Before World War II, Asian Americans endured exclusion, oppression, violence, racial discrimination both in and out of the workforce. Many discriminatory laws were passed such as denying the right to become citizens, to own property, and marry outside of their race. Because Asians were seen as competition and a threat to White labor, anti-Asian hostilities continuously increased. America had little tolerance toward Asian Americans and tried to bar them from any possible opportunities. When America began participating in World War II, domestic support and help was imperative to win which created new opportunities for minorities. World War II was a watershed event for Asian Americans as reforms were made and exclusion laws were repealed. Despite being viewed and treated as alien foreigners in their own country, Asian Americans “would be asked to support their country in crisis and serve as Americans in the armed forces” (Takaki 357). However, while citizenship and wartime employment was offered for other Asian groups, Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps. Thus, because America was already becoming involved in international relations and dilemmas abroad, World War II exposed how the majority of American society treated Asian Americans, forcing the United States to make reforms.
America was able to exclude Asians for five decades previously because Asians were not needed to support the country and America was not fighting a contradicting ideology. When World War II began, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union allied together against the fascist ideologies and expansionist policies of Germany, Japan, and Italy. As America was a major player and superpower in the world, it could no longer hide or justify racial discrimination and exclusion. Racism contradicted the ideals that the United States and the other Allies were fighting for, raising concerns among Asian Americans around the world about U.S. integrity. As a nation aspiring to world leadership, America “could not oppose the racist ideology of Nazism overseas and also ‘practice’ racial discrimination” at home (Takaki 369). In order to reflect and demonstrate their democratic policies and values, Congress felt pressured into extending its ideals to Asian Americans.
New reforms and legislation were passed during World War II extending citizenship, opposing racial discrimination, and expanding employment opportunities for many Asian Americans. During the exclusion era, the first significant law restricting a specific population by race was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was made permanent in 1904. The Chinese Exclusion Laws were repealed in 1943 under the Magnuson Act, providing naturalization rights and an annual quota for Chinese immigrants, as Whites realized the significance of Chinese friendship and cooperation in the war. Also, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 amended the Immigration Act of 1917 which banned undesirables and those living in the Asiatic Barred Zone. It allowed for a quota of 100 Indians to immigrate to the United States and granted naturalization rights. These changes were certainly improvements but not enough to end exclusion. The Chinese exclusion act was only repealed as “‘the salvation of the white race’ depended significantly on continued Chinese friendship and military cooperation” (Takaki 378). The idea that Chinese should still be limited in small numbers upon entry into the country persisted. Similarly, the Luce-Celler Act was a strategic decision as America needed India as an ally for the war. America made reforms and overturned discriminatory laws on the basis of necessity for winning the war and not on the basis of constitutionality.
Although other Asian groups were provided benefits, relief, and opportunities, Japanese Americans faced the highest form of hostility during this time: incarceration. Shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, the Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps. Despite several reports claiming that there were no issues with Japanese American loyalties such as the Munson report, military necessity was used to justify exclusion. The media and politicians created fear in the public, stirred anti-Japanese hysteria, and established a reason for placing the Japanese in camps. Even though Executive Order 9066 did not specify the Japanese as the group to be excluded, it was targeted at them and was essentially a blank check on their constitutional rights. Many Japanese were forced to sell their property and possessions quickly. They were prohibited from leaving the camp, surrounded by barbed-wire fences like criminals, and awakened by a siren blast every day. As a result of internment, many suffered from great economic losses, the loss of family members, and the loss of their freedom and independence. The Whites did not distinguish between Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans. Instead, they simply lumped them together by race which resulted in internment. In order to alleviate the other Asian groups and prevent the other Asian countries from allying with Japan, employment opportunities and citizenship rights were provided while Japanese Americans were isolated in camps and denied their rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Also, as anti-Japanese sentiments grew, the portrayal of other Asian groups became more positive. There was a significant difference in racial treatment between Japanese Americans and other Asian groups depending on America’s allies and enemies in the war, despite the fact that most of them were U.S. citizens.
The war opened many opportunities for women as well. War inspired Asian Americans and ignited patriotic explosions. Asian American women’s participation in war efforts was non-existent before, but the war was a drastic turning point. Many Asian American women “contributed to the U.S. war effort by serving in military auxiliary units” while others stepped into civilian jobs and positions that were previously closed to them, filling jobs left by men who entered military service (Lee 227). Japanese American women provided medical care and served as linguists, Filipino American women fought as an underground resistance, some worked as photo interpreters, weather forecasters, and air traffic controllers as well (Williams). Some families moved away from their hometowns to take advantage of wartime opportunities available elsewhere. Many Asian American women married American soldiers and assimilated into American culture. World War II allowed for the stretching and reshaping of gender roles and norms, as well as for interracial marriages.
The war was a pivotal point in Asian American history as it helped propel the progression of reforms made for Asian Americans. It generated new opportunities for Asians, both male and female, who had traditionally been excluded and marginalized (Bresnahan). Despite being regarded as foreigners for five decades, Asians caught the patriotic spirit and invested their time, money, and lives to support their country. There was a change in social attitudes due to Asians immense support and participation in war efforts. Asian Americans also pushed the boundaries during the war against fascism regarding citizenship, which undercut the ideological and moral justification for racism. What can also be learned is that the internment of a population solely based on race is a severe violation of constitutional rights and can result in many feeling hopeless and helpless after being stripped of their independence, freedom, family, and belongings.