Something to fight for
What do you do when you are called on to give your life to defend a county that doesn’t recognize your rights as a human being? That is the question that filled the mind of hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities in the US during WWII. Back. Filipino. Mexican. Japanese. Indian (both kinds). All were denied the full rights of citizenship from a county that didn’t allow for immigration based on racial lines, and stated that applicants for naturalized citizenship must be “white.”
In choosing to fight for the US, ethnic minorities were hoping to achieve a “double victory;” one victory against the Axis powers, and another against prejudice and injustice at home. They hoped that by volunteering to fight and die for the US, by struggling alongside white people, that they would finally be recognized as full-fledged human beings and that their blood sacrifice would buy them the rights they so desperately deserved.
Ronald Takaki’s “Double Victory: A Multi-Cultural History of America in World War II” is a deeply-affecting book, that tells the stories of the many people fighting for this double victory. In each chapter, Takaki tells the story of a different group, starting with black men and women, then Native American Indians, then Mexicans and Latinos, then the Chinese and Filipino, then the Japanese, and then the Jews. Each chapter is filled with personal stories and interviews, about the particular hardships and prejudices affecting each group, and the similar reactions.
There are so many specific images and stories in “Double Victory” that will stick with me. The Japanese American child, born and raised in the US and speaking only English, who had to start each day of school reciting the Pledge of Allegiance while behind the barbed wire fence of a concentration camp. The Japanese American man who fought in the US army during WWI entering the concentration camp in his full military uniform with honors as a silent protest. The black veteran returning from the war, wounded, and being told he had to sit in the back of the bus. The black soldiers who were told during training to be careful not to stray off base, because there were lynchings going on by people who resented seeing black men in US army uniforms.
I was born long after these events, and it is difficult to understand the thought processes of the time. In times of war and desperate need, I can’t imagine turning away an offered hand just because it is the wrong color. But that is exactly what happened. I can’t imagine the US legally discriminating and handing out citizenship on the basis of color, but that is what happened too.
And other countries noticed. Propaganda from Germany and Japan was full of examples of the US’s racial policies, showing how the hypocrisy of “freedom” only applied to those of the correct color. The Alien Land Law act. The Chinese Exclusion act. The Zoot Suit Riot. All of these were wrapped presents to Adolph Hitler and General Tojo. Our promise of democracy was revealed to be the sham it was.
I have read Ronald Takaki’s Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb so I am familiar with his take on the racist nature of the war against Japan, and why it differed from the war against Germany. Takaki is a persuasive and interesting writer, who sheds light on some forgotten or purposefully buried corners of US history.
By all but the strictest definitions, I am a white guy. But my grandmother was a Cherokee Indian, my wife is Japanese, and my best friend is black. After reading “Double Victory,” I realize how much I owe to those people who came before me who fought for their rights, and for the rights of their children’s children, and who built the future that I know live in. This book put many things in perspective, and let me appreciate how far we have come. And how far we have to go before the true double victory will be achieved.