Pearl Harbor: A Look Back, A Look Forward

It has been 60 years since Pearl Harbor, but time has not faded the pain. Our own recent disaster connects us to the past, but the lessons learned from the period following our forced entry into World War II do not seem to have lasted. While most U.S. citizens are too young to have experienced it, the collective memory of Dec. 7, 1941 has indelibly burned into the American conscience two words: Heroism and Martyrdom. Sadly, 60 years hence that may be all we have left of Sept. 11, 2001.

If curious minds were to look back carefully to the dark days into which Pearl Harbor propelled us, they might actually come back with a set of words quite different than the ones we remember. Among them: Rage, Xenophobia, Persecution.

While the memory of Pearl Harbor is an important one, it must also be remembered in its entirety. Along with the tragic deaths of American servicemen, the beginning of a quiet and long-hidden suffering of those interned by the U.S. Government is marked by this date. The raucous patriotism of this national memorial is also cause for national shame.

The tens of thousands of Japanese and European Americans interned during WWII have parallels to the present. While the federal government cracks down on Islamic fundamentalists and suspected collaborators of the perpetrators of 9/11, the question of civil rights -- and the trampling of such -- again comes to light. At what cost will security once again be assured in this country? If the price paid during WWII is any indicator, it may be too high for many of us to bear. As a new year approaches, and the revenge-at-all-costs mantra loses its power, a look back at the events of 60 years ago seems fitting.

Dec. 7, 1941 -- Led by a large squadron of fighter planes, the Japanese military launches a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, a forward U.S. naval base on the Pacific island of Hawaii. In a matter of hours, 2,300 lives are lost, and the U.S. Navy is crippled with the loss of 19 ships. As President Roosevelt aptly remarks, it is "a day that will live in infamy."

A few days later, the U.S. Government begins a nation-wide dragnet, rounding up thousands of people, immigrants and citizens alike, on the basis of ethnicity. Within two days of the attack, 1,291 Japanese, 857 Germans, and 147 Italians are taken into custody by the federal government. Quoting an arcane law -- the Enemy Alien Act of 1798 -- the government holds these men without charge, trial, or due process of law. All in the name of security.

The similarities are almost too close for comfort. Change the venue from Hawaii to New York, the dates from then to now, the persecution from ethnic to religious, and what you have is a concise timeline of the tickers running across major U.S. news networks over the last four months.

Before the war ended, some 31,275 people were interned in the U.S., according to an Aug. 19, 1948 letter from W.F. Kelly, then assistant commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. While many are aware only of the internees of Japanese ancestry, it is also true that slightly less than half of those interned -- 14,426, to be exact -- were of European descent. The majority of these were Germans, but Italians, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, and Czechs are counted among the thousands interned by our government. As these men and their families learned over the years, the punishment for being different was greater than many of them could have ever imagined.

Of course, the truth of retrospection makes room for even the most amazing stories. Ensi Bennett is a 60-year-old woman living with the memory of internment. In December 1941, days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mathias Eiserloh -- Ensi's father -- was one of thousands of foreign nationals taken from their jobs by federal authorities and transported to labor camps around the country. A year and a half later, 3-year-old Ensi (an American citizen) was reunited with her father, along with the rest of her family, in an internment camp in Texas.

For almost two years, the family lived as internees, one among thousands of other families. The children went to school and played with the other interned children, and the adults went about their daily chores: cleaning house, cooking food, working at jobs around the camp, and writing letters to the outside world. Life, in many ways, was normal, with a few glaring exceptions: They could not leave, and government authorities monitored their activities and censored their mail. Though it was heavily whitewashed, the internees could not escape the fact that they were living in a family prison.

The Eiserloh family ended their internment only after they were repatriated to Nazi Germany in 1944, in exchange for American POWs. Unwelcome both in the U.S. and Germany, the Eiserlohs led an unhappy life in post-war Germany until they were allowed to return to the States ten years after the war ended.

Yet the Eiserlohs‚ return to the U.S. was a bittersweet homecoming. No one believed their story, though their plight was not uncommon. For decades, the U.S. Government denied the existence of the WWII internment program. In 1960, Mathias Eiserloh died of heart failure. Ensi's mother, Johanna, who had fought so hard to return to the U.S., made her living with odd jobs: babysitting, sewing, and elder care. She worked until she was 89, when Alzheimer's incapacitated her. She died in 1997.

Regardless of the mistreatment she suffered at the hands of the U.S. government, Johanna Eiserloh loved the United States and what it stood for. In 1961, after meeting the eligibility requirements, she took her oath of citizenship. Interned, deported, and ignored by the U.S. Government, Johanna Eiserloh died an American citizen.

There have been nine laws that make amends to Japanese Americans interned, relocated, or excluded during WWII. Furthermore, on Election Day 2000, President Clinton signed into law HR 2442, the Wartime Violation of Italian-American Civil Liberties Act. Though the same fate was shared by thousands of German ancestry, they are not mentioned in the law, nor have they ever been offered an official apology from our government.

That may be about to change.

On August 3rd, Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced the Wartime Treatment of European Americans and Refugees Study Act, which would create a commission to study the violation of the civil liberties of European Americans and European Latin Americans by the U.S. Government during WWII. While the wording sets no agenda on the question of reparations, it is a step forward for the government in recognizing the mistreatment of thousands of minorities during the war.

Alas, it has been pushed aside by recent events and a new war. The peacetime ruminations have given way to the harried wartime call for emergency curtailment of freedoms and a drastic reduction in civil liberties. Our country has proved itself to be a fickle student of history, and the old xenophobic skeletons have once again been called out of the closet.

The story of the WWII internment camps is a story with a definite immediacy for the present. Sadly, it may never be fully told. But if there is one thing which can be taken away from both the recent terror and the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, it is this: We cannot count our future successes without admitting our past mistakes.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.