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Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Perime­ters of Democ­racy: In­verse Utopias and the Wartime So­cial Land­scape in the Amer­i­can West by Heather Fryer, Uni­ver­sity of Ne­braska The perime­ters of democ­racy dur­ing World War II were tightly watched in the United States. In­deed, as Heather Fryer shows in Perime­ters of Democ­racy: In­verse Utopias and the Wartime So­cial Land­scape in the Amer­i­can West, the Amer­i­can govern­ment and sev­eral Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, by de­sign or in­tu­itively, hin­dered many mi­nor­ity groups in their process of de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion. Fryer picked four closed com­mu­ni­ties as case stud­ies in the West, as it was “the prov­ing ground for the nation’s claims as the lead­ing agent of global progress and hu­man free­dom.” Us­ing as ex­am­ples these “utopias” — small towns or com­mu­ni­ties where pre­sum­ably all res­i­dents ex­er­cised a cer­tain mea­sure of power — she doc­u­ments how the govern­ment held up the devel­op­ment of Amer­i­can demo­cratic val­ues and the ex­er­cise of so­cial, eco­nomic, and po­lit­i­cal free­doms.

Fryer tells read­ers about Van­port, Ore­gon, a town cre­ated by the govern­ment be­tween Port­land and Van­cou­ver pop­u­lated by peo­ple pri­mar­ily from the South and Mid­west who were drawn by wartime jobs but not nec­es­sar­ily wel­comed by lo­cals. She ex­plores Ore­gon’s Kla­math In­dian Reser­va­tion, which was es­tab­lished in 1864, and the Topaz War Re­lo­ca­tion Cen­ter near Delta, Utah, an in­tern­ment camp that im­pris­oned Ja­panese Amer­i­cans un­der Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der 9066. Fi­nally, she in­ves­ti­gates the se­cret wartime en­clave of Los Alamos, a sci­en­tific com­mu­nity whose in­hab­i­tants de­vel­oped the atomic bomb.

What all these com­mu­ni­ties had in com­mon, Fryer ex­plains, was their con­fine­ment and con­trol by the U.S. govern­ment, which pur­port­edly in­tended to “teach” res­i­dents Amer­ica’s demo­cratic val­ues. (At times, her Los Alamos study does not fit the over­all pat­tern as tightly as she wants us to be­lieve; it makes an in­ter­est­ing case study nonethe­less.) But the com­mu­ni­ties dif­fered in “race, class, new­comer sta­tus, po­lit­i­cal his­to­ries, and sheer num­bers.”

Fryer in­sists the govern­ment had lit­tle in­ten­tion to truly Amer­i­can­ize these groups, in­stead pay­ing lip ser­vice through com­mu­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions and demo­cratic struc­tures. When their wards showed signs of ad­just­ing to the Amer­i­can sys­tem too well by as­sert­ing their col­lec­tive will in op­po­si­tion to that of their over­seers, govern­ment or camp of­fi­cials quickly put the brakes on demo­cratic ac­tiv­i­ties. The Kla­math In­di­ans, for their part, were self-gov­ern­ing ac­cord­ing to the tenets of the 1864 treaty, but the wartime fed­eral govern­ment ques­tioned the au­ton­o­mous tribe’s “loy­alty.”

The govern­ment, as the author re­peat­edly points out, could not shed its dis­trust of African Amer­i­cans; Na­tive Amer­i­cans; Ja­panese Amer­i­cans; and the Jewish, com­mu­nist, and for­eign sci­en­tists who helped de­velop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. It cre­ated spir­i­tual if not phys­i­cal barbed-wire democ­ra­cies, thus missing out on an op­por­tu­nity to in­tro­duce those it mis­trusted to demo­cratic val­ues and Amer­i­can cit­i­zenry. Fryer laments that the govern­ment, for var­i­ous rea­sons, was un­able to ap­ply its es­sen­tially good val­ues to those in its care.

She pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing, well-writ­ten, and well-re­searched study of closed World War II com­mu­ni­ties in the West and their his­tor­i­cal de­vel­op­ments. Her nar­ra­tive is bal­anced but of­fers lit­tle in­sight, al­though her anal­y­sis of govern­ment-con­trolled so­cial and po­lit­i­cal life in these com­mu­ni­ties is cer­tainly in­trigu­ing. Since the word perime­ter sug­gests — math­e­mat­i­cally at least — an in­flex­i­ble con­straint, the author ap­pears to be less hope­ful that our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers will “gov­ern ac­cord­ing to what they know, in­stead of what they fear.”

— To­mas Jaehn

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