August 4, 2014


WORLD WAR I: 100 YEARS LATER : The U.S. Confiscated Half a Billion Dollars in Private Property During WWI (Daniel A. Gross, JULY 28, 2014, SMITHSONIAN.COM)

The internment of immigrants required a remarkably low standard of evidence. The historian Adam Hodges, for instance, discovered that local law enforcement used federal internment policies to justify the arrest of labor organizers and perceived political radicals. At the federal level, one high-profile case involved the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Karl Muck. Despite newspaper reports that he was a patriotic German, Muck was in fact a citizen of neutral Switzerland. He was accused of refusing to play the Star-Spangled Banner at a concert (a charge later shown to be false) and disparaging the American government in love letters. Muck was sent to Fort Oglethorpe, along with 29 members of his orchestra, and the famed conductor was ultimately deported.

America certainly wasn't unique in its imprisonment of civilians during the war. If anything, its policies seem relatively lax compared to those of England, for example, where at least 30,000 enemy aliens were interned starting in 1915. In Germany, several thousand British citizens and large numbers of French and Russian citizens were sent to camps, according to an American legal history written just after the war. (These figures are separate from the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were captured during combat.) Internment supposedly prevented immigrants from spying or joining the military of their home countries, but given that women and children also experienced imprisonment in Europe, the basic rationale was easily manipulated. In many countries, members of government not only had public approval for these policies--they faced public criticism if they didn't support internment.

In retrospect, American internment policies are troubling, but they're dwarfed by a quieter and more sweeping practice of property seizure. Under the Trading with the Enemy Act, President Wilson appointed an "Alien Property Custodian" named A. Mitchel Palmer to take control of property that might hinder the war effort. Among other things, this meant all property belonging to interned immigrants, regardless of the charges (or lack thereof). "All aliens interned by the government are regarded as enemies," wrote Palmer, "and their property is treated accordingly."

The basic argument was that property seizure prevented immigrants from financially or materially supporting enemies of America. Under Palmer's direction, the Office of the Alien Property Custodian grew to employ hundreds of officials and used several high-profile cases of espionage and industrial sabotage to defend its work. German chemical companies in the United States were particularly vulnerable to seizure: not only did dye and pharmaceutical companies divert raw materials from the war effort, they could also in theory produce explosives. 

The agency's powers were remarkably broad, however. In Munsey's Magazine, Palmer described the Alien Property Custodian as "the biggest general store in the country," noting that some of the companies seized were involved in "pencil-making in New Jersey, chocolate manufacture in Connecticut, [and] beer-brewing in Chicago." There were small holdings seized from individuals, too. "Among them," he continued with an odd hint of pride, "are some rugs in New York; three horses near Joplin, Mississippi; [and] a carload of cedar logs in the South." (Historians will probably never figure out why Palmer wanted those rugs in New York.) The historian Adam Hodges found that even women who were American citizens, if married to German and Austro-Hungarian immigrants, were classified as enemy aliens--and they alone lost a combined $25 million in property to the government.

The war ended in November 1918, just a year after the passage of the Trading with the Enemy Act. In that time, the Alien Property Custodian had acquired hundreds of millions of dollars in private property. In a move that was later widely criticized--and that political allies of the Alien Property Custodian likely profited from directly--Palmer announced that all of the seized property would be "Americanized," or sold to U.S. citizens, partly in the hopes of crippling German industries. (His attitude echoed a wider sentiment that the Central Powers deserved to pay dearly for the vast destruction of the war.) In one high-profile example, the chemical company Bayer was auctioned on the steps of its factory in New York. Bayer lost its U.S. patent for aspirin, one of the most valuable drugs ever produced.

Posted by at August 4, 2014 5:40 PM

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