Ronald Takaki’s Double Victory

October 11, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ronald Takaki’s new book is “Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II.” Takaki is professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of nine other books, including “A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America.” Why “Double Victory?” Where’s the title come from?

RONALD TAKAKI: Well, we always think of World War II as the good war, but this good war contained a contradiction. We were fighting the Nazis with a Jim Crow army. And so why did minorities, the excluded Americans, go to war? They went to war for double victory, for victory against fascism abroad, but also victory against racial inequality and prejudices here at home.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And I find it… I found it very interesting. This is a book about a struggle, about inequality. There are very sad letters in it, and yet essentially it’s a very uplifting book. It has a kind of happy end in that people really did change their lives. For example, the war industries were… you were not allowed to be in the war industries, most of them, if you were a minority — until what? What happened?

RONALD TAKAKI: Well, what happened was this: Here we were celebrating in a way this war as a war to be fought by the arsenal of democracy, and yet this arsenal for democracy was not democratic. It excluded blacks. And so you had this march on Washington, or a threatened march on Washington led by A. Philip Randolph. And Randolph met with the President, President Roosevelt. And Roosevelt said, “well, how many Negroes can you get around the White House?” And Randolph said, “100,000, Mr. President.” And that shook Roosevelt up. And that’s what led him to sign that executive order. He did not want to give Hitler the opportunity to laugh at America’s hypocrisy. So this war had its upside in that it was a moment when Americans of all races had to confront a contradiction, an internal contradiction. And out of this confrontation came a transformation of America itself.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why did you want to write this book the way you did? You use letters. You use songs. You have the stories of people from various ethnic and all kinds of other groups. You have Jewish Americans, German Americans are discussed, Italian Americans. Why did you want to write this book?

RONALD TAKAKI: I wanted to write a history from the bottom up, and I wanted to bring together the American people, the diverse American people, and their struggle against forces aboard and also forces at home. And so I wanted to tell this story from the bottom up, and this is where I had to rely on letters and songs and diaries and so forth, and also oral histories, conversations, like the conversation we’re having. It’s through the stories that we learn about what happened. I like to use the term “bilevel” view of the war. That’s what I try to present in this book.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You have a very important letter. Would you read it for us please and tell the story of this letter?

RONALD TAKAKI: This is a letter written by a group of wounded American soldiers sharing a hospital ward in Europe, and they’ve been reading about the terrible race riots exploding in cities across America in 1943. And the worst one occurred in Detroit. So they wrote a letter that was published in the Detroit newspaper, and this is what they wrote collectively. They said… They wrote, “Why are these race riots going on there in Detroit and in other cities in this land, supposedly the land of freedom, equality and brotherhood? The riots make us fighters think, what are we fighting for — the principles that gave birth to the United States of America. In this hospital ward, we eat, laugh, and sleep uncomplainingly together.” And then they signed their names: Jim Stanley, Negro; Joe Wakamatsu, Japanese; Ing Yu, Chinese; John Brennan, Irish; Paul Calosi, Italian; Don Hultheimer, German; Joe Wojzeziewski, Polish; and Mike Cohen, Jewish. Just think about that. These are diverse Americans, but they all are saying, “we are Americans, and we belong to a nation founded, dedicated to this principle of equality.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There were two of the chapters that I found quite dark actually. Most of the chapters have… there’s some kind of progress that’s made. I found the chapter about Japanese Americans quite dark and also about Jews. Talk about both of those, and give us a little bit of your family history.

RONALD TAKAKI: Well, Japanese Americans, on the mainland, on the West Coast were interned. But Japanese Americans in Hawaii were not interned. I was born in Hawaii. I grew up in Hawaii, and I was not sent to an internment or concentration camp.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why the difference?

RONALD TAKAKI: Why? Well that’s an important question, because there were more Japanese Americans living in Hawaii than on the mainland. Well, the main difference was this: We had a military governor named Delos Eamons and he said, “look, it’s not the American way to round up people and incarcerate them without due process.” He said, “we have a Constitution to respect.” And so Delos Eamons resisted pressure from Washington to intern the Japanese Americans in Hawaii. But on the mainland, it was a different story, where our governor of the West, our military commander of the West Coast, John DeWitt, said, “a Jap is a Jap.” And he said, “it doesn’t matter what generation you belong to, you still are a member of the enemy race.” And that, combined with political pressures and economic pressures, led to internment. But there’s an upside to the internment story. These Japanese Americans left the internment camps to serve in the United States armed forces. They served in the 442nd. They gave their limbs and their bodies to defend this nation, but they fought for a double victory. They wanted to liberate their families still in the internment camps. And when they came back, they were sending a message to this country. They said, “This government should never have questioned our loyalty. This government should never have violated our constitutional rights.”

With the Holocaust, I have a chapter in this about the Holocaust, and it’s not about what happened over there, but what did not happen over here. Our government did virtually nothing to admit and to rescue Jewish refugees; but there is an upside to this story, because Jewish Americans had to ask of themselves, “What is our responsibility to our brethren in Europe”? And in the middle of the war, after waiting patiently for Roosevelt, who was heeding the polls– the polls said that 70% of the American people did not want to admit Jewish refugees– Jewish Americans began to protest and began to break the silence. They began to have plays that toured the country, saying that this nation should do everything possible to rescue these Jewish prisoners of the heart of horror in Europe.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So even that, there were lessons learned that were then used in the future?

RONALD TAKAKI: Just think about what came out of this struggle for double victory. The civil rights movement came out of it. The integration of the armed forces came out of it — and also new laws, like the Immigration Act of 1965 that reopened the gates to Asian immigrants. And then, of course, the 1988 Redress and Reparations Act. This is a powerful act. Here you have our government apologizing to Japanese Americans for interning them and also paying each one of them $20,000. Of course, $20,000 was only symbolic, but still, think about it. This is amazing that our government would acknowledge that this is a wrong that it had committed during World War II.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Ronald Takaki, thanks for being with us.

RONALD TAKAKI: Well, thank you for this opportunity.