“Excerpts from an Internment Camp Journal,” by Langdon B. Gilkey
May 27, 1946
The story of the Red Cross parcels which arrived at our internment camp, illustrates as vividly as anything I’ve run across, one of the greatest ironies of human nature, namely that progress in the material sphere of life always brings with it heightened spiritual problems. Next to the end of the war, the most wonderful thing that ever happened to our camp was the arrival of these parcels; and yet one of the results of their coming was the growth of international bitterness, distrust and spite, from which we never fully recovered. If the hardships of camp had shown that human nature remained brave and ingenious, but also self-centered on the lower, more primitive levels of life, the arrival of these good things certainly showed that man is still selfish and thoughtless as well as gentle when his larder is full and his back is clothed.
It is hoped that the writing down of this experience, or of any other in the camp, will contain no hint of personal moral judgment on the actors in these experiences. No one is more conscious than the writer that we are all sinners, and that in one way or another we all share this common human failing. However, this common failing in some cases has social repercussions which, while not adding to the personal weight of the fault, nevertheless adds to its social and historical importance. Thus from these particular forms of the sin in which we all share, lessons for the future social being of all of us can be learned. There may, therefore, be some point in recording these events by one member of the community, who is in no way separate from the faults of that community.
In order fully to tell this story I’ll have to go back to August of 1944. At that time two hundred parcels from the American Red Cross arrived, having come from America on the Gripsholm some nine months before. These were clearly intended, so the covering instructions said, for the American community at Weihsien, and since there were 187 bona fide Americans and about twenty Americans by marriage, no other sensible national in camp ever questioned that these parcels should be given to the American community. There was probably some envy, as was only natural, but most British were extremely good natured about it all, merely commenting that they feared their government had quite forgotten about their existence (the Americans and the Canadians always got Christmas messages from their governments—the British never a word). Anyway, these parcels were given out to the Americans without friction, and everyone, especially the Americans, were quite happy about the whole thing.
And no wonder. These were perfectly marvelous parcels. Weighing just under fifty pounds and beautifully packed, they contained an amazing quantity of just the foodstuffs a hungry internee could need and want. Since the war I’ve heard nothing good and lots bad about army tinned foods, but certainly nothing ever tasted so good to anyone as that spam, that processed butter and that tinned coffee, did to us. The second fact that made the occasion a happy one was that almost without exception the Americans were extremely generous about giving their British and other friends food; thus the affair was the source of a great deal of very healthy international good-will. I had several British friends tell me that they did not think there was a person in camp who had not received something from the parcels; they were obviously quite impressed with American generosity.
It was a complete surprise to us when in January of 1945 more parcels arrived. We had had no advance notice that they were coming and we had no idea at first how many parcels there were—they just rolled into camp in carts—carts and carts. I was in the hospital at the time so I do not know the full details of the situation, but I can remember our surprise and excitement when we first heard the good news, and our complete amazement when the fourteen or so cartloads of these parcels were brought to the post-office shack near the hospital. The unexpectedness of their arrival and the fact that they stood around there in the post-office for several days before any official word was given on them helps to explain, I think, the really tragic situation that ensued.
In the first place, when the parcels arrived, all we knew was that they were marked “American Red Cross,” as had the lot before—in fact they were just the same sort of parcels. Naturally the first reaction on the part of everyone was that the Americans were in luck again. Then when more and more parcels came in, this idea quite naturally stuck but became greatly confused. The Americans began to think of more than one parcel apiece—this was not necessarily selfish, but considering the background, a natural first reaction line of thought. And also many, I am sure, thought that with two or three parcels they could give much more away. The other nationals, on the other hand, when they saw more and more parcels, began to wonder if perhaps some of them might be for those who were not Americans.
If, during this period of doubt, when no one knew anything, everyone could have kept quiet, matters would have been better. But Americans started talking loudly about what they would do with several parcels, and other nationals equally as loud about what they would do with their parcel, with the result that each group began to get sore. The others thought the Americans were being selfish, while really most of them were just thinking along old lines: Americans thought the others were trying to get American parcels from their destined receivers, whereas really they were just being normally hopeful. Sensible ones on both sides, of course, kept quiet and waited.
About three days later the Japanese Commandant said that he had the proper instructions and issued a decision about distribution, which was: every internee, other than American, would get one parcel, and every American, one parcel and a half. (It turned out that there were 1550 parcels in all, just one hundred more than the number of people in camp.) This decision, I think, delighted almost everyone. The other nationals were completely thrilled because they had never dared hope that they would receive one complete parcel. Most Americans were equally pleased—others were now sharing in their wealth, and also Americans were getting even more than last time. The reports I heard in the hospital of excited children, of enthusiasm for America, and of general good-will, bespoke a morale that had reached an all-time high.
This was, however, only a temporary lull. The next morning an event occurred that brought all our potential international ill-will flooding back. Two young Americans, apparently representing a group of others of like mind, went up to see the Commandant. As I heard it, they asked him to produce his instructions to divide up the parcels equally; without some proof of his authority they, as Americans, refused to recognize his right to distribute American property. Surprisingly enough the Commandant acceded to these demands, fumbled around, produced no written orders, and said he would refer the matter to higher authorities. The fact is, I guess, that actually he had no instructions and that he was not a strong enough personality to dare to bluff the matter out. The net result of this action, therefore, was that the order to give out the parcels to everyone the next day was countermanded, while it was decided elsewhere whether the parcels would all go to the Americans or go to the community as a whole.
As can be imagined, this delay was almost the worst thing that could have happened. It provided two or three days of suspense and doubt in which all the bitterness, jealousy, and national pride of fourteen hundred tired, nervous, fed-up, and above-all, hungry people to accumulate and boil over. Less sensible British and others were sore that American selfishness had literally done them out of a parcel, and said so. Sensible ones, though quiet, were disappointed and, I suspect, a bit scornful—they had long suspected that Americans were like that, and now they knew it. Less-thoughtful Americans, and there were plenty, stuck by the national guns and the hope of seven and a half parcels apiece, and they defended this action as right, considering that all these parcels were “American property” and thus not to be given out by the Japanese. “We will share, but not on order from the enemy.” In other words, it is very pleasant to be beneficent philanthropists (anyway you could, with a very clear conscience, keep at least four of the seven parcels for yourself), but it is no fun or glory at all to have someone else do your sharing for you. (Just as the rich want to keep charities in the hands of private agencies—it both eases their consciences, and leaves them with more income than does a rigorous taxation for the same purpose. Of course neither in camp nor in the charity problem does private donation go so far or amount to as much real equalization.) Also we heard continually from American lips that the British and other nationals were coveting what did not belong to them. The bricks flew thick and fast leaving a rubble heap where before there had been an impressive structure of international good-will.
Other Americans were, of course, horrified at this exhibition of one side of the national character and did all they could to heal the widening international breach. They earned only the hatred of their fellow Americans and received only shrugs of the shoulders from most of the British. It was a bad time for them—a humiliating, sickening time. For this American action ran directly counter to all that was positive in the camp experience. This was above all a community of different nationalities who, despite their differences, had together, over two years, managed to build up some semblance of civilization. Likewise together they had suffered what privations there were in this camp. And now when enough goods suddenly and without warning arrived for all, one section rose up and claimed the whole lot.
It is hard to estimate how many Americans were on each side of this battle, especially since I was out of it in the hospital—surrounded by British, some of them scornful, some very nice; one of the latter made this interesting and terribly ironic comment, “If only these parcels had never arrived to stir up all this bitterness!” It reminded me of modern man, pining to return to simpler, less-civilized, less complicated days before he fathomed the mysteries of the atom, when spiritual trials were not so great. I think actually most Americans probably were secretly ashamed of this action, but were not prepared to admit it to the British, against whom, as the dominant and slightly dominating group in the camp, there was feeling anyway. Thus when a Britisher would make some caustic comment, the American would snap back, while inside he probably felt his position to be unjust. This, of course would merely serve to increase his national ferocity. Probably there were relatively few who would eat humble pie on this issue, especially with foreign criticism rampant. The net result, anyway, was that we were afraid to take a vote of the American community because we were fearful that the vote would go against sharing. (It is discouraging to come back and find the same fear haunting one with regard to the British loan.)
Why did these fellows go to the Commandant? Their own view was of course, that they were acting on principle. They could not tolerate an unauthorized Japanese distribution of American property. They were not interested in more parcels, but rather just that the rights of American property were preserved and respected. Even though it is true that this is a “principle,” still in my opinion it was the least important of principles. Who cared in a hungry camp who did the distributing so long as it was done? But the fact that it was a “principle” gave these men a moral fervor that proved a perfect cloak, in their own eyes at least, for their course of action. This shows very clearly the danger of unexamined “principles”; they can provide a moral sanction for the most anti-social course, and deceive those prosecuting this course into the unshakable belief that they are saving the cause of law, of rights, or what you will.
What irritated us the most, however, was that this legal concept of property and right had been applied to these parcels at all. These Red Cross parcels had not been purchased by us. Thus we as Americans had no claim to them at all. They came from America, yes, but they were the result of individual American generosity; a generosity that in giving had not considered national lines or property. The mere fact that this wealth had been given and sent overseas was a direct denial at the source of these two concepts. Consequently no people would have been more shocked to learn that the recipients of these gifts were hugging them to themselves and not sharing them, than would the generous hearts that had started them on their way to us. If it had not been so tragic in its consequences, this legal claim to ownership on the part of a receiver of a generous gift from an unknown giver would truly have been laughable.
In any case, two days later we were relieved to learn that the decision had finally come through. Everyone in camp was to get one parcel—period. It was a good ironical touch that these gents had talked themselves out of one half a parcel. The camp then settled down to enjoy the feast, and a good deal of the bitterness was forgotten in the wonder of so many badly needed and wanted things. Thus not so much damage to the community had been done as we had feared in those bleaker days.
Nevertheless, we had lost ground. Oh, I do not mean that all this made any difference to friendships between nationals—we had long forgotten the nationality of our friends; they had long since become people to us rather than British or Dutch. Rather it was a change in the general estimate that the average man made of the other nation as a whole that had occurred. When they thought now of Americans, most British and other nationals would remember the parcels, and the next word to spring to their minds would be “selfish.” Likewise when the average American thought about the other nationals in general terms, he would think of a group trying to get something away from him, demanding what was not theirs and making nasty remarks. And, how familiar, when he would think of himself, he would call himself a sucker and resent it. There seems to be a fairly universal inferiority urge that gets the American to consider himself a sucker—and no mental make-up so makes for tightness and lack of generosity than this conviction that you are being made a sucker. Time and again that strange conceit in camp prevented Americans from doing the obviously generous thing.
Now, this general thinking about other nationalities is important—in fact it is what determines international relationships. Personal relationships across national borders are nice, but not terribly influential on international affairs. The reason is that we do not generalize from our friends, but tend to think of them as people, as individuals. The result is that if our general thinking about their group is unfavorable, we think of our friends as “exceptions”—for example, the familiar case of the nice Jew who is an “exception.” Rather it is our general thinking about “the British” or “the Russians” that is determinative in our relationships with their groups. Thus the distinct drop that occurred in this field of thought was a truly unhappy consequence, and tended to undo a great deal of the good work that the close camp relationships had achieved.
Oh yes, I must add one rather humorous side of this whole business. In the later stages of the battle, when the mammoth amounts of goods that had arrived had been gone over, it was discovered that among the great piles of clothing and shoes were a couple of hundred boots from the South African Red Cross. Now it happened that in the camp the total number of persons who could claim genuine South African citizenship was two. One of them, quite a humorous bloke who was no one to miss an opportunity that good precedents might afford him, announced that he and his fellow countrywoman were keeping all the boots—they would wear each pair three days a year to save wear and tear. I was not particularly surprised, but a bit disappointed to note that most of the Americans could not see the joke.
One of the most serious problems that faced those of us in administrative positions during the last half year of camp, was the obvious decline in community morale or spirit that seemed to be taking place. To myself, as manager of a kitchen, and to Mark, as labor committeeman, this moral disintegration showed itself in that it was increasingly difficult to find honest men to fill responsible positions (butchers, cooks, etc.), and in a whispering campaign of ever-greater volume to the effect that supplies were being stolen more and more from the kitchen. We would try to track these whispers down, would find their source and would ask this person, who was “outraged that the management was taking no action,” to come with us, with their facts, to the Discipline Committee. Almost invariably, however, the answer was: “Do you think I will get myself mixed up in a political trial as an informer—no thank you! But it is scandalous that you don’t do something to stop it!”
There was little doubt that an increasing amount of supplies were being taken by some of the individuals who had access to them. And really there was little wonder—these men who were hungry, who knew their children were hungry, and who desperately needed fuel for their small hand-built stoves, were naturally tremendously tempted to take the meat, the flour or the coal with which they worked. Nevertheless, however sympathetic one might be to the temptations involved, this stealing was developing into a basically serious problem. Not only was it acutely embarrassing to a manager, responsible for all the food being served and who had to stand all the accusations that poured forth from hungry diners, that food was being taken from his kitchen, but also it actually meant less food for the people, which was serious. Most of all, however, was the fact that such a moral disintegration would have the tendency to spread, and that would be fatal to the whole civilization the camp had managed to set up. In other words, if enough workers started stealing, the utilities could no longer function as community projects, and then heaven knows what would happen to the camp! This situation fortunately never arose—I suspect because the war ended when it did. But nevertheless such a situation was clearly developing and had us very much worried.
What was done about it? The Japanese controlled all the force in the camp (guns, jail, etc.), so really all our internee government had was moral pressure. And it soon became obvious that, whatever “liberals” say, “the moral power of public opinion” was as futile in our community as in the international world. If a man was “posted” on the bulletin boards for stealing, he and his friends would merely laugh—why should he care if the “stuffy, respectable hypocrites” thought him wicked? Then the Committee tried to change the constitution, to give themselves the power to take away a person’s “Comfort Money” (a monthly allowance from the Swiss) if he were caught stealing. This was an obvious move for the good of the community, for it would put “teeth” into the toothless, worn and useless jaws of the Discipline Committee. And yet, believe it or not, this amendment was voted down by the community. More than anything else the defeat of this amendment pointed to the moral disintegration of the community, for it showed clearly that now most people regarded themselves as potential, if not actual, scroungers rather than as responsible members of the community—thus they wanted no strong law which might punish them if they should steal and get caught. Also this defeat indicated that it was politically impossible to suggest that the rations of a “scrounger” be taken away. If the community would not allow the Committee to deprive a convicted scrounger of a measly monthly financial allowance, they would certainly not sanction the reduction of his rations. All of this, however, lit up a striking truth about any community living: namely, that the power of the constitution, the law, or the government of a community is directly proportional to the amount of community responsibility and group feeling that exists there. Coming out of camp, it is interesting to note that many sensible people really feel that a world government can create a world community—in camp we found the cause and effect relationship just reversed; there a declining sense of community responsibility and feeling rendered our constitution and our government almost useless as a force for law and order.
In considering what on earth to do to prevent this scrounging, we thought at one point of a police force. But we quickly realized that such a notion would provide no real solution to our problem, because the men on that force would inevitably include some of the men whom we felt might have to be watched. If there were enough “honest” men for a useful force, why not make those men the butchers, cooks, etc.? If there were not enough such men, then the police would of course be useless; someone would then have to watch the watchers. Thus we came to the conclusion that ultimately the civilization of our community depended solely on the character of the people in it. If the community is spiritually sound, then there will be enough responsible people to fill the important posts. If, however, the community is spiritually unsound, then, as we could see all too clearly, there is no path that that community can take to keep itself from a hopeless anarchy.
Langdon Brown Gilkey (1919 – 2004) was teaching English in China when the Japanese imprisoned him at Weixian Internment Camp from 1943 to 1945. He then studied under Reinhold Niebuhr at Columbia University. He was then a professor at Vassar College from 1951 to 1954, and then at Vanderbilt Divinity School from 1954 to 1963, and at the University of Chicago Divinity School from 1963 to 1989. After his retirement, he continued to lecture at the University of Virginia and Georgetown University until 2001. His books include Shantung Compound: The Story of Men and Women Under Pressure (1966), On Niebuhr: A Theological Study (2002), and Reaping the Whirlwind: A Christian Interpretation of History (1976).