Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Term “Concentration Camp” in Historical Perspective
The Term “Concentration Camp” in Historical Perspective

The Term “Concentration Camp” in Historical Perspective

On June 17, in the midst of an Instagram live discussion, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) stated “The United States is running concentration camps on our southern border and that is exactly what they are…they are concentration camps…‘Never Again’ means something…we need to do something about it.” Whether intentional or not, the statement triggered a firestorm of criticism from a variety of sources, ranging from right-wing political commentators to Holocaust survivors. In particular, Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) waded into the fray, tweeting “Please…do us all a favor and spend just a few minutes learning some actual history. 6 million Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. You demean their memory and disgrace yourself with comments like this.” Ocasio-Cortez doubled down on her statement in the face of the opposition, claiming two days later “These camps…fit squarely in an academic consensus and definition,” keeping the controversy active and further fueling the expanding public debate. She was also careful to differentiate between the much broader term “concentration camps” and the narrower term “death camps.”

On the face of things, Ocasio-Cortez is technically correct, in that the camps housing thousands of migrants, primarily from Latin America, do involve the concentration of specific elements of the population into a single space. However, while technicalities may be important for the legislature or a court of law, they are not particularly useful or advisable when attempting to sway listeners in the court of public opinion. It was almost perfectly calculated to inflame members of opposing political groups, but it also marred the debate over the conditions in the migrant camps, which by all accounts are horrific and getting worse, having recently been compared by a medical doctor to “torture facilities.” The inflammatory rhetoric has almost certainly done nothing to convince neutral listeners of the veracity of Ocasio-Cortez’s position on the matter, and has distracted from the burgeoning humanitarian crisis in the process, making the use of such language counterproductive to the ultimate goal of improving the conditions faced by asylum-seekers at the southern border.

On June 24, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) offered her support for Ocasio-Cortez’s position, stating “When you look at what is taking place, people are being put into camps. And when you think about the definition, if we separate it from death camps, I would say these are camps and people are being concentrated in them. And so that’s the general definition.” Of course, Omar’s call to separate the term concentration camp from that of death camp strikes to the heart of the matter—for many, the two terms have become irrevocably intertwined, such that any reference to the former immediately evokes images of the horrors of the Holocaust perpetuated by Nazi Germany—and as such, the decision to utilize the term and invoke the imagery of the largest genocidal event in human history at best undermines the argument being made. At worst, casually using such terms perpetuates the disturbing trend of minimizing the Holocaust by effectively making it one example among many of human rights abuses, rather than the ultimate example of genocidal atrocity conducted by a nation-state.

Concentration Camp: A History of the Term

A historical examination of the term “concentration camp,” as well as an analysis of analogous systems of controlling large groups, is in order. Most historians trace the origins of the term to the Spanish reconcentrado policy, enacted during the Cuban insurrection of the 1890s. Hoping to curtail the rebellion faced by the Spanish government (and in the process save the remnants of a failing colonial empire), Spanish military governors attempted to force the native Cuban population into small concentration zones. Ostensibly, this might serve to protect the citizenry from guerrilla attacks—while also allowing the Spanish to disarm and control them. In practice, it fueled the insurgency, and horrified American onlookers who learned of the camps through the slanted press coverage offered through major U.S. newspapers.

Despite American protests of the Cuban reconcentrado system, the United States hardly had a clean record when it came to curtailing the movements of large populations. In particular, the creation of Native American “reservations,” allegedly to allow the various tribes to continue their traditional ways of life but in practice as a means of depriving them of ancestral territories, proved an effective mechanism to enforce a deliberate separation between expanding white populations and native inhabitants of the interior. As the western frontier pushed inexorably forward, the territories designated as reservations became increasingly congested, with members of unrelated tribes, sometimes with centuries-long feuds, expected to live in harmony despite curtailed access to the necessary resources for survival. On dozens of occasions, tribes were effectively forced to live in winter encampments adjacent to military fortifications as their only means of survival, dependent entirely upon the federal government for food and other supplies. Yet, the term “concentration camp” is not applied to Native American reservations or temporary camps, regardless of whether they served the same function, in part because to do so would minimize and generalize the injustices of both systems.

Interestingly, the federal government created a similar system for thousands of its own troops during the Civil War. After the early battles of 1861 and 1862, the Confederate States Army held a surplus of prisoners of war from the Union Army. Under a cartel signed on July 22, 1862, the two sides agreed to exchange prisoners on a rank-for-rank and man-for-man basis, with the remainder of the prisoners released to their home governments on parole, not to participate in hostilities until duly exchanged. Union authorities feared that sending such paroled men home on furloughs would lead to mass desertions, as they would not return to their regiments upon being notified of their exchange. Thus, the War Department created Camp Parole, Maryland, a massive compound housing thousands of Union troops awaiting exchange. The men were effectively treated as prisoners of war, held by their own government, with armed guards patrolling the perimeter of the camp and extremely unsanitary conditions prevalent within the stockade. Hundreds of soldiers escaped the compound and deserted from the Army, many after the fact claiming they did so out of a fear that they would not survive very long inside the camp.

During World War II, the federal government chose to force Japanese-Americans into internment camps, under the guise of proving their loyalty to the nation and preventing sabotage by any enemy agents that might hide among them. The decision to create such camps was based upon racial prejudices, unfounded fears, and an unscrupulous desire to demonstrate resolve to “do something” in a period of national unrest. The lessons of the internment camps serve as a stark reminder of the importance of maintaining the constitutional protections of all citizens, and not short-circuiting the justice system for the sake of expediency. They remain a stain on national honor, despite President Ronald Reagan’s formal apology in 1988, accompanied by reparations for the survivors of the camp.

After World War II ended in Europe, millions of German citizens were temporarily housed in “displaced persons” camps. These camps provided the most basic survival requirements, although they effectively functioned as massive holding pens for men of military age. The camps’ terminology stemmed from an inability to uphold the requirements of the Geneva Convention of 1929, due to the enormous logistical burden of feeding and maintaining the enormous numbers. Gradually, Allied military officials began releasing the inhabitants from the camps, to make their own way back home once it was certain that resistance to Allied occupation had ceased. These releases, which began with the oldest and youngest inhabitants of the camp compounds (who represented the least threat to Allied forces), were reported as “other losses” on the camp monthly reports, primarily because the supplied forms had limited space and were printed well in advance of the creation of the camps. James Bacque later argued that the millions of “other losses” represented a systematic attempt to starve more than one million German soldiers—a claim thoroughly debunked but still resonating in some circles.

In the Cold War era, the United States utilized what might be considered concentration camps on at least two occasions, both during wartime. During the Korean War, UN forces under American leadership captured more than 150,000 communist prisoners from North Korea and the People’s Republic of China, and placed them in massive open-air compounds on the islands of Koje-do and Cheju-do. These camps soon became an ideological battleground, with political officers organizing resistance, prisoners improvising weapons, and on one occasion, a successful attempt to capture the camp commandant, Brigadier General Francis Dodd. Unsurprisingly, the UN guard personnel reacted with overwhelming force, transferring the prisoners to a series of more secure compounds and bulldozing the original sites.

The American-led coalition of troops fighting the Vietnam War attempted a variety of counterinsurgency strategies, most predicated on the notion that controlling the population was the most important step of quelling an insurgency. To that end, the U.S. military worked with the South Vietnamese government to create the Strategic Hamlet Program. The concept of operations was to build thousands of fortified camps, to be protected by fixed installations and a small self-defense force that would also serve to police the inhabitants and track their movements. Every South Vietnamese citizen loyal to the government would be expected to reside inside one of the hamlets, with the areas outside the fortifications considered a free-fire zone occupied by guerrillas. More than 3,000 such hamlets were built, and they created an unprecedented degree of control over the population for the government, which tended to rule with a very heavy hand. Although never referred to as “concentration camps,” the strategic hamlets fit the same definition that has emerged during the current debate, as they served to consolidate a large population into a small area for the convenience of law enforcement and military authorities.

Are Migrant Camps Concentration Camps?

The camps that have been established for migrants moving into the United States and requesting asylum certainly resemble the traditional concept of concentration camps—they are fixed points with a large number of inhabitants that are established to allow the government to maintain a watchful eye over the residents. That said, when the term “concentration camp” is used, it often implies that the individuals within said camp are placed there due to being members of a specific, identifiable group on the basis of race or religion, rather than on the basis of activity. The inhabitants of the current camp system are in the United States because they voluntarily chose to cross the border and seek asylum, not because they are of Latino heritage. That is not to suggest that the conditions in the camp are acceptable, or that the United States government should be in the business of creating such camps. However, unlike the traditional inhabitants of concentration camps, the current residents of the border camps have an inherent ability to leave the camp system, if they also consent to leave the United States—something that does not normally fit the traditional concept of concentration camps.

Further, the traditional use of concentration camps is to control one’s own population, or the population of an occupied territory in wartime. The term usually does not apply to efforts to stem the flood of migration across international borders—it has been far more common in the past for national governments that seek to deter immigration to simply use force, up to and including the killing of migrants, as a means to prevent the arrival of significant numbers. Because the U.S. government is unwilling to utilize military force to effectively close its borders, it is put in a situation of needing to house and feed hundreds of thousands of migrants on an emergency basis while formulating an individual response to each request for asylum.

If anything, the camp system along the southern border illustrates the fundamental problems that emerge when a large organization, such as the federal government, attempts to improvise a solution to an immediate crisis (the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers per month) without dealing with the much larger problems triggering the crisis in the first place. Similar attempts to create short-term solutions to long-term problems have created similar results in the past—one needs only spend a few hours at Andersonville National Historic Site to comprehend the worst-case scenarios that can emerge under such circumstances.

Symbolism, Imagery, and the Need to Retire Terms

All of the participants in the current debate would do well to remember that some terms and symbols are so fraught with meaning, whether fair or not, that they effectively undermine an argument when they are used. In most cases, those terms have become so entrenched in the minds of the citizenry that attempts to reclaim them are futile. In particular, any term that might be associated with Nazi Germany, rightly or wrongly, can create significant confusion and distract from an intended argument. The swastika emblem adopted by the Nazis had been used for thousands of years by a wide variety of religious faiths—but even symbols that are similar are now typically mistaken for Nazi sympathies. The same is true for the use of loaded terms such as “concentration camp,” even when the usage is technically correct, the vast majority of listeners are unlikely to know the history of the term, or parse out the different contexts in which it might have been applied. By using such a phrase, Representative Ocasio-Cortez triggered a massive argument that distracts from the fundamental problems at hand—and both sides seem more interested in scoring cheap political points in the public debate than in addressing the very real challenges presented by economic disparity,  border security, and the mass migration of millions of people into the United States.

Perhaps some terms should simply be retired by common consensus, because they have become irreversibly associated with a specific time, action, or figure. If so, “concentration camp” certainly qualifies as a term that needs to be left on the shelf, because attempting to educate the population as a means to reclaim the term is a monumental and likely fruitless task. Refusing to stop using such terms, even in their technically correct fashion, is at best tone-deaf, and often an indicator of a desire to inflame rather than inform. Neither side of this debate has come out looking good, but both sides seem more determined to sully one another than to address the true issues at hand.