When I was a child, I enjoyed playing army with my friends. We would dress up in our imagined uniforms and guns, and pretend we were fighting the bad guys. My grandfather, who was a soldier stationed in Boston during World War II, would say, “Stop playing that.” He would tell me that some of his friends died during the war and many others experienced terrible events. Despite the fact he never left the United States, he told me about his own difficult war experiences here at home and how lucky he was that he did not go through what others did, concluding that, “War is not a game. It is not fun.” I never forgot what my grandfather would tell me (in fact, it would later influence me to become a pacifist and a war protester). From a young age, I knew there was a very bad side of the “good war.”
In his book "The Good War," Studs Terkel captured powerful accounts of the war through oral histories, and in many cases, exposed the dark side of the war. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, it is important that social studies teachers help students dig deep into the complexities, including the often-ugly past, of the war. The Second World War is often framed in history classes as a clash between democracy and fascism (certainly the Holocaust and Japanese military atrocities in China and elsewhere provide evidence of how horrific fascism was). However, we must remember, as Howard Zinn wrote, “World War II is not simply and purely a ‘good war.’ … There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought."
One specific part of this betrayal of principles is the treatment of people of color, soldiers and civilians, during the war. At the hands of the U.S. military and the civilian government, people of color faced imprisonment, segregation, discrimination, destruction of their homes and land, and, in some extreme cases, even scientific experimentation. The Black, Latino, Asian, and indigenous people's histories of the War, in many ways, contrasts the history we often read in textbooks or see in the media. Within communities of color, there were varying personal experiences and opinions of the War. While some American Indians felt an overwhelming sense of patriotism and volunteered to fight, others volunteered to simply leave the poor economic conditions of their reservations, and still others felt anger at the U.S. government for allowing the war to tear apart their communities and land. While over a million African Americans fought bravely for their country, they also felt the sting of segregation both at home and abroad. After the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in internment camps, many Asian Americans, regardless of their ethnicity, were forced to routinely demonstrate their patriotism for fear of being labeled the enemy. For Latinos, while the war effort helped many Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, and others groups feel patriotism and civic inclusion, for others it was a reminder that the color of their skin and their language prevented them from being treated like full citizens.
These histories are often left out of the larger World War II narrative. Yet, they are incredibly important part of the War's history and should be addressed along side other more traditional topics, such as D-Day or the contributions of citizens on the Home Front. Below is a list of 11 important race-related events, with brief descriptions, that should be taught in any World War II curriculum. In the links, teachers can find many primary sources that can be used to frame historical inquiries.
1. Japanese Internment and the 442nd Regiment
After the Japanese military bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S.government began swift arrests of Japanese American males in Terminal Island, California. It was a premonition of what was to come. Although more than 2/3rd of all Japanese Americans were U.S. citizens, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which imprisoned 120,000 people of Japanese descent in 10 internment camps, called “war relocation camps” at the time. There were many resisters to internment, including Fred Korematsu, the No-No Boys and Girls, and other acts of civil disobedience. Despite their treatment, many Japanese Americans, who were imprisoned or had family imprisoned, chose to fight for the U.S. military, of which the 442nd Regiment is the most well known. For other Asian American groups, in particular Chinese Americans, it was a time to express their patriotism and transcend stereotypes, but also a time to display their loyalty to avoid being treated like the Japanese Americans.
2. Workforce Discrimination in the War Industries
In the early years of the war, industrial production was increased. Factories were often running 24 hours a day to produce armaments, tanks, planes, and other types of military equipment. Women played an important role filling in for many of the men who were shipped abroad. Yet, people of color were often excluded from these factories and faced significant discrimination in hiring. In many places, the war industry was for “Whites only.”
3. Anti-Japanese Propaganda
Even before the U.S. entered the war, the government began to turn out military propaganda. While much of this was tailored to garner support for ally nations and to raise funds for an impending war, the propaganda that focused on Japan had obvious embedded racial stereotypes. While this was intended to arouse patriotism and support for the war, it also sent a powerful negative message to Japanese Americans about how White America viewed them and motivated prejudice and hate crimes toward Asian Americans.
4. The Role of Race in Chemical Experiments on Soldiers
During World War II, the U.S. military experimented on soldiers in an attempt to improve their ability to fight the Axis Powers. Recently, NPR uncovered secret testing of chemical warfare, including mustard gas, on Black, Puerto Rican, and Japanese American soldiers to determine if certain ethnic groups were more resistant to chemical warfare that could be used by Germany or Japan. Many of these veterans faced life long health effects and premature deaths as a result.
5. The Impact of World War II on Indian Reservations
In recent years, many students have learned about the important contributions that American Indians made at home and abroad (including the famed Navajo Code Talkers), but little is taught about the impact that the war had on Indian reservations. The U.S. government used Indian lands as internment camps (Poston in Arizona and Gila River in Colorado) and military bombing ranges (Pine Ridge). In Alaska, the government imprisoned many Unangan people in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, because they lived in what the U.S. government declared a war zone. With over 25,000 American Indians served in the military during the war, this caused a massive exodus of young Indian males from reservations, with many never returning after the war, which devastated many indigenous communities.
6. Racial Segregation and the Military
While the United States was fighting a war against fascism, it continued to practice Jim Crow-era racial segregation at home and in the military. Many soldiers of color were relegated to labor roles during the war, were never appointed to the highest leadership roles, and, when they did see combat, were often sent on some of the most dangerous missions (as many people know from the experiences of the infamous Tuskegee Airmen). In reaction to the racial discrimination, many soldiers of color stood up this this through different forms of protest, including Jackie Robinson (the future baseball player), who faced a court marshal trial for refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus.
7. Detroit Race Riots
In summer of 1942, the Detroit Race Riots began at Belle Isle amusement park, when “a fight erupted between a total of 200 African Americans and white sailors. Soon, a crowd of 5,000 white residents gathered at the mainland entrance to the bridge ready to attack black vacationers wishing to cross. By midnight, a ragged and understaffed police force attempted to retain the situation, but the rioting had already spread too far into the city." Days of rioting by Whites and Blacks occurred. In the end 25 Black residents and 9 White residents had been killed.
8. The Zoot Suit Riots
Two years later in 1944, following the Sleepy Lagoon murder, the city of Los Angeles would also erupt in race-related violence often labeled the Zoot Suit Riots. What started as a turf battle between Mexican American teenagers and White sailors, who were stationed on their edge of their neighborhood, would result in sailors and other White residents attacking Latinos (as well as, Filipinos and African Americans) throughout the city, often stripping the young men of their Zoot Suits (which were culturally significant, but seen by Whites as excess in a time of textile rations).
9. The Double-V Campaign and Sedition
Often taught today as an act of patriotism, the Double V campaign (victory over fascism abroad and victory over racism at home) waged by African American civil rights activists during the war, connected segregation to the inequality and lack of democracy existed in fascist nations. However, this was seen by some in power, including J. Edgar Hoover, as an act of sedition and disloyalty.
10. Treatment of Veterans of Color on Their Return Home from War
We often think of the scenes of Time Square on V-J Day, where Americans greeted returning soldiers with ticker-tape parades. While nearly 2 million people of color served in the U.S. military during World War II, many did not face the same fanfare as returning White soldiers. In fact, a large percentage returned home to segregation and discrimination. Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians returned to higher rates of unemployment to Whites, segregated housing through redlining practices, and inability to secure bank loans, and refused service in stores and restaurants. Many returning Japanese American soldiers not only lost their homes and possessions when their families were interned in prison camps, but they were often treated as if they were “the enemy” by many Whites.
11. The Use of the Atomic Bomb
The last issue that should be addressed when examining the role of race in World War II is the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. In his book “Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb,” historian Ronald Takaki argued that beside a desire to reduce U.S. causalities and end the war quickly, Harry Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb twice on Japan was motivated by American’s “racial rage” toward the Japanese. These were not military targets that were bombed. Rather, they were major cities with large civilian populations. It is an event that had a profound impact not only on the people of Japan, but Japanese Americans, some of whom had family and friends in the bombed cities.