Those who forget the lessons of history

A meditation on what governments get up to during war time.

Most American adults are aware that, back during World War 2, our government rounded up Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans and put them in internment camps.  But were you aware of who the government chose to round up during the first Great War?  I wasn’t until author friend Greg Frost posted this on his blog:

In 1918 the US Government instituted a program to round up and put into detention camps women who were believed to be prostitutes working on or near US military bases.  Government agents set traps for and rounded up real prostitutes.  There are reports of Feds hiding in bushes in parks, waiting to spring out and jump any woman who walked by on the arm of a soldier.  These WWI Homely Security boys also arrested what were called “Charity girls.” Charity girls were young women who picked up soldiers and sailors for a fun night out–you know, just a smoky, boozy night of carousing, and if there was sex in the bargain, what the hell, sometimes that’s what we want.  In some cases, like those walks in the park, the women were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They were arrested anyway.

These women were then sent to the period equivalent of little Gitmos around the country.  Sometimes buildings were repurposed into detention centers;  sometimes quonset camps were constructed just to house them.

Why? Were these Mata Haris? Foreign agents infiltrating the ranks?  Surely these women must have posed an enormous threat to America.  Right?  Well, dear god, of course.  We wouldn’t go all fascist dictatorship unless there was a good cause.  And what a good cause.   You see, these women were believed to be spreading syphilis to ‘our boys.’  (It was not remotely possible, you understand, that those great grand glorious soldiers of ours were giving syphilis to the girls. Nope. Nossir. One way transmittal here only.) The moral arbiters of America had no choice but to round up them pernicious females.

You can bet that they didn’t “just” detain these women.  It’s a given that wide-spread, government-sanctioned rape occurred all while these women were denied the right to communicate with anyone on the outside, representation by a lawyer, due process, and even an answer as to when they might be released.

Sound familiar?

Greg only learned about this dismal chapter in American history due to reading a novel called Charity Girl by Michael Lowenthal.  Lowenthal didn’t know about this, either, until he saw a mention of it in a Susan Sontag book.  That set him to researching and uncovering facts that you won’t find in most history books.  Facts that don’t fit into the comfortable narrative that Americans like to tell themselves about their country’s past and what the present is built on.

When I went looking for further information on the subject online, mainly the only stuff that came up was articles about and reviews of Charity Girl.  Thankfully, Lowenthal provides some research material on his own website.

I plan to learn more about this little slice of history both because I’m interested in learning about different periods from various angles, but also because I really feel these kinds of things should not be forgotten.  It’s painfully obvious that a lot of the problems we have politically and culturally in this country are caused by an ignorance of history, both recent and distant.

It’s also important to be aware that, if a government sets its mind to it, they will come for you for any reason under the sun as long as the populace allows it.  No one can afford to think that “It can’t happen to me” or even “This is America, they would never” because, oh look, they did.  And then they did it again and again.

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