Followup: Lessons of Pearl Harbor

In light of the Pearl Harbor anniversary and the recent deplorable turn in American political discourse I penned an op-ed on the lessons of Pearl Harbor and the persistence of fear as motivation for unity. I wrote the piece before Trump Trumped yesterday and suggested the United States bar all Muslims from entry. The article strives to bring up the dual legacy of unity in America inspired by the devastation of a surprise attack and of the fear sparked by that event that led to the unjust internment of thousands of Japanese Americans.

While the comment section at The Diplomat devolved, as it often does, into commentary on Japan–one commenter posed the question of whether I was aware that German and Italian Americans were also interned during WWII and further, he asked, why did they not receive reparations and an apology?

I, with my German last name and large Italian American extended family, was most certainly aware. And I have a few thoughts:

On Scale. Between 110,000 and 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans were interned during the war. Of that number, an estimated 62 percent were American citizens. In contrast, just over 11,000 of Germans were interned. Hundreds of Italians were interned. In both of groups, the majority were German or Italian citizens. Many more of both groups were harassed, monitored, and made to move. Here’s the Department of Justice’s 2001 report on restrictions on those of Italian ancestry during WWII.

But those of German and Italian descent had numbers on their sides. Italians were the largest foreign-born group in the country. Between 1900 and 1914 and estimated 3 million migrated to America (including my ancestors who set up shop, in stereotypical fashion, in the Boston area). It was physically impossible to detain everyone with an Italian mother. The same logic applied in Hawaii: of Hawaii’s 150,000-strong population of ethnic Japanese, under 2000 were interned. On the mainland, however, those of Japanese descent were not so lucky.

To be frank, racism did not effect German and Italian Americans as much as it did the Japanese during World War II. This isn’t to say they were not the subject of vitriol , of nasty cartoons and suspicious neighbors. They were. But let’s go to the next point.

On Context. Why did I not include the racism faced by Italian Americans or the hatred directed at German Americans? Well, first, because I was discussing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its relation to hatred directed at those of Japanese ancestry. Second, The Diplomat is a publication focused on Asia (and based in Tokyo). It is impossible to include everything, so I opted for include that which fit the anniversary and my core audience.

Another note related to context is the way in which Japan and Germany were depicted. In my piece I cited Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. In an amazing article from 2014 on Geisel’s views and depictions of the Japanese, Jonathan Crow noted that:

In the battle for homeland morale, American propaganda makers depicted Germany in a very different light than Japan. Germany was seen as a great nation gone mad. The Nazis might have been evil but there was still room for the “Good German.” Japan, on the other hand, was depicted entirely as a brutal monolith; Hirohito and the guy on the street were uniformly evil. Such thinking paved the way for the U.S. Air Force firebombing of Tokyo, where over 100,000 civilians died, and for its nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

So, again, focusing on the plight of Japanese Americans is important because the context of the time went beyond “they are our military enemy” to a place of much deeper racism.

For its part, California did pass a resolution apologizing for its internment and harassment of Italians during the war. I’m not aware of any successful legislation to apologize to those of German descent, or to offer reparations.

And that’s all I have to say on that.

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