The plight of German- and Italian-American families imprisoned by the United States government during World War II under the Alien Enemies Act has remained largely untold. Jan Jarboe Russell, who explores this little-known history in her book The Train to Crystal City, recently talked with Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe. This is a condensed version of their conversation.
Q: Why is this chapter of US history so unknown?
Most everyone knows about the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans who were evacuated from the Pacific coast [during World War II]. There were far fewer German and German-American and Italian and Italian-American detainees. When they left [Crystal City, the camp in Texas where they were held], they signed oaths saying they would never describe or discuss Crystal City.
Q. Your book focuses on individuals and families held under the Alien Enemies Act. What were the numbers involved?
During the whole course of [World War II], the US government interned 31,275 alien enemies. Of these there were 16,849 Japanese, 10,905 Germans, and 3,278 Italians. When you’re talking about the alien enemy program the numbers of Japanese and German were pretty close.
Q: Why were these families targeted?
The FBI started by considering people’s occupations. Engineers were targeted because the government thought that people who knew how to build bridges and buildings would know how to blow them up. They [also] relied on the word of anonymous accusers.
The third way they did it, was if you belonged to any German clubs – and many first-generation families did – you were suspect.
Q: Were any charged with a crime?
You didn’t have to commit any crime. The Alien Enemies Act of 1798 says that if you are a citizen of a country we are at war with, then you are an enemy. That is the very same act that both Presidents [George W.] Bush and Obama used to [detain prisoners at Guantánamo Bay].
None of the alien enemy fathers were ever charged with any crime. They couldn’t hire a lawyer. They had about a 15-minute hearing before a small group of civilians and then, based on what the FBI said, they were interned and they couldn’t do anything about it.
To the government it wasn’t personal. But to the people whose lives were literally smashed, it was extremely personal.
Q. How similar are the stories of these detainees to those of the detainees held at Guantánamo?
I don’t know as much about [the situation] today because my book is [focused on] the only family internment camp in [World War II]. Guantánamo Bay doesn’t have whole families. I don't know because I haven’t examined it but perhaps there’s more evidence against the people being held at Guantánamo Bay than the people being held at Crystal City. I’m not sure about that. But it is true that it is the same law that allows them to be held.
Some of the same themes – government surveillance, internment, wartime hysteria – are perennial and were in place in 1942 when this secret government internment camp, 35 miles from the Mexican border, as close to Siberia as we have in America, was built.
Q. Was the camp humane?
The camp was fortunate enough to be run by [attorney and public servant] Earl G. Harrison who chose, as an officer in charge, Joseph O'Rourke, an Irish Catholic border patrol agent from Buffalo who, when he got to Crystal City had just been divorced and was kind of lonely. He took a particular interest in the children. They followed him around like the Pied Piper. They had thee schools. He did as well as he could to protect the children.
They were under armed guard the whole time. They lost all their freedom. But it was no torture camp and no one ever went hungry at Crystal City.
I think our national honor was somewhat saved by the efforts of Harrison and O'Rouke to make the experience as best as it could be.
Q. Did no one in government oppose this plan to intern and – in some cases, repatriate into war zones – these families?
Eleanor Roosevelt was opposed. She was the only one who was opposed. Her position as First Lady counted for absolutely nothing. [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover’s response to Eleanor’s complaint was that he wiretapped her. That’s what she got for standing up for civil liberties.
Q: Crystal City was the only family internment camp in US history. Why was it built?
It was built for two purposes. One seems humane: to reunite alien enemy fathers with their families. But the second reason is the more interesting one. President Roosevelt realized that Americans – businessmen and diplomats – would be trapped behind enemy lines in Germany and Japan. So he [ordered the creation] of a pool of Germans, Italians, and Japanese who could be traded in a prisoner exchange.
The great tragedy of my book is that American-born children were traded into war in an exchange for ostensibly more-important Americans.
The great glory of the book is that most of [those children eventually] made it back to the US with amazing pluck and resilience and [lived] as loyal US citizens.