This isn’t the first time concentration camps have appeared on American soil

The past few days have seen a firestorm of debate and criticism over whether to describe migrant detention centers along America’s southern borders as “concentration camps,” but the debate is missing a key point: the U.S. has operated concentration camps several times before.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) touched off the debate on Monday, saying on Instagram that “the fact that concentration camps are now an institutionalized practice in the home of the free is extraordinarily disturbing, and we need to do something about it.” Ocasio-Cortez has since stood by her remarks, tweeting Wednesday that she “will never apologize for calling these camps what they are.”

To be sure, the camps currently in the U.S. remain qualitatively different from the extermination camps seen during the Holocaust in places like Dachau or Auschwitz. They also remain far cries from those experienced by Boers in South Africa, which saw tens of thousands die in British concentration camps, or Cubans under Spanish rule, where hundreds of thousands perished. The American camps are also different from the camps currently seen in western China, where at least a million Chinese citizens are being held against their wills simply for being Muslim, without any public information on how many have already died.

Still, the camps along America’s southern border do fit technical descriptions of concentration camps, insofar as they’re meant to separate specific civilians in camps apart from broader populations — all while being held in rapidly deteriorating conditions.

As Esquire wrote:

So far, 24 people have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Trump administration, while six children have died in the care of other agencies since September…  For a period, Border Patrol tried housing migrants in cage under a nearby bridge. It was ultimately scrapped amid public outcry. When migrants and asylum-seekers are transferred to ICE, things can get worse. Queer and trans migrants face exceptionally harsh treatment, with reports of high levels of physical and sexual abuse, and the use of solitary confinementconsidered torture by many psychologists — is widespread.

As currently constructed, the camps clearly fit into this country’s lengthy history of establishing concentration camps on U.S. soil. Even beyond reservations and designated enclaves for Native Americans, concentration camps are part of America’s rap sheet, and in many cases, those previous American camps were openly described by American officials and leaders as “concentration camps.”

The Philippines

The first series of American concentration camps arose shortly after the Spanish pioneered the practice in Cuba, a heinous policy that, somewhat ironically, helped build public American support for the Spanish-American War. Following the swift American victory in that war, the U.S. annexed Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, and American officials turned to the policy of “reconcentration” in order to stamp out independence efforts among the newly-acquired territories.

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The most notorious, and most visceral, example of the Americans reprising Spanish policy came in the Philippines, where America built concentration camps. Following the country’s formal annexation of the islands, and the realization among many Filipino leaders that the Americans would not grant the Philippines independence anytime soon, pro-independence guerrilla movements broke out across the American territory. American authorities resorted to the most loathsome policies they could think of to tamp down the rebellion.

The war was monstrous: According to In Our Image, widely considered the best book on America’s relationship with the Philippines, the “most careful study” of the American-Filipino War found that “about 775,000 Filipinos died because of the war.” Americans also tortured Filipinos.

The Americans eventually proved victorious, of course, thanks in no small part to what Secretary of War Elihu Root described as “concentration camps.” In one 1902 letter, penned toward the end of the Filipino resistance movement, Root wrote that “guerrilla warfare” in certain Filipino regions “had been ended, the authority of the United States has been asserted,” and he pointed directly to the policy of placing locals in “camps of concentration” as a reason for the American success.

Later in the letter, Root continued:

The War Department has not disapproved or interfered in any way with the orders giving effect to this policy; but has aided in their enforcement by directing an increase of food supply to the Philippines for the purpose of caring for the natives in the concentration camps.

It’s unclear how many Filipinos the Americans forced into these camps, though estimates ran into the hundreds of thousands, according to One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps. It’s also unclear how many died in the camps — or how many were killed as a direct result of not moving into the camps, such as when an American brigadier general ordered that all Filipino boys over the age of 10 who were outside the camp should be shot on sight.

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But the the policy, at least at the time, appeared wildly popular among certain segments of the American public. The “reconcentration” policy was, as one pro-U.S. newspaper enthused, “the most effective thing of its kind ever seen in these islands under any flag.”

The “most careful study” of the American-Filipino War — of America’s occupation and annexation — found that “about 775,000 Filipinos died because of the war.”

Details of the policy, though, soon broke into the wider American discourse. One American lieutenant testified, for instance, that he saw “hamlets, small towns of fifty or sixty houses, burned by the American soldiers… I think the idea was at that time that the burning of these villages would drive the people to the woods or to the towns — a policy of concentration, I think.” He then compared this directly to the precedent of Spanish concentration camps in Cuba, which had already resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cubans. 

As another U.S. Army officer said upon witnessing one of the American concentration camps, “It seems way out of the world without a sight of the sea—in fact, more like some suburb of hell.”

The American “reconcentration” policy didn’t last long, and ended with the formal end of the Filipino-American War in 1902. However, those responsible for crafting the policy didn’t need to worry about any blowback at home. Instead of any lasting punishment, one of the primary architects of the American concentration camp policy in the Philippines, J. Franklin Bell, would eventually become the chief of staff of the U.S. Army.

Japanese-American incarceration

While the American concentration camp system on the Philippines remained in newly-acquired American territories, the concentration camp system employed during WWII took place directly in a number of American states.

These camps housed some 110,000 American residents of Japanese descent for most of the duration of the Second World War. About two-thirds of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens, while the remainder were American residents ineligible for American citizenship due to the U.S.’s race-restricted citizenship policy of the time.

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While they’re known in modern parlance as internment camps, these camps clearly fit the definition of concentration camps: forcing individuals, stripped of Constitutional rights, unwillingly into camps on the basis of race or ethnicity. None of those incarcerated were ever found guilty of treason, espionage, or sabotage; as Eugene Rostow, former dean at Yale’s law school, once said, “One hundred thousand persons were sent to concentration camps on a record which wouldn’t support a conviction for stealing a dog.”

Moreover, these camps were described directly as concentration camps by those overseeing the policy. For instance, President Franklin Roosevelt — the man who signed the executive order establishing the camps — noted in 1944 that “many lawyers” disagreed with his policy of keeping Japanese-Americans “locked up in concentration camps.” Harry Truman, long after his presidency had ended, also echoed FDR, remembering the camps directly as “concentration camps.”

Added Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who served under both FDR and Truman:

Crowded into cars like cattle, these hapless people were hurried away to hastily constructed and thoroughly inadequate concentration camps, with soldiers with nervous muskets on guard, in the great American desert. We gave the fancy name of ‘relocation centers’ to these dust bowls, but they were concentration camps nonetheless.”

Some of the most racist officials across the American West, such as Idaho Attorney General Bert Miller, also described them freely as concentration camps. As Miller told then-Army officer Dwight Eisenhower, all Japanese-Americans should “be put in concentration camps, for the remainder of the war. We want to keep this a white man’s country.” Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith outdid Miller, stating that any Japanese-Americans who entered his state would promptly be “hanging from every tree.”

Even memorials surrounding the remains of these camps point to the fact that they were, despite their modern descriptions as “internment camps,” commonly known as concentration camps at the time. The memorial plaque at the remains of California’s Manzanar camp, perhaps the most well-known of the camps, describes the area as “the first of ten such concentration camps… bounded by barbed wire and guard towers, confining 10,000 persons.’

And outside the remains of the Tule Lake camp in northern California, a 1979 memorial notes that the camp “was one of ten American concentration camps established during World War II to incarcerate 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry, of whom the majority were American citizens.”

A memorial in Tule Lake describes the former camp as a "concentration camp," along with the other areas incarcerating Japanese-Americans during WWII. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

A memorial in Tule Lake describes the former camp as a “concentration camp,” along with the other areas incarcerating Japanese-Americans during WWII. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

That Tule Lake camp, of which only the barracks remain, was indicative of the kinds of policies pursued at these concentration camps scattered across the U.S. during the war. As the largest of the camps — American authorities forcibly held nearly 20,000 innocent people, mostly American citizens, at Tule Lake — the camp saw not only barbed wire hemming the perimeter, but also live machine guns placed in guard towers surrounding the prisoners. Tanks even patrolled the camp’s border.

As Michi Nishiura Weglyn, author of Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, wrote, the Tule Lake camp was “undoubtedly [the] most fortified city… in the Western Hemisphere” during WWII.

It was also, as Weglyn added, the most populous concentration camp on American soil, and would remain that way for decades — until the recent camps along America’s southern border began forcibly housing migrants from Central America, opening a new chapter in a century-long history of concentration camps on American soil.


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