The last century has been a turbulent one. July 28th marked the commencement of the first conflict that we've come to classify as the first war that involve much of the world in it. July 28th 1914 what was to become the First World War began in Europe. At that time isolationism was on the rise. So much so that Woodrow Wilson was elected on the strength of his promise to keep the united States out of the conflict in 1916. Yet only four short months after the innauguration we became embroiled in the conflict. Part of the the legislation that came with our declaration of war was two rather insidious acts that the Wilson Administration used to try and silence critics and contain those whose first language or heritage came from countries aligned with or within areas controlled by the opposing side. These acts are the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, and they are still on the books.
These two acts empowered the Justice Department to monitor, arrest, intern or deport suspicious aliens or those of 'suspicious origins' and to seize their property. They arrested and interned many German speaking immigrants. Some 6000 souls were interned, mostly men but also a few women.
In Hot Springs, North Carolina, residents of an alien internment camp active from 1917 to 1918 built an authentic German village. They used tobacco tins to construct the church at the end of the lane. (Photo: Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library) (Smithsonian Magazine)
At the same time they seized property that amounted to worth more than half a billion dollars—close to the entire federal budget of pre-war America. Some of this property was of dubious relevance to the war effort. Many of the interned were intellectuals, journalist, translators, artists and musicians. One of those so interned was Erich Posselt, a journalist and translator who had emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. One of the reports dealing with his internment stated. “Posselt is not accused of any conspiracy but is only accused of guilty knowledge, he is very bright in his writings, and might cause trouble if released.” For the main part interns were treated well, but there were cases of over-work, under fed and some suicides.
Twenty short years later with isolationist feeling on the rise again in America, the world again entered into a conflict that would soon embroil us as well. And some thirty years later we did something similar during the second world wide conflict we gathered up immigrants from all of the countries on the opposing side in World War II, we hear and know of the Japanese but Germans and Italians were also incarcerated though not in as great numbers.
Now as the century turns over we again see isolationism and we have added to the Espionage Act and the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Patriot Act. Not only that we've given the Department of Justice an ally in these activities, the Department of Homeland security. Under Wilson there was the appointed position of "Alien Property Custodian".
The staff of the Alien Property Custodian's office. A. Michel Palmer stands in the front row, third from the left. (Photo: Library of Congress) (Smithsonian Magazine)
This current angst about immigration from places that have a record is not something new, nor is it the brainchild of conservatives or isolationist republicans.