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An apology for Alcatraz

5.6. 2019 Written By: Duane Stoltzfus 5,539 Times read

Photo: Stairs leading down to the basement known as “the hole” in the cell house at Alcatraz. Photo by Duane Stoltzfus.

The most powerful nation in the world rarely summons the will to say sorry. An apology from the United States, if it happens at all, can be decades, even centuries, in the making.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which included a formal apology to 120,000 Japanese-Americans who lost homes and belongings when they were imprisoned in camps in the 1940s. Each survivor received $20,000 in compensation.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton apologized for the Tuskegee Experiment, a 40-year-long series of unethical medical studies involving hundreds of black men with syphilis.

Only in 2008 did the U.S. House of Representatives apologize for arguably the most shameful chapter in the nation’s history, the institution of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that ensured ongoing discrimination. All subsequent apologies pale in comparison, but they can still be of value.

The nation’s automatic response, of course, is to move on in the face of failings. But this reluctance to revisit the past and to acknowledge wrongdoing represents not just a moral shortcoming but also a lost opportunity to learn from history. The nation displays its strength, not weakness, in that reckoning.

The Hutterites, Christian cousins of the Mennonites whose members are best known for their plain dress, large farms and commitment to a common purse through which property is communally owned, as modeled in the book of Acts, quietly keep alive a story of injustice from the Great War. As we near the end of wartime commemorations, the month of April invites a belated acknowledgment, if not apology.

In 1918, the federal government summoned four young Hutterite farmers from the Rockport Colony in South Dakota to report to Camp Lewis in Washington State. Three of the men were brothers, David, Joseph and Michael Hofer; the fourth, Jacob Wipf, was a brother-in-law of Joseph. They were to train as soldiers.

As Christians who believed in following the way of Jesus, showing love even to their enemies, the four Hutterites would not put on uniforms or drill or do work of any kind. Within hours, they were locked up in Guardhouse No. 54. Within weeks, they had been sentenced to 20 years of hard labor, to be served at Alcatraz.

On the island, the men once again refused to lift a broom or a shovel, believing that to do so would contribute, however indirectly, to the war effort. They received bread and water and solitary confinement in the place known as “the hole,” a dungeon as wet as it was dark. During the day they were strung up by their wrists to the cell doors, a form of torture known as high cuffing. David Hofer wrote home: “We all do not expect to see each other in this world anymore.”

It was not supposed to turn out this way. The Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf were among 504 conscientious objectors who were court-martialed during the war (all but one were convicted). President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker reasoned that every American should contribute to the war and that the conscientious objectors could be persuaded to put aside religious scruples and do their part, as soldiers, even if they did not go into combat.

But the Hutterites could not be reasoned with when they arrived at Camp Lewis in May 1918. They could not be reasoned with when they entered the cell house at Alcatraz in July. They could not be reasoned with when they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth after the armistice in November.

Within days, two of the brothers, Joseph and Michael, died in prison at Fort Leavenworth (officially, of influenza; the Hutterites all along believed mistreatment was the cause, as they indirectly conveyed by placing the word “martyr” on the grave markers of the Hofer brothers). David Hofer accompanied the bodies of his brothers home to the colony. One hundred years ago this April, Jacob Wipf was released from prison, free to return to South Dakota for spring planting.

The time has come to issue an apology to the Hutterites and other conscientious objectors for their suffering during the war and for the failure of the federal government to stand by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom to practice religion and the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel punishment.

Acknowledging this wrongdoing does not in any way diminish a recognition of the sacrifices or the suffering of others, including young men from towns near the Rockport Colony who went overseas to fight and never returned. War does not come to us as a zero-sum proposition.

By World War II, the nation’s leaders knew there was a better way. Hutterites and other conscientious objectors could report to civilian camps run by the Brethren, Mennonites and Quakers and there do work of national importance. Instead of being sent to prison for failure to obey orders, thousands of men fought forest fires, served in mental hospitals and built dams.

For the price of a tour ticket to Alcatraz Island, which is now a national park destination, the government could install a plaque that remembers all the conscientious objectors, including the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf, who caused no injury and raised no protest.

They were imprisoned because, like the Quakers, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, they believed “more than some of us in the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Duane Stoltzfus is a professor at Goshen College, Indiana, and the author of Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War.

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