Despite its best efforts, the Trump Administration has sparked an intense interest in American history. The President’s assault on equality is so breathtaking that one of the few ways to make sense of it is to view it as product of long and well-established traditions. Many Americans have therefore reacted to the administration’s actions with a renewed look at the darker sides of their country’s past. Donald Trump’s response to the white supremacist march in Charlottesville last summer provoked a national discussion of the lasting legacy of racism and its embodiment in the nation’s many monuments to the Confederacy. The horrifying reports from Texas, where asylum seekers are arrested with no legal rights, have raised the specter of the notorious World War II–era detention of Japanese Americans.
But even as the government announced its plans to radically expand its brutality by building massive camps for indefinite arrests of asylum seekers, few have noted that there is a direct precedent. Americans ran such camps in Texas for Latin Americans during World War II, where thousands were illegally imprisoned, indefinitely detained with no legal rights until they were deported overseas. Largely forgotten today, this dark chapter in American history suggests that the tragedy unfolding in Texas is inseparable from the story of global warfare.
In 1940, even before the United States joined the war against the Axis powers, policymakers began to warn of imminent threats to the south. Numerous politicians and political scientists claimed that German and Japanese agents had organized an infiltration of Peru, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries. These enemy agents, it was said, were plotting coups and conspiring to launch an invasion of the United States. Franklin Roosevelt warned in repeated radio addresses that the Third Reich and the Japanese empire were erecting “beach heads” across South America. These anxieties were so pervasive that, in the same year, the White House contemplated dispatching hundreds of thousands of troops to Brazil in a preemptive strike against what it feared was a looming invasion.
Once the war reached the Western Hemisphere in December 1941, these fears started to shape formal policy. American officials were determined to suppress any potential subversion in Latin America, preferably with the cooperation of local governments. For this purpose, in January 1942, the United States helped found a new organ, the Emergency Advisory Committee for Political Defense, or CPD. Joined by twenty-one countries, from Canada in the north to Chile and Argentina in the south, the CPD would combat any activities that government officials deemed subversive, such as commerce with Axis countries or the publication of “questionable” newspapers. The CPD helped coordinate the sharing of intelligence and relevant legal procedures. A team of US legal experts, for example, helped Mexican and Brazilian officials draft regulations that curtailed the political activities of “dangerous” individuals and limited their right to travel.
But the United States wouldn’t stop at censorship and espionage. Within a few months of the CPD’s formation, its agents decided the enemy’s subversion was so dangerous that it could only be prevented through “preemptive” arrest. In the winter of 1942, American officials began to encourage and help local governments in numerous Latin American countries raid the houses of suspicious civilians. US intelligence agents provided police officials with names and logistical support, while State Department personnel helped skeptical politicians get over their opposition, mostly through generous economic loans. The thousands who were detained as a result were mostly sent to local military bases and denied access to legal representation or due process. Like the Japanese Americans whose arrest was unfolding at the same time, the detainees were targeted not so much based on anything they’d done (only a tiny minority was politically active), but due to their ethnic backgrounds: The vast majority were members of immigrant communities from Germany, Japan, and Italy.
CPD officials were well aware that many of these detainees did not pose a risk to security. They also knew that the officials in charge of the arrests were often motivated by racism or greed. (Internal reports mentioned policemen’s plans to take over the prisoners’ houses.) In one of the most grotesque consequences of this operation, the “dangerous aliens” arrested in Guatemala in 1942 included German-Jewish refugees who had recently fled the Third Reich. But in their eagerness to take action against foreign threats, American policymakers were unmoved by such tragedies. They accepted these incidents as collateral damage and sought, time and again, to enlarge the number of preemptive arrests.
The CPD’s campaign culminated in the creation of multiple concentration camps in the United States itself. American officials were convinced that they were better equipped to supervise and handle the Latin American detainees than their southern neighbors, some of whom had begun to complain about the high costs involved in holding them. In 1943, the CPD coordinated the deportation of eight thousand people from several Latin American countries to the United States. Forced onto crowded navy warships by Marine troops, they were shipped to San Francisco and New Orleans, where they were detained and processed by immigration officials. Most of the detainees were then sent to military bases in Texas, including Camp Seagoville, located a few dozen miles to the north of the Trump Administration’s proposed camps. They spent the war’s final years detained indefinitely without any charges brought against them, mostly working in local farms and factories. Unlike the asylum seekers held by CBP, these detainees enjoyed some modicum of decency. Camp authorities largely kept families together, provided basic schooling for children, and even allowed inmates to elect their own representatives, who organized cultural events. Still, because they were deemed enemy agents, most were deported at the war’s end alongside Axis POWs to Asia and Europe. Many of them would never see their homes again.
It was no accident that all these cruelties took place in the context of prolonged and brutal war. The pervasive fears over existential threats, the belief that foreign enemies were supported by internal subversion, and the sense that victory required the total destruction of our foes all fueled the conviction that “foreigners” were enemies and thus had no rights. The American concentration camps of the 1940s exemplified the logic of such war. Foreigners were guilty until proven otherwise.
This logic had a lineage and a name: “militant democracy,” a term first coined in 1935 by the political theorist Karl Loewenstein. A German-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, Loewenstein arrived in the United States convinced that totalitarian and democratic regimes could not coexist. It was the nature of fascists and communists, he wrote in widely read academic essays, to infiltrate democratic regimes, exploit their freedoms of the press and speech, and destroy them from within. Long before the first shots of World War II were fired, Loewenstein claimed that an existential struggle between democracy and its enemies was already engulfing the entire globe. To win, democracies had to reform themselves. They had to become “militant.”
The heart of militant democracy was the suspension of laws and rights. Because totalitarianism operated especially through subversion, Loewenstein wrote, democrats had to get over their “legalistic blindness” and recognize that “the mechanism of democracy is the Trojan horse by which the enemy enters the city.” Governments had to move aggressively to limit rights—preemptively—to those deemed dangerous. Freedom of movement, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion would all be suspended, and the crackdown enforced through the creation of new, anti-totalitarian secret police forces. For Loewenstein, loyalty to the state preceded any discussion of rights. Anyone who questioned political norms found themselves outside the sphere of the law. “Fire should be fought with fire,” he wrote in 1935.
Throughout the 1930s, Loewenstein’s ideas were largely confined to academia. But World War II propelled an otherwise fringe concept like militant democracy to the maintenance of American power. To anxious government officials, the writings of Loewenstein and scholars like him captured new wartime exigencies. They clarified why curbing—and even abolishing—rights did not undermine democratic freedom, but actually enhanced it. Theories like Loewenstein’s also linked external and internal threats and rendered them indistinguishable. Japanese American or Latin American communities were thus the same—no matter where their members were born, they were both emissaries of global danger and thus not entitled to legal status. As his way of thinking spread, Loewenstein took on a more active role in America’s militant democracy. In 1943, he was recruited as legal advisor to the Justice Department, a position from which he joined the CPD and helped coordinate its campaign of surveillance, arrests, and deportations.
While Loewenstein ultimately returned to academic life, militant democracy outlived World War II. In the cold war’s harsh early years, some politicians and scholars continued to insist that international conflicts required the suspension of some rights at home. (The West German supreme court, for example, relied on militant democracy to outlaw the Communist Party in 1957.) Yet it wasn’t until the attacks on September 11 and the beginning of the war on terror that these notions reasserted themselves in the United States as forcefully as they did during World War II. The revival of militant democracy in the first decade of the 21st century helped prepare the ground for the tragedy unfolding in Texas.
Like their predecessors in the CPD, American officials during the 2000s were not concerned with foreign terrorists alone. Just as alarming in their eyes was the danger of internal subversion, a specter of “foreign” Muslim radicals who would infiltrate democratic regimes and would somehow bring down the entire Western order. For this reason, the unfolding of military actions, from unilateral invasions to drone campaigns and missile strikes, also brought about the suspension of rights. Those who government officials viewed as dangerous—particularly Muslim men from the Middle East and North Africa—were subject to “preventive” arrests and then deportations, which also relieved the government from the burden of ever making formal charges against them. Like the detainees in the CPD camps, the countless inmates brought to Guantanamo Bay and then deported to countries in which they never lived seemed to embody in the eyes of many American officials an existential threat to their order, a position that remained in place from Bush to Obama. Like their antecedents during World War II, they were guilty until proven otherwise, and thus indefinitely outside the protection of any legal norms. Such suspension of law has become so integral to our universe that we rarely even think about it. The lack of attention American citizens and their representatives pay to the detainees still languishing in Guantanamo Bay, almost two decades after its opening, is a testament to our growing tolerance of endless war’s legal impact.
In this context, the Trump Administration’s creation of new camps marks not so much a break with American history, but a radical and dark expansion of already existing traditions. Because they view asylum seekers and immigrants as a serious threat to the United States’ ethnic and racial composition—and thus, in their view, its very essence—Trump and his adjutants seek not only to limit the arrival of these outsiders, but to do so by suspending their access to legal rights and locking them in camps with no charges indefinitely. To be sure, the adoption of such policies also marks a shift in the objects of war. The “threat” posed by refugees of Honduras’s drug wars is different from those of Axis “beach head” teams or Muslim terrorists. Still, like the CPD detainees and the Guantanamo prisoners before them, these immigrants are seen as the vanguard of the enemy in the United States’ forever war around the globe. Now as before, fighting them therefore requires the logic of militant democracy.
The travesty of the camps in Texas, then, is not merely a product of long-standing xenophobia, nor is it only a sign of rising authoritarianism. It is also the harrowing side effect of the war’s legal emergency and the paranoid mindset it breeds. The Trump Administration’s joy in cruelty has forced some Americans to reflect on long-standing malice, especially the historical forces that foster racial animus. It should also lead us to rethink the price of prolonged military adventures.