The earliest appearance of the term concentration camp recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary occurred in 1901, during the Second Boer War. British troops in South Africa held 100,000 Boer civilians in guarded compounds without adequate sanitation, medical care, and food. By the end of hostilities, in 1902, more than 25,000 Boer detainees, most of them children, had died of starvation, disease, or exposure. The most infamous concentration camps, however, were operated by Germany during World War II. Millions of Jews, Roma, homosexuals, and other “undesirables” were herded into Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and other inhospitable sites. Though they differed from extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibór, and Treblinka, whose sole purpose was to liquidate new arrivals, concentration camps, where inmates were routinely starved and tortured, had a high enough mortality rate that no one could confuse them with spas.
Though the United States never operated extermination camps, from 1942-46, more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were uprooted from their homes, transported long distances, and housed in Spartan facilities called “relocation camps.” “Concentration camp” is itself linguistic camouflage for a prison that incarcerates people without trial solely because of group identity, and the Japanese inmates — as well as hundreds of German and Italian descent — were involuntary residents of compounds less pleasant than summer camp. “They were concentration camps,” Harry Truman admitted in 1961. “They called it relocation, but they put them in concentration camps, and I was against it. We were in a period of emergency, but it was still the wrong thing to do.”
The wrong thing was done on every occasion recounted by James L. Dickerson in his heartbreaking survey of concentration camps in the United States.
Though Inside America’s Concentration Camps is subtitled Two Centuries of Internment and Torture, Dickerson focuses on injustices committed during the fifth decade of the 20th century, when the attack on Pearl Harbor triggered fears of a “yellow peril.” In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which authorized the exclusion from the West and East coasts resident aliens as well as citizens whose ancestry happened to be Japanese, German, or Italian. Dickerson does begin the book with a glance at the sad history of excluding indigenous people from their own tribal lands. And he concludes with a brief discussion of contemporary abuse of undocumented immigrants and suspected terrorists that flouts the principle of habeas corpus and the prohibition against cruel and inhuman punishment. But nowhere does he mention the use of Fort Douglas, Utah, and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, to inter Germans during World War I, or the roundup of hundreds of leftists during the notorious Palmer raids, or the use of concentration camps by American invaders to pacify the population of the Philippines. His book, which awkwardly weaves in references to Dickerson’s own family history of enlightenment and bigotry, is disjointed and incomplete. But it is also a chilling reminder of how easy it is even here for fear and ignorance to triumph over decency.
Branding the evil it documents as an Old World import, the book begins with the moot assertion that: “Concentration camps are not indigenous to America. Neither is government-sanctioned torture.” However, even before European barbarism came to America, ritual torture and sacrifice were practiced among Aztecs and Mayans. Dickerson argues that expulsion of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole from the Southeast served the interests of the white settlers’ slave economy, and he recounts “the largest instance of ethnic cleansing in American history,” the 1,200-mile forced march to Oklahoma known as the Trail of Tears. Yet he is silent about confinement of the Nez Perce, Lakota, and other tribes to bleak terrains called reservations that must have seemed like concentration camps.
The most moving chapters offer testimony, culled mostly from first-person memoirs, to the hardships imposed on loyal Japanese Americans in primitive barracks far from home. The book also recounts the plight of 3,000 Jews snatched from Nazi clutches but then forced for years to languish at Fort Ontario, New York.
Dickerson’s review of post-9/11 abuses makes little reference to the practice of outsourcing incarceration and torture through extraordinary rendition. Roundups and detentions by the United States government are not necessarily more heinous than the expulsion of Armenians from Turkey, the Soviet deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia, and the creation of tribal “homelands” in apartheid South Africa. But we ought to expect better from a nation pledged to freedom and justice for all. •
Inside America’s Concentration Camps: Two Centuries of Internment and Torture
by James L. Dickerson
Lawrence Hill Books
$24.95, 312 pages (hardcover)