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  • At Home on the Range:Cowboy Culture, Indians, and the Assimilation of Enemy Children in the Cold War Borderlands
  • Jonna Perrillo (bio)

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Figure 1.

Scientist Ernst Seiler with sons Klaus and Bernd at their barracks on the boys' first day in El Paso, 1948. Courtesy of Bernd Seiler.

One winter afternoon in 1946, Alicia Swann, an elementary school principal in El Paso, received an unusual phone call. Lois Godfrey, the American military liaison for the families of Nazi scientists relocated to nearby Fort Bliss, called Swann to ask if Crockett Elementary might accept some of the ninety school-aged children who would arrive in El Paso that spring. A year earlier, in one of the first acts of the Cold War, the US Army had launched Operation Paperclip, recruiting 118 scientists and technicians who designed the V-2 missile for the Third Reich to build an American missile program. The scientists' wives and children were now beginning to arrive, and Swann was faced with a difficult decision. Could she "consent to let German children—enemy children—come through the door?" She decided that she [End Page 945] could. Within months of the children's arrival, Swann found her instincts had been right. By her measure, the Paperclip children fit in easily, learned English quickly, and possessed "no class barriers" from the school's other students. At Crockett and in their intensive English-language classes at Fort Bliss, the children learned to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing "The Eyes of Texas." When asked how she reconciled the fact that the children's fathers had worked for Adolf Hitler, Swann responded, "I cannot concern myself with whatever [the parents] are or have been. It is with the children that I rest my hopes. … In spirit and in thinking they are American, for they have a happiness here they have never known before." Crockett's embrace of the German children, she argued, was simply American. To exemplify the students' easy assimilation, Swann pointed to the example of Peter Lange. In class, another student had referred to him as "our German boy." Lange corrected him, explaining that he was no longer German but just another "Davy Crockett." To Swann, Lange's story illustrated that the Paperclip students were like any American children, in their values and their imaginations.1 Still, the transformation was not predestined. Instead, Lange's choice to figure himself in the mold of the frontiersman, Texan migrant, and Alamo martyr for whom his school was named underscores the purposeful role that schools like Swann's played in upholding western heroes as models of patriotism.

Swann's story points to what this essay is about: the ways in which romanticized narratives of the western frontier served to socialize "enemy" children in American Cold War values at the same time they aligned the children with Anglo America. Examining the importance of frontier myths in assimilating children born in Nazi Germany reminds us that such narratives can be geographically specific and transnationally relevant at once. In this case, western myths spoke to deep structural analogues in German and American histories, even as individual events and the space of time over which they took place differed.2 Reflecting on his social studies education, former Paperclip child Henry Tschinkel concluded that the history he studied in Germany during the war was, in its cultural and nationalist goals, much like "what Crockett taught me about Texas history. … The Alamo, David Crockett the good hero, Santa Ana the bad Mexican guy, the heroic separation of Texas from Mexico."3 Tschinkel and other Paperclip children experienced these stories as both individual history lessons and a broader means of teaching citizenship shared by two nations that, at different times, aggressively sought to create a new geopolitical order. Yet the use of Mexico as a trope in social studies instruction (not unlike the role of the Indian, to promote the heroism of Anglos like Crockett) reflects borderland [End Page 946] educators' specific, often regionally inflected choices in teaching narratives of nation formation. Secondarily, then, this story compels us to consider how teachers and schools participated in creating, not just disseminating, nationalist ideology...


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pp. 945-967
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