Yellow Peril or Yellow Journalism?

Ships on the Horizon

William Randolph Hearst peered out to the western horizon through his maritime telescope. The moon was full and sky was clear. From his sitting room that joined his bedroom and that of his companion, Marion Davis, he had a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean from a magnificent castle/home that he had built over the past decade. Atop the highest hill above San Simeon, it was all most as if he could see Japan if only he looked carefully enough. Instead, Hearst focused on 2 boats curiously rendezvousing on the distant horizon. He had watched one motor out, presumably from Pismo Beach meet the other; they appeared to be fishing boats. The one had come the East, awaiting its counterpart on the horizon.

With his high power telescope aided the crystal clear sky on a moonlit night, he could see much. Curiously, neither flew flags, but he was able to see the hull markings. A few dozen packages were exchanged from the boat at sea to the other vessel. He spied any markings on the packages he could – letters he could not recognize. Japanese characters, he reasoned. Then, three men left the in-bound vessel to board the other boat, and two men in exchange boarded the outbound boat. With his telescope, he looked to the faces of the men in exchange – all most certainly Japanese.

At the completion of the exchange, the inbound boat started a journey south, destination unknown. The other boat remained. Hearst was about to retire for the night, thinking all that to be seen was over. He sets his telescope down and starts writing some notes including the boat markings on a pad of paper. Before he finishes, a large explosion with fireworks that light the sky emanates from near the location of the boats. The remaining boat was undamaged, and, Hearst realizes that the vessel was a fireboat, as it quickly douses the flames with hoses. Once the fire was extinguished, the outbound vessel retraces its path, presumably back to where it came.

Hearst was obviously curious about the explosion. An accident perhaps? And, in general, what were the boats doing and who were the owners?

The United States Coast Guard was also observing the rendezvous but from the water. They were aware of increased activities on the coast by Japanese vessels and were tracking much of the activity. Their concerns were diffuse, as they did not know the true intent of these exchanges. Drugs, human trafficking, and espionage were potentials that the government was concerned about. And, tonight, they realize that munitions were another threat they should consider. Indeed it turns out that Yamamoto himself was on the outbound vessel. And the inbound vessel was carrying explosives headed to Ensenada. They too were unclear – was the explosion an accident, a test, or a warning? What threats lurked at sea, they pondered.

While unsatisfied that his observations raised more questions than answers, Hearst retires for the night.

A Story Relished

Hearst awakens at 6AM, per usual. His coffee awaits in his sitting room, amid the delivery of Hearst newspapers from throughout the country. He spends an hour, per his morning ritual, of reading all the papers (at least scanning the head lines) and enjoying his morning caffeine wake up. Davis emerges from her room, but quietly exits, knowing not to disturb Hearst during his morning routine. She knew an interruption would set him off into an angry rage. It was his one-hour of personal time to reflect, contemplate, and plan. An interruption ruined his day.

Hearst contemplated the previous night’s observation. He had a hunch of what was happening. It was not the first time he had observed such meetings in the middle of the night – and sometimes in broad daylight. Earlier that week, there was a confrontation at the end of Hearst’s pier that extended some 850 feet into the Pacific Ocean. A Japanese fishing boat had docked at the pier. The boat was met by some of Hearst’s men, who saw the boat coming in from the sea. While the reports were a bit unclear, it appeared some aggressive Japanese shipman, perhaps navy officers, want to use or negotiate the use of the pier to transport some goods to an awaiting motor vehicle. The vehicle had come from San Luis Obispo. After a tense argument, possibly with guns drawn, the boat was turned away, and the car returned to where it came. The car was followed – it ended its journey at a gambling club, known to be operating by Japanese gangsters.

Hearst was well versed in Japanese gang activity. As a powerful newspaperman with an eye for a story, he followed the Little Tokyo Club as well as the Toyo Club. Mob activity was not new to Hearst. It held much interest and intrigued. The bloody and sensationalistic stories of Capone sold many newspapers. It was great business. Through the stories of Capone and his trials that convicted him, he had become acquainted with Yamamoto. Capone’s descent into the opium business brought Hearst to know Yamamoto.

While the Japanese mob business in its own right an interesting story, it was not a story he pursued. However, the confrontation at the pier coupled with middle of the night fishing boat exchanges did pique his interest. Was there more to this story than gambling, prostitution, and drugs? Hearst did a cursory background check on Yamamoto and then an extensive exploration as he pulled on more and more information. Hearst had uncovered Yamamoto’s relationship with the Black Dragon Society and possible connections with the Japanese Imperial Navy.

It was not hard to piece together a spy connection to Yamamoto with a racist undertone. It was story far more sensational than yet another mob story – “Japs Preparing to Invade America!” a headline could scream. As the founder of “Yellow Journalism” after his manipulation of the Spanish American War for newspaper sales, it was just the story that Hearst relished.

As noted by Ernest L. Meyer,

"Mr. Hearst in his long and not laudable career has inflamed Americans against Spaniards, Americans against Japanese, Americans against Filipinos, Americans against Russians, and in the pursuit of his incendiary campaign he has printed downright lies, forged documents, faked atrocity stories, inflammatory editorials, sensational cartoons and photographs and other devices by which he abetted his jingoistic ends."

A blockbuster story of this nature not only appealed to Hearst from the perspective of being a larger-than-life storyteller and influencer. A sensationalistic, blockbuster story was perhaps a necessity for Hearst’s survival. The Hearst Empire faced an existential threat; business dealings left the Hearst Corporation in financial trouble. Known to only a few, despite his opulent lifestyle that Hearst Castle itself symbolized, Hearst was on the brink of financial ruin. It’s possible that Hearst himself did not know or acknowledge the trouble he was in.

Could Peril from Japan be the savior of Hearst?

A Invitation to Visit San Simeon

William Randolph Hearst was known for throwing grand parties at Hearst Castle. Such parties were opportunities to showcase his greatness but also a vehicle promote to his business, network with the important, and learn. Movie stars, politicians, and the glittery famous in general were invited to Hearst Castle to enjoy, mingle, and engage.

Guests would arrive on Friday afternoon at the San Luis Obispo train terminal (typically from Los Angeles), where a car would await them and whisk them away up the hill to the Castle. An evening of cocktails would await followed by dinner in the massive dining room where William Randolph Hearst would essentially “hold court” – an evening of intellectual discussion, debate, and fun. Later, guests would go to a theater to watch movies, typically one produced by the Hearst Corporation. A full day awaited where guests cool lounge by the pool, play tennis, or explore the grounds, which included hundreds of animals – basically a zoo on an open expanse. The evening as the previous would repeat, and guests would depart the following morning.

Hearst sent Yamamoto an invitation to visit Hearst Castle and join him at a gathering. He sent it to the Little Tokyo Club in Los Angeles, mistakenly assuming he was the head of that club. It sat on Sera’s desk for days until Yamamoto, who frequented Los Angeles regularly, paid a visit. Sera pondered the mis-delivery. Perception was everything in the underworld. Was he losing control to Yamamoto from the eyes of the outside world? It indeed was likely lack of knowledge on the part of Hearst and a mistake – no greater meaning than that. But it was of concern, or at least a small blow to his ego that Yamamoto was receiving such an invitation, at the Little Tokyo Club no less.

Yamamoto takes the invitation from Sera nonchalantly without much fuss. He only opens the invitation after leaving the Little Tokyo Club on his way back to the Pismo Beach Club, where he now has established an office.

Hearst intrigued Yamamoto. While born to a family of wealth based on a mining business, Hearst had created much for himself through the publishing business. Hearst Enterprises was the nation’s largest newspaper chain with 30 papers. He built this business on the back of sensationalism, hyperbole, and human-interest stories. Headlines of crime, violence, scandal, sex, and innuendo sold newspapers. He has rightly been attributed as the inventor of the tabloid, Yellow Journalism, and fake news. In the mid 1900’s, Hearst stoked the flames of anti-Spanish sentiment, provoking outrage against Spain. His papers reflected and created objection to Spanish influence in the Caribbean, especially Cuba. His core audience of working class America ate it up – the stories tantalized and his audience could not get enough of it. Hearst was often attributed to be the provocateur that brought the United States to war with Spain.

His populist and nationalist point of view brought him into politics. He was elected twice to the United States House of Representatives as a Democrat but failed in two attempts to become mayor of New York.

Hearst was wildly successful. In 1919, with wealth hard to imagine (in the 10’s of billions of dollars in 2017 terms, that would rival Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg), he started building Hearst Castle in San Simeon on the land he frolicked as child. It was the symbol of his success, a playground for his elite friends, and refuge for his personal contemplation.

By the 1920’s, he expanded Hearst Enterprises to the magazine and movie businesses. He had a personal interest in aviation. He moved in the circles of Hollywood during the golden age of the silver screen.

His politics had taken a hard right. He co-opted the slogan “America First” from Woodrow Wilson. He re-appropriated it to mean “preserving,” in sympathy with the Germans, the security of the American homeland and the American people. Hearst was publishing articles by Adolf Hitler, whom Hearst admired for keeping Germany out of, as Hitler put it in a Hearst paper, “the beckoning arms of Bolshevism.” Hitler instead promoted a transcendent idea of nationalism—putting Germany first—and, by organizing devoted nationalist followers to threaten and beat up leftists, Hitler would soon destroy class-based politics in his country. Increasingly, Hearst wanted to see something similar happen in the United States. Hearst's papers ran columns without rebuttal by Nazi leader Hermann Göring and Hitler himself, as well as Mussolini and other dictators in Europe and Latin America.

Yamamoto was interested in Hearst’s rise to power. Further, once achieved, he contemplated his transformation from media mogul to politics and influencer. He personally related to Hearst on multiple dimensions. But, in particular, on how to effective use media to grow a following and influence. The Sokoku Kai, now firmly under Yamamoto’s control, was using media and propaganda to recruit loyalist actors to the cause, as much as it was to disseminate information. There were lessons Yamamoto could learn from Hearst.

Indeed, Yamamoto accepts the invitation. It was in two weeks time.

Weekend at the Castle

A private motor coach was sent to the San Luis Obispo club to pick up Yamamoto. The mode of transportation was atypical for Yamamoto. Now days, he travels in his private car with appropriate escorts in the vehicle with him and usually a discreet entourage surrounds his vehicle. A local San Luis Obispo henchman emerges from the club to meets Hearst’s car first, to clear it for possible problems. Pleasantries are exchanged with the driver, the henchman gives a signal to the club doorman, and Yamamoto emerges. He enters the car without fanfare and it departs to Hearst Castle..

The drive from San Luis Obispo to Hearst Castle in San Simeon is nearly 50 miles away, so it takes nearly 2 hours . Yamamoto arrived at 5 pm and he istaken to his sleeping quarters. It was nice, well appointed, with fabulous and modern plumbing. Yamamoto takes note of the plumbing. It’s too fancy in its form for his taste but its magnificence in engineering and function are a marvel. He will incorporate it into his life, he noted. Cocktails were at 6, so he has little time to ready himself. He changed into a dinner jacket and pulled out the .38 pistol that he has had all his life. He examined it, touched the engraving on the butt, and reflects all the places that weapon has served him. Then, as he prepares to leave his room, he slid it and a second pistol into their holsters. They were probably not needed, but he never went anywhere without them.

He walked down many corridors, twisty passages that lead in all directions, as he made his way to the lounge where cocktails were served. Knowing Hearst was an “on time” person, he arrived a 6PM on the dot. Most other guests arrived on time too as a matter of good manners, and the room quickly fills. Yamamoto took note; he knew no one, but recognizes many. As expected, movie stars and politicians, some with their spouses, abound. It was a strange setting for Yamamoto. No one knew him, and he was nearly invisible. Even though he was the only non-Caucasian in the room, or perhaps because he was the only Asian, few glanced in his direction or acknowledged him. It was not as though they are explicitly ignoring him, but an implicit dismissiveness or condescension was subtlety apparent. Or maybe because Yamamoto, despite the power and influence he now yielded, he was not a big personality in general. When you have wronged him or he sought interest you, his appearance was large and intimidating. But otherwise not.

Like Hearst, Yamamoto did not imbibe in alcoholic beverages. He ordered a club soda at the bar. A man, also alone, approached the bar tender, and ordered the same. He introduced himself.

“Hello. I’m Charles. Nice drink.” the man said in introduction. The man was tall – 6 feet 3 inches. He was trim, handsome, and confident. But, something was a little off. Perhaps a barely detectable sadness and slight loss of confidence could be seen in his face.

Kanekichi took a half step back and looked the man in the eyes. At 5 feet 6 inches, it was a “trick” Kanekichi instinctively made – to normalize the height difference so he was not looking straight up at someone. Kanekichi recognized him immediately.

It was Charles Lindbergh.

Lindbergh, if you didn’t know, was perhaps the greatest American Hero ever. In 1927, he made the first non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic from New York to Paris in the Spirit of Saint Louis, a single engine, single seat monoplane. Lindbergh received unprecedented adulation after his historic flight. People were behaving as though Lindbergh had walked on water, not flown over it.

Kanekichi acknowledged Lindbergh and responded in kind. “I’m Kanekichi,” said Yamamoto, and accepted Lindbergh’s offer of a handshake.

Now, I’m sure maybe some of you have been in such situations where you are in a group where there are famous people. And, you happen to find yourself standing amid the most famous of famous people. What do you say? Small talk? Acknowledge the greatness of the person who has probably heard nearly every accolade at least a hundred times?

In many regards, it was surprising that he was here at all. Lindbergh, who grew uncomfortable with the incessant adulation as an aviation hero, was now even more recluse given his current circumstances. Kanekichi was well versed in his current story. In addition to being America’s Hero, a new story had emerged. His son, Charles Jr. had been kidnapped in 1932, a cash ransom of $50,000 was paid with the help of the US Treasury, but he was found dead in the woods near Lindbergh’s home. A nationwide manhunt for the killer was still underway. It was one of the most publicized stories in the 20th Century. The glareful watch of the newspapers – especially Hearst’s – documents every lead, every clue, and every suspect. In fact, it was the perfect story Hearst’s publication empire.

The two men are interrupted before either said anything. Two beautiful women, presumably aspiring actresses, approached, only paying attention to Lindbergh, oblivious to Yamamoto. They flirted mercilessly and seductively, leaning in to Lindbergh. One whispered into his ear, “Maybe you can come by later tonight for a real drink. Bring something stiffer.” She winked, and then the two of them walked away. It was clearly inappropriate by any standards but even more so at the Castle. For all of his flamboyance, Hearst had a strict moral side to him. In addition to being a teetotaler, he had a strict rule against cavorting by unmarried people at the Castle.

Lindbergh was polite, nodded, and turned to Yamamoto. By this point, Lindbergh realized Yamamoto recognizes him. “My wife, Anne was not here with me. We have still have urgent family business to attend,” said Lindbergh. “I’ve taken the time to visit with Mr. Hearst, at his request. He was a good friend who has supported me.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” responded Yamamoto. While nearly two years had passed since his son’s murder, the ongoing manhunt and investigation still heavily burdened Lindbergh, and it visibly showed.

“Thank you,” said Lindbergh. “And, as much as I have concerns about the United States government, the Treasury Department has been tremendously helpful and competent.” It was a curious all most out of context statement. Yamamoto’s own interactions and concern with the Treasury and the FBI working in conjunction with the Treasury had increased, not just because of the drug business but over his Japanese nationalist activities. Yamamoto wondered if Lindbergh was fishing for information. What did he know? Yamamoto took a quick glance around room, all most looking for J. Edgar Hoover or Elmer Irey. Yamamoto knew that Irey, who put Al Capone in jail, was the mastermind in pulling together the ransom money with marked bills and gold certificates so that the kidnappers could be traced through the bill dispersion. While the plan to pay the ransom to recover Lindbergh’s child safely failed much to the chagrin of Irey, the plan would hopefully be an effective tool to capture the murderers. However, neither Irey or Hoover were present.

“If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know,” Yamamoto asserted as the two shake hands and went their separate ways into the party. While such words are often trite and only superficially offered, Yamamoto extended them in sincerity. And, unlike most offering them, perhaps Yamamoto did have something to offer, either legally or not.

Lindbergh and Yamamoto parted ways. Yamamoto scanned the room left and right to see who else had arrived. He recognized many -- Hollywood A-Listers, political up-and-comers, New York socialites, and captains of industry sprinkled the room. He did a quick double take -- was that Louis Mayer of MGM chatting with J Edgar Hoover? Indeed it was Mayer, but the man presumed to be Hoover, turned away just before he could verify. Yamamoto knew Hoover was aware of his activities and carefully assessed the situation. He kept his distance from Hoover but knew a Yellow Man in the presence of a Hollywood gathering would not escape the watchful eye of Hoover. Yamamoto was also aware of Mayer's struggles to keep control of his growing and successful movie business, in addition to looming issues with the Feds over anti-trust, making his conversations with (the man that was presumably) Hoover even more intriguing. Yamamoto, had a keen interest in film, so he approached Mayer to at least introduce himself. They exchanged pleasantries and small talk, and both sized up each other. Yamamoto did not know what he wanted from Mayer, but surmised that such a relationship could potentially be useful.

As their short conversation drew to a close, four chimes of a dinner bell summoned guests to the dining room.

The room was grand, large, and opulent. It has massive vaulted ceiling, walls of tapestry, side chairs that appear to be pews from a church, and a dining table that seated over 20 people. Indeed it felt much more like a church than dining room. Hearst sat himself at the center of the table, to maximize his prominence and put him in the best place to engage in all conversations.

Dinner, or course, was magnificent. It’s 5 course, 3 hour feast of distinctly European influence with fresh produce and meats from the local farmers, with best wines France has to offer. In someway, it was a “forward looking” dining experience –farm-to-table California haute cuisine that has become so popular in the 21st Century.

While the food and wine experience was top tier, conservation, at least from Hearst’s perspective, was the valued “entrée” of the dining experience. His formula was to pull interesting and influential people together and mix them up into an “intellectual cocktail.” Hearst created a “safe space” for discussions of perhaps controversial issues, where, hopefully, people could speak their minds, regardless of how outlandish or disfavored (in current terminology “politically incorrect”) they might be. Of course, Hearst was a bit conflicted – He valued the ideas and viewpoints especially from the light of who might be speaking them that were only obtained in the guise of safety and assumed anonymity. But, as a man in the newspaper business, he was motivated to get stories into print as a vehicle to build his empire.

The topic of discussion invariably turns to politics. Hearst himself, even though he was no longer an elected politician, had become increasing political. Formerly a Jeffersonian Democrat, Hearst made a hard turn right. He opposed Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. He had become a staunch anti-communist and complained that higher taxation was a persecution of the “successful.” Fearing Communism would destroy the free world, he leaned toward supporting Germany in its plans for Europe. Implicitly, he seemed to support the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. At dinner, he espoused his “America First” slogan that shaped much of the days headlines and clarified his point of view. Maybe unexpectedly, he turned to Lindbergh and asks, “What do you think, Mr. Lindbergh?”

Hearst’s direction of attention at Lindbergh was perhaps surprising to many of his guest. To openly engage him when he likely wanted remain reclusive seemed unnecessary, perhaps even rude. However, Hearst had two reasons to engage Lindbergh. First, he wanted the rights to tell his story. Previously, in 1927, he had a signed contract to tell of Lindbergh’s dramatic flight, but Lindbergh reneged. Hearst honored Lindbergh’s change of heart and tore up the contract. He would not stand in the way of the Greatest American Hero’s desires. Hearst’s graciousness towards Lindbergh resulted in a friendship. Hearst still wanted to tell the story, but now, the Lindbergh Kidnapping created an even more enticing story. Second, Hearst believed he could recruit Lindbergh in supporting his nationalist ideology. Lindbergh’s words so subtly indicated that he was secretly on board with Hearst’s America First agenda. (It would turn out later that decade that indeed Lindbergh would be viewed as a Nazi sympathizer and supporter as well as a proponent of an America First isolationist viewpoint.)

Lindbergh responded:

“Communism is a threat to our democracy. Maybe the law and order in Germany to fight subversive forces in Germany are good in that fight. Maybe Der Kaiser is not a bad man but just a strong one. Maybe we should befriend him not fight him. The problem of the Jews and Communism is not our problem. But I speak carefully, as I know our interests here, in Hollywood, are represented. But there are forces across the world. It’s hard to know good from evil. Friend from foe. But, if the issue is Communism, maybe Russia in Asia is the real threat. “

It was a rambling unfocussed response. It was as shocking as it was surprising. His viewpoint had not yet been fully synthesized. In the safety of Hearst Castle, perhaps he felt safe articulating thoughts that were not completely thought out.

“Maybe my new friend Mr. Yamamoto something to add,” asked Lindbergh. Was he just deflecting attention from himself or was Lindbergh out to draw out something in Yamamoto? It’s as though Lindbergh knew something about Yamamoto that Yamamoto had not revealed himself.

“The destiny of one is often, if not always, the threat to someone else. Indeed, it is not clear, maybe intrinsically so, who are the bad guys and who are the good guys,” says Yamamoto. He turned to Hearst and stared directly into his eyes. It ended the conversation.

Dinner was over. Hearst invited his guests to the Castle’s theater. The main event was a yet-to-released “Operator 13” starring Marion Davies and Gary Cooper. Hearst used his friends as a way to promote Marion, his lifelong companion that was not his wife, and his upcoming film. Yamamoto was polite in viewing the film and gracious with his opinions. – In the end, it would not be a box office hit, and Yamamoto knew it during that showing. Instead, he was pre-occupied with the half dozen or so trailers that preceded the movie. The trailers were all propaganda pieces supporting Hearst’s political agenda of America First in a dramatic way that only the big screen can. They were pro-America and anti-Communism 60-second clips that were patriotic, moving, and nationalist. Some are motion pictures with live actors; others are animations, basically cartoons for adults with serious messages. They would be distributed weekly to movie theaters across the country and seen before every movie. The movie business would be a carrier for his political message that were mutually reinforcing with the point of view of his newspapers.

Could he use such distribution to spread his own message? pondered Yamamoto.

A Story and a Threat

During the showing of Operator 13, Yamamoto received a note. He opened it – it was a hand written invitation to meet with Hearst after the film. He scrawled a response of “Yes” and returned it to the attendant to give to Hearst.

Yamamoto met with Hearst an hour later in Hearst’s study. Hearst offered Yamamoto a nightcap, but he declined. Hearst gave a small and barely noticeable nod of approval and acknowledgement of his non-drinking status. “Mr. Yamamoto,” began Hearst, “Thank you for joining me tonight and this weekend.”

Yamamoto nodded to acknowledge and expressed his thanks.

“You have quite the story to tell. A story I want to tell. A story, I assume, has not been completely written. Maybe I can help you tell that story – or help you write that story,” Hearst continued. He tips his hand a little. “I like your story. The Japs are coming. You are here. They are here. Are we just story tellers or are we the makers of that story? Or we the spoilers of that story?”

Hearst did not know the full story. He’s on a fishing expedition for more information – his intuition told him there was a good story to tell.

The story of Japanese espionage would sell newspapers. It was a box office hit too, Hearst surmised. But, while he was not certain, he guessed that it was story deeper and more complex than entertainment. Much as the Spanish American war decades earlier, a new war loomed and media could be an “actor” not just a reporter. Hearst’s monologue was as much a threat as an opportunity. Could Hearst Enterprises thwart Yamamoto’s mission and Japans goals? Or could it help Yamamoto, Toyama, and Japan?

Yamamoto demurred. He was not sure. Instead, as he rose from his chair in silence, he brandished his gun from beneath his suit jacket ever so slightly.

“Perhaps.” Yamamoto answered ambiguously. He thanked Hearst for his hospitality and departed his office.

He thoughts turned to Howard Kakudo as he returns to his room. “Movies, media, and cartoons -- What was the exploit here?” pondered Yamamoto as he falls asleep in the comfort of the castle.

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