In the process of researching some recent legislative handiwork in the U.S. Senate — the absurd resolution condemning MoveOn.org for picking on poor little General Petraeus — I came across something much more interesting in the Defense Department appropriations bill now before Congress: an amendment, the Wartime Treatment Study Act, that would establish a commission to investigate and report on how alien European-Americans (the legislation’s term) were treated during World War II. The bill would also mandate a study into the measures the United States took to bar European Jews trying to escape the Nazis.
It’s a fascinating question. Most Americans now know that more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese-born residents were interned during the war. For many reasons — mostly the sweeping nature of the action that targeted a non-European ethnic group and the scale of the internment regime — the Japanese-American example stands out and is really without parallel in our history. But as this bill states, most of us aren’t aware of the actions the U.S. government took against German-Americans, Italian-Americans and others under Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, the same measure that called for action against the Japanese-Americans. Among other things, thousands were interned, many were involuntarily repatriated to Axis nations, and hundreds of thousands were identified as enemy aliens and required to carry special IDs.
Something interesting about this bill: This is the fourth or fifth Congress in which the original sponsor, Sen. Russell Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, has tried to get it passed. Among his cosponsors is a Democratic arch-liberal, Kennedy, and a Republican conservative, Grassley (also: the self-interested Nutmeg Stater, Lieberman). The bill has an interested sponsor and cosponsors in the House. But for some reason, it’s not moving. Feingold complained in 2004 that an unknown Republican was exercising a “secret hold” to keep the bill from coming to a vote. This year, he hitched it to the ill-fated Senate immigration legislation; even though Feinberg’s section was approved, the bill as a whole was killed. Now, he’s gotten it attached to the military appropriations bill. Nobody’s watching it or writing about it, so far as I can tell, so Feingold probably isn’t holding his breath for this one.
You wonder, though, what in the world would possess anyone to oppose such a measure. It costs very little. Nobody’s talking about monetary reparations. The bill merely aims to shed light on what we euphemistically term a difficult chapter in our history; God knows that, even as Ken Burns is reminding us how heroically the nation behaved during the war was that we might learn a thing or two from the less heroic moments. And perhaps we’d succeed in giving some abused survivors of the era a measure of peace, if not justice.