RCH: America’s WWII internment camps

Folks, I forgot to link to last weekend’s piece at RealClearHistory. It was about World War II internment camps in the US. An excerpt:

As a quick historical reminder, the United States government, under the direct orders of Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt, imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Americans and recently immigrated foreigners for the crime of being Japanese or German (the Italians got some flack, too, but less so than the other two), or for having a Japanese or German surname.

The vast majority of these imprisoned people were Japanese or Japanese-American. In fact, the total amount of interred German or German-American prisoners was roughly 11,000, and the number of Italian or Italian-Americans much smaller than that.

Please, read the rest.

“Horrors Didn’t End When Bataan Death March Did”

That’s the title of last week‘s Tuesday post over at RealClearHistory. I’ve been so busy I forgot to share it here. Check it out:

Camp O’Donnell was no relief from the Death March of Bataan. In it, disease spread like wildfire and starvation was rampant. The Japanese, who were fighting Americans elsewhere and Filipino guerrillas close by, had no empathy for their prisoners. The prisoners who survived the harsh march from Bataan had another 3 ½ years of hard manual labor in prison camps to look forward to, if they survived the horrific conditions of the camps.

As the Allies began slowly retaking the Philippines from Japanese forces, these prisoners of war were shipped from one of the 70 prisoner camps on the archipelago to China and Japan itself to continue their slave labor for the Empire. The Japanese shipped these prisoners to the mainland on unmarked vessels, a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and it’s possible that the American and British Navies may have inadvertently sunk a number of these vessels.

Please, read the rest.

Where the state came from

One of the questions that led me to libertarianism was “what is the state?” More than that: Where did it come from? How it works? What’s the use? Analogous questions would be “what is politics?” and “what is economics?” If my classroom experience serves as a yardstick for anything, the overwhelming majority of people never ask these questions and never run after answers. I do not blame them. Most of us are very busy trying to make ends meet to worry about this kind of stuff. I even sought an academic training in politics just to seek answers to these questions. For me it’s nothing to have answers, after all, I’m paid (albeit very poorly paid) to know these matters. Still, I wish more people were asking these types of question. I suspect that it would be part of the process to review the political and economic situation in which we find ourselves.

Many times when I ask in the classroom “what is the state?” I receive in response that Brazil is a state. In general I correct the student explaining that this is an example, not a definition. The modern state, as we have it today, is mainly the combination of three factors: government, population, and territory. The modern state, as we have it today, can be defined as a population inhabiting a specific territory, organized by a centralized government that recognizes no instance of power superior to itself. Often, in the academic and popular vocabulary, state and government are confused, and there is no specific problem in this. In fact, the two words may appear as synonyms, although this is not a necessity. It is possible to distinguish between state and government thinking that the state remains and governments go through.

The state as we know it today is a product of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age. I believe that this information alone should draw our attention enough: people have lived in modern states only in the last 500 years or so. Throughout the rest of human history other forms of political organization have been used. I am not saying (not here) that these other forms of organization were better than the modern state. I am simply saying that the modern state is far from being natural, spontaneous, or necessary. Even after 1500 the modern state took time to be universally accepted. First, this model of organization spread throughout Europe at the beginning of the Modern Era. It was only in the late 18th century and early 19th century that this model came to be used in the American continent. The modern state spread globally only after the decolonization movement that followed World War II. That is: the vast majority of modern states are not even 70 years old!

What is the purpose of the state? At least in my experience, many people respond by “providing rights” or “securing rights.” People think about health, education, sanitation, culture, security, etc. as duties of the state towards society. It is clear that many people think about health, education, housing, etc. as rights, which in itself is already questionable, but I will leave this discussion for another time. The point I want to put here is that empirically states have only cared about issues like health and public education very recently. In the classic definition of Max Weber (late 19th century), the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In other words, virtually anyone can use violence, but only the state can do it legally. That is: the primordial function of the state is to use violence within a legal order. Other functions, such as providing health and education, came very late and only became commonplace with the welfare state that strengthened after World War II.

I find it always interesting to see how we live in a young world. Basically the entire world population today lives in some state and expects from this state a minimum level of well-being. However, this reality is only about 70 years old. The idea that we need to live in states that provide us with a minimum of well being is not natural and far from obvious. To understand that the modern state is a historical institution, which has not always existed, it is fundamental to question its validity. Moreover, to note that the functions of the state that seem obvious to us today did not exist 70 years ago leads us to question whether it is valid to expect things such as health and education from the state.

My personal perception is that the modern state (defined by territory, population, and government) is better than any alternative that has already been proposed. However, the state of social well-being is only a sugar-watered socialism. Socialism, by definition, does not work, as Ludwig von Mises very well shows. Partial socialism is as likely to function as full socialism. Expecting the state to use violence within legal parameters is valid and even fundamental. But to expect that this same state may successfully diversify its activities entering the branches of health, education, culture, etc. is a fatal conceit.

How I Helped Win World War Two

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


All of a sudden, that road was flooded by a long column of trucks overflowing with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilock-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the resiliency of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit in the segregated Army of the day.

It was August 1944. I was two and my family lived in a (nice) city project right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection is that we lived on the east side of Paris. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west. Yet, the memory is clear.

Before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing). The red came from a Nazi flag my father had stolen from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. (The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught.) At a loss for white, my mother made the center piece out of one of my diapers. That’s why I have always felt I played a part, although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of WWII.

I was born and conceived during the Nazi Occupation of France when life was tough and entertainment scarce. My father was a Paris cop. His life was not so tough, however, that he did not have the energy to make my mother pregnant one more time before the Liberation, this time with twins. There was little to eat and milk was rationed so, my mother breastfed me for the longest time. I was precocious. At one point, I think I was able to ask for the breast in grammatically perfect French. It must have been embarrassing for her. Or perhaps I made this up on the basis of bits and pieces I picked up while I was growing up, like some of the other early recollections in these truncated memoirs. They stop at age 21 when I moved to the US for good. I made that choice because I think the second part of my life would be less  interesting to an American readership than the first, the preparatory phase, so to speak.

I  described above my first, full, cinematographic memory. From the days before the Liberation, I remember bit and pieces, like still photographs with some sound, glimpses of German uniforms and the vast, beautiful fire of the Paris general mills, a mile away, set by the US Army Air Corps. It’s a little known fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of France right before and during the Normandy landing. The French never complained much; they were different then, and too sick of the German presence to bitch about collateral damage. When the air raid siren sounded, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and take me down to the basement of our seven-story apartment house. Some tenants were so jaded by then that they did not bother to take shelter. The basement was a crowded but not especially tragic place.

In spite of this dramatic, first, fully formed memory, nothing really important ever happened to me. I have escaped the Chinese curse, of “living in interesting times,” although I did live in fact in quite interesting times. I waltzed through the murderous second half of the twentieth century with hardly a scratch to show for it. All my life, I have been mostly fortunate. The undeserved lucky breaks more than made up for the few unjustified blows fate has dealt me. The luckiest break was my first coming to the US at eighteen, a prelude to immigration three years later. In this country, no one ever oppressed me successfully though a few tried.  Many gave me a push at just the right moment. Mine is a happy story. This makes it worth telling to the largely glum denizens of the twenty-first century.

I live in the sunny, warm climate I longed for as a child, near the sea I always loved, in a small town rich with the small pleasures I have always appreciated: a variety of movies, a good café in an interesting, animated downtown, several bookstores within easy reach, and young people everywhere. My wife is a talented painter whose work I enjoy so much I don’t ever like her to sell it. She has few obligations, and she has not had many for  quite a while. That’s what keeps her beautiful, I think. She is also an immigrant, from the other side of the world from me, yet we see eye-to-eye on most matters. Nevertheless, we each have our own house, feet apart, each gracious in its own way. Although, it’s in the center of town, our tiny plot contains an apple tree, a plum tree, two lemon trees, and a big fig tree. All bear fruits, especially the fig tree, a sort of miracle I never fully grasp, for reasons that will become clear below.

I am a retired university professor and scholar, fairly proud of my scholarship, happy to have been a professor and equally happy to not be one anymore. Most mornings, weather permitting (it permits often, here in California), after the gym and after coffee at Lulu’s, I am forced to decide whether I want to go sailing, or fishing, or just putter about my boat, or start one of my sometimes fairly good postcard paintings, or again, write a micro-story. Sometimes, I just simply spend the whole day reading, for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. I read much history but also almost anything anyone hands me. That would include a fair amount of trash. You guessed it: I am a satisfied lazy man.

The pages below tell the tale of the unlikely beginnings of the journey that brought me to my current state of beatific smugness.

“Landscapes of Nationalism” interview

Here is an interview a colleague of mine did with me last month regarding my summer trips, which somewhat are connected by a same thematic thread – on how I stumbled upon incidents of big and small nationalisms. It appeared in our obscure university newsletter with an open access. An excerpt:

When I left Estonia and arrived in St. Petersburg, which is in northern Russia, the first thing I saw, when coming out of the airport, was a large posh car that was passing me. Its windshield was decorated with an orange and black “St. George ribbon”; this ribbon (a symbol of the patron saint of the Russian military) is currently a badge of patriotism for millions of my former compatriots. The back of the car sported big letters in blue: “Onward to Berlin! I honor WWII vets.” The irony of the situation was that the car driven by that well-to-do patriot was a German Mercedes! By the way, the topic of World War II is a “sacred cow” in Russia. From the Soviet times to the present, the government and conservative elements have been constantly bombarding people with two pieces of propaganda. First, they have being arguing that the Soviet Union/Russia had singlehandedly saved the world from fascism. For this reason, the whole world owes them everything. Second, since the country lost in that war more people than any other country, Russians suffered more than anybody else and, again, for this reason, the world owes them. Many people internalized this mythology.