Rosie O’Donnell is a woman who has built a career out of celebrity, pop culture and controversy. When she went off the deep end the other day, alleging that the kidnap of British sailors by Iran was part of a larger, nefarious plot by the United States and Britain to escalate and extend the Iraqi conflict, most of us found it hilarious and perhaps a bit silly. To Bill O’Reilly, however, this proved her treasonous bent of mind, and he immediately labeled her “Tokyo Rosie”.
Brilliance and ignorance: it should be the tagline for O’Reilly’s show.
For “Tokyo Rosie” is an allusion to the infamous “Tokyo Rose”, a woman who broadcast Japanese propaganda to American and other Allied soldiers during the Second World War. In actual fact, no such woman existed. “Tokyo Rose” was a group of about 20 women who worked at Radio Tokyo.
After the war was over, however, one woman bore the brunt of American law – Iva Toguri D’Aquino. In 1949, Iva was charged and convicted of one out of eight counts of treason and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The most damaging evidence was provided by two men: Kenkichi Oki and George Mitsushio. She served six years before she was released.
It was a reporter, Ron Yates of the Chicago Tribune, who later pieced together the fact that she was innocent.
So who was Iva?
She was an American citizen, born in Los Angeles, who was stuck in Japan during the war. The outbreak of hostilities meant that she couldn’t return home; nevertheless, she refused to surrender her American citizenship even though the Imperial Army was doing pretty well at that point and it would definitely have been the easier option.
Denied war rations as an acknowledged “enemy of the state”, Iva had to earn money or starve. She went to work as a transcriber, then announcer for the radio show that would eventually prove her downfall.
Earlier, Iva had risked a great deal to sneak in food to prisoners of war at a nearby camp. Several of the Allied prisoners there had been tortured into working at the radio station where she began work. When asked to host The Zero Hour, she refused to disparage her home country.
The men who wrote the scripts – Australian Army Major Charles Cousens (producer), U.S. Army Captain Wallace “Ted” Ince (Asst.) and Philippine Army Lieutenant Normando Ildefonso “Norman” Reyes (Asst.) – assured her that that would not happen and she went on to host 340 broadcasts of the show. She would use the money earned not only to support herself but also allied POWs.
Immediately after the war, she was investigated by both the FBI and the US Army and set free. She then petitioned the American government for a speedy return to the United States so her child could be born on her home soil. It is at this point that Walter Winchell enters the picture.
Winchell is one of those influential people of grey hue who often have such lasting impact on all of us. Most of us have never heard of him but it is he who began to demolish the barriers between private and public life. Every time you bemoan ‘celebrity culture’ and ‘tabloid press’ and ‘yellow journalism’, the man you have to thank is Walter Winchell. Put it this way – if you combined every single gossip columnist and loud-mouthed pundit on TV, radio and press today, they might perhaps equal the impact of Winchell in his day.
He broke confidences, he made things up, he supported Joseph McCarthy on all his witchhunts to the point of oblivion, he was vindictive, arrogant… give him some snazzy makeup and he’d made the best paper villain you ever saw.
But Winchell also had another side to him – he was amazingly prescient about some things. He was amongst the first to see the evil in fascism and the policies of Adolf Hitler; in the wake of the Second World War, he was also amongst the first to note the threat posed by Communism.
Unfortunately, that very recognition turned him into a fear monger par extraordinaire. If McCarthy had his modus operandi, Winchell had his own. One of his victims was Iva D’Aquino a.k.a. the woman he decided was “Tokyo Rose”.
But he was only the frontrunner in the pack that hounded her into prison. In postwar America, demand was high for a public face to attach to the voice of “Tokyo Rose”, the sexy voice that had so enticed and demoralized Allied troops.
Yates of the Tribune would find that the main witnesses, upon whose testimony Iva was found guilty of treason, both lied under oath. They were forced to do so, they said, by the FBI (then run by Winchell’s good friend, J. Edgar Hoover) and U.S. occupation police.
It took roughly thirty years, until 1977 in fact for President Gerald Ford to pardon Iva and restore her citizenship. She never criticized the treatment meted out to her and died in Chicago in 2006, age 90, her silence unbroken.
And that’s the story of Tokyo Rose – the story of the genesis of the culture we take for granted today and the great pitfalls it creates for the unwary, both wrapped up in one big bow.