Excerpts of the Munson Report Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As war with Japan became increasingly likely throughout 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that he did not have reliable information on the loyalty of Japanese immigrants, called Issei, and the first-generation American citizens of Japanese descent, called Nisei, who were centered predominantly on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Curtis B. Munson was tasked with finding out the answers to Roosevelt's questions. Munson conducted a thorough investigation, traveling throughout the West Coast and speaking with intelligence agents, military officials, Japanese Americans, and people who lived in the same communities as Japanese Americans. The report that Munson produced, which reached Roosevelt one month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, presented detailed information on the Japanese immigrant and Japanese American communities, drawing conclusions about their loyalties and offering concrete recommendations as to the best way to proceed should war break out with Japan.

Summary Overview

As war with Japan became increasingly likely throughout 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt felt that he did not have reliable information on the loyalty of Japanese immigrants, called Issei, and the first-generation American citizens of Japanese descent, called Nisei, who were centered predominantly on the West Coast and in Hawaii. Curtis B. Munson was tasked with finding out the answers to Roosevelt's questions. Munson conducted a thorough investigation, traveling throughout the West Coast and speaking with intelligence agents, military officials, Japanese Americans, and people who lived in the same communities as Japanese Americans. The report that Munson produced, which reached Roosevelt one month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, presented detailed information on the Japanese immigrant and Japanese American communities, drawing conclusions about their loyalties and offering concrete recommendations as to the best way to proceed should war break out with Japan.

Defining Moment

Japanese immigration to the United States began in the late nineteenth century, particularly in the 1880s as Japanese legal restrictions on emigration from that country began were relaxed. Between 1886 and 1911, some four hundred thousand Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States, settling predominantly along the West Coast and the US-controlled islands of Hawaii. Though they faced discrimination and a legal system stacked against them in the United States, many became successful farmers and business owners. In fact, as of 1940, Japanese Americans owned nearly half a million acres of farmland in California. In 1941, nearly 40 percent of the Hawaiian population was of Japanese descent. Discrimination was a fact of life for most ethnic minorities in the United States, and the Japanese were no different. They faced legal restrictions on immigration and land ownership as well as widespread social discrimination.

The so-called Gentlemen's Agreement between the United States and Japan in 1907 ended segregation in San Francisco's public schools (considered an insult to national pride in Japan) in exchange for curtailing further emigration from Japan to the United States, with the exception of certain professionals. California's Alien Land Law of 1913 prevented immigrants who were ineligible for US citizenship from owning land in California. The US Immigration Act of 1924 implemented a national origins quota for immigration to the United States and ended immigration from Japan and other Asian nations completely. On top of such legal restrictions, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 made things even worse for Japanese Americans, as many white Americans saw them as competition for scarce jobs. Japanese Americans responded to widespread discriminatory practices by creating organizations such as the Japanese American Citizens League, both to fight discrimination and to create infrastructure to support the Japanese community.

Throughout the 1930s, it became apparent that the Empire of Japan had plans to expand into both China and the islands of the western Pacific. The United States, wishing to maintain naval supremacy in the Pacific, began to view the Japanese as a potential threat. When war broke out, pitting Nazi Germany against the United Kingdom and France in 1939, the United States went out of its way to emphasize its neutrality, and most Americans had no desire to become embroiled in another foreign war, whether in Europe or the Pacific. However, as the conflict grew, it became apparent to many that American involvement in World War II was simply a matter of time. In light of this, the Alien Registration Act was passed in 1940, requiring all foreign-born noncitizens over the age of fourteen to register with the federal government and submit fingerprints. US officials began conducting intelligence operations to formulate federal policy regarding Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the United States in the event of war with Japan, and in 1941, Curtis B. Munson was tasked with assessing the loyalty of the Japanese American community.

Author Biography

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought intelligence to determine whether Japanese Americans might pose a threat to the United States if the country went to war with Japan, Curtis B. Munson was appointed a special representative of the US State Department. His task was to supplement espionage on this issue by the Federal Bureau of Investigation or other official federal investigative services, including the Navy and Army intelligence services. Munson, a Chicago businessman, was granted investigative powers to formulate conclusions regarding the loyalties of the Japanese population. Munson covered three naval districts along the West Coast and Hawaii in October and early November 1941, and his findings supported the conclusions of the FBI and military intelligence agencies that the Japanese American population at large posed no discernible threat to national security. Munson was married to golfer Edith Cummings and died in 1979.

Historical Document

1. The ISSEI -- First generation of Japanese. Entire cultural background Japanese. Probably loyal romantically to Japan. They must be considered, however, as other races. They have made this their home. They have brought up children here, their wealth accumulated by hard labor is here, and many would have become American citizens had they been allowed to do so. They are for the most part simple people. Their age group is largely 55 to 65, fairly old for a hard-working Japanese.

The Issei, or first generation, is considerably weakened in their loyalty to Japan by the fact that they have chosen to make this their home and have brought up their children here. They expect to die here. They are quite fearful of being put in a concentration camp. Many would take out American citizenship if allowed to do so. The haste of this report does not allow us to go into this more fully. The Issei have to break with their religion, their god and Emperor, their family, their ancestors and their after-life in order to be loyal to the United States. They are also still legally Japanese. Yet they do break, and send their boys off to the Army with pride and tears. They are good neighbors. They are old men fifty-five to sixty-five, for the most part simple and dignified. Roughly they were Japanese lower middle class, about analogous to the pilgrim fathers.

2. The NISEI -- Second generation who have received their whole education in the United States and usually, in spite of discrimination against them and a certain amount of insults accumulated through the years from irresponsible elements, show a pathetic eagerness to be Americans. They are in constant conflict with the orthodox, well disciplined family life of their elders. Age group -- 1 to 30 years.

There are still Japanese in the United States who will tie dynamite around their waist and make a human bomb out of themselves. We grant this, but today they are few. Many things indicate that very many joints in the Japanese set-up show age, and many elements are not what they used to be. The weakest from a Japanese standpoint are the Nisei. They are universally estimated from 90 to 98 percent loyal to the United States if the Japanese-educated element of the Kibei is excluded. The Nisei are pathetically eager to show this loyalty. They are not Japanese in culture. They are foreigners to Japan. Though American citizens they are not accepted by Americans, largely because they look differently and can be easily recognized. The Japanese American Citizens League should be encouraged, the while an eye is kept open, to see that Tokio does not get its finger in this pie -- which it has in a few cases attempted to do. The loyal Nisei hardly knows where to turn. Some gesture of protection or wholehearted acceptance of this group would go a long way to swinging them away from any last romantic hankering after old Japan. They are not oriental or mysterious, they are very American and are of a proud, self-respecting race suffering from a little inferiority complex and a lack of contact with the white boys they went to school with. They are eager for this contact and to work alongside them.

3. The KIBEI -- This is an important division of the NISEI. This is the term used by the Japanese to signify those American born Japanese who received part or all of their education in Japan. In any consideration of the KIBEI they should be again divided into two classes, i.e. those who received their education in Japan from childhood to about 17 years of age and those who received their early formative education in the United States and returned to Japan for four or five years Japanese education. The Kibei are considered the most dangerous element and closer to the Issei with special reference to those who received their early education in Japan. It must be noted, however, that many of those who visited Japan subsequent to their early American education come back with added loyalty to the United States. In fact it is a saying that all a Nisei needs is a trip to Japan to make a loyal American out of him. The American educated Japanese is a boor in Japan and treated as a foreigner…

4. The SANSEI -- The Third generation of Japanese is a baby and may be disregarded for the purpose of our survey….

…the Hawaiian Japanese does not suffer from the same inferiority complex or feel the same mistrust of the whites that he does on the mainland. While it is seldom on the mainland that you find even a college-educated Japanese-American citizen who talks to you wholly openly until you have gained his confidence, this is far from the case in Hawaii. Many young Japanese there are fully as open and frank and at ease with a white as white boys are. In a word, Hawaii is more of a melting pot because there are more brown skins to melt -- Japanese, Hawaiian, Chinese and Filipino. It is interesting to note that there has been absolutely no bad feeling between the Japanese and the Chinese in the islands due to the Japanese-Chinese war. Why should they be any worse toward us?

Due to the preponderance of Japanese in the population of the Islands, a much greater proportion of Japanese have been called to the draft than on the mainland. As on the mainland they are inclined to enlist before being drafted. The Army is extremely high in its praise of them as recruits… They are beginning to feel that they are going to get a square deal and some of them are really almost pathetically exuberant….

The story was all the same. There is no Japanese `problem' on the Coast. There will be no armed uprising of Japanese. There will undoubtedly be some sabotage financed by Japan and executed largely by imported agents… In each Naval District there are about 250 to 300 suspects under surveillance. It is easy to get on the suspect list, merely a speech in favor of Japan at some banquet being sufficient to land one there. The Intelligence Services are generous with the title of suspect and are taking no chances. Privately, they believe that only 50 or 60 in each district can be classed as really dangerous. The Japanese are hampered as saboteurs because of their easily recognized physical appearance. It will be hard for them to get near anything to blow up if it is guarded. There is far more danger from Communists and people of the Bridges type on the Coast than there is from Japanese. The Japanese here is almost exclusively a farmer, a fisherman or a small businessman. He has no entree to plants or intricate machinery.

In case we have not made it apparent, the aim of this report is that all Japanese Nationals in the continental United States and property owned and operated by them within the country be immediately placed under absolute Federal control. The aim of this will be to squeeze control from the hands of the Japanese Nationals into the hands of the loyal Nisei who are American citizens… It is the aim that the Nisei should police themselves, and as a result police their parents.

Glossary

preponderance: superiority in weight, number, power, etc.

Document Analysis

Curtis B. Munson provides a snapshot of Japanese immigrant and Japanese American society in his report to President Roosevelt, and in so doing, gives insight into how he thought their loyalties would play out in the event that the United States went to war with Japan. Though he breaks down Japanese American society into a number of different groups, the two that primarily concern Roosevelt—as they accounted for the vast majority of the community—are the Issei, immigrants from Japan, and the Nisei, the first-generation American children of the Issei.

The older, Japanese-born Issei, according to Munson, although still culturally Japanese, have chosen a life in the United States, turning their backs on Japan. He notes the pride with which they watch their children participate in American life, including service in the armed forces. In an effort to connect his evaluation with something Roosevelt would know, he compares the Issei with the “pilgrim fathers,” who had turned their backs on England to come to America. As older people who have consciously broken with their past, Munson does not consider the Issei to be a threat.

Similarly, Munson describes the Nisei as “pathetically eager” to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States. Born and raised in the United States, they are American citizens, yet they face widespread discrimination. Munson suggests that even the smallest gesture of acceptance or protection by government authorities would essentially complete the community's cultural conversion. Though there is a small portion of the Nisei known as the Kibei, who received part of their education in Japan, by and large Munson viewed the Nisei as completely assimilated to American society and a reliable ally in time of war. He observes that the Hawaiian Japanese American population is even more Americanized than Japanese Americans on the West Coast, as they are considered locals and are largely accepted by other ethnic groups in the state.

Munson concludes with an assessment and a recommendation. First, he plainly states that “there is no Japanese ‘problem’ on the Coast.” He asserts that the vast majority of the population will remain loyal to the United States in the event of war with Japan. Though a few might cooperate with Japan, they have already been identified by intelligence agencies and are under close surveillance; even those who are willing to conduct sabotage against the United States will have a difficult time conducting covert actions due to their “easily recognized physical appearance.” He recommends increased security measures at potential targets for sabotage, such as power plants and dams, arguing that “it will be hard for them to get near anything to blow up if it is guarded.” Finally, in order to minimize the possibility of Japanese property being used against the United States, Munson recommends that the federal government oversee the transfer of property from the Issei to their children, as he sees the Nisei as the most trustworthy part of the community.

Essential Themes

Tragically, Munson's recommendations were never implemented. Although his report was delivered to Roosevelt on November 7, 1941, more strident voices, such as Western Defense Command General John L. DeWitt, held sway. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Munson could find no espionage activity among Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. Munson delivered additional reports to Roosevelt in December 1941 and February 1942. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Munson called for the government to issue a statement of support, honoring the loyalty of the Nisei and supporting their integration into the war effort. His recommendations were ultimately ignored.

On the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, in which more than 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded, Roosevelt ordered all aliens who had been declared “subversives” to be taken into custody, and by the morning of December 8, more than seven hundred Japanese were in custody, with another five hundred arrested within the next twenty-four hours. All of this Munson supported, but on December 15, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox made the unsubstantiated statement that subversion by Japanese residents in Hawaii had been responsible for the success of the Japanese attack, and public opinion quickly focused on the “Japanese problem.”

Following both public opinion and DeWitt's advice, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which allowed for the exclusion of Japanese Americans from areas declared to be “military zones.” The entire West Coast was so declared, given that it was home to many military bases and factories producing war matériel. The order was not focused on suspected subversives, but rather on all people of Japanese ancestry, regardless of their citizenship or prior record. More than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans were forced out of their homes and into internment camps for the duration of the war in what is remembered as one of the worst infringements of civil liberties of the twentieth century in the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Kumamoto, Bob. “The Search for Spies: American Counterintelligence and the Japanese-American Community 1931–1943.” Amerasia Journal 6.2 (1979): 45–75. Print.
  • Muller, Eric L. American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.
  • Takahashi, Jerrold Haruo. Nisei/Sansei: Shifting Japanese American Identities and Politics. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. Print.
  • Weglyn, Michi Nishiura. Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America's Concentration Camps. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1996. Print.
  • Yoo, David K. Growing Up Nisei: Race, Generation, and Culture among Japanese Americans of California, 1929–49. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2000. Print.
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