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.

17 Responses

  1. Yeah, I saw something about this linked through Making Light, and it was horrifying. But what’s more horrifying IMO is how it got swept under the rug of history so easily. I would’ve thought this was the kind of incident that would’ve kept American women up in arms for generations — but just that one whiff of shame, that implication of sexual “wrongness”, and… silence. That silence reveals the deep roots of sexism in this country, as much as the detention itself.

  2. Thanks for bringing this up. It’s definitely important this kind of thing not be forgotten.

    And on “It could happen to you”… yeah. If you’re involved in ANY kind of activism, it could. I have a friend who was pretty heavily involved in student activism for animal rights and got arrested at a big protest with me in 2001. That was post 9/11, and evidently the gov’t put SOMETHING on our permanent records because the next time this friend of mine flew into the states (he did some study abroad to teach English), his plane was held at the gate while officers came to remove him. They then took him away and interrogated him for five hours without allowing him to so much as make a phone call to his parents to let them know why he wasn’t there.

    This guy was an American born white heterosexual male whose only criminal record was civil disobedience. Basically, your typical student activist.

    So yes. It definitely can happen, today, tomorrow, anywhere.

  3. ABW:

    When you have the opportunity, you may want to do a web search on a concept known as MARTIAL LAW. Start with wikipedia if you are not familiar with the concept. You will find that plenty has been written about it.

    All The Best,

    Adam

  4. Wow Adam – that was put in a really condescending and nasty way, and assumes wrongly that ABW has never studied the concept.

    Check yourself.

  5. ABW (and others):

    No condescension or nastiness intended. It is a concept that I have only come across in recent years and it was first thing that I thought of when reading the post.

    -Adam

  6. Permit me “rephrase” my original post as I see how I now comes across:

    ABW’s essay reminds men of a concept I learned about recent years known as Martial Law. Wikipedia has fairly decent explanation of this and lot has been written about since Bush took office. Writers on both the political left and right have written about this.

    Thanks for the “check”, Katie! ; )

    -AS

  7. Boy, I just keep getting worse:

    Permit me “rephrase” my original post as I see how I came across:

    ABW’s essay reminds ME of a concept I learned about recent years known as Martial Law. Wikipedia has fairly decent explanation of this and lot has been written about since Bush took office. Writers on both the political left and right have written about this.

    Thanks for the “check”, Katie! ; )

    AND I DESPERATELY NEED SPELL-CHECK.

    -AS

  8. Adam, thanks for rephrasing, we all put things in an inappropriate way sometimes. I did find your original first comment condescending, so I’m glad you took the time to rewrite it and then to correct the suggestive typo:-)

    Thanks to that, we avoided an angry exchange in the comments section of this post, you know:-)

    ABW — thank you for writing about this. I think the issue wasn’t much discussed because decades ago it was (it seems to me) dismissed as a “routine measure.” It takes time for people to realize that it’s unjust and sexist.

    An extreme example of how patriarchy operates in matters of this kind are the justifications for rape during WWII. My grandmother and other women in her generation were taught that “men have their needs” and nothing can be done about that. Stupid pseudo-explanations, shrouded as evolutionary psychology, only contribute to belittling the victims’ suffering (check out the discussion at Finally, a Feminism 101Blog: http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/2007/11/12/rape-and-evolution/).

  9. Yes, Adam, thanks for rephrasing.

  10. Also, in an awesome attempt to squash dissent of any kind, google Senate Bill 1959.

    You’ll be shocked and surprised.

  11. I read about that on Democracy Now. Some people are calling it the Thought Police bill. It is officially named “Prevention of Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism.” Critics of the bill worry that the government will use it as a way to crack down on dissent/activism (all under the guise of fighting terrorism, of course).

    According to the Democracy Now summary: “The bill would establish two government-appointed bodies to study, monitor and propose ways of curbing what it calls homegrown terrorism and extremism in the United States.”

    The problem is what the bill defines as “terrorism.” This is the actual definition from the text of the bill:

    “The term `homegrown terrorism’ means the use, planned use, or threatened use, of force or violence by a group or individual born, raised, or based and operating primarily within the United States or any possession of the United States to intimidate or coerce the United States government, the civilian population of the United States, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

    Notice that it doesn’t mean ACTUAL use of force or violence. Nor does it define what “force” or “violence” means (for instance, is property destruction violent? Is it forceful? Would this make Greenpeace a domestic terrorist organization? What about anti-war protesters knocking down barricades? Is that violent? Given the vague definition and my own personal experience w/ police, I would say that yes, under this law, it could be) What it says is that even the “planned” or “threatened” use of force or violence for the purpose of political or social objectives = terrorism. Hence the nickname “Thought Police Act.”

  12. “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.”

    That’s not very rigorous. That’s an assumption based on ideology. Where is your evidence? How about some citations?

  13. Perhaps you missed this line in the original post:

    Thankfully, Lowenthal provides some research material on his own website.

    There’s your citation. The author provides links and PDFs and other useful things.

    Also, assumption based on what ideology, exactly? What ideology do you assume I subscribe to?

    You’re assuming, after all, that none of this is true based on your ideology. I don’t see how, then, I should be the one on the spot?

  14. American NeoCon, since we’re talking about citations and such things, and your vague terms of “based on ideology,” what then, praytell, would ideology be?

    You’re proposing, so start answering.

  15. […] Female Internment Camps Posted on December 8, 2007 by fitnessfortheoccasion Those Who Forget the Lessons of History are doomed to repeat it.  The Angry Black Woman writes: were you aware of who the government chose […]

  16. […] be bought and sold and fails to recognize them as people.” history lesson going on @ abw – those who forget the lessons of history       a meditation on what governments get up… Most American adults are aware that, back during World War 2, our government rounded up Japanese […]

  17. […] services have more to fear from fellow soldiers than they do from combat. Women in this country have been locked up, “detained” in the lingo, so as to not pollute young soldiers with their nasty vaginas. […]

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