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