Book Review: Treason on the Airwaves by Judith Keene

Every once in a while, something reinforces just what vision those who wrote our Constitution had. The latest for me is Judith Keene’s Treason on the Airwaves: Three Allied Broadcasters on Axis Radio during World War II. The title is self-explanatory but, as the book observes, of the three countries examined — Great Britain, Australia and the United States — only the last deals with treason in its constitution.

Treason, in fact, is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution. It consists only of “levying War” against the U.S. or in adhering to [its] Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort” and conviction requires “the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.” Why did the nation’s founders impose such restrictions? The goal was that “ordinary partisan divisions within political society were not … escalated by the stronger into capital charges of treason, as so often had happened in England.” Their foresight rings true today when political partisanship includes suggesting any who disagree are traitors.

Keene’s examination of the prosecutions of a citizens of three different countries for broadcasts to Allied troops on German and Japanese radio during World War II makes one thing fairly clear, though. No legal principles, whether constitutional or statutory, can erase the emotion that surrounds and impacts treason cases. Treason on the Airwaves explores this primarily through the cases of John Amery, the product of a highly respected British family who became part of the Nazi propaganda machine; Charles Cousens, a major in the Australian armed services taken prisoner when the Japanese captured Singapore who later began broadcasting on Radio Tokyo; and Iva Toguri, the California-born student studying in Japan when the war broke out and who was prosecuted as “Tokyo Rose” even though she never used that name. Unfortunately, the Australian historian’s style and various errors undercut her effort.

Some of these problems begin at the outset with Amery’s story. Amery is the only one of the three broadcasters to plead guilty and the only one executed. Amery’s father was a respected government official and John Amery had spent much of his adult life on the European continent. He did, however, have strong anti-Semite and anti-communist views. In France when it fell to the Nazis, Amery spent much of the war traveling through Europe making speeches and broadcasts aimed at convincing Britons they should not fight Hitler’s Germany but, rather, worry about the threat of a communist Russia. Although Treason on the Airwaves considers various aspects of the case, ranging from Amery’s upbringing and his family’s post-plea contention that he had long been “morally insane” to Amery’s political views, Keene seems to back into the story. She not only begins with Amery’s execution, but seems to summarize much of what is coming in the following chapters. Those chapters then seem to blend events from various periods and, as such, Amery’s story seems disjointed rather than unfolded. Additionally, Keene’s writing style tends toward academic phrasing rather than the perhaps more readable reportage.

Cousens’ and Toguri’s experiences are approached more chronologically but are somewhat intermingled because the two worked together at Radio Tokyo. A variety of errors, both large and small, trouble the recounting. Most egregious is when Keene writes that the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 8, 1945, and on Nagasaki three days later. You need not be a historian to know Hiroshima was bombed on August 6, making this an embarrassing error, typographical or otherwise, for a historian.

Other lapses are perhaps closer to annoyances. Keene refers to Toguri’s July 4 birthday as making her a “genuine Yankee Doodle Dandee,” rather than “Dandy,” an error that would be less offending were the phrase not in quotes. She also writes that one U.S. serviceman “knew the date he had first seen” Tokyo Rose. As the serviceman was in a submarine in the South China Sea, he may have heard a Radio Tokyo broadcast but it is impossible for him to have seen the broadcaster.

Still, there is value to Treason on the Airwaves. It gives readers an overview of why radio broadcasts became part of the war effort and also takes a look inside both the Germany and Japanese radio efforts, although in greater detail with Japan’s. It also portrays the atmosphere in which these prosecutions were conducted, one in which animosities from the war had not dissipated. For example, many Australians agreed that Cousens, a well-known broadcaster before the war, should be prosecuted. “But even the most adamant among them,” Keene writes, “were aghast that any Australian, let alone a soldier, could be convicted on the testimony of a ‘Jap,’ to employ the expression invariably used.” Likewise, although released in 1946 without charges, Toguri was arrested again in 1947 when political commentator Walter Winchell stirred people up about “Jap traitors.” This came despite the fact the war crimes trials against Japanese leaders were being dropped.

Although Cousens went through a seven and a half week preliminary hearing, he never went to trial. Australia’s federal statutes applied only to treasonous acts committed in the country. Cousens ended up being charged under the laws of New South Wales but the state prosecutor, never enamored with the task, ultimately decided to drop the charges. Although Cousens admitted doing broadcasts and helping train other broadcasters, he insisted he and they were trying to send messages that provided useful information to Allied forces.

Keene also raises the question of the extent to which Toguri may have been selectively prosecuted. The book explains that “Tokyo Rose” was “a figure who had been conjured up in the GI imagination.” Toguri, who could barely speak Japanese when she arrived in Tokyo in September 1941 to visit relatives and study the language, always referred to herself on air as Ann, Orphan Ann or Orphan Annie. Treason on the Airwaves explores the extent to which the FBI interviewed servicemen to identify her by voice in an effort to find the requisite two witnesses to the same overt act. After a trial lasting nearly three months, the jury convicted Toguri on only one of eight treason counts in late September 1949. Some witnesses against her later said they lied or were bribed.

As a result of the conviction, Toguri served more than another six years in prison before being paroled. Despite the fact she lost her citizenship as a result of the conviction,leaving her stateless, she remained in America. She eventually received a full pardon from President Ford in 1977 that also restored her citizenship. There is, however, one thing the government was unable to restore. Toguri’s husband, a Portuguese citizen who also worked for Radio Tokyo, was allowed to come to San Francisco to testify at her trial only if he agreed to leave the country immediately after the trial and never attempt to return. As a result, Toguri never saw her husband again after 1949.

Amery, Cousens and Toguri were not the only English-speaking Axis broadcasters to be prosecuted for treason. Their stories, however, help provide an overview not only of the how such collaboration arose but the questions of law and justice such cases presented. That overview would be more effective were it not for apparent mistakes with details.

A retired brigadier general, writing to the Los Angeles Times on September, 3, 1972, encapsulated the sentiment: Tokyo Rose was part of “the good old days when Patriotism was still in flower and treason meant something.”

Judith Keene, Treason on the Airwaves

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