The large-scale detainment of specific ethnic groups by the U.S. government goes back a long way, writes journalist Dickerson.
The author covers many instances from colonial times to the present day, but the bulk of the narrative focuses on policies instituted during World War II. Most readers will have heard about the 1942 internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans; Dickerson details many stories of affected citizens and their families, from the unknown to the relatively famous, including Star Trek actor George Takei. Less well-known is the fact that German-Americans and Italian-Americans were interned as well, with some placed in an internment camp built on Ellis Island. The author also writes about Jewish refugees from Italy, some of whom had already been in Nazi concentration camps, who were detained for months at Camp Ontario in Oswego, N.Y., as the government tried to figure out what to do with them. Dickerson touches on the use of similar prison camps in more recent years for undocumented immigrants. He is at his most engaging when he focuses on the camps’ human impact. One Italian opera singer living in New York was imprisoned for three months because it was mistakenly alleged that he knew Mussolini. People returned from unjust internments only to be shunned by suspicious neighbors, even family members. Doris Berg, whose law-abiding German-American father and American mother were interned, remembered that her mother-in-law told her, “Doris, if the government didn’t have anything on your folks they wouldn’t have taken them away.” Indeed, if one point becomes clear after reading this book, it’s that the xenophobia that drives governments to imprison their own people can have deep personal and moral consequences.
A brief, serviceable historical overview.