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Matmail:

On vacation in Ecuador, I met an 80-year-old man who claims that during World War II, he and his German parents were rounded up by the Ecuadorian government at the request of the U.S. government and sent to a concentration camp in Texas. After six weeks they were sent to Germany. When the war ended, he returned to Ecuador to live. Could this be true U.S. history?

-- Joel Fentin, the Net

True, Joel. Another little detail they don't teach you in history class. Actually, this factlet was buried in the National Archives until about five years ago, when the Dateline TV show got a tip and went digging for documents.

Everyone knows that Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were interned under the War Relocation Act following Pearl Harbor. For the most part, the WRA didn't affect German or Italian citizens in the U.S. But your Ecuadorian friend was caught up in a different and much more secret plan, attributed by Dateline's research to General George Marshall. We asked Latin American governments to round up so-called "alien enemies," targeting Japanese and Axis citizens who might "compromise" American security. According to TV interviews, the national police would knock on the door, arrest people, and turn them over to the American military, which transported them on ships to internment camps in the U.S. The Ecuadorian most likely ended up in the Crystal City camp in Texas. There they'd sit until the U.S. arranged a prisoner exchange with Japan, Italy, or Germany. We'd trade the "alien enemies" for U.S. prisoners of war. So while your acquaintance was on his way to Germany, American prisoners were on their way home. This, apparently, was one motivation behind the roundup.

Dateline suggests that Latin American countries were glad to cooperate because the arrestees were mostly business owners and farmers (though a few were actual spies), and the governments would be rid of a few successful foreign residents and could confiscate their assets. One of the ugliest aspects of the whole thing was that some German Jews were taken from relative safety in Latin America and eventually sent back to Germany at the height of the war to face not only the Nazis but Allied bombing as well. Your acquaintance was lucky to get back to Ecuador at all. Because of their vague and confused status, many never could return.

The ACLU recently represented some of the "alien enemies" in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government. In the settlement, each litigant should receive $5000. Japanese-Americans interned under the War Relocation Act had earlier been awarded $20,000 in reparation.

But that's war for you. Somewhere between the grand patriotic rhetoric and the dirty day-to-day details, we make many moral compromises. They seem justified at the time.

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