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America's Concentration Camps

From the letters to the LA Times, 6/2/01:

I strenuously object to [writer Erika] Hayasaki's reference to the Japanese internment areas during the war as "concentration camps." They were not. And to refer to them as such diminishes the true horror of the real thing. It depreciates the lives of millions of humans who were slaughtered in them and discounts the thousands of Americans and others who were killed trying to liberate them. You cannot rewrite history by conveniently changing the description of events that happened only a generation ago.

Playa del Rey

A response from the letters to the LA Times, 6/9/01:

Though letter writer Ken Hirsch (Saturday Letters, June 2) is offended by the term "concentration camp" when applied to this country's World War II internment of its Japanese American citizens, Webster's nonetheless defines such a facility as "a camp where persons (as prisoners of war, political prisoners or refugees) are detained or confined."

To be sure, Hitler turned them into death camps as well; we did not. However, a day trip to Manzanar—with the remains of its barbed-wire fences and watchtowers (where Army personnel stood guard 24/7 with their rifles pointed in)—is sufficient to prove that 59-year-old euphemisms such as "relocation centers" and "internment camps" cannot whitewash their true purpose.

And if today's Japanese Americans are required to face down Pearl Harbor as an unavoidable fact of life, then the rest of us must be equally prepared to shoulder the legacy of a nation that called itself "The Arsenal of Democracy" at the same time it was stripping 120,000 blameless Americans of their homes, their property and every one of their civil rights.

Santa Monica

Hirsch repeats what is a rather widespread opinion that the term "concentration camp" should be reserved for the Nazi death camps. While this is emotionally appealing, it is not true to history, and historical accuracy should trump emotional peace.

The term dates back at least to the Boer War; in respect to the Japanese camps, the term predates Pearl Harbor itself.

To cite just a few examples: In October and November 1941, Curtis B. Munson, under instructions from President Roosevelt, gathered information on the loyalty of Japanese Americans and in his final report said that the first-generation Issei were "quite fearful of being put in a concentration camp."

On Dec. 30, 1943, Atty. Gen. Biddle told Roosevelt that "the present procedure of keeping loyal American citizens in concentration camps on the basis of race for longer than is absolutely necessary is dangerous and repugnant to the principles of our Government. It is also necessary to act now so that the agitation against these citizens does not continue after the war."

On Nov. 21, 1944, Roosevelt said in a press conference soon after his reelection that ". . . it is felt by a great many lawyers that under the Constitution they can't be kept locked up in concentration camps."

It is important to distinguish the nature of the Japanese American camps from that of the Nazi death camps, but it is even more important to accept what our wartime leaders actually said and did and to learn from it.


To reader Gail Frahm Perkins: We're not trying to "rewrite history," just get it more accurately portrayed. Instead of generating more hatred toward anyone of Japanese ancestry, perhaps some mention of the fact that during the time covered in the last third of "Pearl Harbor," not one act of sabotage or espionage was ever committed by Japanese Americans who were removed from the West Coast and had plenty of opportunity months after the attack, and that Japanese Americans in Hawaii were never detained because they were too essential and too busy rebuilding the American Navy, making possible Doolittle's raid.

Los Angeles

Comment:  As originally conceived, America's Indian reservations also fit Webster's definition of a concentration camp.

More on America's concentration camps
King, concentration camps, and Indians
Japanese interned with Indians

Related links
The Nazi-style WW II memorial

Readers respond
"[W]ithout a doubt, there NEVER WERE any 'concentration camps' in 19th century America with any Indians inside."

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