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Book Review: Enemies: World War II Alien Internment by John Christgau

It was simply coincidence that I began reading John Christgau’s Enemies: World War II Alien Internment the week of September 11. Yet it reinforced that the book may be more relevant today than when first published 25 years ago and Santayana’s observation that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

enemiesEnemies focuses on a camp near Bismarck, N.D., used to detain “enemy aliens” during World War II. The camp, Ft. Lincoln, was used primarily to hold German nationals but also would be used for Italians, Japanese nationals and American citizens of Japanese descent who had indicated they wanted to be “repatriated” to Japan. Although the book examines a program of detention that was in place 60 years ago, there are times it seems to be about American detention policies during the so-called war on terror, something Christgau specifically addresses in an afterword for this edition from Bison Books.

What is most striking is the breadth of the actions taken by the government. Immediately after September 11 and for a number of months thereafter, the government swept up hundreds of foreign nationals — nearly all of them Muslims — and American citizens, holding many as so-called “material witnesses.” A federal appeals court recently said some of the detentions were “repugnant to the Constitution, and a painful reminder of some of the most ignominious chapters of our national history.” The World War II program, however, caught up many more, some 31,000 so-called enemy aliens and their families.

Another element of the World War II detentions that echoes today are some of the procedures followed by the government. While the internees were to be afforded a hearing if they requested one, this was done as a privilege, “not as a matter of right.” The hearings were held by the same entity that had detained them in the first place. Internees could not be represented by an attorney, although they could have an “advisor”– who could not object to questions asked at the hearing or make argument about the evidence presented. Then Attorney General Francis Biddle would later note that these features of the hearing “greatly expedited action [and] saved time.”

The program Christgau examines is not the well known internment program that swept up thousands of Americans of Japanese descent and Japanese in 1942. The people of Enemies include not only those incarcerated as a result of the Enemy Alien Control Program — created by presidential executive order after Pearl Harbor — but some who were detained months before the U.S. entered the war. Christgau takes a rather unique approach to the subject. Rather than simply a chronological history compiled from his extensive interviews and documentary research, he looks at the policies and the camp by focusing on eight internees.

Among those we meet is Kurt Peters, one of several hundred German seamen stranded in the U.S. but whose deportation was prevented by the war in Europe. Peters would arrive at Ft. Lincoln on May 31, 1941. There’s Eddie Friedman, a German lawyer of Jewish descent who escaped to the U.S. in 1939 after having been held in a German concentration camp. He would be arrested the day afer Pearl Harbor and held at Ft. Lincoln amidst a variety of Nazi supporters. Dr. Arthur Sonnenberg, a German physician, emigrated to the United States in 1923. He, too, was arrested on December 8, 1941 — nine days before he was to take his U.S. citizenship exam. Granted, there were many in the camps who were Nazi party members or supported Germany or Japan in the war. Yet Peters, Friedman and Sonnenberg are just three among many who saw the U.S. as a refuge but were held without any firm evidence that they were a threat to the U.S. Instead, the were simply assumed to be enemies of the U.S.

Undoubtedly, there are differences between the “enemy aliens” of whom Christgau writes and today’s “enemy combatants.” First, with a very few exceptions, none of today’s detainees were within the borders of the United States. Rather, they were taken into custody in or near combat zones. If anything, though, that would lend support for the conclusion — not reached by the U.S. Supreme Court until late June 2006 — that the Geneva Convention applied. And that is one of the areas in which the Roosevelt Administration took a different view than the Bush Administration,

When the Roosevelt Justice Department issued its first guidelines for the treatment of enemy aliens following the country’s entry into the war, it said the Geneva Convention would apply, even though the internees were not prisoners of war. The rationale was that the government did not want to do anything that provide an excuse for harsh treatment or abuse of Americans.

Enemies indicates that, some 60 years later, we not only forgot the flaws of the Enemy Alien Internment Program but also our views of the Geneva Convention. That makes the book not only a worthwhile history but a sad reflection on not only the policies of another generation but our failure to learn from them.


Events in this country since 9/11 have resurrected the nightmares and mistakes of the Enemy Alien Control Program.

John Christgau, Enemies: World War II Alien Internment

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