Jay Feldman on ‘Concentration Camps on the Home Front’
Posted on Jan 9, 2009
By Jay Feldman
Moreover, Howard makes a glaring error of omission common to virtually the entire body of literature on the Japanese-American relocation and internment: By failing to connect the War Relocation Authority program to its antecedent, the Justice Department’s Alien Enemy Control program, he perpetuates the widespread misconception that Japanese-Americans were the only U.S. group targeted during the Second World War.
In fact, the WRA program, rather than having sprung independent and full-blown—as it is almost universally perceived to have done—was a natural and direct outgrowth of the Alien Enemy Control program. By the time the WRA plan was conceived and carried out beginning in February 1942, the assault on civil liberties had already been under way for five years, tracing back to an August 1936 meeting between President Roosevelt and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, in which FDR asked Hoover to undertake a secret FBI investigation of “subversive” activities in the United States.
Starting on the very day of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the FBI, on the basis of the investigations initiated in August 1936, carried out a haphazard, almost entirely unnecessary and largely ineffective roundup of Japanese-, German- and Italian-Americans, a number of whom were U.S. citizens. Within 48 hours after Pearl Harbor, nearly 2,000 individuals had been apprehended. Along with a very small percentage of hard-core Nazis and Japanese spies and saboteurs, thousands of innocent people were swept up and sent to Department of Justice internment camps for years, with barely a passing nod to due process. In all, 8,004 Japanese-Americans, 6,847 German-Americans and 2,991 Italian-Americans were taken into “custodial detention” and shipped to more than a dozen Department of Justice camps throughout the country, and in some cases they were held long after the end of the war. Hundreds of others were “repatriated” to Germany and Japan in prisoner-of-war exchanges, among them many U.S.-born children—American citizens—who were sent “home” with their immigrant parents. In the end, not a single person arrested and interned under the Alien Enemy Control program was convicted of committing a war-associated crime against this country.
Simultaneously, in flagrant violation of international law, the United States conspired with the governments of more than 15 Latin American countries to identify, arrest and deport to the United States, with little or no evidence and no legal proceedings, more than 6,500 Latin Americans of German, Japanese and Italian ancestry. The deportees consisted of both immigrant residents and citizens of those Latin American countries from which they were deported. As with the domestic effort, the Latin American prisoners included only a small percentage of Nazis and Nazi sympathizers; unlike the domestic internees, they included virtually no dangerous Japanese. From Latin America, 4,058 Germans (including 81 Jews, some of whom had spent time in Nazi concentration camps), 2,264 Japanese and 287 Italians were taken from their homes and shipped to this country. The program was carried out by the State Department, but when the deportees reached the United States, they were classified as enemy aliens and interned in the Justice Department camps under the Alien Enemy Control program, alongside the domestic enemy aliens. Many of these Latin Americans were also used for POW exchanges with the Axis powers.
While Howard makes several mentions of the DOJ camps in “Concentration Camps on the Home Front,” he never explains their existence or draws the crucial distinction between them and the WRA camps, nor does he mention the internment of German and Italian-Americans or of German, Italian and Japanese Latin Americans.
Howard also concurs with the prevailing view of the Japanese-American relocation and internment as having been based entirely on racism. While racism was clearly and undeniably a key motivating factor, it is not the entire explanation. A fuller picture emerges only when the Japanese-American situation is seen in the full context of the other alien enemy groups’ internments. A cloud of suspicion hung over all three communities, based in large part on the assumption and fear that aliens’ loyalties were automatically divided between the United States and their countries of origin, and therefore their allegiance to this country was questionable, regardless of how long they had lived here. The nativist streak of resentment toward immigrants that had been an undercurrent in American life since the early 19th century cannot be overlooked in attempting to understand the internment of all three ethnic groups.
Still, despite these oversights, there is much to praise in Howard’s book. At its core, “Concentration Camps on the Home Front” holds up a critical lens to American society and values, raising such hot-button issues as race, family, gender politics, capitalism, individualism, immigration and nationalism. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of the Japanese-American relocation and internment.
Jay Feldman is the author of “When the Mississippi Ran Backwards” (Free Press, 2005). He is currently working on a book for Pantheon about the scapegoating of minorities in times of crisis.
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