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How fair is “Fair Enough?” Westbrook Pegler and Japanese Americans - Part 1

On March 28, 1945, the Manzanar Free Press ran a remarkable article relating to Japanese Americans. In discussing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Korematsu vs. United States, the text cited the noted (and notorious) newspaperman Westbrook Pegler, who had proclaimed in his nationally syndicated column “Fair Enough” that Fred Korematsu had been convicted for violating a rule issued by “a lieutenant-general”—referring to General John DeWitt –“but (who) might as well have been a corporal.” In addition to lambasting DeWitt for incompetence, Pegler criticized Justice Felix Frankfurter for the court’s decision, stating that Frankfurter, as “an immigrant from an enemy country” [Austria] with dubious associations, should have been the one locked up, rather than the Japanese Americans.

Such fighting words and personal attacks were not unusual for Pegler. Yet the views that he expressed in the Korematsu column, and which were then recapitulated in the camp press, stand in ironic counterpoint to Pegler’s own previous history of anti-Japanese hostility, which culminated in his involvement in agitating for mass removal during early 1942. While Walter Lippmann and other columnists have frequently been cited as key figures in the media campaign against Japanese Americans, Pegler set himself apart by his inflammatory rhetoric.

Such tactics were nothing new for Westbrook Pegler. Long before Pearl Harbor, he had already established his trademark style as a conservative contrarian and sensationalist. In 1933, after several years as a popular sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Pegler was engaged as a regular columnist by the Scripps-Howard newspaper syndicate. Over the next years, his syndicated column, at first entitled “Mr. Pegler” and later “Fair Enough,” appeared in newspapers nationwide.

The column, which gained Pegler a nationwide readership, served as a soapbox for his tirades.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Westbrook Pegler in Pawling, New York. National Archives.

He was especially notorious for his slanders against the Roosevelt administration.  While at first Pegler was friendly to Franklin Roosevelt, he soon turned against the New Deal and spent many years regularly smearing the president and his family. At one point, Pegler lamented the failure of Giuseppe Zangara’s 1933 assassination attempt against Roosevelt, then President-elect, and he took pleasure in attacking First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whom he viciously referred to as “la boca grande” (the big mouth). His vitriol angered the Roosevelt family so much that at one point FDR’s sons James and Elliott Roosevelt hatched a plan to kidnap and horsewhip Pegler (Roosevelt shot down the idea, though he added with a smile, “it’s a grand idea – in principle”).

Pegler was also notable for his fear-mongering attacks on labor unions. Although he declared himself a friend of the workingman, he portrayed labor organizations as criminal entities exploiting the system created by the New Deal. Pegler’s notoriety grew after he received the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1941 for exposing racketeering within Hollywood labor unions.

Beyond his right-wing views and sensationalism, Pegler was controversial for his regular trafficking in anti-Semitic and racial stereotypes. In response to such bigotry, editor Oswald Garrison Villard (paraphrasing Senator George Norris) referred to Pegler as “the sewer system of American journalism.”

Pegler would employ these same tactics, including fear-mongering and slander, in his writing on Japanese Americans in early 1942. On January 1, 1942, he advocated the locking up in prison camps of supporters of the German Bund and pro-Fascist Italians suspected of disloyalty, stating that camps were a necessity of war. In the process, he repeated unfounded rumors of disloyal activity by Japanese Americans. “We have suffered badly already from the treachery of the Japanese Fifth Column in Hawaii and the Philippines.”  His first important intervention on the question of West Coast Japanese Americans came in his column of February 14, 1942. Writing in the wake of Walter Lippmann’s false claims that West Coast Issei and Nisei were preparing acts of sabotage,  Pegler argued that if Lippmann was correct, “the Japanese in California should be under armed guard to the last man and women right now and to hell with habeas corpus until the danger is over.” Within days of his article’s publication, editorials in support appeared in newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Press. Telegrams poured into the White House from across the United States, calling for throwing Japanese Americans into concentration camps.

In addition to calling on the Army to “round up” all Japanese Americans, Pegler targeted critics of mass incarceration. At the time of mass removal, the African American columnist E.P.H. [Erna P. Harris], writing in the Los Angeles Tribune, deplored the official exclusion of citizens of Japanese ancestry to “concentration camps” as an example of collective punishment for the real or assumed guilt of a few, all of which resembled a represented a “legalized community lynching.” Pegler responded in a May 16, 1942 column in which he repeated false claims of spying. “We know that some American natives of Japanese birth were traitorous spies who helped a treacherous enemy slaughter our people at Pearl Harbor.” In view of this, he insisted, thoughtful citizens should defer to military judgment. Despite his defense of official actions, Pegler was clearly uneasy about the policy. Even as he challenged Erna Harris to stand behind the military and government, he admitted that her charges were all painfully true.

His ambivalence grew over the year that followed. In late April 1943, at which time he found himself in Arizona, Pegler wrote two columns on the presence of Japanese Americans at Gila River (which he referred to as a “concentration camp which we call a relocation center”). These columns plainly show the contradictory nature of his feelings about mass confinement. In the first one, he explained that among the 14,000 people at Gila River were many American-born. Thus, “under our laws and our sometimes painful but continuing concept of liberty and citizenship” they were as American as President Roosevelt or General MacArthur. Yet, because a fraction (of unknowable size) among Japanese aliens and Japanese-indoctrinated American citizens presented a security threat, the government had adopted Hitler’s theory of “protective custody” to exclude all West Coast Japanese Americans. Pegler lamented that they were “all jumbled together, the loyal and the treacherous.” He freely admitted that he did not know how to resolve the matter. He stated, “This is not a New Deal problem or the result of any failure of willful social experiment. It is a dangerous and somewhat tragic development.”

In a second column, published the following day, Pegler asserted without evidence that many Japanese Americans were “hateful, reptilian enemies of our country,” but he admitted that if they sued for their freedom, the courts surely would have no grounds to hold them. However, since he maintained that “all Japs look alike,” if this were to happen, the loyal and disloyal would equally face reprisals and vigilante violence upon their return to the West Coast. As a result, Pegler insisted that the government should impose segregation on the inmates, and move the potentially disloyal into separate camps guarded by military police. Though Pegler did not specifically recommend freeing those deemed loyal, he commended Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes (a frequent target of Pegler’s scorn) for hiring Japanese Americans on his farm to get them out of camp as a positive step--a quote reprinted by the Grenada Pioneer

Read Part 2 >>

 

© 2021 Greg Robinson; Jonathan van Harmelen

columnist Korematsu vs. United States newspaper World War II