Texas Monthly contributing editor Russell (Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, 1999, etc.) recounts a dark episode in America’s past in this engrossing history of the forced detention of thousands of civilians in internment camps during World War II.
Soon after the nation entered the war, Franklin Roosevelt empowered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to find and arrest Japanese, Germans and Italians—immigrants, their wives and their American-born children—in the United States and Latin America so that they could be “a ready source of exchange” for Americans imprisoned in enemy countries. When Eleanor Roosevelt opposed the project as smacking “too much of Gestapo methods,” Hoover started a file on her, too. Russell focuses on Crystal City, a camp designed especially for families, located near the Mexican border in the Texas desert. By the time it closed in 1948, it had housed more than 6,000 people. Conditions in the camp, monitored by the International Red Cross, were humane, both to comply with Geneva Convention provisions and to ensure that rumors of mistreatment did not exact reprisals against American prisoners abroad. Each family had separate living quarters with a kitchen and bathroom; a mess hall served three nutritious meals per day. At their own request, prisoners designed and built a pool “the size of a football field,” relief against the oppressive heat; when high school seniors wanted a prom, they had one, as well as graduation ceremonies. The camp’s administrator, Joseph O’Rourke, emerges as kind and caring, but he could not protect the families from the secret prisoner exchanges that sent thousands back to Germany and Japan, where families were shocked to find nations in rubble; nor from Truman’s edict requiring repatriation of “any enemy alien considered dangerous,” decisions summarily made on shaky evidence.
Based in part on interviews with camp survivors, Russell documents in chilling detail a shocking story of national betrayal.