While Franklin D. Roosevelt is regarded by the vast majority of presidential scholars to be among the three greatest American presidents (along with Washington and Lincoln), his administration bears the stain of a human rights violations that are still coming to light today.
That violation is the internment of more than 100,000 Americans of foreign ancestry following the United States’ entry into World War II in 1941. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Government, under the now-infamous Executive Order 9066, rounded up citizens of Japanese, German and Italian descent and placed them in internment camps around the country.
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A recently released book sheds new light on a little-known aspect of the internment program. In The Train to Crystal City (Scribner, 2015), readers learn about the so-called “quiet passage”—the deportation of American-born children in exchange for “more ostensibly important Americans—diplomats, businessmen, soldiers and diplomats,” who were trapped behind enemy lines in Germany and Italy.
The Crystal City Internment Camp, located near Crystal City, Texas, opened in December 1943, and at its peak of operation, held more than 3,300 detainees of Japanese, German and Italian descent. At the start of World War II, thousands of residents of the United States (both American citizens and resident aliens) were arrested and detained out of fear that they were spying for or sympathizing with America’s enemies. Many detainees were separated from their families after their initial arrest. At Crystal City, many of these “enemy aliens” were reunited with their wives and children.
In The Train to Crystal City, author and journalist Jane Jarboe Russell focuses on two children who were detained at the camp: a Japanese-American girl named Sumi, and Ingrid, a German-American girl. The two never met while living in Crystal City, but the book describes the lives they lived, within 10-foot high security fences and surrounded by armed guards. When told side-by-side, the stories of these two young girls reveal the resilience many of the detainees showed while living in the camps, as well as the challenges they faced after they were shipped overseas, where they spent years living in war-torn Japan and Germany, all the while attempting to return to the United States.
The New York Times called the story of these detainees “mind-boggling.” Its review says that the book “combines accounts of terrible sorrow and destruction with great perseverance . . . Readers [will] wish these stories weren’t true.” A portrait of a nation gripped by racial prejudice, panic and wartime hysteria, The Train to Crystal City is not only a stark look at one of the darker periods of our own history, but a cautionary tale of how our country behaves in the face of foreign threats today.