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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Internments, Then and (One Hopes Not) Now

Yesterday, Friends University was visited by a traveling exhibit on German Americans (both residents and citizens) who were harassed, detained, and frequently interned in various camps and prisons by the U.S. government during World War II. Did you know that had happened? I didn't. And if it wasn't for the amazing dedication and hard work of Michael Luick-Thrams, the executive director of Traces, the organization he put together to gather and share the stories of those who suffered internment more than 60 years ago, I still wouldn't know about it.

Fortunately, not only did the arrival of Michael's labor of love (because he sure isn't making money off this tour) give me the chance to learn a few things, but it also allowed me--because I was asked to speak at a panel discussion the evening of the exhibit's visit--to put together some of my thoughts about the Military Commissions Act, which the president signed into law on Tuesday. I've actually spent a good part of the last three weeks reading up on and arguing about this bill; back when the bill passed, I posted a rant at my co-religionists in Congress who voted for the bill, accusing them of failing to remember our history as a minority faith that should know very well the consequences of facing a hostile government without legal recourse or defense. I was taken to task for that rant, and was subsequently drawn into some heated e-mail discussions about the bill. So, in a sense, last night I got to make my own position clear, to myself and whomever else cared to listen.

Are there parallels between what the Military Commissions Act allows, and what was allowed to happen to German-American citizens and German residents of America from 1941 until the end of the war (and, in a few cases, as late as 1948)? Yes--not many parallels, and not strong parallels, but there are some there nonetheless. It's important to understand--as I did not really understand until my crash course in this little-known part of our history began a couple of days ago--that the internment of Japanese-American citizens and legal Japanese residents during WWII is entirely the wrong model to look at when trying to think about the war on terror today. (Something that Michelle Malkin's atrocious book completely misunderstands, as many justifiably harsh reviews of her book have pointed out.) With the Japanese internment, you have a paper trail that extends all the way up to the president, with President Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 in February, 1942. You have whole regions of the U.S., particularly the west coast, designated "military areas" from which people with "foreign enemy ancestry" could be excluded. This was not a matter of criminal or conspiracy charges being leveled against particular persons; this was a collective, top-down, straightforward relocation program, that swept up somewhere between 110,000 and 120,000 citizens and residents of Japanese dissent. All the suspicions and motivations behind the relocation were on clear display, and many were specifically documented as soon after the order as 1944, when the Supreme Court issued a reluctant 6-3 decision in support of the government's actions in Korematsu v. U.S. (I say reluctant because the majority refused to call the president's actions correct; only constitutional, with a lot of handwringing over the inevitable injustices and confusions of war). That a relocation scheme of this size and scope was even possible testifies of the numerous racial and economic motivations behind it, as well as the demographic logic which made it possible: General DeWitt's famous "A Jap's a Jap" dismissal of claims that some of those being relocated were patriotic citizens; the white agricultural interests in central California that were anxious to pick up farms owned by Japanese-Americans at rock-bottom prices; the simple fact that Hawaii, while placed under martial law, never engaged in a program of Japanese relocation, because targeting an ethnic group which constituted over 30% of the state's total population (in contrast to the mainland, where Japanese communities were small and rarely integrated into surrounding society) would have resulted in the collapse of the state's economy. No, what happened to the Japanese residents of the western U.S. (and occasionally elsewhere as well) during WWII was an essentially unique situation; it can provide few warnings and even less guidance today.

What happened to German-Americans and legal German residents was different. By that time, Germans constituted the largest non-Anglo ethnic group in the U.S.; while there were still numerous predominantly German communities in the 1930s and 40s, particularly in the upper Midwest and Plains states, their distinctiveness was far less than it had been only a generation earlier, during the anti-German hysteria of World War I. As a result, the "relocation" of Germans was an entirely different ball game. For one thing, the number of people affected was far fewer; perhaps 10,000 to 11,000 ethnic Germans disappeared to camps and prisons scattered across the country. Moreover, there was apparently little rhyme or reason to who was targeted. Being a German-American citizen with an Anglicized name might make a difference in how various authorities (whether from the army's Military Intelligence Division, or the F.B.I., or the Office of Naval Intelligence, or special agencies of the Department of Justice, etc., all of whom had spent years compiling lists of possibly suspicious aliens and citizens) might react to a random order or accusation--then again, maybe it wouldn't. There was no executive order, no clear authorization, no public debate in Congress, for the internment of these people: just a desperate desire to act, a series of presidential proclamations immediately after Pearl Harbor which revived the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 (as codified in 1918) which required those identified as "enemy aliens" to register with the government, and then, here and there, for this reason or that, various local authorities who decided that occasional acts of secret internment, forced conscription, or even deportation, was needed for the war effort and to intimidate any possible German-American fifth columnists out there in the heartland.

And I do mean "heartland": one of the reasons Michael brought his display to Friends University is that one of the few accounts he has recorded from a living adult internment survivor, as opposed to someone who was a child at the time, comes from Mathias Borniger, a resident of Wichita and a former photographer at Friends:

Mathias Borniger, a photographer who made templates of plane parts for Boeing, was arrested in the middle of the night a day after Peal Harbor was bombed, December 7, 1941--about a week before he was scheduled to become an American citizen. "I had some friends in Wichita who were not my friends; they didn't like me too much. They reported me, and said I was a photographer and had a camera strapped to my leg and would go down to Boeing and take pictures of new planes and sent those pictures to Hitler, and a bunch of other nonsense. They said I knew a lot of things about chemicals as a photographer--that I might poison the water supply of Wichita. It was so grotesque and so ridiculous it's not even funny anymore." He was handcuffed in front of his pregnant wife, who divorced him while he was interned, saying she did not want to be married to a spy. [The actual story is even rougher than this: after giving birth to twin girls, Borniger's wife, Betty Jo Borniger, desperate to escape the taint of an "enemy alien" German husband who had disappeared from their neighborhood in the middle of the night, obtained her divorce and then abandoned her newborn children and disappeared herself; the twins both died.]...Borniger was sent from Camp McCoy to Stringtown, an internment camp in Oklahoma, never being allowed to contact anyone outside the camps. After a family lawyer was finally able to vouch for Mathias's loyalty [for which there was plenty of support; in fact, while Mathias was being interned, his brother--who had immigrated from Germany at the same time as him--served with distinction in the U.S. Army], he was released in the fall of 1943....Unsure of who had accused him, he cut off ties with nearly all his acquaintances. "A few came up to me and said, 'Hi, Matt; I'm so glad you're back.' And they wanted to shake my hands; I kept my hands in my pockets and said 'I don't even know you,' and just walked away."

Mathias's story hardly captures the worst of this haphazard program; our government also worked with--and sometimes pressured--Latin American governments to round up and ship to the U.S. over 4,000 ethnic Germans (some of whom were wealthy landowners, whose property thus fell into the hands of other, more America-friendly elites) as suspected Nazi sympathizers, and then occasionally made use of those individuals, along with a few of the 11,000 or so German-American civilian detainees, in making prisoner-of-war exchanges with Germany. (And almost unbelievably, some of those caught up in these "exchanges" were Jews.) Still, you might say, well, the fortunes of war and all that. The stripping of habeas corpus rights, the detention without trial of suspected populations, some of whom are surely innocent--that's the way it'll always be, right? Better safe than sorry, correct? Maybe so.

However, there is an important difference between the slow accumulations of decisions and fears and suspicions that made possible the German-American internment program, and the accumulation of decisions and fears and suspicions that is taking place today. That difference is, very simply, that our war with Germany was a war with a state, one that could be defeated, meaning the war could end. Whereas, under the terms of the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) granted to President Bush--in which he is "authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons"--we have the makings of a war on terrorism that could go on for a very long time.

Why does that matter insofar as the Military Commissions Act is concerned? Because as time goes by decisions accumulate, compound one another, and sometimes end up pushing in directions no one originally anticipated. (Reading different accounts of German-American internment makes it clear, to me at least, that the actions of the government were often inconsistent, reacting to immediate bureaucratic pressures or personal agendas than any clear policy.) In my original rant against the Military Commissions Act, besides attacking it for the semantic distinctions it sets up over the interpretation of Geneva Convention prohibitions against torture, for its casual treatment (even apparent contempt for) of habeas rights, and so forth, I also alleged that all this would apply to citizens as well, even citizens who are only accused of having "materially supported" an "enemy combatant," even if having done so unknowingly. Under pressure from some lawyer friends of mine, I had to acknowledge that the "would" in that sentence is far too strong. Is substituting a "could" in its place a possibility? That's the question. A straightforward reading of the law says both "yes" and "no." It is clear that those whom the law allows the president to name "unlawful enemy combatants" can include citizens; there is no other definition of the term operative on the federal level which would exclude that possibility. At the same time, the MCA's procedures--which is where detainments come in--are defined in the relevant section of the law as limited to "alien unlawful enemy combatants." I certainly hope those who attacked my initial reading of the law are correct in insisting that this restriction would be pretty hard for any Solicitor General to argue around. And yet...in both Hamdi v. Rumsfeld and Padilla v. Hanft, the executive branch has been determined to have the authority to detain citizens pursuant to the AUMF as enemy combatants. It is therefore not wholly unreasonable, I think, to suspect that precedents exist for an aggressive--or genuinely concerned, or politically fearful, or all three--chief executive to, given time and cause, make the leap and argue that, a fortiori, the means exist under the expanded definition provided by the MCA to broadly enact the sort of policies which, 60 years ago, affected citizens and aliens alike. And even if that is not the case, and we can be certain that whatever the upshot of the MCA, it won't ever fully affect regular citizens like me and, perhaps, you...well, Mathias Borniger's experience makes it clear that, for some other people, that distinction could turn on the most arbitrary of conditions, such as a mere matter of days.

Nobody likes to think about this. And, having already done my bit as a scold and ranter, I'm not interested in putting forward an exceptionally hysterical case here. (Michael, unfortunately I think, puts statements like "Internment: it could happen to YOU!" on a lot of his material, which doesn't, I suspect, help his case.) But just in reviewing all this again, and in thinking about these stories that as of a couple of days ago I had no knowledge of, and putting it all together here and now, I get angry and worried and depressed once more. Ultimately, even if everything I (and more than a few legal scholars, I should add) fear about the MCA and so forth is proved groundless, there remains the bald political fact that, as Scott Horton writes, invoking Carl Schmitt, the "entire thrust [of this administration's war on terrorism has involved] a massive channeling of power from the legislature and the courts to the Executive." It is that kind of concentration of power, particularly a concentration which is opaque and not subject to public review, that makes all sorts of abuses, perhaps including especially those which are in the end just ill-thought-out, ugly and unjustified overreactions to real problems, possible. Certainly this was the case with the internments of WWII. Of course the prospect of putting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed on open trial is daunting, and of course I have respect for those JAG officers (one of whom is my cousin) who may end up being responsible for deciding who gets a military tribunal and who doesn't and under what conditions. There are a lot of hard decisions which terrorism confronts us with. But as important as hashing out those arguments is the need for--as Tim Burke put it while engaging in just such a hard and drawn-out argument--"drawing some lines in the sand." The law President Bush signed yesterday is an overreaction, and a dangerous one. Thanks to Michael's hard work through Traces in collecting and sharing these stories, perhaps many more will start asking questions that will lead them to conclude the same.


Anonymous said...

Indeed, I did know about the internments of the German-Americans--and also of the internments of Italian-Americans. Forsooth, it was in the NYT a few years ago. I regard it more as precedent than warning.

Posted by withywindle

Anonymous said...

My previous comment was excessively brief. As you know since you were reading Tim Burke's blog, I am a defender of internment now--I note that you have acknowledged the basic point of law (military commissions apply to non-citizens!) that Tim so far has refused to accept. As always, one wants to know what evidence the FBI had to determine their detentions in WWII, how many actual Nazi sympathizers and potential saboteurs they caught up, and some sense of the prudence of the decision and the possible alternatives if the decision had not been made. (I.e., you want a trade off of fewer detentions but more Nazi sabotage and espionage? What if failure to detain would have led Nazi spies to set up an espionage network in Los Alamos? Etc.) Since the German-American and Italian-American detention program was rather fine-grained, and certainly in comparison to the Japanese-American one, one should have a presumption that it was not completely irrational. Does Traces interview actual Nazi spies interned? Does it deny they existed? I will note here that Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his *Gulag Archipelago* records (one of his informants?) running into a man in the Gulag who stated he had been a German spy in the USSR in the late 1930s, and got caught!--thus proving, if the man's tale was true, that even Stalin's paranoia was not completely unfounded. My understanding is that Hitler did have spies in the US, though not a terribly effective net, and that they were rolled up fairly quickly--presumably in part thanks to the detention of German-Americans. So, what trade-offs, prudentially, are you advocating? 

Posted by withywindle

J. Otto Pohl said...

Thanks for posting this article. I often hear leftists falsely claim that only Japanese Americans were interned by the US during WWII. In addition to almost 11,000 people of German descent in the US interned, the US also interned over 4,000 ethnic Germans taken from Latin America.  

Posted by Otto Pohl

Russell Arben Fox said...

Otto, I'm glad you liked the post. For myself, I'd never heard anything about the internment of German-Americans before, whether from leftists or liberals or conservatives or whomever. I agree that probably the most disturbing part of the story may well be those Germans taken from Latin America, brought to the U.S., and in some cases then traded with Germany, as if they were merely POWs.

Withywindle, I disagree with your description of the German-American and Italian-American internment programs as "fine-grained," unless by that you simply mean "more localized" than the internment of Japanese-Americans. On the contrary, the evidence which Traces has accumulated suggests to me mostly inconsistency, randomness, and overreaction as opposed to carefully administred and reviewed program. As for the "trade-offs" I'm advocating, I'm not advocating any, because I'm not convinced, on the basis of the German example at least, that there is any validity to talk of a trade. As it happens, none of those German-Americans which Traces has identified as having suffered internment and subsequently has shared stories about were ever formally accused, much less convicted of, espionage. Now, I suppose one could argue that proves nothing: maybe the actual spies were revealed in the camps, and were one of those sent back to Germany or simply never heard from again. But that is an argument from silence. Yes, Nazi Germany did try to land on America's shores teams of saboteurs and spies on at least a couple of occasions, and it may well be those agents were counting on support from hidden sympathizers amongst the German-American population. But those agents were, as you say, "rolled up pretty quickly"--but not, so far as I know, because of the internment program. If you have evidence contrarywise, I'd be very interested in reading it

Anonymous said...

No evidence whatsoever--not my specialty--save a general suspicion of accounts that present the American government as completely bungling and misguided, and that a dog not barking in the night may have a reason. The point, of course, is to intern people who are suspicious--high risk for whatever given reason--not simply to arrest those who can legally be convicted of espionage; not to take risks, to round up a fair number of people, most of whom may well be innocent, but for whom leaving even one undetained could have horrible consequences for the country. I presume the government will blunder as it tries to keep the nation secure; I also presume such blunders are a necessary and worthwhile price to pay for security. 

Posted by withywindle

Anonymous said...

As a citizen of another nation (UK) which interned Germans resident here during WWII and WWI, I found your article on internment very interesting.

However, I think it’s wrong to compare the WWII detentions of thousands with the handful of detainees at Guantanamo. Many people in WWII were swept up and interned just because a neighbour may have had a grudge against them. It was an arbitrary act, and the use of some of these, particularly wealthy landowners in Latin-America, not the USA, as hostages for future prisoner exchanges, does present a possible prima facia case of kidnapping against President Roosevelt. All these internees were denied legal counsel and representation, unlike the Guantanamo detainees.

The case of prisoners at Guantanamo is different. A lawyer representing one of the nine or so “British” Muslims held there has argued that he was only visiting Pakistan at the time of his arrest, in order to attend a wedding, study at an Islamic school and see some relatives. So why was he captured by soldiers of the Northern Alliance, cowering at the bottom of a Taliban trench in Afghanistan, clutching an AK-47? Some detainees held at Guantanamo may well be innocent, but the nature of modern terrorism, as demonstrated on September 11, 2001, is such that many of these prisoners are too dangerous to release. The US government takes a lot of criticism over Guantanamo. It would receive a lot more if it allowed a detainee to go free and he later blew up himself and a lot of other people.

The WWII detention of Japanese-Americans became a political “hot potato” in the 1970’s, with the US Congress voting an apology and providing lavish funding for a compensation programme. No-one has ever provided a similar package for German- or Italian- Americans. There may be a number of reasons for this. Japanese corporations now own most of the Hollywood film studios. When was the last time anyone saw a film portraying Japanese in the way they were routinely portrayed during and just after WWII?

In 1976, the film “Battle of Midway” was released. The Japanese participants were shown as normal, ordinary human beings, just like their American counterparts. The film also included a sequence on the detention of Japanese-Americans. One US Navy fighter pilot had an ethnic Japanese fiancée. She and her parents were interned at a camp on Oahu, and there was a rather long, drawn-out sequence showing them making their farewells as he prepared to ship out. The film was in the cinemas at a time when the detentions were starting to be debated, and I’m sure it had some influence on the outcome of the debate. More importantly, it shows that Japanese are no longer demonised, as Germans still are. The Japanese and American economies are so closely tied together now, US corporations are afraid to upset Japan.

Germany and Italy are different. They do not possess this sort of corporate power. In fact, they are so closely integrated into the EU that it’s doubtful if they actually possess any national corporate power at all.

There are many Senators and Congressmen/Congresswomen who were in power in the 1970’s, voted on the Japanese compensation package and are still there today. Off-hand, I can think of at least 2, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MASS) and John Warner (R-VA), and there must be many others.

Has anyone ever written to these politicians to ask them why Japanese-Americans were compensated and German- and Italian-Americans were not?

I often think of politicians as followers of fashion rather than followers of conscience. The way they vote on a particular issue has more to do with “being seen to do the right [politically correct] thing” than actually doing the right thing. Many of them in Washington would have voted in favour of the Japanese compensation package because it was the “big item” of the day, not because it was right. And, of course, some of them may have had ethnic Japanese constituents.

The lack of justice for German- and Italian-American wartime detainees remains one of the outstanding cases of injustice from the last century (the post-war treatment of Germany is another). The question of America putting right a wrong it inflicted on SOME of it’s citizens was addressed over 30 years ago. There are others who received the same injustice and have NEVER had that wrong put right, or even acknowledged.

Perhaps Senators Kennedy and Warner would like to explain why justice can be selective, and need only be applied to some, not all.


Steve Lister.


Posted by Steve Lister

Anonymous said...

There is a lot I could say about the discussion of internment, having written two books and two articles on the subject, but this short note is not the place for that. I was impressed, however, by Russell's command of the internment story on such short notice.

Perhaps one answer to the question posed by Steve Lister regarding the double standard that seems to pertain to German and Italian internees, as well as those who were relocated and excluded. Several German internees of my acquaintance have queried their senators and representtives about the apparent injustice of the double standard, and they have been told that only the Japanese were compensated because only the Japanese were included in the bill! Make of that what you wish. But there were significant sifferences between the Japanese who were relocated en masse and those relatively few Germans and Italians who were interned. It bothers the Germans that they shared camps with interned Japanese, which is true. But what is also true is that all Japanese internees were under a blanket relocation order on the West Coast and would have been relocated had they not been interned as "dangerous." I should add that Japanese internees were NOT American citizens. Hence, the only real basis of comparison is between all those who were interned - Japanese, Germans, and Italians - between Pearl Harbor and roughly March 1, 1942. The latter is more or less the beginning of the period of mass Japanese relocation, following the decision NOT to treat Germans and Italians in the same fashion.  

Posted by Stephen Fox

Anonymous said...

The New York Times article several years ago stated that the German and Italian Americans who were interned were also non-citizens. Russell's comments seem to indicate that citzen family members chose to join non-citizen internees in detainment centers, but not that citizens were themselves detained. This distinction--if true--does indeed make a difference. It does, for example, differ from the Japanese-American case, where citizens and non-citizens alike were interned indiscriminately. 

Posted by withywindle

Russell Arben Fox said...

Stephen Fox--thanks for your contributions! You should get in contact with Michael Luick-Thrams at Traces; it looks like a lot of your research overlaps with his, and he might really appreciate whatever corrections or additions you might be able to offer him. However, I need to agree with Withywindle insofar as your information on Japanese-American internment is concerned; citizens of Japanese dissent were interned and relocated throughout the war. (Japanese were no allowed to become naturalized citizens at that point in American history, but still over 60% of those relocated were Nisei: second generation, natural-born citizens.) Also, you seem to be making some sort of distinction between the relocation program which affected the Japanese and the internment programs which affected German and Italian-Americans, and I'm not certain that distinction holds up. It is true that Japanese-Americans who had ended up (for whatever reason) on one or another list of suspicious persons were often picked up and interned immediately after Pearl Harbor, just as (for example) Mathias Borniger was, but the historical record reads to me like these actions against Japanese-Americans were very quickly--in a matter of months--incoporated into a general relocation program, whereas the internment of German-Americans remained a far different operation with a different overall aim. (As I said in my original post, their different treatment is surely at least in part attributable to the profoundly different situations which ethnic Germans (and Italians) and ethnic Japanese were in at the time; completely aside from security issues, demographically they had to be treated differently. The perverse result of this was that the treatment of Japanese-Americans has an easily followed (and relatively easily repudiated) legal and political paper trail, whereas that of German-Americans does not.

Withywindle--I need to find that article you've referred to; any idea of when about you read it? The information compiled by Traces includes stories of internment, detainment, and mistreatment affecting citizens and non-citizens of German descent alike.

Anonymous said...


I have sent you an NYT article on Italian-American internment by e-mail from 1998; it mentions by-the-by 10,000 German citizens and non-citizens interned, but no detail. Perhaps I'm using the wrong keyword search, but I suspect that Proquest New York Times doesn't have the article I'm thinking of. That would indicate (since the database goes to 2003) that it was written in 2004 or 2005, since I stopped subscribing to the NYT that year. I'm afraid I can't be more specific than that, but I believe it was an article on internment of German-Americans in the US and Latin America.

I really want statistics on the German internments. Again, your photographer's story includes the crucial fact that he had not yet become a citizen. One gathers that German aliens were interned; that their citizen spouses sometimes chose to be interned with them; and that citizen children were sent to be with their parents (you would have preferred them to be sent to state orphanages? Handed over to aunts and uncles against the parents' wishes?). It does not have figures on actual German-American citizens detained because they were themselves considered suspicious, and I really want to get a handle on the numbers. Google-searching, the Institute of Historical Review, which I believe is the contemptible set of Holocaust-deniers, while assembling the case for the prosecution against the US, http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v07/v07p285_Hummel.html ,

"Internment was not the only consequence of F.D.R.'s Executive Order 9066, nor Japanese the only class of U.S. citizens affected. The vague phrasing of the order would have permitted the army to evacuate or incarcerate any American anywhere in the country, had it so chosen. Thus, even after the Japanese were free to leave the relocation centers, five thousand still faced individual exclusion from the west coast. The military also forcibly ejected, after secret deliberations, 250 citizens not of Japanese ancestry from the west coast, and an additional fifty from the east coast."

Since I assume the IHR would smear the US to the maximum extent possible, and since the footnote is to the ACLU in 1942-43, I assume this is a reasonable maximum. The article also talks of alien Germans and Italians being interned, to the tune of 10K+. But I'm willing to take 300 non-Japanese ancestry US citizens as the number excluded (which doesn't actually mean interned)--and wonder if, perhaps, in a country of 150 million, that wasn't reasonable. As to the constitutionality, I'm not sure this Executive Order 9066 was ever challenged.

But the essential point is, I want the numbers of citizens Traces claimed were interned because they themselves were suspicious, and not just family members. 

Posted by withywindle