Treason on the Airwaves

Judith Keene, Treason on the Airwaves: Three Allied broadcasters on Axis radio during World War II (Praeger 2009)

An Englishman, an Australian and an American walk into a courtroom … It could be the start of a joke, but in this case it’s a fascinating study of three very different people who were charged with treason for their activities as radio broadcasters for the Axis powers, and the three very different ways their nations dealt with them. The subjects are John Amery, whose broadcasts for the Nazis included nasty anti-Jewish rants, Charles Cousens, who broadcast for the Japanese and expected (in vain) his Australian listeners to discern deeply embedded messages that would help in the war effort, and Iva Toguri, one of the 50 000 (yes, so many!) nisei trapped in Japan in 1941, who broadcast as Orphan Ann but was tried as Tokyo Rose.

Judith Keene says in her introduction that ‘the big patterns of history are made up of a great many micro-histories, individual stories, writ small and smaller’. The stories of individuals accused of treason must be one set of micro-histories that tests the big patterns: much as we might want the famous footage of the man dancing in Martin Place to represent the whole meaning of the Victory in the Pacific for Australians, there was a lot more going on than that. Along with the sheer joy that the War was over, in Australia as in Britain and the USA there was also quite a bit of racism-inflected vindictiveness around, for which these treason trials provided a conduit.

All three stories are fascinating, but Iva Toguri’s fills me with almost evangelical zeal. She was born in the USA, and was a cheerful, outgoing child and adolescence. Like many nisei, she identified as American, and her parents organised to send her to stay with relatives in Japan so she could learn Japanese language and culture properly. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, she refused to renounce her US citizenship and, cut off from her parents as a source of funds, found what work she could in a Tokyo where her US status was certainly not an advantage. As a typist in Radio Tokyo, where her fluency in English was valued, she took pity on the wretched US and Australian POWs, slipping them food and blankets at some risk to herself, and because she had a rich deep voice was soon invited across to be an announcer on Zero Hour, a program beamed out to Allied troops in the Pacific, consisting mainly of popular US music. Cutting a long story short, at the end of the war, while thousands of nisei who had renounced their US citizenship were readmitted to the US without question, at the prompting of the 1946 equivalents of today’s shock jocks, she was arrested, tried for treason in a process that was later shown to be unambiguously corrupt, imprisoned for decades, further harassed and humiliated on her release and then pardoned. Someone ought to make a movie about her. (And having written that last sentence I went googling and found that there is a movie in the works, to be directed by Frank ‘Shawshank Redemption‘ Darabont from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton.)

Judith is a friend of mine, so I might not have mentioned this next thing if Richard Walsh hadn’t done so at the launch in April: the book is dreadfully edited, to the point that the regular bloopers become a significant distraction. In the very first paragraph of the introduction, a punctuation error renders the second sentence close to nonsensical. ‘Grey’s Elergy‘ (two spelling errors) and ‘the dye was conclusively caste’ (two spelling errors and a redundancy) are not atypical. I’m very glad that Praeger Press of Connecticut published the book, but anyone who commits their manuscript to them should be warned that the detail of your text is not in safe hands. Anyone who wants to know what a line editor does will find this book instructive: the things that make it hard to read are the things an editor would have fixed. However, I recommend that you treat the frequent blemishes as you would mosquitoes on a bushwalk: irritating, but not enough to make you turn back.

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