History must always be remembered, except when it shouldn’t. No one will ever claim that adage, but many people adhere to it, one way or another. Pity the person with a history that disturbs a popular narrative. In the blink of an eye, “never forget” can become “never remind.”
Last week, the media went into full-on “never forget” mode after Donald Trump’s “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” proposal. Damn near every mainstream media outlet immediately invoked World War II Japanese-American internment as an example of how U.S. war hysteria inevitably leads to racism.
The fuss over Trump’s comments will eventually ebb. Of more interest to me is how the episode proved, once again, that while the story of the 71,000 Japanese-Americans who were relocated, and the 35,000 Japanese aliens who were interned (in a previous piece, I explained the difference), is classified under “never forget,” the story of the approximately 14,000 German- and Italian-Americans and aliens interned during the war is officially filed under “never remind.”
Meet Arthur Jacobs. He’s the poster boy for “doesn’t fit the narrative.” Not coincidentally, he’s also the poster boy for getting your nads kicked by your own government for eighty years just because you’re of German descent. You know what he isn’t the poster boy for? “White privilege.” Jacobs’ story personifies why the ordeal of interned German-Americans and aliens during World War II was sometimes worse than what the Japanese internees went through.
Arthur Jacobs’ parents moved to the U.S. from Germany in the 1920s. They were pretty much your standard German Christian immigrants, looking to start a new life in New York. They became legal residents, and had two sons. Arthur was born in Brooklyn in 1933. His parents mandated that English be spoken around the house, so Arthur grew up knowing only scant German. He was a typical Brooklyn kid: school, sports, and scrap-metal drives when the war broke out. But the FDR administration had other plans.
After Pearl Harbor, all “enemy aliens” (noncitizens from Axis countries) had to register with their local “enemy alien hearing board.” Jacobs’ father was interviewed by the board, and it was unanimously determined that he posed no threat, and that internment was not necessary. The Jacobs family felt that they’d dodged a bullet, but, in fact, they were just a bit farther downrange than they thought. What the Jacobs family, and thousands of other German-American families, didn’t know was that the Roosevelt administration had created a secret, shadowy entity within the State Department called the “Special War Problems Division” (SWPD), which was charged with rounding up aliens and their families for use as hostages should any need arise to bargain for Americans captured by Axis forces. Some aliens already cleared by the enemy aliens board were to be interned anyway, because the goal of the SWPD wasn’t national security, but to collect potential pawns.