A Different Mirror

A Different Mirror

by

Ronald Takaki

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A Different Mirror: Part 4, Chapter 14: World War II Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Just over a year after President Roosevelt made a speech about the importance of human rights and freedom, the Japanese dropped bombs on Pearl Harbor. In less than two weeks, Roosevelt ordered that all Japanese “aliens” in Hawaii be put in internment camps. Two days later, the military governor of Hawaii, General Emmons, assured the public that the government did not plan to use concentration camps. The following March, Roosevelt ordered that 20,000 Japanese considered security threats be taken from the islands to the mainland. Sensing how much this would disrupt Japan’s economy, General Emmons limited it to 1,444 people. 
Japanese internment is one of the darkest periods of American history, and also one of the most important to remember. This is particularly true given that it took place against the backdrop of war against the Nazi regime. Takaki underscores here that while the US framed itself as a champion for liberty and equality against the Nazis, in reality both nations were placing their own citizens in concentration camps.
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In the days following Pearl Harbor, US intelligence concluded that all suspected individuals (just over 2,000 people of Japanese, German, and Italian heritage) were in custody. However, Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Western Defense Command nonetheless argued that all Japanese and Japanese-American individuals on the West Coast—including citizens born in the US—should be forcibly removed from society and placed in special “military areas.” In Washington, there was disagreement about whether this was necessary and whether it would violate the Constitution.
The indecision about whether all Japanese Americans should be considered suspects reflects a broader uncertainty about the status of immigrants—and particularly Asian immigrants—during this period of history. There existed no consensus over whether these immigrants should be considered truly a part of the fabric of the US, or whether they were permanent “aliens” who would never truly belong in the country.
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On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed an order allowing individual Military Commanders to decide whether to place people in military areas. Although it did not say so explicitly, the intention was to allow Japanese internment. And sure enough, General DeWitt informed the Japanese population of the West Coast that they were to be evacuated on April 30. They were told to bring bedding, toiletries, utensils, and clothes. Some refused to comply on the basis that this order was unconstitutional; however, they were arrested, and their appeals to the Supreme Court yielded nothing. Meanwhile, the Japanese population were put on trains heading to internment camps in remote parts of the nation.
There is a striking and disturbing similarity between the ways in which both Japanese Americans and European Jews were rounded up with little warning and put on trains taking them to remote parts of the country, hidden from plain sight. Although thankfully Japanese Americans did not face the mass extermination that awaited European Jews, the similarities between the use of concentration camps in the US and Germany is staggering.
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The captives were crowded into barracks and forced into “military-like routine.” Children went to school, while adults performed work for the government. In September 1942, all Japanese men were classified as “enemy aliens,” even those born in the US, which disqualified them from serving in the US army. In December 1943, Roosevelt “hypocritically” wrote that no American citizenship should be denied the chance to serve in the military. Soon after, those in the internment camps were given a loyalty questionnaire which included the question of whether they were prepared to serve in the army; 22% answered no, many of whom surely doing so in protest against their internment. Those who answered yes were drafted.
Japanese Americans were both degraded and dehumanized by being put in internment camps and used as soldiers in the war. While some were understandably desperate to prove their loyalty to a country that had dramatically turned against them, others were—also understandably—so angry about their internment that they were vehemently opposed to the idea of “serving their country.”
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Partly due to their language and other special skills, Japanese-American soldiers were key to US victory. The 442nd unit, compromised of soldiers of Japanese descent, was “probably the most decorated unit in United States military history.” At the end of the war, President Harry Truman told the soldiers of the 442nd unit that they had beaten both “the enemy” and “prejudice,” but in fact this was far from the case. Anti-Japanese racism was rampant in the US. When those in internment camps were allowed to leave, they often returned to find their homes and businesses destroyed. Some, particularly the old and sick, died in the camps.
The shocking injustice suffered by Japanese Americans during the Second World War highlights a broader, uncomfortable irony about the history of the US. Takaki suggests that those Americans who work the hardest and show the most loyalty to their country are often those who are most excluded from it, denigrated as “aliens” and outsiders rather than real Americans.
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Meanwhile, almost one million African Americans served in the segregated military in the Second World War. During the war, the NAACP advocated for the desegregation of the armed forces, but this was unsuccessful. The segregation of the army “quickly became a symbol of America’s hypocrisy,” one not lost on many Americans. Black soldiers insisted that what they were really fighting for was racial equality at home. Meanwhile, in segregated military camps, the German prisoners of war were allowed to use white facilities, while black American soldiers had to use “colored” ones. Many soldiers were shocked by the racism they encountered within the military. Those who wanted to fight often found themselves assigned service duties instead, while others were told black people were not intelligent enough to be pilots.
In this passage, Takaki highlights the remarkable commitment of soldiers of color to a country that, by all accounts, was simply not deserving of the loyalty from which it benefited.
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Black soldiers fought against this mistreatment, and eventually the Secretary of War allowed black pilots to be trained at the Tuskegee Air Force Base. The performance of these pilots was so impressive that they were “much in demand,” as were tankers in the black 761st Battalion, named “the best tank unit in the country.” Black women also served in the military as part of the Women’s Army Corps, assigned to tasks like running the military mail service. However, back home, African Americans were dismayed to find that defense industry jobs were restricted to white candidates. In response, A. Philip Randolph  threatened a March on Washington in order to protest this policy. Alarmed by this, Roosevelt signed an Executive Order banning racial and ethnic discrimination in the defense industries.
Part of the myth of American history is that white leaders benevolently granted rights to racial minorities out of a sense of justice and knowledge of the need for change. A Different Mirror reveals that, in reality, white leaders usually had to be forced to capitulate to the demands of people of color, and did so at the last minute and with much reluctance. Rather than acting on a sense of justice, white leaders tended to make decisions influenced by fear of rebellion.
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However, perhaps the main motivating impulse for ending discrimination in the defense industries was the enormous need for workers as the war went on. Facing both sexism and anti-black racism, black women were the last group invited to join the efforts; however, jobs in the defense industries were eventually opened to them, too. As more black women took these jobs, the proportion of them working in domestic services dropped. Overall, African Americans moved into industrial cities to take these jobs in huge numbers. In Detroit, this led to overcrowding, segregation in ghettos, and racist violence.
This passage shows that, in addition to fear, white leaders and employers were also motivated by sheer necessity when it came to integrating the country. In this sense, periods of economic boom—including the war—tended to also be periods of racial advancement, as more opportunities were open to people of all races and competition and racist resentment decreased.
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In 1943, a three-day race riot shook Detroit—34 people were killed, most of them black, and millions of dollars in property was destroyed. Many felt that President Roosevelt should speak out against race riots, but he was worried about “irritat[ing] the southern leaders.” However, a multiracial group of injured soldiers from Detroit, who were recovering in a (non-segregated) hospital, denounced the racist violence in their city. They argued that the riots provoked them to consider what they were actually fighting for.
In contrast to the lionized image of American presidents often propagated in the more mythic version of the nation’s history, Takaki presents Roosevelt and other political leaders as somewhat cowardly. In this case, Roosevelt’s fear of upsetting Southern leaders easily trumped any sense of justice or desire to prevent further racist violence.
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When the US declared war on Japan, China did as well, making the two countries allies. In New York City, 40% of the Chinese population enlisted in the army, the highest of any nationality. Chinese immigrants were exhilarated by the opportunity to serve their country and demonstrate their patriotism. They were also excited by the higher-paying job opportunities the war presented, after having been confined to restaurants and laundries. Chinese-American women also took on industrial work.
Again, Takaki provides a quite different view of the war than the mainstream, rather mythic image. The Chinese enlisted in huge numbers, but how likely is it that when imagining an American soldier in the Second World War, a Chinese man would come to mind? Indeed, this is a product of the whitewashing of American history, which A Different Mirror seeks to expose.
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Meanwhile, in Asia, Japan had been producing anti-American propaganda in hope of uniting other East Asian populations against the US. This propaganda pointed to anti-Chinese legislation, particularly the Exclusion Act. Concerned about the possibility of China joining the Japanese Side, Congress repealed the Exclusion Act, although there was now quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants to the US per year. However, the change in laws did also allow Chinese immigrants to become naturalized citizens—a “long-awaited victory.”
It is important to note that US race relations have always been affected by the opinions of the world at large. Indeed, it sometimes took commentators from beyond the US’ shores to highlight hypocrisy that was not being adequately articulated within the nation itself.
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Takaki quotes a young Mexican American who reacted to the news of Pearl Harbor with patriotic horror, and who believed it was his duty, as well as that of his Jewish friends, “to show that we were more American than the Anglos.” A huge percentage of Mexican Americans served in the army during the war. When a Mexican-American soldier died, his whole community grieved together, and raised money for the kin he left behind.
The idea that Mexicans and Jews could be “more American than the Anglos” presents a different idea of the US than the one white Americans wanted to uphold. Clearly, people of color were not content to let the US be framed as a white country. They had a different idea of what it meant to be American, and were prepared to fight for this.
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Among the soldiers decorated for their service in the war was a Mexican American named Guy Louis Gabaldon, who grew up in a barrio in East Los Angeles, and who had befriended a Japanese family in his neighborhood. He ended up living with the family for six years and learning Japanese. During the war, the family were taking to an internment camp, while Gabaldon himself served in the army. On his first day of combat he killed 33 Japanese soldiers and was filled with regret. Acting alone, he attempted to persuade the Japanese soldier to surrender, warning them in Japanese that they were surrounded. Working to persuade a small group of soldiers at a time, he ended up rounding up 800 prisoners, and was ultimately awarded the Navy Cross for this act.
This passage provides a strikingly clear example of the fact that the multicultural nature of the US has enormously benefited the nation. The blend of people, cultures, and languages has made the US and its population richer, more advanced, and more competitive in the global arena, and is thus something to be celebrated.
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Back in the US, the government recruited laborers from Mexico to work in the agricultural industry in order to supply food to the military. Meanwhile, Mexican-American men and women began working in the defense industries. On the assembly lines, Mexican women found themselves working alongside those of other races, and often initial prejudice gave way to friendship and solidarity. Their contributions to the war effort gave them a sense of purpose and “self-confidence.” For these women, the exact global politics of the war were almost beside the point. They felt attached to the US, which they identified as their home, and were proud to serve their country through participation in the war effort.
Although there were many positive things that emerged from the war, Takaki’s note that the Mexican-American women on the assembly lines did not really pay much attention to the exact politics of the war is important, and somewhat disturbing. While the war may have helped improve the racism that had corrupted American society, it was also a catastrophic global event in which millions of people needlessly lost their lives over issues of territory and power.
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On the other hand, for many Native people, the idea of fighting in the “white man’s war” was abhorrent. They did not see why they should now have to defend those who had colonized them. Of the Native men who did serve, 20% came from the Navajo Nation. Some expressed pride in being “American Indians,” and thus compelled to serve. For others, the motivation to join the army was poverty. Faced with grim employment prospects on the reservation, some felt they had no choice but to join the military.
The unfortunate reality is that, whatever people’s feelings might have been about the war and the prospect of serving in the army, the decision to serve was not primarily ideological for most men. Through these examples, Takaki suggests that economic pressures tend to be a far more important factor when it comes to participation in the army. Ideology usually comes after.
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Meanwhile, the marines specifically recruited Navajos because they wanted to use the Navajo language as a code. Adapting the language to be used as a military code was a complex task. Because the Navajo language could be so inaccessible to those who had not grown up speaking it, it became known as “the unbreakable code.” The Navajo code talkers proved essential at several key points in the war, such as in the battle for Iwo Jima. Yet participation in the war took a heavy toll on Navajo soldiers; some of them were never able to psychologically recover. Some developed alcohol problems and abused their wives. They faced a tough combination of enduring poverty and unemployment on the reservation, as well as what is now known as post-traumatic stress. Yet the war also instilled pride in their unique culture.
The beginning of this passage provides another rousing example of the extent to which the US is made a more advanced and competitive nation through its internal diversity. Unfortunately, this positive note gives way to a grim reality. After working hard and making enormous sacrifices to fight for their country, many soldiers were left traumatized, hurt, and stuck in a cycle of poverty, addiction, mental health problems, and misery.
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When Hitler rose to power, the 4.5 million Jews living in the US wondered what they should do. When a representative named Samuel Dickstein suggested that Congress should allow all German Jews with family members in the US to be permitted entry to the country, he faced opposition from Jewish-American organizations. They insisted that the US, and Jews already in the country, should be prioritized. However, this belief began to crumble in 1938 after Kristallnacht, a night of violence against Jewish businesses. Roosevelt condemned the attacks, but was hesitant to expand the existing quota for Jewish immigrants.
Considering what is known about the Second World War from a contemporary perspective, it may seem strange or even unbelievable that the US didn’t do more to rescue Jews from Germany and other European countries. While on one hand it is true that people at the time did not know the horrifying extent of the fate that awaited European Jews, Takaki shows throughout A Different Mirror that exclusion and indifference to death has always defined US immigration policy.
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Meanwhile, a 1939 bill offering entry to refugee children encountered opposition from much of the American public. Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to support the bill, but President Roosevelt was too worried about public opinion to do so. Meanwhile, even many Jewish leaders stated that the entry of refugee children should be heavily restricted. Soon after, a ship carrying 907 German Jewish refugees named the St. Louis was unexpectedly turned away from Cuba, where those fleeing had hoped to gain asylum. The passengers on the St. Louis begged the US to accept them, but they were turned back to Europe, where most were killed in the Nazi genocide.
The fact that Jewish-American leaders opposed measures to allow Jews asylum in the US is perplexing from a contemporary perspective. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind the highly delicate situation American Jews found themselves in, which was defined by rampant anti-Semitism in their own country. Takaki suggests that while this does not excuse the actions of the leaders, it helps explain why they acted this way.
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Many American Jews were furious about what had happened to the St. Louis. This fury raged even harder after the Nazi invasion of Poland, which endangered the 3 million Jews living there. Meanwhile, Germany’s invasion of Russia led to further massacres of Jews. Although Americans did not know exactly what was happening in Europe, on August 28 Rabbi Stephen Wise, the leader of the American Jewish Congress, received a cable from the Geneva representative of the World Jewish Congress, informing him that Germany intended to murder all Jews in Nazi-occupied territories—about 4 million people. Wise shared this information with the Secretary of State, but was forced to wait three months until the information was confirmed.
It is a fairly commonly circulated myth that the general global population—and particularly political leaders—had no idea what was happening to the Jews of Europe until the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945. In this passage, Takaki highlights the reality that, political leaders did have a sense of the genocide that was taking place.
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After finally hearing that the reports were true, Wise held a press conference bringing the news to the public. However, despite efforts from Jewish leaders, little attention was brought to the issue. Rabbi Wise pleaded with President Roosevelt to take direct action to try and save European Jews, but Roosevelt dismissed this possibility, saying that the best chance European Jews had of rescue was via American victory in the war. Roosevelt was then faced with a further intervention from his Jewish Secretary of the Treasury, who pleaded with him to sign an order declaring that any European Jews who came to the US would be granted temporary asylum.
In this passage, Takaki highlights a shocking but unavoidable reality: Roosevelt simply did not care enough about the Jews of Europe to take action to save them. It also showed that the fate of Europe’s Jews was totally incidental; the only thing that really mattered to Roosevelt, Takaki argues, was American victory.
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Roosevelt’s only concession was to offer a shelter for a mere 1,000 refugees. By the time the US and its allies won the war, 6 million Jews had been killed. African American soldiers who took part in liberating the concentration camps found that Nazi treatment of the Jews was eerily familiar to anti-black violence in the US. Among the liberators of the camps were Japanese- and Jewish-American soldiers, the latter of whom obviously had a particularly personal connection to their role in the war. Meanwhile, back in the US, American Zionists eagerly supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in 1948, President Truman signed a document recognizing the Israeli nation.
This passage indicates that ethnic groups such as African Americans were far better positioned to understand and sympathize with the horrifying fate of European Jews than Roosevelt. Indeed, some would argue that white leaders like Roosevelt—who were complicit in the mass murder of Jews through their inaction—were more closely aligned with the Nazi regime than its victims.
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Harry Truman became president unexpectedly, after President Roosevelt suddenly died on April 12, 1945. Truman was a Southerner; his ancestors were enslavers. In private, he admitted to holding racist views, and held a particular prejudice against Japanese people following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He referred to the Japanese as “subhumans,” calling them “savages, ruthless and fanatic.” During the war, Truman refused to let Japan surrender, and—acting independently of British and Russian allies—ordered that an atomic bomb be dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.
Takaki suggest that President Truman’s deep-seated racism reiterates the idea that American political leaders, despite theoretically being on the side of liberty and equality, bore some uncomfortable similarities to the Nazi government and other racist regimes. This is even further emphasized by the acts of genocide of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
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Japan still refused the unconditional surrender Truman wanted, but—disturbed by the unprecedented devastation the first two bombs had caused—he did not order the third to be dropped, instead accepting Japan’s original offer of surrender. Reflecting on the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, W.E.B. Du Bois commented that science, which had previously seemed to be an “emancipator,” was actually “the enslaver of mankind.”
Again, although it was supposedly freedom and equality that triumphed in the Second World War, the fact that the war concluded with such unprecedented and needless acts of mass death and destruction brings this interpretation into question.
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