Professor Eric Muller’s New Book, “Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe: Complicity and Conscience in America’s World War II Concentration Camps”, Tells the Story of Lawyers Who Ran the Camps and How They Reconciled Their Actions

June 12, 2023

By Michele Lynn

As one of the leading scholars on the removal and imprisonment of Japanese Americans in World War II, Eric Muller has spent decades researching and writing about the injustices suffered by these American citizens. In his recent book, Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe: Complicity and Conscience in America’s World War II Concentration Camps, Muller focuses his moral compass on three of the white lawyers who worked as project attorneys for the War Relocation Authority, the civilian agency charged with handling the detention camps. These attorneys  provided legal counsel to camp prisoners while also keeping the camp running. Muller explores how Jerry Housel at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, Ted Haas at Poston in Arizona, and James Hendrick Terry at Gila River in Arizona—as well as Japanese American prisoner-lawyer Thomas Masuda, who worked alongside Hass—balanced their professional ethics with their day-to-day responsibilities which perpetuated racial injustice.

Muller, the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law, was first exposed to the story of Japanese American removal and imprisonment during his first teaching job, at the University of Wyoming College of Law between 1994 and 1998. “While teaching a very famous case, Korematsu v. United States, that emerged from this chapter of history, I found that my students—who were almost exclusively from Wyoming—had no idea that this was their own history,” says Muller, noting that one of the 10 detention camps was in northwest Wyoming.

Years later, Muller’s role as a faculty member of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), prompted him to think about the role that attorneys played in reinforcing the internment system. FASPE, an educational nonprofit, provides fellowships to American and international graduate students in professional schools and to early-career professionals to travel Europe on a two-week study trip to focus on how the professions in Nazi Germany in the 1930s were instrumental in the construction of the Nazi State. “We use those examples of Nazi perpetrator professionals to encourage reflection among young, professionals about their own choices and the power that they hold,” says Muller. “I came to see the range of discretion that American lawyers had, during World War II, to participate in this developing system, resist it in small ways, or to change it from within.”

When Muller began his research for this book project, he wondered how lawyers could reconcile themselves to running internment camps. In reading the attorneys’ voluminous correspondence—biweekly letters to the home office, documenting in rich detail their actions, thoughts, and feelings—Muller saw that the lawyers understood the immorality of the detention program and the loyalty of the Japanese American population. He says that he was initially convinced that the attorneys should have quit and worked against the system from the outside.

But his views were transformed through his research as he came to see the amount of discretion the lawyers had in defining their jobs. Housel, Haas, and Terry helped the prisoners and positively influenced other white administrators in the camps. “I came to see the range of good and bad that these lawyers were able to do,” says Muller. “It became clear to me that there is a role within bad systems for people trying to make them better or trying to prevent them from going further off the rails.”

He says that these are important roles for professionals to play, as long as they have certain lines that they won’t cross. “If lawyers commit to being reflective and asking themselves whether they have slipped too far into something that they disapprove of, then there’s a role for them in these kinds of systems,” says Muller. “During this project, I developed a different vision of roles that professionals can play that have value and are positive even if the system itself is overall a major injustice, as this one was.”

Lawyer, Jailer, Ally, Foe differs from Muller’s previous books because he employs a novelistic style in this volume. Thanks to visits to the camps, contemporary newspapers published in the camps, interviews with some of the attorneys’ descendants, and particularly the vast epistolary evidence, Muller developed a strong personal sense of the attorneys. In his book, he created dialogue for the men based on their writing and the writing about them, to give readers a sense of them as people. As Muller observes in the book’s preface, “Unjust systems are mostly run not by moral monsters but by ordinary people like us, people with plausible, self-comforting stories to tell about tempering evil.”

While the book does not focus on the Japanese American prisoners themselves, it captures  a slice of their lives of that has mostly gone undocumented. As Muller notes, people go to lawyers because they’re having problems. “When an oral historian asks questions of former detainees, people might not say, ‘That’s where I got divorced,’” he says. “But these were human beings on whom a terrible injustice was being perpetuated, who were cooped up and confined in these very difficult surroundings so their lives included the types of things in which lawyers would need to be involved. This book opens up another little window on the lives of the prisoners.”

While Muller hopes for a diverse readership for this book, he has reached out to law firms to bring this story to their attorneys through virtual book clubs and discussions.  He says, “I think that the sharpest ethical questions will emerge specifically for lawyer readers who will look at these stories and be able to say, ‘What would I have done if I had had this job? and ‘Is there anything about what I do in my current job that reminds me of some of the dilemmas that these guys were facing?’”