Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general of the United States, made an announcement on March 23 warning Americans of the mounting death rate likely to occur over the next few weeks as COVID-19 spreads throughout the country. He remarked that “this is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.” By these references, Adams was making an appeal for citizens to come together in face of adversity to defeat the enemy: the Japanese after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and al-Qaeda following 9/11. Americans should put petty political and economic differences aside to fight a common enemy.
As the US approaches 100,000 coronavirus-related deaths, the surgeon general’s appeal for national unity raises an interesting historical question: How much did Americans put aside these differences as the country and its wartime allies sought to defeat Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany? Certainly, a lot has been written, no doubt deservedly, about the “Greatest Generation” and how it rose to the occasion and defeated the Axis powers. But these commentaries often ignore some of the grimmer aspects of America’s World War II reality.
Executive Order 9066
The most obvious was the forced internment of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were American citizens. In early 1942, these individuals were forcefully relocated to camps like Manzanar and Thule Lake, built in the interior of the American West, where they were kept under guard for most of the war. This order issued by General DeWitt, commander of the relevant defense district, was approved as Executive Order 9066 and signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
It was subjected to a legal challenge by a Japanese American — Fred Korematsu, a 23-year-old California resident — based on the Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause in Korematsu v. US (1944). By a vote of 6 to 3, the US Supreme Court upheld the government’s forceable removal policy. Justice Hugo Black (a former Klansman) wrote the opinion for the majority. Justice Jackson, later to serve as America’s chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg tribunal, spoke for the minority.
At the state level, California’s then-Attorney General Earl Warren — later to serve as the Supreme Court’s chief justice during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s — pursued an equally harsh policy toward the state’s Japanese minority in regard to the right of its members to own farm land.
In addition to official policy, there were several anti-Japanese organizations, such as the Japanese Exclusion League of California and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, that held public meetings aimed at the confiscation of Japanese-owned property. There was also a certain amount of vigilante “justice” involving spontaneous acts of violence against largely helpless nisei and their Japan-born parents.
Furthermore, on the West Coast, there were the June 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles. Many Mexican American young men adopted a distinctive flashy and baggy attire, known as zoot suits. Since these outfits required a substantial amount of cloth to be made at a time when textiles were strictly rationed, wearing a zoot suit aroused a certain amount of resentment simply by their appearance. The suits were made evidently by black market tailors in New York and Los Angeles. At the end of May, a fight broke out between white sailors and Mexican American youth, resulting in the beating of an American sailor. In retaliation, a few days later, 50-odd white sailors carrying clubs marched down the streets of central Los Angles beating Mexican American young people as they came across them.
What followed was a wave of rioting by soldiers, sailors and Marines stationed in the vicinity, which persisted until the Navy’s Shore Police and the Army’s Military Police were called out to quell the violence — the Los Angeles Police tended to side with the rioters — and restore order.
Race riots broke out elsewhere. The most serious event occurred in Detroit between June 20 and 23, 1943, a sustained riot in which 34 people both black and white were killed. On this occasion, the fighting was sparked by disputes over access to scarce housing with whites, often recent arrivals from the South, fighting off attempts by African Americans to increase their share of the limited number of apartments available in what were so-called “white” neighborhoods. Some 6,000 troops had to be called out to stop the violence.
Detroit, a major center for war production, continued to be a locale of racial tension. At the Packard Motor Company’s assembly plant, for example, some 25,000 white workers staged a wildcat strike because three black employees were promoted to work side-by-side with whites. At the same facility, white women staged a protest against a proposal to have black women share the same bathroom. Racial confrontations also broke out at shipyards in Mobile, Alabama, and Beaumont, Texas. The recurring theme was the “threat” of racial integration at job sites. The fact that these manifestations were slowing war production — a vital national interest — did not seem to matter all that much.
In August 1943, there was a race riot in Harlem that has a more familiar ring to it. A police officer shot and wounded an African American soldier after he sought to prevent the officer from arresting a young woman. Rumors spread that the soldier had died. Some 3,000 rioters then attacked white-owned businesses in the area. Calm was restored after two days and the city compensated business owners for the damages they suffered.
Then, there is the matter of anti-Semitism. The issue of Jewish survival after Pearl Harbor may be addressed at both governmental and popular levels of understanding. A few quick observations are in order. The period between 1942 and 1943 marked the peak years of the Holocaust, when most of the European Jews who were to be murdered in the genocide were, in fact, killed. As these events were occurring at the death camps in Poland, the American government did next to nothing.
Despite repeated appeals by leaders of the American Jewish community like Rabbi Stephen Wise for a vigorous American condemnation, all that President Roosevelt was willing to say at the time was that the best way to save the Jews of Europe was to win the war as quickly as possible. In fact, it was only in 1944 that FDR agreed to the formation of a privately-funded War Refugee Board to rescue those Jews and others who remained alive.
This effort was undertaken based on a scathing report written by officials in the US Treasury Department. Among other things, the report provided an account of how senior-level officials in the State Department, notably Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, had done what they could to prevent European Jews fleeing the Nazis from obtaining visas to enter the United States.
Gallup public opinion polls in the years following Pearl Harbor indicate unambiguously widespread American dislike of Jews. So much so that, as Charles Herbert Stember describes in “Jews in the Mind of America,” in May 1944, a month before the D-Day landings, over 20% of Americans believed Jews were evading the draft in pursuit of “soft” jobs. A majority of those surveyed actually believed that Jews posed a more serious threat to the country than Germany or Japan, countries with which the United States was at war. In short, Roosevelt’s reluctance to speak out against events unfolding in Nazi-occupied Europe appears to have been largely congruent with the attitudes of the American public at the time.
This brings us back to US Surgeon General Adams. No matter how impressive Adams’ credentials as a physician, because he is an African American, it is highly likely that FDR would never have considered appointing him to his current post during to prevailing racial attitudes at the time. If he had, there would have been a public uproar — especially among the Southern states — with such openly anti-Semitic and racists legislators as Congressmen Clare Hoffman and John Rankin, along with Senator Theodore Bilbo, rallying Southerners and others in violent opposition to Adams’ appointment. It is wise to not forget, therefore, that US political history has been dotted with other Pearl Harbor moments.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
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