Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II by Ronald Takaki: A Review

Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II
Ronald Takaki
New York, NY: Back Bay Books Little, Brown and Company
Pp 281; $15.99

For anyone who has only heard the clean-cut Anglo American version of World War II, Ronald Takaki’s book Double Victory will make you question everything you thought you knew about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and America during World War II. Growing up with many great-uncles who fought in World War II it was not uncommon to hear how Europeans and the Japanese should be grateful to Americans for liberating them from oppression. Yet never in the story did it come up that while they were off fighting the war, America was a source of oppression for many of its own citizens and indeed many of its servicemen and women. While many would like to whitewash history, the fact remains that the American armed forces were not simply made up of all white American men; there were whites, African Americans, Japanese Americans, Native Americans, Filipino Americans, German Americans, Italian Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans and Korean Americans. These non-white soldiers faced a constant battle with discrimination not only in the army but in society as a whole. Takaki challenges the reader to see that for many Americans emerging triumphant in World War II did not simply mean a victory over Germany and Japan, but a victory at home over inequality and prejudice.

Takaki took on the undertaking of giving fair representation to soldiers and people of all walks of life during World War II simply because history had yet to do so. “The history of World War II has been told through the lives of our nation’s military and political leaders, or through the battlefield actions and heroism of American soldiers of European ancestry, or through the experiences of a specific minority such as African Americans or Japanese Americans” (p.4). Takaki goes on to say that his work offers readers “…a different memory” (p.4), he focuses on the war as experienced by everyday Americans of non-European descent. While using an analytical approach to each topic the book covers, Takaki still manages to give his work the feel of a personal narrative. The reader becomes attached to those whose stories come to light in the book and at the same time the reader questions how the greatest nation in the world could claim it was fighting evil across both oceans while so much evil was being tolerated at home.

Takaki puts forth the argument that non-white Americans, although just as patriotic, had to fight for their right to defend their country. When Pearl Harbor was attacked it was not only the white community that felt indignant, but all Americans regardless of race, gender, or creed. Immigrant families felt the same loyalty as naturalized citizens if not more, they felt that America gave them freedom and they did not want that revoked. One Navajo man stated, “Many people ask why we fight the White man’s war…Our answer is that we are proud to be American. We’re proud to be American Indians. We always stand ready when our country needs us” (p.59-60). Mexican American soldier Anthony Navarro wrote in reflection that “We wanted to prove that while our cultural ties were deeply rooted in Mexico, our home was here in this country” (p.83). Many cultures were not only appalled by the attack on their country, but saw the war as an opportunity to gain acceptance and break down racial boundaries on the home front. Takaki writes that “The entry of the United States into the war suddenly gave Chinese Americans a chance to make this their country” (p.115). This not only applied to the Chinese Americans but to Korean Americans, Indian Americans, Filipino Americans, African Americans, etc.

History textbooks often use the term ‘melting pot’ but 1940’s America was quite stratified in terms of race and society. African Americans, even those in uniform, still had to fear lynching in the south. Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, and Filipino Americans were all considered Japanese i.e. ‘the enemy’ in the eyes of ignorant Americans. German and Italian Americans were considered Nazi and Fascist conspirators. All of this was happening in a country that the rest of the world was praying would quell the evil in Europe and Japan. The question begs to be asked, where was Franklin Roosevelt when all of these injustices were taking place? Takaki’s work gives the reader a view of FDR that will change the way in which any reader views the thirty-second president. In 1940 Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act which disallowed the mixing of white and non-white soldiers in the same regiment. That same year the NAACP announced “A Jim Crow army cannot fight for a free world” (p. 23). Although FDR reportedly entertained the idea of speaking out on racial riots in Detroit he ultimately decided to remain silent on the matter. “Eleanor Roosevelt explained, that ‘he must not irritate the southern leaders,’ whose votes he needed for essential war bills” (p. 54). In the end Roosevelt chose to play politics rather than stand up for human dignity.

Many department heads in the government, including J. Edgar Hoover, had informed the president that there was no reason to evacuate Japanese American citizens from Hawaii or mainland America. Yet similar to his decision to remain quiet on the subject of racial riots, Roosevelt once again bowed to political pressure. “State politicians joined the clamor for Japanese removal” (p. 147). On February 19, 1942 Roosevelt gave permission to the secretary of war to begin measures to evacuate all Japanese American families on the West Coast. When the War Department began talking about applying the evacuation to German and Italian Americans as well Roosevelt stepped in and instructed that any concern over German and Italian Americans was a civilian matter, only the Japanese need be moved. This action by Roosevelt goes to show that despite the war, to a degree Germans and Italians were regarded as mainstream Americans. Takaki makes the point that “…Germans were regarded as Americans, especially since they included individuals with names like Lou Gehrig and Dwight D. Eisenhower” (p. 132). He goes on to say, “Interning Italian Americans was also out of the question in a country where one of the most famous baseball players was Joe DiMaggio and the mayor of New York was Fiorello La Guardia” (p. 134). When it came to his own citizens Roosevelt only seemed to have racial prejudices against those who represented the war in the Pacific.

Roosevelt was constantly being urged from those around him, including his Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, to act quickly in regards to the extermination of European Jews. Morgenthau wrote in the opening of his report on the mass murder of Jews that “One of the greatest crimes in history, the slaughter of the Jewish people in Europe, is continuing unabated” (p.207). Despite all the facts that were laid before him on the matter Roosevelt did not budge, he held firm to his ‘rescue-through-victory strategy’. In response to Roosevelt’s obstinate position Takaki writes, “…an ominous question had emerged: after the Allied triumph would there be any Jews left alive?” (p.206) We know now that by the time victory did come 6 million Jews had been exterminated by the Nazis. We can only ponder now how many could have been saved with American intervention.

The examples and excerpts laid before you only scratch the surface of the depth in which Takaki covers this incredibly important subject. Takaki’s goal in writing this book was to affirm that the war fought by non-white Americans was fought in hopes of a ‘double-victory’. Takaki writes that “…the war for ‘double victory’ was a cross-stitched struggle for victory over anti-Semitism in Europe and over racism in America” (p. 215). In order to achieve his goal (and he did indeed achieve it) he went straight to the sources of the time including newspaper articles, letters, diaries, and memoirs. Takaki’s work is accessible to all readers and should be read by all Americans. So often we read about the same cast of characters in World War II: General Douglas MacArthur, General George S. Patton, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower; all successful white high ranking officers. It is time that school-aged children learned the names of Dorie Miller and Ira Hayes; everyday Americans who put their lives on the line, not only for justice overseas, but so that America might become a better place. For over seventy years it has been portrayed in the public school system that Americans fought to liberate others, it is time that we as a country were made aware that Americans were also fighting to liberate themselves.

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