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“IN 1940, even before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers, policymakers began to warn of imminent threats to the south. Numerous politicians and political scientists claimed that German and Japanese agents had organized an infiltration of Peru, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. These enemy agents, it was said, were plotting coups and conspiring to launch an invasion of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt warned in repeated radio addresses that the Third Reich and the Japanese empire were erecting “beach heads” across South America. These anxieties were so pervasive that, in the same year, the White House contemplated dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Brazil in a preemptive strike against what it feared was a looming invasion.

Once the war reached the Western Hemisphere in December 1941, these fears started to shape formal policy. American officials were determined to suppress any potential subversion in Latin America, preferably with the cooperation of local governments. For this purpose, in January 1942, the United States helped found a new organ, the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, or CPD. Joined by twenty-one countries, from Canada in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, the CPD would combat any activities that government officials deemed subversive, such as commerce with Axis countries or the publication of “questionable” newspapers. The CPD helped coordinate the sharing of intelligence and relevant legal procedures. A team of US legal experts, for example, helped Mexican and Brazilian officials draft regulations that curtailed the political activities of “dangerous” individuals and limited their right to travel.

But the United States wouldn’t stop at censorship and espionage. Within a few months of the CPD’s formation, its agents decided the enemy’s subversion was so dangerous that it could only be prevented through “preemptive” arrest. In the winter of 1942, American officials began to encourage and help local governments in numerous Latin American countries raid the houses of suspicious civilians. US intelligence agents provided police officials with names and logistical support, while State Department personnel helped skeptical politicians get over their opposition, mostly through generous economic loans. The thousands who were detained as a result were mostly sent to local military bases and denied access to legal representation or due process. Like the Japanese Americans whose arrest was unfolding at the same time, the detainees were targeted not so much based on anything they’d done (only a tiny minority was politically active), but due to their ethnic backgrounds: The vast majority were members of immigrant communities from Germany, Japan, and Italy.

CPD officials were well aware that many of these detainees did not pose a risk to security. They also knew that the officials in charge of the arrests were often motivated by racism or greed. (Internal reports mentioned policemen’s plans to take over the prisoners’ houses.) In one of the most grotesque consequences of this operation, the “dangerous aliens” arrested in Guatemala in 1942 included German-Jewish refugees who had recently fled the Third Reich. But in their eagerness to take action against foreign threats, American policymakers were unmoved by such tragedies. They accepted these incidents as collateral damage and sought, time and again, to enlarge the number of preemptive arrests.

The CPD’s campaign culminated in the creation of multiple concentration camps in the United States itself. American officials were convinced that they were better equipped to supervise and handle the Latin American detainees than their southern neighbors, some of whom had begun to complain about the high costs involved in holding them. In 1943, the CPD coordinated the deportation of eight thousand people from several Latin American countries to the United States. Forced onto crowded navy warships by Marine troops, they were shipped to San Francisco and New Orleans, where they were detained and processed by immigration officials. Most of the detainees were then sent to military bases in Texas, including Camp Seagoville, located a few dozen miles to the north of the Trump Administration’s proposed camps. They spent the war’s final years detained indefinitely without any charges brought against them, mostly working in local farms and factories. Unlike the asylum seekers held by CBP, these detainees enjoyed some modicum of decency. Camp authorities largely kept families together, provided basic schooling for children, and even allowed inmates to elect their own representatives, who organized cultural events. Still, because they were deemed enemy agents, most were deported at the war’s end alongside Axis POWs to Asia and Europe. Many of them would never see their homes again.

It was no accident that all these cruelties took place in the context of prolonged and brutal war. The pervasive fears over existential threats, the belief that foreign enemies were supported by internal subversion, and the sense that victory required the total destruction of our foes all fueled the conviction that “foreigners” were enemies and thus had no rights. The American concentration camps of the 1940s exemplified the logic of such war. Foreigners were guilty until proven otherwise.

THIS LOGIC HAD A LINEAGE and a name: “militant democracy,” a term first coined in 1935 by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein. A German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Loewenstein arrived in the United States convinced that totalitarian and democratic regimes could not coexist. It was the nature of fascists and communists, he wrote in widely read academic essays, to infiltrate democratic regimes, exploit their freedoms of the press and speech, and destroy them from within. Long before the first shots of World War II were fired, Loewenstein claimed that an existential struggle between democracy and its enemies was already engulfing the entire globe. To win, democracies had to reform themselves. They had to become “militant.”

The heart of militant democracy was the suspension of laws and rights. Because totalitarianism operated especially through subversion, Loewenstein wrote, democrats had to get over their “legalistic blindness” and recognize that “the mechanism of democracy is the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.” Governments had to move aggressively to limit rights—preemptively—to those deemed dangerous. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion would all be suspended, and the crackdown enforced through the creation of new, anti-totalitarian secret police forces. For Loewenstein, loyalty to the state preceded any discussion of rights. Anyone who questioned political norms found themselves outside the sphere of the law. “Fire should be fought with fire,” he wrote in 1935.

Throughout the 1930s, Loewenstein’s ideas were largely confined to academia. But World War II propelled an otherwise fringe concept like militant democracy to the maintenance of American power. To anxious government officials, the writings of Loewenstein and scholars like him captured new wartime exigencies. They clarified why curbing—and even abolishing—rights did not undermine democratic freedom, but actually enhanced it. Theories like Loewenstein’s also linked external and internal threats and rendered them indistinguishable. Japanese American or Latin American communities were thus the same—no matter where their members were born, they were both emissaries of global danger and thus not entitled to legal status. As his way of thinking spread, Loewenstein took on a more active role in America’s militant democracy. In 1943, he was recruited as legal advisor to the Justice Department, a position from which he joined the CPD and helped coordinate its campaign of surveillance, arrests, and deportations.

While Loewenstein ultimately returned to academic life, militant democracy outlived World War II. In the cold war’s harsh early years, some politicians and scholars continued to insist that international conflicts required the suspension of some rights at home. (The West German supreme court, for example, relied on militant democracy to outlaw the Communist Party in 1957.) Yet it wasn’t until the attacks on September 11 and the beginning of the war on terror that these notions reasserted themselves in the United States as forcefully as they did during World War II. The revival of militant democracy in the first decade of the 21st century helped prepare the ground for the tragedy unfolding in Texas.”

– Udi Greenburg, “The Logic of Militant Democracy: From domestic concentration camps to the war on terror.N+1, July 6, 2018.

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“There’s another military phrase: “in harm’s way.” That’s what everybody assumes going to war means – putting yourself in danger. But the truth is that for most soldiers war is no more inherently dangerous than any other line of work. Modern warfare has grown so complicated and requires such immense movements of men and materiel over so vast an expanse of territory that an ever-increasing proportion of every army is given over to supply, tactical support, and logistics. Only about one in five of the soldiers who took part in World War II was in a combat unit (by the time of Vietnam the ratio in the American armed forces was down to around one in seven). The rest were construction workers, accountants, drivers, technicians, cooks, file clerks, repairmen, warehouse managers – the war was essentially a self-contained economic system that swelled up out of nothing and covered the globe.

For most soldiers the dominant memory they had of the war was of that vast structure arching up unimaginably high overhead. It’s no coincidence that two of the most widely read and memorable American novels of the war, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, are almost wholly about the cosmic scale of the American military’s corporate bureaucracy and mention Hitler and the Nazis only in passing. Actual combat could seem like almost an incidental side product of the immense project of military industrialization. A battle for most soldiers was something that happened up the road, or on the fogbound islands edging the horizon, or in the silhouettes of remote hilltops lit up at night by silent flickering, which they mistook at first for summer lightning. And when reporters traveled through the vast territories under military occupation looking for some evidence of real fighting, what they were more likely to find instead was a scene like what Martha Gellhorn, covering the war for Collier’s, discovered in the depths of the Italian countryside: “The road signs were fantastic….The routes themselves, renamed for this operation, were marked with the symbols of their names, a painted animal or a painted object. There were the code numbers of every outfit, road warnings – bridge blown, crater mines, bad bends – indications of first-aid posts, gasoline dumps, repair stations, prisoner-of-war cages, and finally a marvelous Polish sign urging the troops to notice that this was a malarial area: this sign was a large green death’s-head with a mosquito sitting on it.”

That was the war: omnipresent, weedlike tendrils of contingency and code spreading over a landscape where the battle had long since passed.

It was much the same in the U.S. The bureaucracy of war became an overpowering presence in people’s lives, even though the reality of battle was impossibly remote. Prices were controlled by war-related government departments, nonessential nonmilitary construction required a nightmare of paperwork, food and gas were rationed – any long-distance car travel that wasn’t for war business meant a special hearing before a ration board, and almost every train snaking through the depths of the heartland had been commandeered for classified military transport. The necessities of war even broke up the conventional proprieties of marriage: the universal inevitability of military service meant that young couples got married quickly, sometimes at first meeting – and often only so the women could get the military paycheck and the ration stamps.

The war was the single dominant fact in the world, saturating every radio show and newspaper. Every pennant race was described on the sports pages in the metaphor of battle; every car wreck and hotel fire was compared to the air raids that everyone was still expecting to hit the blacked-out cities on the coasts.

But who was controlling the growth of this fantastic edifice? Nobody could say. People who went to Washington during those years found a desperately overcrowded town caught up in a kind of diffuse bureaucratic riot. New agencies and administrations overflowed from labyrinthine warrens of temporary office space. People came to expect that the simplest problem would lead to hours or days of wandering down featureless corridors, passing door after closed door spattered by uncrackable alphabetic codes: OPA, OWI, OSS. Nor could you expect any help or sympathy once you found the right office: if the swarms of new government workers weren’t focused on the latest crisis in the Pacific, they were distracted by the hopeless task of finding an apartment or a boarding house or a cot in a spare room. Either way, they didn’t give a damn about solving your little squabble about petroleum rationing.

It might have been some consolation to know that people around the world were stuck with exactly the same problems – particularly people on the enemy side. There was a myth (it still persists) that the Nazi state was a model of efficiency; the truth was that it was a bureaucratic shambles. The military functioned well – Hitler gave it a blank check – but civilian life was made a misery by countless competing agencies and new ministries, all claiming absolute power over every detail of German life. Any task, from getting repairs in an apartment building to requisitioning office equipment, required running a gauntlet of contradictory regulations. One historian later described Nazi Germany as “authoritarian anarchy.”

But then everything about the war was ad hoc and provisional. The British set up secret installations in country estates; Stalin had his supreme military headquarters in a commandeered Moscow subway station. Nobody cared about making the system logical, because everything only needed to happen once. Every battle was unrepeatable, every campaign was a special case. The people who were actually making the decisions in the war – for the most part, senior staff officers and civil service workers who hid behind anonymous doors and unsigned briefing papers – lurched from one improvisation to the next, with no sense of how much the limitless powers they were mustering were remaking the world.

But there was one constant. From the summer of 1942 on, the whole Allied war effort, the immensity of its armies and its industries, were focused on a single overriding goal: the destruction of the German army in Europe. Allied strategists had concluded that the global structure of the Axis would fall apart if the main military strength of the German Reich could be broken. But that task looked to be unimaginably difficult. It meant building up an overwhelmingly large army of their own, somehow getting it on the ground in Europe, and confronting the German army at point-blank range. How could this possibly be accomplished? The plan was worked out at endless briefings and diplomatic meetings and strategy sessions held during the first half of 1942. The Soviet Red Army would have to break through the Russian front and move into Germany from the east. Meanwhile, a new Allied army would get across the English Channel and land in France, and the two armies would converge on Berlin.

The plan set the true clock time of the war. No matter what the surface play of battle was in Africa or the South Seas, the underlying dynamic never changed: every hour, every day the Allies were preparing for the invasion of Europe. They were stockpiling thousands of landing craft, tens of thousands of tanks, millions upon millions of rifles and mortars and howitzers, oceans of bullets and bombs and artillery shells – the united power of the American and Russian economies was slowly building up a military force large enough to overrun a continent. The sheer bulk of the armaments involved would have been unimaginable a few years earlier. One number may suggest the scale. Before the war began the entire German Luftwaffe consisted of 4,000 planes; by the time of the Normandy invasion American factories were turning out 4,000 new planes every two weeks.

The plan was so ambitious that even with this torrential flow of war production it would take years before the Allies were ready. The original target date for the invasion was the spring of 1943 – but as that date approached the Allies realized they weren’t prepared to attempt it. So it was put off until the late spring of 1944. But what would happen in the meanwhile? A worldwide holding action. The Red Army would have to hang on to its positions in Russia, the Americans would go on inching their way into the Japanese empire, and the Allies everywhere would commit their forces to campaigns designed only to keep the Axis from expanding further. In the years between Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion the war around the world grew progressively larger, more diffuse, less conclusive, and massively more chaotic.

Those were desperate years. The storm center then was in Russia, where the German army was hurling attack after overwhelming attack at the Soviet lines. To this day, most Russians think World War II was something that happened primarily in their country and the battles everywhere else in the world were a sideshow. In August 1943, for instance, in the hilly countryside around the city of Kursk (about 200 miles south of Moscow), the German and Soviet armies collided in an uncontrolled slaughter: more than four million men and thousands of tanks desperately maneuvered through miles of densely packed minefields and horizon-filling networks of artillery fire. It may have been the single largest battle fought in human history, and it ended – like all the battles on the eastern front – in a draw.

The American military, meanwhile, was conducting campaigns that to this day are almost impossible to understand or justify. What was the point, for instance, of the Allied invasion of Italy in the summer of 1943? None of the reporters who covered it could figure it out. It was poorly planned and incompetently commanded, and its ultimate goal seemed preposterous: even if it had gone perfectly, it would have left a large army in northern Tuscany faced with the impossible task of getting across the Alps. Most baffling of all, Allied commanders up the line didn’t even seem to care whether it worked perfectly – or at all. One reporter, Eric Sevareid, watched it go on for 18 months of brutal stalemate and wrote an essay for the Nation (it’s the angriest and most honest piece in the whole of Reporting World War II) suggesting that its only real purpose was “to lay waste and impoverish for many years the major part of Italy.”

Somewhere in the bureaucratic stratosphere, of course, there were people who did know the justification for it and for everything else the Allies were doing. They just didn’t want to tell anybody what those reasons were. The Italian invasion, as it happened, was the result of a complicated attempt to appease the Russians, who were increasingly doubtful that their allies were serious about taking on Germany. It was intended as an expedient compromise – a direct confrontation with the Axis, in an area where defeat wouldn’t be fatal. In other words, there was no compelling military logic behind it; it was just an arbitrary way of marking time while the buildup for the real invasion went on.”

– Lee Sandlin, ‘Losing the War.’

Originally published in the Chicago Reader, March 7 and 14, 1997. (http://leesandlin.com/articles/LosingTheWar.htm)

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