. Grayson gets his wish in getting reassigned to his former Texas division, but only because the unit needs the artillery power of the 442nd when campaigning in France. But when the two groups merge, we see that Culley is a bigot in the same mold as Grayson had once been. By this time, Grayson is fully accepting of his men, even lecturing Culley about the Nisei in almost the same words that the Camp Shelby commander had used to reprove Grayson at the beginning of the film. To this admonishment, Culley growls: "What are you, a Jap-lover or something?" Grayson has no choice then and fights Culley to defend the Nisei soldiers' honor. By beating Culley, a former friend, Grayson also rejects his past beliefs and actions. The film exposes the transition from race prejudice to gratitude not only within the individual but perhaps within the nation as well.

One must be cautious though in viewing Grayson's growing appreciation for his Nisei charges as representative of the nation's since he and Culley are the only outwardly racist characters in the film. Others in the Texas battalion certainly appear more accommodating to the Nisei's presence. As the two units exchange greetings, one Nisei calls out "Howdy, partner" to a Texan, who in turn responds, "Aloha!" At a tavern, we see Nisei and white soldiers performing a hula dance together. The commanding officers at Camp Shelby and in the field are appreciative of the Japanese Americans from the start and scold Grayson about his prejudices. When the Nisei troops first march by to embark on their overseas journey to Europe, one officer readily endures correction by a Nisei subordinate as the officer calls out the roll, often erroneously, of Japanese surnames. Go for Broke thus displays Grayson and Culley as exceptions to the more idealized, consistently tolerant, average white American. Racial prejudice then is not entrenched but merely a correctable nuisance within the nation, a message that attempts both to discount internment as a domestic oversight and to convince other nations of American goodwill.

But the film divulges inconsistencies about tolerance and prejudice when taking on the subject of internment. Given the premise of portraying the Nisei as model minorities that everyone else should aspire to, then why the need for internment in the first place? Why also the necessity for segregated Nisei units directed only by white officers? The commanding officer at Camp Shelby, in lecturing Grayson about the Nisei, actually defends internment not through war hysteria but from uncertainty about the Japanese possibly attacking the West Coast. Thus the film's message is: on the one hand, it is a pity that the Japanese Americans are incarcerated, but on the other hand, the U.S. government had little choice in evacuating them for defensive purposes. No character in the film mentions racial prejudice as a prime motivation. The onscreen readiness of the Nisei to serve in the military, however, circumvents this troubling issue about the prevalent racism within American society. Once the Japanese American soldiers prove themselves as team players in this corporate-liberal society, they are enthusiastically welcomed, even at the expense of an individual like Lieutenant Grayson. The broader fight against communism meant that responsible Americans had to condemn bigoted views expressed by people like Grayson to the point where he would then readily accept the status quo of this imagined pluralism.

Go for Broke revealed the nation as a benevolent institution in allowing for the recruitment of the Nisei, but in the process, reframed the history of internment. At the film's beginning, two texts materialize onscreen to establish the circumstances of forming the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. A quote first appears from Franklin D. Roosevelt made on February 1, 1943 authorizing the use of Japanese Americans in the military. Justifying the decision, he presented the nation as racially tolerant: "The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry." Roosevelt reinforced the mythic narrative that the nation looks to its population as one that expresses its "Americanism" internally, that these values would never be racially marked. This message served to override Roosevelt's previous Executive Order 9066 to commence internment, which would only undermine his more tolerant declaration to enlist the Nisei, should anyone remember. But with the nation in the midst of the Cold War, Roosevelt's statement about "Americanism" reminded citizens of their higher sense of idealism and patriotism that set them apart from the communists within the United States as well as those overseas. And so Executive Order 9066 and the internment it authorized was conveniently forgotten.

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

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