Concentration Camps

The term “concentration camp” was originally used during the late 19th century in what is now modern-day South Africa. From 1889 to 1902, Britain fought the Afrikaner (Dutch descendants) population of the region with the goal of retaining new resource-rich territories and expanding their imperial might on the African continent. As part of a scorched earth policy, the British military created camps to house both African and Afrikaner noncombatants, mainly women and children, among whom up to 45,000 died in captivity. The idea of the concentration camp is perhaps most often associated with the German Nazi regime's systematic detention and mass extermination of European Jews and others between 1939 and 1945. Those concentration camps were really death camps. The term concentration camp, thus, refers to the forcible confinement of a group of people not for any civil offenses they committed but simply because of their race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth. The United States has not been immune to the development and utilization of concentration camps within its borders.

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 that enabled the forcible removal and detention of all Japanese Americans residing on the West Coast of the continental United States on the basis of race. In fact, in 1936, President Roosevelt called for “concentration camps” for Japanese Americans. The president used the term correctly. Between 1942 and 1945, approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were removed from their homes, taken to local “assembly” or “reception” centers and later confined in various “relocation” centers across the United States. In the wake of Pearl Harbor, and under the shadow of decades-long anti-Asian sentiment in North America, President Roosevelt and Lieutenant General John DeWitt took action to neutralize

the supposed threats that first and second generation Japanese Americans posed to the U.S. domestic front. Across the board, Japanese Americans were considered “aliens” and “enemies,” despite the fact that two-thirds were citizens and had pledged loyalty to the United States. In particular, Roosevelt and DeWitt argued that “military necessity” dictated that “relocation” and detention was prudent in order to forestall any possibility of espionage or further attack on the continental United States. However, this defensive rationale was supported by widespread racist beliefs in the basic inferiority and moral corruption of Japanese Americans, and there was no evidence of Japanese American disloyalty.

The U.S. government's design and implementation of the concentration camp system grew out of past federal efforts to relocate and segregate ethnic and racial minorities across the country. The civilian director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), Dillon Myer, worked as director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) after the war. Some relocation centers were located on or near BIA land. The forcible removal of American Indians, their confinement to reservations, and the BIA's “termination” policy under Myer are examples of federal acts of relocation, segregation, and assimilation. In addition, the democratic governing strategies and disciplinary security systems developed under the WRA would be used for decades to come, including in the establishment of detention camps for civil rights activists during the Cold War, and the present-day creation of detention centers supporting America's War on Terror, such as the numerous prisons for immigrants in the United States and the center at Guantanamo Bay.

The beauty of the mountains contrasts with the bleak barracks at Manzanar concentration camp. (Library of Congress)

The beauty of the mountains contrasts with the bleak barracks at Manzanar concentration camp. (Library of Congress)

WRA concentration camps were located across the country in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Along with those large-scale facilities, which ranged from a minimum of 7,500 acres to over 20,000 acres of land each, the national system also included a number of transitional centers that housed thousands of recently apprehended Japanese Americans in the process of permanent placement. These “assembly centers” were often located in reclaimed horse race tracks, fairgrounds, migrant workers' camps, and other large facilities and spanned the entire West Coast, including Puyallup in Washington, Portland in Oregon, Mayer in Arizona, as well as a number in California, namely Fresno, Marysville, Merced, Pinedale, Pomona, Sacramento, Salinas, Santa Anita, Stockton, Tanforan, Tulare, and Turlock.

Life in the concentration camps was dangerous, laborious, and generally de humanizing. Although evacuees lost hundreds of millions of dollars worth of property during the war, their loss of homes and livelihood was little punishment compared to the extreme sense of alienation, psychological trauma, and dislocation that characterized the experience of confinement. Traveling to concentration camps in unknown geographic locations, many evacuees feared for their life, making direct comparisons between the horrors they had heard of across the Atlantic and their own experiences. Upon arrival at the camps, the majority of which were in rugged, isolated landscapes, detainees were fingerprinted, medically examined, asked to swear loyalty to the United States, and accept the terms of forced labor at low wages. Individuals were housed in primitive accommodations in flimsy and uninsulated barracks made of tar-paper, pinewood, and celotex that offered little to no shelter from the harsh weather conditions and provided absolutely no privacy. High winds, dust, fire, and infectious disease were constant threats to the sustainability and quality of life of Japanese Americans in the camps. Communication and news from the outside world were limited and subject to search and surveillance. Initially fresh food and water were also hard to come by, but as internees began to forge community and organize democratic leadership these concerns would lessen.

Despite serious hardship and life-threatening conditions, Japanese Americans initiated systematic and well-organized efforts to maintain a “normal” life under a state of exception. This increased level of Japanese American participation in the daily life and upkeep of the concentration camps might be partly due to the more laissez-faire attitude of civilian bureaucrats who managed the day-to-day operations of the camps. Yet these improvements should be most duly credited to the perseverance and dedication of the Japanese Americans themselves, particularly those who organized crucial institutions in spite of the disciplinary and persecutory framework of confinement. Japanese Americans created hospitals, fire patrols, building crews, schools, theaters, farms and husbandry organizations, and other social groups that made camp life bearable. In one ironically poignant episode at Poston concentration camp in Arizona, residents slaughtered their own turkeys and decorated the barracks with hand-made cherry-blossom ornaments to celebrate Thanksgiving, all under the shadow of barbed wire and military guard posts.

The culture of the camps thus incorporated a paradoxical conformity to American patriotism and wartime ideology that existed in stark tension with the continuous presence of communal struggle and harrowing acts of self-determination. Faced with the foreclosure of those unalienable rights that are sanctified under the U.S. Constitution, many organized peaceful and sometimes actively defiant protest. Collective actions ranged from covert and habitual everyday activities to overt acts of civil disobedience. Many camps witnessed labor strikes and slow-downs. Generally, internees continued to observe cultural rituals and customs essential to Japanese American life when the WRA tried to assimilate Japanese Americans into majority, mainstream culture. And most dramatically, a number of Japanese American men resisted military conscription, refusing to take on this duty when so egregiously being denied those basic rights due to all other American citizens who were drafted to serve. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the history of America's concentration camps remains the Japanese Americans' palpable spirit of collectivism, which fueled widespread efforts of social and cultural resistance within the camps and later movements for redress.

Jenny M. James


Daniels, Roger. Concentration Camps: North America: Japanese in the United States and Canada during World War II. Malabar, Florida: Robert E. Krieger, 1981.

Dickerson, James L. Inside America's Concentration Camps: Two Centuries of Internment and Torture. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010.

Girdner, Audrie and Anne Loftis. The Great Betrayal: The Evacuation of the Japanese Americans during World War II. London: Macmillan, 1969.