It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve been neglecting my blog lately. I found out the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) has a program for seniors that lets us take a class for $25. We don’t get credit, and, while we probably don’t have to do the assignments, I’ve been doing them anyway. The class I’m taking is a history class, and the assignments are papers. One reason I was excited to take the class is I wanted to get out of my routine and be around people who are not part of my generation—not that there’s anything wrong with my generation, but variety is the spice of life.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that classes these days are a lot different than those I took fifty years ago. In the “good old days” lectures were simply that. The teacher would talk, and we’d take notes. Nowadays the lecture is on PowerPoint, and we get to watch the occasional film clip on YouTube. The professor is excellent (and since I can’t flunk, I don’t have to suck up). Alas, he’s retiring after the next semester.
So that’s what’s been occupying my time.
Nevertheless, I came across a book I highly recommend, and I’d like to get the word out.
In August I saw an obituary in The New York Times that caught my eye. Isamu Shibayama, an ethnic Japanese detained after Pearl Harbor died at age 88. During the war, of course, many ethnic Japanese were put in detention centers, so you’re probably wondering what’s so special about Mr. Shibayama. What’s unusual about him is he was detained in Peru, where he and his family lived and where Mr. Shibayama was born in 1930. The family had emigrated to Peru to work in the cotton industry and had become quite wealthy, which is probably the reason they were rounded up and, with 2,000 other ethnic Japanese living in Peru, shipped to the United States and interned in Crystal City, Texas. After the war the U.S. wanted to deport the family to Japan because they had entered the country “illegally.” More on that later. While fighting deportation, Mr. Shibayama, still classified as an illegal immigrant, was drafted in 1952 and served in Germany. After he completed his service, a helpful immigration official recommended he go to Canada and re-enter the U. S. from there after which he’d have to wait five years to apply for citizenship. In 1988 Japanese-Americans who had been interned were awarded $20,000 provided they were still alive to receive the money. That only applied to citizens or permanent residents. In 1999 a coalition of Japanese Latin Americans won reparations of $5,000. Mr. Shabayama and two of his brothers declined the payment and sued. They lost that suit and appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human rights in 2002. Mr. Shibayama’s brothers are still awaiting a decision.
It was news to me that the U. S. had citizens from other countries kidnapped and interned here during the war. But wait, there’s more.
In October I read a review of Mary Jo McConahay’s The Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America during World War II and got a copy at the library. The book was an eye-opener for me. Latin America has a great many strategic materials, from oil in Mexico to cotton in Peru to tungsten, necessary for armor-piercing weaponry, in Argentina to rubber (which was a biggie in those days before synthetic rubber) along the Amazon.
In the early days of aviation, Italy and Germany started airlines to serve Latin America, shaving time off land routes that meandered over mountains and often flying where there were no roads at all. Latin America was largely made up of European immigrants, many of whom were from Germany and had constructed villages that looked German and where German was the first language. The Germans, especially the wealthy ones, would, like the Japanese, become targets for deportation and internment in the U. S. Both German and Japanese deportees had their property and businesses confiscated and their assets frozen.
The reason for the U. S. detaining ethnic Japanese and German deportees was to have prisoners to exchange for Americans held in enemy prison camps. While to a degree this may seem justified, many of these detainees, like Mr. Shibayama, knew little about the countries of their ethnicity and did not even speak the language. How many of us can speak the language of our forebears unless that language was English? Another act by the U. S. was to confiscate the passports of people being relocated to the U. S. unwillingly and then arrest them for entering without papers! This was all news to me, and I thought I knew history!
The book discusses American efforts to win the hearts and minds of Latin Americans with the aid of Walt Disney (successful) and Orson Welles (not so much). J. Edgar Hoover makes several appearances, mostly fighting for turf against what would become the CIA. Hoover may well have screwed up what could have been a warning about Pearl Harbor because he personally did not approve of the extracurricular activities of a double agent who was code named “Tricycle” because of his ability to bed two women at once. Ernesto Guevera Lynch, an anti-fascist and father of Che Guevera, reported on suspicious German activity in Argentina. His reports were ignored.
Ms. McConahay discusses the Mexican airmen who ferried aircraft over the Pacific and made bombing runs over Formosa and Luzon and the Brazilian combatants who fought bravely in Italy, where they are remembered, and returned to Brazil, where they were forgotten in no small part because of a government unwilling to share the limelight with heroes.
As interesting as the war coverage is, what Ms. McConahay describes after the war is just as intriguing. In his 1999 Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII, John Cornwell described the wartime activities of Pius XII. Ms. McConahay does as well, but she explains that Pius saw the war as a battle between atheistic communism and fascists who, although they were anti-Semitic murderers, were not anti-church. (The same approach this administration is taking with Saudi Arabia—they may be murderous bastards, but they’re good business partners.) Ms. McConahay says that Pius XI, Pius XII’s predecessor, condemned Nazi neo-paganism and the “so-called myth of race and blood” shortly before he died. Pius XII, however, took a different route. The church set up “Ratlines” to allow Nazis to escape using its network of monasteries and parishes. Among those who traveled the Ratlines to Latin America were Joseph Mengele, Adolf Eichmann, and Klaus Barbie.
Ms. McConahay follows the activities of former Nazis into the 1960s and 1970s, where they proved helpful to Latin American dictators who set up camps for dissenters, many of whom “disappeared.”
This is a history book that’s long overdue.