Messages of Tolerance or Fanning the Flames of Racism?
“Our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith. It has everything to do with people of all faiths coming together to condemn hate and evil and murder and prejudice.”
– President Bush on October 11th 2001 at his first Primetime News Conference
Although I am not a Muslim American or an Arab American, President Bushs message of tolerance had a powerful and calming effect on me. The weeks since September 11th had been very difficult for my family as we realized how vulnerable we were to discrimination due to the fact that we shared several common physical characteristics with the nineteen hijackers who struck the World Trade Centers. Two days after the attacks, I was subjected to several misdirected insults as I walked down the streets of Dean Keaton (as I had with no incidents for the five long years that I have been a student at this University) and I felt very afraid. I was born in California, and despite spending eight years in Kuwait and returning to the US as a Gulf War refugee, I had always considered myself an American. At the time of the incident I had just been selected to represent the United States overseas in the Peace Corps, but for the first time in my life I questioned whether I was really part of this country. Although President Bushs message and efforts have alleviated many of my fears, I wonder how effective these actions are in times of crisis. Historically, what impact did governmental policies have on racial intolerance during international conflicts? Over the course of this research paper, I intend to examine the policies of the three branches of government during the two World Wars in order to find a correlation.
The first case of wartime discrimination that merits analysis is World War I, which most historians consider rife with violations of civil liberties especially for the German American community. America jumped into World War I after Germanys policy of unrestricted submarine warfare had destroyed several of their neutral ships. President Woodrow Wilson was aware of the racial tension that would rise as a consequence of his declaration of war and made note of that in his famous speech on April 2nd 1917:
We shall, happily, still have an opportunity to prove that friendship in our daily attitude and actions towards the millions of men and women of German birth They are, most of them, as true and loyal Americans as if they had never known any other fealty or allegiance If there should be disloyalty, it will be dealt with a firm hand of stern repression
While this executive declaration was assuring to German Americans at the time, the question of loyalty foreshadowed the dramatic legislative actions that would follow. On April 6th 1917, Wilson issued twelve regulations for alien enemies – immigrants who had not completed the naturalization process and came from opposition countries. This was followed by eight more regulations on November 16th 1917 to further curtail their actions and provide for internment at detention centers. While this affected recent German immigrants, the majority of German-Americans would not suffer until May 16th 1918, when the notorious Sedition Act of 1918 was passed as an amendment to a previous espionage act. While not being specific to any ethnic group, this act officially made any expression of discontent illegal and was often used against German-Americans. The Creel commission, created during World War I to promote American interests, also created tremendous anti-German hysteria through its pro-war propaganda. In all, six thousand people of Germanic origin would be interned in the US over the course of the war.
Socially, these policies created an aura of distrust towards German Americans and especially towards institutions that catered to Germans. In 1917, the Federal Government censored German American newspapers, outlawed German language schools, banned German American theatre, burned their literature, and items of German origin were renamed. The two million member National German American Alliance (which represented their interests) was also outlawed by Congress in 1918. The judicial branch of the government had also taken an anti-German American stance with an increasing number of convictions using the Sedition Act. Things were looking very grim for German Americans.
The case of Robert Prager in 1918 is an example of all of these excesses. Prager, a coal miner of German origin who was undergoing the naturalization process, was accused of uttering disloyal remarks and was lynched by a patriotic mob despite the intervention of the police and the mayor. When the leaders of the mob were taken to court, the jury acquitted them and the town celebrated their patriotism after the trial. This disturbing incident shows its political undertones by its portrayal by the media. An April 5th 1918 article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat was titled German Enemy of the US Hanged by Mob with the subheading St. Louis Collinsville Man Killed for Abusing Wilson. It was no coincidence that Wilson signed the Sedition Acts a month later, indirectly putting his stamp of approval on the mobs actions. Many of these moves would set a precedent for the next major conflict: World War II.
Historians refer to the Second World War as the Good War. However, for people with genealogy going back to enemy countries, it was more hardship and suffering. Much of what occurred with the Japanese American population is well documented and recognized by scholars. After the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor on December 7th 1941, President Roosevelt issued a blanket authorizing the attorney general to detain dangerous enemy aliens. Many Japanese Americans were arrested even before they were declared dangerous enemy aliens by an executive order on December 11th 1941. With the Public Proclamations, Civilian Exclusion Orders, and the creation of the War Relocation Authority in 1942, the legislative branch forced Japanese Americans on the West Coast into internment camps for the duration of the war. The judicial branch echoed these anti-Japanese sentiments by supporting the decisions of Roosevelt and the War Relocation Authority in the Supreme Court cases of Hirabayashi v. United States (1943) and Korematsu v. United States (1944). All of this proceeded on the basis that all Americans of Japanese origin were traitors and that was how the public perceived it as well. But there were other, less publicized victims of wartime discrimination during the Good War.
While the hardships of Japanese Americans during World War II are well known, many other ethnic minorities faced similar circumstances and have somehow been ignored. Proclamation 2526 called for control of German alien enemies and Proclamation 2527 was to regulate Italian alien enemies. Over 31,280 people of European decent were forced into internment camps from both the United States and Latin America with a large majority of them being Italians and Germans. In some cases, the interned were Jews who has escaped the conflict in Europe only to be placed in a detention camp in the United States. While these detainees were not subject to other legislative or judicial constraints due to their status as alien enemies, it was still a significant population that was pushed into hardship. But there were other minorities who did succumb to harsh legislative policies. Other victims of wartime oppression were political opposition leaders (who were typically of German origin) through the Smith Act that was similar to the Sedition Act of 1918. Black Muslims also faced a great deal of trouble for identifying with the Japanese as victims of white oppression. Court cases to determine the constitutionality of these issues often ruled in favor of the government thereby shedding its required neutrality. However, the government has attempted to atone for its domestic actions in recent years.
In order to compensate for the wrongs of internment, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 that offered redress of $20,000 to more than 81,000 Japanese Americans for their forced relocation. Last year, Italian Americans were recognized for their treatment during the war as well. On August 3rd 2001, Senator Feingold of Wisconsin introduced the Wartime Treatment of European Americans and Refugees Study Act to Congress in order to explore the trauma that German Americans faced in US internment during World War II. This is a vast improvement over the lack of restitution for the victims of wartime discrimination during the First World War.
In conclusion, our government has played a huge role in the treatment of minorities during the worlds greatest conflicts. However, it has traditionally been the tool of exclusion rather than a promoter of tolerance. In times of war, the government must achieve a difficult balance between civil rights and national security while answering to the concerns of the majority. Considering that an October 21st 2001 CNN-USA Today Gallup poll showed that there is a 49%-49% split from Americans in regards to a special Arab ID card, there are reasons to be worried. While the United States usually makes amends for its mistakes once they are recognized, I would rather be safe than become a cruel footnote in American history.