"I hope I may get to see you during your vacation. Ours is a very brief one. May your Christmas be a happy one. - Fräulein Larner.”
-- Christmas card from Ella Larner, Augusta, Kans., to my father, Winfield, Kans., Sunday, December 20, 1942. (“'Fröhliche Weihnachten” means “Merry Christmas.” “Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht” means “Silent Night, Holy Night.” Ella Larner was my father’s high school Latin teacher at Augusta High School. Madelyn Payne (Barack Obama’s grandmother) happened to have been my father’s classmate in Ella Larner’s Latin I class in 1937-38. Ella Larner, as well as my father, are mentioned in David Maraniss’s new biography of Barack Obama’s childhood and youth Barack Obama: The Making of the Man.)
German Americans suffered nothing like the prejudice and discrimination directed at Japanese Americans in World War II. Yet, as this quote suggests, the wartime climate led to suspicion of German culture, of Germans and German Americans. During 1942, the United States was engaged in a naval war with Germany in the Atlantic. German submarines were torpedoing American vessels within sight of the Virginia and Florida shore. Some suspected the German military was aided by Germans within the United States, although there is no evidence of such aid. These concerns led to the internment of many Germans and German Americans (although a tiny percentage of their total U.S. population). In all, the United States detained 11,507 Germans and German Americans, including immigrants to the United States and travellers stranded by the war.
Unlike with Japanese Americans, there was no internment of all people of German ancestry (or all people of Italian ancestry) in specific areas of the country. Nor was there even internment of all German or Italian nationals without U.S. citizenship from specific areas. Rather, specific persons deemed dangerous, sometimes based on membership in suspect organizations, were interned. Detainees had only limited due process and no access to lawyers; but many were able to appeal their internment and be released. Both German citizens and a small number of German Americans were interned. German Americans had suffered much more in World War I (although again nothing on the scale of Japanese Americans in World War II). During that war, in some place, icons of German culture like Bach and Beethoven were banned, German books were burned, and Germans changed their names to hide their ancestry.
The public’s and officials’ racial atittudes, as well as population numbers, were important in determining the very different fates of Germans, Italians, and Japanese within the United States. Few Americans perceived a threat from Italians. There was greater suspicion of Germans. However, despite some consideration of mass incarcerations, Congress, the Justice Department, and the president never supported such efforts. The size of the German population also made mass incarceration unlikely (as it precluded the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry in Hawai’i). In 1940, 1.2 million people born in Germany lived in the United States. If one includes the number of people with at least one parent born in Germany, the number of Germans in the United States came to 6 million.
Japanese and Japanese Americans suffered a very different fate from Germans and German Americans, because of their race. Facing unfounded rumors of sabotage efforts by Japanese Americans and racist outcries against them, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order No. 9066 on February 19, 1942. The order lead to the incarceration of all persons of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast (whether U.S. citizens or not). In all, 110,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated in ten concentration camps, far from their homes.
Source: Tetsuden Kashima, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997), 284-87, 291; Ronald Takaki, Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, 2000), 131-36; David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man, (Simon & Schuster, 2012), 27.