The U.S. had just emerged from the Great Depression, and Japan had invaded China and Hitler's Nazi Germany had taken much of Europe, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his message to Congress in January 1941. In his speech, Roosevelt stated that American democracy consisted of "Four Freedoms," the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom of religion, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear."We look forward to a world founded upon four essential freedoms," the President declared. "The freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way - everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want - everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear - anywhere in the world."1 When the war came to the U.S., those "Four Freedoms came to define America's reasons for fighting in World War II.
|But as the smoke still rose from what was America's Pacific Fleet, Hawaii's governor surrendered civil authority to America's military and teams of FBI agents and military and civilian police swept into neighborhoods and took into custody Japanese, German, and Italian Americans in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland. Martial law suspended democracy and summary detentions eroded the civil liberties of American citizens. A war being waged in the name of freedom curtailed the rights and freedoms of America's peoples.|
President Roosevelt was an example of this contradiction between the ideal and practice of democracy. "One obvious thought occurs to me - that every Japanese citizen or non-citizen on the Island of Oahu who meets these Japanese ships or has any connection with their officers or men should be secretly but definitely identified and his or her name placed on a special list of those who would be the first to be placed in a concentration camp in the event of trouble," the President stated in 1936.2
He was referring to the perfectly legal and public visits of Japanese naval vessels in Hawaii, and the equally legal and public socializing between Japanese sailors and Japanese American citizens of the U.S. And after signing Executive Order 9066, Roosevelt declared in 1943 when endorsing the military draft for Japanese Americans, many of whom were being held in concentration camps, "Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry."Meanwhile, draft boards routinely classified nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) as "enemy aliens," and nisei soldiers were only allowed to serve in the Army, not the Navy, Air Force, or Marines, and in segregated units, in violation of the Selective Service and Training Act of 1940. (Refer to "Draft Resistance" in the Supporting Materials.)
An African American soldier, Private Charles K. Wilson, wrote to Roosevelt on May 9, 1944, asking him to address some of the contradictions in the conduct of the war. "It was with extreme pride that I, a soldier in the Armed Forces of our country, read the following affirmation of our war aims, pronounced by you at a recent press conference: 'The United Nations are fighting to make a world in which tyranny and aggression cannot exist; a world based upon freedom, equality, and justice; a world in which all persons, regardless of race, color and creed, may live in peace, honor and dignity.'
Your use of the word 'world' means that we are fighting for 'freedom, equality, and justice' for 'all persons, regardless of race, color and creed' in our own part of the world, the United States of America, as well as all other countries where such a fight is needed to be carried through. But the picture in our country is marred by one of the strangest paradoxes in our whole fight against world fascism. The United States Armed Forces, to fight for World Democracy, is within itself undemocratic.Let me give you an example of the lack of democracy in our Field, where I am now stationed. Negro soldiers are completely segregated from the white soldiers on the base…. How can we convince…the Negro members, that your pronouncements of the war aims of the United Nations means what it says, when their experience with…the United States of America, is just the opposite?"3
Despite race riots and Jim Crow and their exclusion from the Army's Air Corp and their confinement to the kitchens of the Navy, African American service in the Army swelled from 98,000 in 1941 to 468,000 in late 1942. About 1 million African American men and women served in the armed forces during World War II in segregated units. More than 4,000 African American women served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Many African American units earned the Presidential Distinguished Unit Citation for their gallantry, and 82 African American pilots received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
But not a single African American won the Medal of Honor during the war, and an army study during the 1990s concluded that "racism was the cause" for that extraordinary fact. In 1997, seven African Americans received the Medal of Honor for World War II service. An estimated 375,000 to 500,000 Mexican Americans served in integrated military units during the war, and, despite race riots and discrimination in housing, education, and employment, Mexican Americans won seventeen Congressional Medals of Honor, and hundreds received the Silver and Bronze Stars for valor in battle.
About 25,000 Japanese American men and women served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II even as their parents and siblings were targeted by martial law in Hawaii and held in detention and concentration camps in Hawaii and on the mainland. Like African Americans, Japanese Americans served in segregated units, and in limited capacities. Among the most decimated of the war, Japanese American units garnered 18,143 individual citations, including a Medal of Honor (20 additional Medals of Honor were awarded over 50 years after the war) and 52 Distinguished Service Crosses.
Native American men registered for military service in numbers higher than African and Asian Americans and Latina/os. In all, about 25,000 served during the war, 21,767 in the Army, 1,910 in the Navy, 874 in the Marines, and 121 in the Coast Guard. Nearly 800 Native American women joined the WAC and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). An estimated two Native Americans received Medals of Honor, fifty-one Silver Stars, forty-seven Bronze Stars, and thirty-four Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Military service highlighted the contradictions of U.S. democracy. Enlisted to defend the U.S. and its war aims as articulated by the President in the Four Freedoms, racialized minorities fulfilled an obligation of citizenship and were counted among "we, the people." But African and Japanese Americans served in segregated units, were excluded from certain branches of the service, and were denied full equality in the military. And while serving honorably in the war, Mexican Americans were attacked by sailors and soldiers in uniform, Japanese Americans were held in concentration camps secured by military police, African Americans were victimized by mob violence in U.S. cities, and Native Americans were relegated to impoverished reservations. Still, military service provided a powerful argument for claims on democracy by racialized minorities, and those demands would become particularly compelling after the war in the struggle for civil rights during the 1950s and 60s. War veterans would play key roles in the civil rights movement.As the letter from an African American soldier in the Supporting Materials explains, the fight for democracy for excluded groups was a two-front effort - on the battlefields abroad and in the struggles at home. And the contest on the domestic front included keeping "faith in the goodness of America," as was powerfully articulated by "Georgia," an African American mother in her letter excerpted in the Supporting Materials. Similarly, George Saito, a Japanese American soldier, clung to a faith in the U.S. even as his father was being held in one of America's concentration camps and his brother had just died in defense of freedom. "America," he wrote from his foxhole, "is a damned good country." Saito's letter is included in the Supporting Materials. As "Georgia" correctly observed, "Mine is a big job - much bigger than that of some mothers, for I am a Negro mother."
The work of holding U.S. democracy to its promise of equality, was taken up by countless "Negro mothers," George Saitos, and African American soldiers who serve as exemplars of the deeds of excluded groups in their shaping of American democracy.On the eve of World War II, on April 28-30, 1939, over a thousand delegates from over 120 organizations met in Los Angeles to form El Congreso de Pueblos de Hablan Española, the first national, civil rights organization for Latina/os. El Congreso called for an end to segregation in public facilities, housing, education, and employment, and endorsed the right of immigrants to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. Its southern California chapter created a woman's committee and platform, which recognized the "double discrimination" faced by Mexican American women in jobs, schools, and health because of their race and gender.
About the time of President Roosevelt's speech outlining the Four Freedoms, African American union leader A. Philip Randolph announced that if the administration failed to take action against racial discrimination in the defense program, he would organize and lead a mass march on Washington. Six days before the scheduled march, on June 25, 1941, the President signed Executive Order 8802 that banned work discrimination on the bases of race, creed, color, or national origin for defense contractors. And the President appointed the Committee on Fair Employment Practice to monitor compliance with the executive order.
Although employers routinely violated the anti-discrimination mandate of the President's executive order, African, Asian, Mexican, and Native Americans flocked to defense industry work. More than one million African Americans left the South during the war for better paying jobs in the North and West. California witnessed an increase of 258,900 African Americans between 1940 and 1950, and they comprised thirteen percent of the workers in the Bay Area's four leading shipbuilding companies.About 40,000 Native Americans worked in defense industries during the war, and twenty percent of Native American women living on reservations left for jobs mainly in urban areas. One of them was Faith Feather Traversie, a Yankton Lakota, who was classified as "white" to allow her to work at Mare Island Navy Yard. Traversie was one of the few women welders at the Navy Yard, and she worked with Asian women and Latinas. Excerpts of Traversie's interview appear in the Supporting Materials. That migration of women led to changes in gender relations on Native American reservations, and in the self-esteem and independence of some women as shown in the oral history of a Mexican American mother, Beatrice Morales Clifton, excerpted in the Supporting Materials.
Because of democracy's contradictions, it is fought over. It is a work in progress. Its promises and ideals do not always conform to its realities and practices. Those who have been denied power and privilege have been particularly instrumental in extending democracy's reach because they inhabit the margins and borders delineated by the phrase, "we, the people."By insisting that they too are embraced by that community, excluded groups have expanded the meaning of who is an American, and helped to secure the very rights and privileges that were denied them for the enjoyment of all Americans.