Many Americans view World War II as a “Good War”. Unlike the countries of Europe and Asia, the United States did not suffer from invasions of its homeland, the mass killing of civilians, or the bombing of its cities. However, for Americans, World War II is remembered as a war fought in the name of humanity, discrimination, and fundamental human rights. Ironically, the United States of America, the most powerful country and democracy in the world, was perceived as a divided nation by the 1940s. Race and religion were the catalysts for this division. While the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, and the attack on Pearl Harbor are all well-known themes of World War II, the participation of African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and women in the war are the least discussable topics. The civil rights movements in the post-war period directly resulted from their influence.
In the 1930s, dark-skinned Americans saw fascism as the basis of state philosophy and ideology of racism, an open enemy. Therefore, when World War II broke out in Europe in the autumn of 1939, for the most part, they had no doubts about which side their sympathies were on. Since the war against Nazi Germany unfolded under the slogans of protecting democratic freedoms, the question of the rights of black Americans to serve in the armed force alongside white Americans acquired a special meaning. Due to prejudice and discrimination, African Americans played a minor role in the military at the start of the war. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the participation of the United States in the war was inevitable. This participation highlighted the need for additional soldiers on the front lines. At that time, African Americans were forced to participate in the battle. According to Foner, over 1 million blacks served in the military throughout the war (2019). Not surprisingly, African Americans found the continued inequalities intensely unbearable after the war. A bright example is the G.I. Bill, signed into law by President Roosevelt, which provided funds for 43 percent of white veterans and 49 percent of black veterans an education, unemployment insurance, and training by 1950 (Humes, 2006). It was, in fact, the only race-neutral social program.
The war also contributed to the migration of Mexicans to the United States. As the defense industry grew and many workers left for the war, the industries experienced severe labor shortages. There was a labor agreement between Mexico and the United States called the Bracero Program to fill them. The main struggle for Mexican Americans was to be socially accepted, and Mexican Americans could not do this until they became legally equal citizens to white people. The relations between Mexican Americans and white Americans became even contrary with the Zoot Suit Riots. This incident received its name from the type of clothing known as a “zoot suit”, worn by many young Mexican Americans in the early 1940s (Forner, 2019). The reaction of Mexican Americans after the Zoot Costume Riots and World War II was to seize the opportunity of patriotism for social justice, especially in California, where there was a high concentration of immigrants from Mexico.
Another minor racial group contributing to World War II is the Chinese Americans. Since the first Chinese immigrants arrived in the 19th century, their perception has been generally negative. Although they only possessed a desire to improve their social status, the early Chinese immigrants faced discrimination in every aspect of American society. However, when the Second World War broke out, these perceptions gradually began to change in a more positive direction. Another major factor in changing perceptions of Chinese Americans was their willingness to enlist in the allied military. About 20,000 Chinese Americans joined the army (Changfu, 2008). Their participation in the Allied military campaign impacted how other Americans saw them. Many noticed that Chinese Americans were willing to die for a country that did not show them much respect. These acts of bravery have done nothing but reinforce the positive perception in which Chinese Americans have been portrayed by the media and the government. By the post-World War II era, the perception of Chinese Americans had become significantly different from that of their ancestors who had first immigrated to the United States.
The women also joined the military alongside the men during the war. They worked as nurses, drove trucks, fixed planes, and clerical work. Some were killed in battle or taken prisoner. Others worked as chemists and engineers, developing weapons for the war. Among them were thousands of women who were hired to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb (DuBois & Dumenil, 2016). However, in the workplace, not all women were treated equally. Even though they were initially offered the same career chances and opportunities than ever before, women were paid far less than men. Moreover, over the involvement of the United States in the war, the authorities detained thousands of women in quarantine areas to protect the army from possible sexual diseases women could have (Romm, 2015). Despite this, the war period was a beginning for women to pursue new careers and fight for equal pay.
World War II was also a time of demanding changes for another ethnic group in the United States – Japanese Americans. In fact, The United States’ official entrance to the war started with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This led to the order signed by President Roosevelt to isolate the Japanese Americans who were considered agents. As a result, the authorities detained more than 100 thousand Japanese in the camps (Humes, 2016). In 1988, Congress provided financial compensation of 20 thousand dollars to each surviving inmate from the camps. This experience also transformed the Japanese American community itself. If before the war, most Japanese Americans were often isolated from American society because of strict traditions imposed by their older generation; the after-war generation became some of the most educated members of their communities.
Despite its horror, World War II is remembered as a “Good War”. It was also a war of conflicts. While the United States fought to stop the spread of Nazism and expose to the world scheme of racial superiority, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and women were still facing discrimination. They were paid less, treated differently, and had fewer facilities than white Americans had. However, in more global perspectives, in more global perspective, the war was a chance for minor ethnic groups of Americans to fight for equal rights and opportunities.
Changfu, C. (2008). Chinese Americans and American society. Chinese Studies in History, 41(3), 3-22. Web.
DuBois, E. C., & Dumenil, L. (2016). Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. Bedford/St.Martin’s.
Forner, E. (2019). Give me Liberty!: An American History. W.W.Norton&Company.
Humes, E. (2006). How the GI Bill Shunted Blacks into Vocational Training. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (53), 92-104. Web.
Romm, C. (2015). During World War II, Sex Was a National-Security Threat. The Atlantic. Web.
Questar Entertainment. (2013). Japanese Relocation – Government Film (1942) [Video]. YouTube. Web.