X-Post Review: Correia on Schmitz. Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021.

Alison Efford's picture
John E. Schmitz
Tyler Correia

Correia on Schmitz, 'Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War'

John E. Schmitz. Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. Illustrations, maps. 430 pp. $65.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4962-2755-3; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-2414-9.

Reviewed by Tyler Correia (York University) Published on H-Socialisms (June, 2022) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56962

Internment in the United States during World War II

John E. Schmitz offers a convincing demonstration of the extent of American relocation, internment, and repatriation programs before and during World War II in his recent work, Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. In it, he prepares a comprehensive analysis within a wide context of domestic, foreign, and wartime policy activity, as well as a general political-cultural backdrop of American fears regarding the war. I found his contribution convincing in two ways. First, he expands the scope of current scholarship to include the mistreatment of German and Italian Americans and émigré subjects in tandem with a reading of the extensive literature on mistreatment of Japanese Americans. Second, he analyzes the political and cultural conditions of these programs in order to situate them among a general ethno-cultural nationalism and protectionist state action motivated not by evidence but by credulity in ethnic others as “threats.” In this way, they fit within a wide frame of nation-building projects through the denunciation of others as “enemy aliens” generally. This is so whether or not those subjects to whom the identity of an “enemy other” is applied holds American citizenship (the so-titled “enemies among us”). Such programs also express prevailing cultural values around ethnic “others” present in media, emerging film portrayals, and commercials in the United States. We witness these movements in view of intensifying paranoia used as a tool for asserting national (and government) authority during World War II, culminating in relocation, repatriation, and internment.

Schmitz’s argument is perhaps much less complicated and much more elegant than I am making it. He makes three expansive claims borne out by a careful exploration of evidence. In light of a shifting political culture in the United States, he finds, first, that a precedent of prejudices and a language of pejoratives already came together by the 1920s. Anti-Japanese sentiment is traceable to as early as the 1870s, and to nativism stoked in 1905 in response to the Russo-Japanese War. The popularly derided prospect of increasing Japanese immigration to the US set the groundwork for future internment programs. Furthermore, propaganda around the “home front,” and the questioning of the loyalty of German and Italian Americans meant that since World War I even the “settled” question of a person’s American citizenship did not defend German and Italian Americans from a discourse of ethnically motivated treason justifying the looming possibility that their citizenship might be revoked.

Second, overstated fears of “fifth-column” German fascism on American soil (the notion that Germany was sending spies and saboteurs to the US disguised as peaceful visitors) fold into J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) 1931 authorization to study “communist and revolutionary activity” (p. 38). Further exacerbating the political response, Joseph Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry (PROMI) in Germany stoked fear of an “invasion of foreign-mindedness” in American political life. This prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 “Quarantine Speech,” in which he declared that an “epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading”; the American government’s response must be swift and extensive (p. 49). In this period, use of mass media and FBI investigations directly foreshadowed the internment programs prior to the US’s formal entry into World War II. This is captured, for example, in Hoover’s circulation of the Custodial Detention Index (CDI) on August 28, 1936—a “suspect list” of Germans, Japanese, and Italians who would be arrested once the US formally entered the war. By 1939, wartime preparations coincided with intensifying hostilities toward “enemy others” within the US as a government strategy, including talk of internment by the Interdepartmental Intelligence Committee (IIC) as a precaution against espionage or sabotage. By that December (and again in summer 1940 and spring 1941), German and Italian merchant sailors were interned for violating the 1924 Immigration Act.

Third, the story of specific domestic wartime preparations precedes the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s formal entry into the war. Certainly, both the politico-cultural groundwork of mistrust against those with loose ethnic ties to the Axis powers and the domestic formation of state-bureaucratic agencies for securing the homeland gave rise to the most well-known examples of government violence. Schmitz follows this violence in great detail, notably as outlined by the sheer volume and integration of government agencies contributing to internment programs led by the FBI. This is a staggering reminder of how domestic political shifts preceded and conditioned American military action abroad as informed by ideas of “external” inhabitants of the US. The IIC, as an interdepartmental committee, coordinated and oversaw activities between the State, War, and Justice Departments, including the execution of the Alien Registration Act on June 28, 1940. Led by the War Department, extensive plans were made for mass internments beginning in July 1941. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), meanwhile, prepared internment facilities and investigated “unlawful” acts conducted by “alien” residents of the US following the list provided by the FBI also before Pearl Harbor.

The devastating bombing of Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, provoked a decisive shift in American domestic and military policy, cementing mainstream public opinion around “patriotism, unity, and resolve” (p. 114). Schmitz demonstrates adeptly how the formal entry of the US into World War II had an expansive impact on foreign policies and military action, and also fundamentally reorganized domestic politics. Two months after Pearl Harbor, on February 19 of the following year, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the designation of internment camp zones for Japanese, German, and Italian inhabitants of the US (ultimately counting among all three groups around 130,000 detainees—112,700 Japanese and between 20,000 and 40,000 German and Italian). This order also formally initiated repatriation and exchange programs in prisoner-of-war (POW) negotiations with Axis powers. The final three chapters of his text outlines the relocation, repatriation and exchange, and internment programs respectively as elements of an “all-out effort to engage the enemy—including enemy aliens and those citizens believed by their neighbors to be disloyal” (p. 117).

It is crucial that Schmitz continues through his work to emphasize how these more overt actions can be situated in light of the general movements of American politics, for example, the increasingly prevalent fear of a “fifth-column invasion” or repudiation of concerns about ethical implications and civil rights violations. It is also critical that he captures forms of cultural production simultaneously taking place, intensifying production of propaganda materials targeting German, Italian, and Japanese Americans. I would like to stress how Schmitz’s book offers a reminder of the loose and porous nature that supposedly separate “domestic” and “foreign” policy spheres. This is especially clear in how cultural notions around “external” enemies bear real implications for “internal” policies of citizenship revocation and in an extreme register, for relocation, internment, and repatriation. That is, policies informed by ideas about “others” have very real implications for the lives and lived realities of those within the United States. It is a staunch reminder of how complex and consequent rhetoric around “outsiders” can be when supposedly benevolent Western states authorize unjustifiable and extensive political structures of violence.

In Schmitz’s conclusion, he also reiterates a critical insight that the treatment of Italian, German, and Japanese populations during World War II in the US as “internal enemies” or “enemy aliens” demonstrates that such actions were motivated primarily by imagined fears and not an evident or credible threat. With reference to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote battling windmills that he romantically imagines are giants, Schmitz notes how, unlike Cervantes’s famed romantic hero, the American government and public did much more than pretend to battle windmills. He states, “Americans created, castigated, and then incarcerated alleged enemies: all this despite lack of evidence, or worse, evidence to the contrary” (p. 290). Sobering as it is, such a reminder seems to be woefully neglected as migrant detention facilities, rhetoric of internal and political enemies, and increasingly violent events are reiterated in the “official” politics of many nation-states on the world stage today. Nevertheless, Schmitz’s account does much to offer the well-demonstrated and lucid ground to demand that repeating this history would be a tragedy that leaves no one unscathed.

Citation: Tyler Correia. Review of Schmitz, John E., Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56962

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