On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing military personnel to lock Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps that are often euphemistically called “internment camps.”
To this day, some apologists for the internment camps — and the harsh measures carried out by the Roosevelt administration — contend that the term "concentration camp" is needlessly provocative and makes the Japanese confinement took worse than it was.
Yet, the term "concentration camp" is not a pejorative term. Using the term to describe the camps for Japanese-Americans is both appropriate and properly descriptive.
Nowadays, many people rightly are repulsed by the idea of concentration camps because they have become closely associated with the Nazi concentration camps which were often also extermination camps. Historically speaking, however, the term has not implied that the purpose of the camps in question are necessarily to carry out purposes of mass murder.
This is no doubt partly why Chief Justice John Roberts officially referred to the Japanese camps as concentration camps last year when Roberts wrote: "The forcible relocation of U. S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful and outside the scope of Presidential authority."
Roberts is surely aware that the camps for Japanese-Americans were dissimilar to Nazi camps in a variety of ways. Yet, he still employed the term "concentration camp."
After all, the term — and the concept — both predate World War II by decades. The term was first used to describe camps used by the Spanish government against dissidents in the late nineteenth century. The term was then later used to describe camps used by the British Empire during the Boer War.
In both cases, these camps were unsanitary places where food was scarce. Disease spread easily. But, in both cases, it does not appear those who created camps intended to murder large numbers of women and children — as was the case with the Nazi camps. In the case of the German camps, for example, many witnesses reported seeing large numbers of potential camp residents executed on arrival. This alone would distinguish them from other types of deadly camps where death was usually the result of disease and malnourishment.
Moreover, in the Spanish and British cases, it appears the deadly conditions were often due primarily to a lack of funding and a lack of effort on the part of officials to keep the camp residents well supplied. Extermination need not have been a true motivation.
In the case of the Japanese camps in the United States, the residents benefited from a general and relative abundance of food which the United States in general enjoyed during the Second World War. Moreover, after 1941, at no time was the US losing the war in any meaningful sense. The US always enjoyed an advantage in terms of industrial capacity, and the physical security of the continental United States. This reduced the incentive to carry out reprisals against the camp's residents.
It's not a coincidence, for example, than many of the worst excesses against dissidents and "enemies of the state" in Nazi Germany took place after the devastating losses for the German regime at Stalingrad. As the war turned against the Germans, paranoia and internal revanchism increased, leading to an escalation of reprisals against all perceived domestic enemies.
The US did not experience a comparable situation.
So, while the American camps were relatively safe and healthy, it would be unwise to attribute to assumed American generosity. The fact is the US regime could afford to feed the residents while the general population more less forgot about them. Had the US experienced something like Stalingrad, the Roosevelt Administration — which was not above prosecuting peaceful Americans under the Espionage Act — may have turned to harsher measures against interned populations.
As it turned out, the American camps were decided non-deadly by historical standards up to that time. This, of course, did not protect the residents from the effects of confinement. Most residents lost their businesses and property since they were unable to pay rent or make mortgage payments during internment.