America's Other World War II Internment Camps: The Legacy of the German and Japanese Prisoners Held Hostage

By Bicknell, John | Reason, October 2016 | Go to article overview

America's Other World War II Internment Camps: The Legacy of the German and Japanese Prisoners Held Hostage


Bicknell, John, Reason


The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp in World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell, Scribner, 432 pages, $18

Most Americans are aware of the War Relocation Authority camps established after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That program rounded up and interned 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, more than half of them born in the United States. Less well known is the Alien Enemy Control Unit program, which scooped up other Japanese Americans, along with German and Italian Americans that the Justice Department considered national security threats, often on the flimsiest of evidence.

The Alien Enemy Control Unit camp in Crystal City, Texas, was the program's only detention center specifically designed to accommodate families. It is the focus of The Train to Crystal City, the Texas-based journalist Jan Jarboe Russell's painful account of the Americans held in captivity and used as hostages to recover other Americans held abroad during World War II.

Like so much else associated with overweening government, the family relocations were launched with something resembling good intentions: to let family members live with their already detained parents and spouses. But the incarcerations of sons, daughters, and wives simply added to the human toll of what was already an unjust and unjustifiable system.

In the days immediately after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt set in motion a chain of events that would wreck tens of thousands of lives while providing scant return in terms of national security.

Attorney General Francis Biddle later wrote, "I do not think Roosevelt was much concerned with the gravity or implications of this step." In fact, the president had been contemplating such a step for years, long before the United States entered World War II. On September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt ordered the creation of a top secret Special Division within the State Department. Its task: to catalog important Americans living in Germany and Japan. A few months later, he authorized the Special War Problems Division to identify Japanese and Germans in the United States and Latin America who could be used as trade bait for those Americans.

The government was therefore able, within days of Pearl Harbor, to take 1,212 Japanese, 620 Germans, and 98 Italians into custody. Many, many more would follow. When FDR asked Biddle how many Germans were in the country, Biddle told him there were about 600,000. "And you're going to intern all of them," Roosevelt replied.

They didn't intern all of them. But on February 19,1942--just 74 days after Pearl Harbor--FDR signed the notorious Executive Order 9006, condemning Japanese, Germans, and Italians to forced removals from "military zones." The legal underpinning for the human disaster that followed was now in place. The War Relocation Authority, formed on March 18,1942, operated in regions designated Military Areas 1 and 2, covering California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. The Alien Enemy Control Unit, created soon after in the Department of Justice, ran Crystal City and operated branches in each federal judicial district, where Alien Enemy Hearing Boards determined who would be interned.

While tens of thousands of Americans were sent to the camps, the reach of the program extended beyond the U.S. border via the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, a multi-national arrangement run by the State Department that worked with Latin American nations to find and detain enemy aliens. Peru, for example, deported 1,799 Japanese, 702 Germans, and 49 Italians to the United States. In total, 4,058 Germans, 2,264 Japanese, and 288 Italians from 13 Latin American countries were sent to the U.S.; many ended up at Crystal City.

As was often the case in California and other Western states, there was more at work in the Latin American deportations than a concern for national security, or even overt racism. …

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