In the grand scheme of world history, eighty years is like a blink. In the youth of our country, eighty years is a bit more substantial, a full one-third of the U.S.’s life as an independent country. It was about 75-80 years ago when the Fascist governments were beginning their aggression towards their European neighbors, aggression which would become World War II.
As most students of U.S. history know, the U.S. didn’t enter the war until very early 1942 following the unprovoked bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on 7 December 1941. Yet, prior even to this date, even before 1939 when the war would begin, the U.S. was persecuting some of her own citizens out of fear. They don’t usually teach this in U.S. History, not even AP history; they didn’t when I was in school, anyway.
As Fascism grew in Italy under Mussolini‘s dictatorship, the U.S. government began to incarcerate Italian-American men and Italian immigrants in our country out of fear that they’d be sympathetic to Fascist Italy. The government shipped these men by cattle cars (Cattle cars! Sound familiar? It was the Nazis’ preferred mode of prisoner transport, too.) to prisons in Montana and New York. In doing so, they split up families, leaving thousands of women and children to survive without their primary bread-winner during the continuing dark days of the Great Depression.
As the war continued, especially following the attack on Pearl Harbor, German nationals who were stuck in the country because of the war and German-Americans (naturalized or citizens by birth) were monitored closely and over 10,000 of these were incarcerated. Some of those citizens had one or both parents who had immigrated from Germany. They were still citizens, though, regardless of their bloodlines. These Americans lost their homes and their livelihoods, and many families were split up with children being sent to orphanages.
We know, perhaps, about the incarceration and relocation of the Japanese-Americans the most. The government forcibly relocated thousands of citizens of Japanese descent from California to internment camps in the central United States, believing that they would aid our Japanese enemies otherwise. Whole families were forced to leave their homes and jobs and live in crowded conditions, surrounded by chain link and barbed wire, with armed guards watching them around the clock.
Some of these prisoners were held until 1948, three years after the war had ended. A fairly vast number of them had relatives serving in the armed forces, fighting the enemies without; I know one guy of German descent who served with honor in the Pacific Theater in the 1st Cavalry division of the US Army.
And now there’s talk during this election year of wanting to imprison Muslims. Who in history imprisoned people based on their religion? Yes, Adolf Hitler, arguably one of the vilest dictators in world history (and there are some doozies!). And now we see how the U.S., just like Hitler, imprisoned people based on their heritage – and fear. Are we as a country going to repeat this embarrassing, unjust bit of history? I think about my Muslim friends and my friends and neighbors from the Middle East. They’re Americans with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities we all hold dear. My next-door neighbor is almost 90 years old, and he doesn’t speak of his time in the Iraqi army nearly as much as he does his late wife, his grandchildren, and his Master’s degree from one of our state universities. But would a government run by fear know that, or would it just see the color of his skin?
We as Americans need to stop listening to the fearmongering, need to stop letting those political earworms manipulate how we think. We need to step back, reassess, and recognize that we are dealing with people here – people with families, homes, and jobs. This isn’t about “Us versus Them”; we’re all “us.”