Book Review: Enemies among Us: The Relocation, Internment, and Repatriation of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans during the Second World War


by John E. Schmitz

Lincoln" University of Nebraska Press, 2021. Pp. xx, 386. Illus., chron., notes, biblio., index. $65.00. ISBN: 1496224140

The Wartime Treatment of ‘Hyphenated Americans’

Enemies Among Us sets out to correct history: Prof. Schmitz (Northern Virginia CC) says that books on the internment of “enemy aliens” published over the last fifty years have focused almost exclusively on Japanese-Americans, and have ascribed their fate to the racism of Americans and their government. “This book is the first to address comparatively all three major alien enemy and citizen groups, fully examine their repatriation and exchange, and place relocation, internment, and repatriation in a broader chronological and international context” (p. 6). The other groups are Germans and Italians, both aliens – ranging from sailors stranded at the outbreak of the war to immigrants who had been in America for decades, but never applied for citizenship – and American citizens from those countries. Schmitz lays out his argument, and goals bluntly:

Scholarly and popular histories of relocation and internment have traditionally focused solely on Japanese Americans…. Historians and Japanese American relocatees or internees cited racism as the sole or determining factor of their wartime plight. This view, which dominated the literature for some fifty years, changed recently as a few historians learned of the relocation and internment of German and Italian Americans…. Yet some texts allege that only Japanese Americans suffered and state emphatically that German and Italian Americans were neither mistreated nor interned. (p. 4)

Schmitz then provides readers with a tremendous amount of information, and achieves some of his goals, yet Enemies Among Us is ultimately a frustrating, and disappointing book.

To begin with the book’s strong points: Schmitz provides a good summary of the treatment of enemy aliens before the attack on Pearl Harbor changed American policy. First of all, German-American aliens (some of them travelers or sailors, but most of them immigrants who had not applied for citizenship) had been persecuted during World War I. Dozens of German-language schools and newspapers had been closed-down amid nativist hysteria and government propaganda. Then, even before the U.S. entered the war, hundreds of German and Italian sailors were arrested and interned in 1940 and 1941. But the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything overnight. Americans from the president down to the proverbial woman on the street anticipated a Japanese attack on the West Coast, if not an invasion. Supposedly, this would be aided a Fifth Column of Japanese-Americans – most of whom lived near the coast – who would commit sabotage and direct Japanese planes to targets. On February 19, 1942, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, authorizing the forced removal of all persons deemed a threat to national security from the West Coast. This meant the Japanese-Americans. About 122,000 Japanese-Americans were removed from California, Washington, and Oregon, and put in internment camps for the duration. About 70,000 of these men, women and children were American citizens, many of them born here. But that is what Enemies is not about. It is about the thousands of German aliens, and rather fewer Italian aliens, who were arrested and interned. A very few of these people were politically active in supporting their native countries’ fascist governments, but most were not. As Schmitz explains, a few thousand aliens from the three Axis nations were exchanged, during the war, for Americas caught overseas by the outbreak of hostilities. The book contains a good selection of photos, most of them taken in Crystal City, Texas, an internment camp that held thousands of German-, Italian- and Japanese-Americans. Several show members of the author’s family but, strangely, he has very little to say about life in the camp and almost nothing about his family’s experience there.

Perhaps the strongest part of Enemies Among Us is Schmitz’s thorough recounting of the national passion, especially after Pearl Harbor, for rounding up and imprisoning “enemy aliens.” He quotes dozens of newspaper columnists and politicians, along with ordinary Americans, who demanded such actions due to a pervasive fear of a Fifth Column, and, on the West Coast, of an invasion. Roosevelt himself joined in, and so did Walter Lippmann, one of the most liberal figures he cites. Attorney General Francis Biddle was virtually alone in advocating restraint and the observance of constitutional law. In practice, however, actions were limited. Although the Japanese-Americans on the U.S. mainland, citizens or not, were interned, the thousands who lived in Hawaii were not touched, because they were so numerous, and necessary to the islands’ economy. And there were so many thousands of German and Italian aliens living in the U.S. that most of them were never interned. This is where one of Schmitz’s main arguments falls apart. Americans, and American officials, knew they could tell “good” Germans and Italians from “dangerous” ones, and found very few of the latter. But every Japanese-American was assumed to be a dangerous traitor, waiting to attack, and there were many voices calling for them all to be rounded up, if not shot. Most of these quotes use the term “Japs.” None of the sources Schmitz cites use any derogatory racial terms for either Germans or Italians.

Readers looking for an overall description of the treatment of German, Italian and Japanese aliens in the U.S. before and during World War II will find it in Enemies Among Us. Schmitz also does a fair job with the repatriation program, which continued throughout the war, and even afterwards. Enemies Among Us is well written, though repetitious, and has excellent endnotes, bibliography, and index.


Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book he owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews for StrategyPage and NYMAS include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution, The Virtuous Wehrmacht: Crafting the Myth of the German Soldier on the Eastern Front, 1941-1944, and Prevail Until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Days of World War II.



Note: Enemies Among Us is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium 
Reviewer: Jonathan Beard   

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