A plan to study the treatment of Europeans interned by the United States government during World War II is languishing in the Senate following unexpectedly strong opposition from GOP lawmakers.
A narrow majority of Republican senators, led by Jeff Sessions of Alabama, rejected a proposal to form a congressional commission examining the wartime experiences of Axis citizens and European-born Americans, thousands of whom were held in American internment camps. Co-sponsored by Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the bill would also create a separate commission to study the treatment of Jewish war refugees.
As Washington buzzed over the derailed immigration bill last week, wrangling over the so-called Wartime Treatment Study Act reflected an equally deep-seated, if less public, partisan divide. Republican critics of the bill, including Sessions, argue that it is based on flawed findings, and say they fear that it could lead to the paying of reparations. Its backers say the critics are simply loath to investigate possible government wrongdoing given the ongoing war in Iraq.
“The Republicans want to say, ‘Look, these are casualties of war, this is the price people pay for us to protect them, but that doesn’t mean we have to be responsible in a court of law for what we do,’” said Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist and professor of law at Fordham University who has written extensively about Holocaust restitution and historical justice. “They say to themselves that between Iraq, Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, there is a nest of potential ignominy.”
Feingold, who represents a large German American population, also hinted that he sees current resonances in the debate over German internment during World War II.
“Whenever you have a conflict, the danger to those who are of the same background that includes our enemies is real,” he told The Associated Press last week. “And you always have to guard against that.”
In reality, Feingold’s bill has had a long and rocky road in the Senate. First introduced in 2001, the proposal has been stalled repeatedly over the past six years through anonymous Republican holds. A standalone version of the bill was torpedoed in the current Congress by a Republican parliamentary maneuver. Ultimately, despite the objection of 26 GOP senators, the legislation was tacked on as an amendment to the stalled immigration bill, leaving its ultimate status uncertain.
Along with the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II, the Department of Justice rounded up more than 30,000 “enemy aliens” — including 11,000 Germans, 3,200 Italians and scores of other Europeans, including some who resided in Latin America and were turned over to the American government. A congressional commission to study the internment of Japanese Americans was established in 1980. Separate legislation, signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, apologized for the Japanese internment on behalf of the American government, and provided that reparations, eventually totaling some $1.2 billion, be paid to surviving internees.
Sessions did not return a call for comment. In his congressional testimony, Sessions said the bill was based on findings — including the assertion that the government’s wartime policies were “devastating” — “that slander America incorrectly.”
A May 8 letter sent to the Judiciary Committee by Deputy Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling states that the bill’s “identical depiction of the treatment of Axis citizens and European Americans was ‘outrageously exaggerated,’” quoting a senior historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who spoke with Justice Department officials back in 2001.
A spokesman for the Holocaust museum declined to comment on the legislation, but identified the historian as Peter Black.
Several Republican senators who voted against the Feingold-Grassley bill, including Elizabeth Dole, Mitch McConnell and John Warner, did not return the Forward’s calls for comment.