Such Splendid Prisons Cover

Such Splendid Prisons

Diplomatic Detainment in America during World War II

Harvey Solomon

Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2020, 360 pages

Book Review published on: August 21, 2020

The fate of Axis diplomatic staffs, as well as reporters, after their countries were at war with the United States forms the premise of Such Splendid Prisons: Diplomatic Detainment in America during World War II. Drawing on letters, memoranda, interviews, memoirs, and a host of other sources, Harvey Solomon, a freelance writer, describes the overlooked process by which diplomatic personnel and other nationals from Axis countries were detained and eventually repatriated.

The term “internment” was not allowed for legal and diplomatic reasons, so instead the word “detained” was used to describe their condition. To house the detainees until negotiations could arrange an exchange, the government took control of a few luxury resorts, most within a few hours of Washington, D.C. Arranging for the exchange of detained Axis personnel for Americans held in Axis countries through neutral countries was “a convoluted, contentious process with many sides, many angles, and few easy answers.” The State Department, FBI, Justice Department, Border Patrol, and other federal and state agencies were involved and often clashed. But if relations between various agencies were not always smooth, such frictions paled in comparison to the carping and sniping between the representatives of the various Axis nations placed in close confinement.

The Germans were soon joined at their place of confinement by the Italians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians, but frictions soon arose, especially between the Germans and the Italians. The Italian embassy personnel had remained free in Washington for a month after Pearl Harbor because the Italian government had not bothered to take the American diplomats in Rome into custody. The State Department eventually moved the Italians, Hungarians, and Bulgarians to a different resort, taking some pleasure that the enemy nationals could not get along on the microscale. The Japanese, who had been staying at a separate resort, were moved in with the Germans, and relations between those two nationalities were even worse. As consulates from enemy nations around the United States were closed, more people were moved into the resort hotels, adding to the tensions. Those from the United States were soon joined by Axis diplomatic staffs sent from Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Columbia, and other countries in the Americas. Only those Axis personnel from Hawaii were kept separate, from a desire that they not spread news of the destruction caused by the Japanese raid as well as the potential that some might be tried for espionage.

The first third of the book introduces the key personalities and workings of the diplomatic community in the years before Pearl Harbor, with an emphasis on the German and Japanese delegations. Solomon especially focuses on German Minister Hans Thomsen who, with the ambassador recalled to Berlin, headed the German delegation. Cordial and friendly, he assured Americans of Germany’s benign intentions while working quietly with isolationists to keep the United States out of the war as long as possible. He remained a devoted Nazi, describing Americans in secret cables to Berlin as dull-witted. His glamorous wife was indiscreet about her disdain for Adolf Hitler, which Solomon surmises was a ruse intended to flush out Germans who opposed the regime. In the Japanese embassy, diplomat Hidenari Terasaki, with his American wife Gwen, sincerely hoped to avoid a war between Japan and the United States while at the same time serving covertly as an intelligence agent of Japan.

Embassies from neutral countries were tasked with arranging matters between the United States and enemy nations regarding the detainees. The already overworked Swiss had to deal with Germany and the Spanish with Japan. The United States was especially eager to conduct the exchange of diplomatic personnel with Japan before the expected Japanese setbacks in the Pacific War made the country less willing to cooperate. Eventually, using Swedish shipping and Portuguese ports, exchanges were made some six months after Pearl Harbor. The principle of reciprocity—treating the diplomatic personnel of Axis countries how the United States hoped its own diplomatic personnel would be treated—informed much of the U.S. actions. Those hopes were not fully realized, and the returning Americans were noticeably thinner, more shabbily dressed, and carrying far less luggage than their Axis counterparts during the actual exchanges. The swaps in the summer of 1942 did not end the mission, however, as later Vichyites, Axis diplomats caught in North Africa, and Japanese diplomatic staffs captured in Europe were also detained and repatriated. If the State Department thought the Italians complained a lot, the Vichyites quickly surpassed them.

Solomon has done the seemingly impossible: finding a nontrivial aspect of World War II not already covered. One quibble is the author’s decision to place the narrative in the historical present, which occasionally gives the work the feeling of a novel and creates some confusion when he describes events as happening “now” or “twenty years ago.” While little in this book will add to our understanding of the Allied victory, it is one of the more enjoyable books about World War II to come out in a while. Even though the events were hardly key to the outcome of the war, Solomon has shed light on the logistics of exchange, as well as the values of the United States during the war, and the incredibly difficult role played by some neutral countries in keeping open channels of communication.

Book Review written by: Barry M. Stentiford, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas