"The earliest vivid memory in my life," said Kazuo Matsubayashi, "is the day my father was arrested on January 7th, 1943. My mother took me to the police station, where my father and many Japanese men were being loaded on trucks. I remember my father shouting something to us from the back of the truck as it left the compound, but I could not hear what he was saying. Even at the age of less than 6, I felt some invisible force was changing our lives."
The internment of Japanese Americans? No. Matsubayashi was recalling a shameful and forgotten chapter in American history. From 1942 onward, the United States abducted some 3,000 people of Japanese, Italian and German ancestry from Latin America, shipped them to the United States and placed them in internment camps. These prisoners were never charged with crimes.
Six-year-old Kazuo Matsubayashi was in this group. In 1943 the United States transported him and his mother and siblings from Peru to join their father at the Crystal City detention camp in Texas.
With the United States now shipping foreigners captured in Afghanistan to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, it's worth reflecting on the story of Kazuo Matsubayashi and his fellow prisoners from Latin America. In 1942 the U.S. government persuaded several Latin American countries to arrest certain people of Japanese, German and Italian descent living within their borders. These countries, Peru at the forefront, then turned over the detainees to agents of the U.S. government, which shipped them under guard to this country. Once they were on U.S. soil, the Immigration and Naturalization Service took charge of the detainees and imprisoned them in special camps for enemy aliens in Seagoville, Crystal City and Kenedy, all in Texas.
Approximately two-thirds of these prisoners were of Japanese origin. Some were citizens of Latin American countries. All were noncombatants. Why were they abducted? In the case of the Japanese, the initial rationale appears to have been to intern potential subversives who were leaders in the overseas Japanese communities. Soon, however, this stated rationale collapsed. For example, the Prado government of Peru eagerly arrested whole families of Japanese descent that posed no threat to the government in order to deport them.
During World War II, the U.S. government exchanged some of these prisoners for American prisoners of war in Japan. When the war with Japan ended in 1945, the rationale for holding the prisoners evaporated.
From November 1945 to February 1946, at least 1,400 of the Japanese internees were sent "voluntarily" to Japan. It is doubtful that all of them truly left on their own volition. Most of the new deportees, after all, had never even seen Japan.
But what to do with those remaining in detention in peacetime? Technically, the government considered the prisoners to be illegal residents of the United States, so the prisoners had no right to remain in the country. Peru refused to take back many of its former residents. A few children born in the camps could claim U.S. citizenship. In December 1947, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, lamenting "our maimed, mutilated and missing civil liberties," questioned why the United States was still holding "293 naturalized Peruvians of Japanese descent, who were taken by force by our State and Justice Departments from their homes in Peru." As late as 1949, some Japanese remained in detention. Some former internees, ironically, eventually became U.S. citizens.
In 1999 the United States issued an apology for its treatment of the Peruvian Japanese and provided them with a token payment of $5,000 for their ordeal. It never admitted, however, that it had violated international law by abducting noncombatant civilians from another country during wartime.
In World War II the United States engaged in a miscarriage of justice by abducting a class of "enemy aliens" abroad on suspicion of being potential subversives. It then compounded its error by keeping many of these people in prison for years, even when the State and Justice departments realized that these people did not pose any plausible threat to the United States.
Is the government now repeating its mistake of 60 years ago? Probably not. The administration has assured the world that it is holding "unlawful combatants" in Guantanamo Bay. But -- to be blunt -- assurances are inadequate. After all, a recent Time magazine article has suggested that up to 100 of these prisoners may not be terrorists at all. If that is true, what justification does the administration have for continuing to hold them?
Here the lesson from World War II is clear: It is morally repugnant to abduct foreigners from abroad and imprison them indefinitely without charges if they pose no credible threat to Americans. Will the administration pay attention to history?
The writer is an assistant professor of history at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.