World War II internments – 4,000 abductions from South America

Recent revisions to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for U.S. history include more rigor in the study of internments of Japanese, German and Italian descendants during World War II (many of whom were U.S. citizens).

At some risk of irritating the copyright gods, we repost here a story from the Florida State University Office of Research, about a story from a book by Max Paul Friedman, Nazis & Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

In the past week I’ve discovered that many of the on-line archive photos I’ve used in the past have gone off-line, generally because the libraries lost funding to keep the archives going.  This is good material for Texas classrooms, which I hope will not go off-line; this is my attempt to preserve this story.


Roosevelt’s Wrong Enemies

In a hasty move made in the name of national security, FDR needlessly swept some 4,000 civilians from their homes in Latin America.

By Andy Lindstrom

Werner Kappel was no Nazi.

In fact, after the Gestapo threatened him and his father, a Jewish leather-goods dealer in Berlin, he and his dad had fled their native Germany in 1938. But after Pearl Harbor three years later, both father and son were snatched from the new lives they had built for themselves in Panama and deported to the United States in a roundup of what government officials called “dangerous alien enemies.”

Like more than 4,000 other Latin Americans of German heritage—the vast majority of them with no apparent connection to Adolf Hitler’s National Socialism or its rabid anti-Jewish ranting—they ended up behind barbed-wire fences in a desert Texas internment camp. A few were later released after agreeing to return to Germany; others stayed until U.S. courts finally ordered them freed, in some cases as late as 1947, two years after World War II ended.

In its early phase, the long-overlooked World War II roundup of German nationals in 15 South and Central American countries may have been grounded in an honest but exaggerated fear of a so-called “Fifth Column” of pro-Nazi subversives threatening the security of America’s southern flank, says Max Paul Friedman, an assistant professor of history at Florida State University.

Historian Max Paul Friedman Searching 16 archives in seven countries over a 10-year period, Friedman pieced together the all-but-forgotten story of U.S. relocation of Germans in Central and South America during WWII.

Eventually, though, Friedman found that proscription lists were drawn up by U.S. State Department and FBI officials who were woefully untrained for the task—few spoke Spanish or German. In many cases, their decisions were based on bogus accusations from local informants—often degenerated into naked confiscation of German properties that either were coveted by their non-German neighbors or competed economically with American business interests.

Such arbitrary policies damaged often-fragile U.S.-Latin American relations both during and after the war, Friedman said. The deportation and confinement of Latin Americans of German descent, he continued, became “a forgotten precedent” that should serve as a red flag in the present war against international terrorism.

“Now, when I read about Guantanamo (the American military prison in Cuba where uncharged Afghan detainees are being held indefinitely and without legal recourse or representation), and I hear about the revival of racial profiling, I hear echoes,” he said during a recent interview. “And I worry that we may be repeating some of the same mistakes.”

Friedman’s recent book (published by Cambridge University Press, August 2003), Nazis & Good Neighbors: The United States Campaign Against the Germans of Latin America in World War II, chronicles the deportations that showed what Friedman called “a complete disregard for Franklin Roosevelt’s vaunted Good Neighbor Policy (and) a not very effective way to combat the very real dangers in Latin America.”

Aside from Germans, more than 2,000 Japanese and 288 Italians also were deported from Latin America and interned in the U.S. during the World War II crackdown, Friedman learned from post-war statistics he discovered in the National Archives.

While this was going on, of course, the government was coordinating a massive-and far more well-known-roundup of Japanese and Japanese-Americans on U.S. soil. All told, about 110,000 persons of Japanese descent of all ages were “relocated” to inland internment camps from their homes on the U.S. West Coast in a move based solely on their racial identity.

Friedman’s book focuses on what he concedes was a “sideshow” to the Japanese internment during the war. Although small by comparison, the incident is an intriguing footnote to U.S. history, and demonstrates just how far the government will go to protect itself in wartime.

In hindsight, what Roosevelt’s policymakers feared most about the small number of relocated Germans in Latin America may seem irrational to some today-they actually worried that these people were Nazis or Nazi-sympathizers who were going to try to overturn governments south of the Rio Grande, take over the Panama Canal and thus pave the way for an invasion by Hitler’s forces from the south.

But in fact, the threat had a core of truth, since there were Nazi spies operating in the region, Friedman said.

“There was good reason to try to prevent a Nazi takeover of the region; the problem was in targeting the wrong people not because of anything they’d done, but just because of who they were.

“In this rather forgotten episode in response to the panic after Pearl Harbor, we did something that we do often-—-basically jettison legal principle, civil liberty, international law,” Friedman said. “We went looking for dangerous or potentially dangerous people on the basis of group affiliation. If they were German, spoke German or were of German origin—that was really enough to get people put in a camp.”

A specialist on U.S. foreign relations, particularly U.S. relations with modern Latin America and Nazi Germany, Friedman joined the FSU history department in 2002 with a doctorate from the University of California-Berkeley and some three years working for National Public Radio as a researcher and assistant producer. Friedman has worked with such NPR luminaries as former “All Things Considered” commentator Bob Edwards and, for 10 years, for investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, who broke the Vietnam-era My Lai Massacre and the more recent Iraqi prisoner-abuse stories.

Friedman’s book—six years in the writing and heavily documented with research from 16 archives in seven countries—has already received numerous accolades and honors, including the A.B. Thomas Book Award from the South Eastern Council on Latin American Studies and the 2003 Herbert Hoover Award for the best scholarly work on any subject of U.S. history during Hoover’s lengthy public career.

Friedman came onto the barely remembered internment of Latin American Germans during World War II purely by accident, he said. After hearing brief mention of it on a television news show, he was directed to a medical-school friend of the show’s producer who had recently treated a 96-year-old survivor of the camps. That led to an exhaustive search of government records, private correspondence and interviews with 40 former internees or family members now living in Latin America or Europe.

Fluent in four languages and with a reading knowledge of Italian, Friedman was particularly interested in talking to Jewish members of the German communities in each country because, he said, “they would have had no motivation to conceal what happened.” In fact, several of the Jews he contacted had actually been held in Nazi concentration camps, potential victims of the Holocaust, before making their way to what they thought was the safety of Latin America.

“The whole thing was very unfair,” Werner Kappel of Sun City Center, Florida, told Friedman in a 1999 telephone interview. “We had nothing to do with Hitler, because we were chased out by the Nazis. We didn’t even feel like Germans anymore, and the Germans didn’t think we were Germans-only the Americans thought so.”

American thinking about the dangers posed by Latin America’s numerous German communities apparently rested on two basic premises, Friedman said. One, voiced by Roosevelt three months before Pearl Harbor, was that Nazi agents already were at work among the expatriates setting the stage for what he called “intrigues …plots… machinations… sabotage,” even secret landing strips in Colombia with the Panama Canal as a reachable target.

(Postwar reports indicated no secret landing strips in Colombia or any other Latin American countries. In fact, no Nazi-related sabotage was ever reported in those countries, just as none happened on the West Coast during the Japanese-American internments.)

In Friedman’s opinion, a second motivation to intervene in what were essentially internal matters in the various countries south of our borders stemmed from what he called “the U.S. view of Latin America as a vulnerable, dependent region where Latinos are helpless and foreigners are the real actors.”

In other words, Friedman contends, despite all the much-ballyhooed promises of mutual cooperation and trust embodied in Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy”—when push came to shove, Latin American governments could not be trusted to police their own people.

Even while thousands of Germans in the United States—many with known ties to pro-Nazi organizations—remained relatively free from harassment (fewer than 1 percent were interned), detainees from 15 of Latin America’s smaller countries were shipped north either for eventual repatriation to Germany or to internment centers for the duration of the war.

Brazil and Chile, along with Mexico, refused to yield to U.S. pressure and set up their own holding facilities for suspected Nazi sympathizers.

The Swedish passenger liner Gripsholm was used to exchange Germans for citizens of the Americas. (far left) A german family boards the Gripsholm for repatriation to Germany in 1944.

As Friedman documents in detail, expropriation of German-owned businesses and the subsequent deportation of their owners proved to be both capricious and, in many cases, blatantly unjustified takeovers of properties that had no possible connection with Nazi war aims.

In one example, he cited a Panama shopkeeper who was interned because he allegedly had too many German customers. Paid informants, tempted by $50 bounties for each name they came up with, reported dozens of “Gestapo officials,” “imminent uprisings,” and so-called “German paramilitary units” that proved fabrications at best.

Altogether, Friedman said, the FBI found that only eight of the 4,058 Germans deported from Latin America and interned in the U.S. had active ties with Nazi espionage rings. As for outright sabotage, Friedman’s examination of the FBI records for the period showed what the FBI called “absolutely nil.”

And what were conditions like for these detainees, once they did make it to U.S. shores? Actually, Friedman found, in general they were treated quite well-particularly compared to what they would have faced at detention centers in most other belligerent nations.

“The prison camp was beautiful, at least for us kids,” one Costa Rican veteran said of his camp near Crystal City, Texas. Friedman quotes him in the book.

Camp Blanding, Florida, was described by the camp commander as a country club. Internees that Friedman cited tended to agree.

“We grew tan and swelled up like doughnuts from the good meals,” one reported in a letter to the German government, adding he was served three hot meals daily and could buy three kinds of beer at the canteen.

Despite the testing challenge of summer heat and winter cold in jerry-built buildings, detainees that Friedman interviewed from Camp Kenedy (sic), south of San Antonio, reported that their guards proved reasonably sympathetic as it became obvious most were ordinary farmers, older men and even whole families bewildered by the charges against them.

“Muy correctos,” said one from Guatemala. “I have no complaints against them.”

Official government policy that brought them to barbed-wire internment far from their lost homes and confiscated businesses was another matter. As Friedman discovered, Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long was particularly notorious for refusing to investigate pleas of innocence by detainees. “They are lawless, scheming, defiant-and in many ways unassimilable (sic),” he wrote in his diary about Jewish refugees trying to enter the U.S. in the early years of Nazi repression. “Some are certainly German agents.”

FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover seemed to hold similar views about the subversive intentions of Jews and Latin American Germans in general, Friedman said. As the man responsible for large portions of U.S. intelligence gathering, especially in Latin America, Hoover passed on to the State Department what Friedman called such unsubstantiated whoppers as “1,400 airplanes and 50 submarines” poised in Martinique for an attack on the Panama Canal and other targets including the Florida Keys.

Hoover also forwarded to Washington a memorandum compiled by his Latin American agents that Germany was building a fleet of some 1,000 submarines to transport Nazi soldiers into Colombia and Venezuela where, it was assumed, they would link up with local sympathizers for an attack upon Allied forces.

“None of these claims was true,” Friedman said. “Even the State Department advised its bureau chiefs that data from the (FBI) should be treated with caution.”

But for the unsuspecting Germans of Latin America, Long set U.S. policy and Hoover supplied him with information. Clearly, Friedman said, the FBI and state department officials directly responsible for identifying suspected Nazi sympathizers in Latin America were among the most poorly informed to make such choices.

Long’s chief assistant, Albert Clattenburg, at first defended his agency’s policies gone wrong on the basis of national security. The deportation program began, he said in a 1943 memorandum Friedman quotes in his book, as a sincere effort to root out “the carefully prepared organizations of the Axis governments in the other American republics and thus to ensure the political security of this hemisphere.”

Instead, Clattenburg continued, “the motives of the other American republics in cooperating with us have only a thin veneer of concern for hemispheric security.” Deportees themselves, Clattenburg said, felt they were chosen as easy victims of graft by local governments while conniving U.S. officials used the program as a way to break up German commercial influence in areas where American business interests wished to move in.

Former Justice Department investigator Raymond W. Ickes, who traveled in 1943 to 18 Latin American countries to check on the operation, seems to have agreed with Clattenburg’s assessment. The most common reason behind a person’s deportation, Ickes told Friedman in 1997, was that the individual had “property, real property-land-that was attractive.” The U.S. policy provided such dictators as Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and Tiburcio Carias of Honduras with a good excuse to expel the Germans and seize their property, Ickes said.

As Ickes recalled the deportation program, “When I got down there, I saw that this was not accomplishing anything,” he told Friedman. “It was wheel-spinning, and a complete abrogation of human rights.”

Because of the language barrier, he said, ”the local people could get away with almost anything.” As for the majority of internees, they had “no more business being in detention in the United States than I had.”

Ickes’ report actually helped prune the deportation lists, Friedman said. But it did little to change the long-term thinking of those who felt that the life-or-death dangers of global war left no time for political correctness. If mistakes happened, Friedman found that officials responsible considered them the price for pursuing a greater good-namely, national security.

Even at the highest levels of American government, Ickes told Friedman, the fear of Nazi subversion was so great that the deportation program, in his words, was “understandable, if not justifiable.”

Texas Interns: German deportees from Latin America arrive at Camp Kenedy, Texas in 1942

In principle, Friedman agrees with Ickes’ assessment. But he also insists that, by following such a course, State Department officials were making a costly mistake.

“Typically, in this country, we cast the debate as one between the bleeding hearts and the security hawks,” he said in a discussion of his book’s findings. “Either you’re for civil liberties because you don’t want the rights of the innocent to be trampled on. Or you’re for national security because you’re hard-nosed and you want to protect the country and you don’t have time for such niceties in a time of national crisis.”

During World War II and since, the government would have benefited from having more security agents trained for overseas assignments with the time to gain local experience and a working knowledge of an area’s languages, Friedman feels. Following high standards of investigation and evidence can guide officials to the right targets, instead of wasting resources on the wrong people, he said In this way, respecting civil liberties can actually help improve security.

Instead, as Friedman documented in the Latin America of six decades ago, “We wound up with 4,000 people, most of whom had nothing to do with the German war effort and, along with affecting some of our best friends in Latin America, and wasting ships and troops and guards and meals and diplomatic effort on a needless program, we did all that and gained very little if anything from it.”

Postscript: Werner Kappel was paroled from detention in 1943, found a job in St. Louis and was later drafted into the U.S. Army. Wounded and awarded the Purple Heart while fighting in the Philippines, he took the oath of citizenship shortly after the war ended. Six months later, he finally was released from supervision by the government’s Alien Enemy Control Unit.-EDITOR.

4 Responses to World War II internments – 4,000 abductions from South America

  1. To quote the child:
    Heaven’s, you leftists really cannot find an enemy of this country that you will not support. Stalin and Mao kill hundred of millions, but you, decades after the fact, and snug and smug in your armchair, want to criticize and vilify those who had to act in difficult circumstances without full knowledge.

    The interments were more than likely reasonable at the time, and you implicit claim that all were innocent among the immigrants is a wholly unsubstantiated argument. In fact, it is not an argument at that you present, but the usual leftist lying, minicing and posing.

    But then, you are not really concerned with truth, you are concerned with maintaining your delusions of moral superiority.

    Sorry, little one, we dont’ support any enemies of this country. You however seem to think that we should follow what the Nazi’s did and round up your percieved “enemies of the state” so’s you that is supporting the enemies of this country with your fear, paranoia, intolerance and hatred.

    As Ed correctly live up to your name


  2. Ellie says:

    “The interments were more than likely reasonable at the time…”

    We buried them alive??


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    So, you’re saying Rick Perry’s fundamentalist Republican State Board of Education is “leftist?”

    Whatabuffon, your handle is appropriate.

    Maybe you’ve eaten one too many sugared plums over the holidays and your blood sugar is out of whack. Perhaps it’s too many much nog and not enough egg. In any case, you should sit down, take a deep breath, maybe take a nap. Then you might want to check out exactly what it is you’re complaining about. Here’s a list of posts I’ve made on the subject before. Here’s the full TEKS, and this is the one in question (Section 113.41 (c) 7. (D.)):

    (D) analyze major issues of World War II, including the Holocaust; the internment of German, Italian, and Japanese Americans and Executive Order 9066; and the development of conventional and atomic weapons;

    That’s “leftist?” You’re saying that only leftists are for education, and rightists, including you, are pro-ignorance of U.S. history?

    You don’t seem to have a good grasp of what the issue is here, or why anyone might want or need to study it.


  4. whatabuffon says:

    Heaven’s, you leftists really cannot find an enemy of this country that you will not support. Stalin and Mao kill hundred of millions, but you, decades after the fact, and snug and smug in your armchair, want to criticize and vilify those who had to act in difficult circumstances without full knowledge.

    The interments were more than likely reasonable at the time, and you implicit claim that all were innocent among the immigrants is a wholly unsubstantiated argument. In fact, it is not an argument at that you present, but the usual leftist lying, minicing and posing.

    But then, you are not really concerned with truth, you are concerned with maintaining your delusions of moral superiority.

    If actual fact, you are wildly inferior to those who years ago had to deal with these very issue.

    The school systems of Texas should be teaching what a great accomplishment WW2 was for traditional American society, and not casting bricks around about a few irrelevant immigrants, and they were most decidedly irrelevant in the larger scheme. If they are to be mentioned at all, it should be to point out what traitorous vipers, churlish hypocrites and childish buffoons liberals are to keep bringing this up over and over again. Everyone else gets it: You want to diminish your nation in the face of its great accomplishments. You fool no one but yourself.

    But then you are a Democrat, so all value are inverted.


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