The Effects of Racism During World War II

Racism in the United States played a significant role in World War II. Shortly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the placement of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast into detention camps. The president largely made this move because much like Muslim Americans today, Japanese Americans were viewed with suspicion by the general public. Because Japan attacked the U.S., all people of Japanese origin were regarded as enemies.

Although the federal government deprived Japanese Americans of their civil rights, many young men who’d been evacuated to internment camps decided to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by enlisting in the country’s armed forces. In this way, they mirrored the young men of the Navajo Nation who served as code talkers in World War II to prevent Japanese intelligence from intercepting U.S. military commands or the African Americans who served in hopes of winning equal treatment under the law. On the other hand, some young Japanese Americans weren’t keen on the idea of fighting for a country that had treated them as “enemy aliens.” Known as No-No Boys, these young men became outcasts for standing their ground.

Collectively, the experiences U.S. minority groups had during World War II show that not all of the war’s casualties occurred on the battlefield. The emotional toll WWII had on people of color has been documented in literature and film and by civil rights groups, to name a few. Learn more about the war’s influence on race relations with this overview.

Japanese American World War II Heroes

Japanese-American infantry battlion of the 442nd regimental combat team, received the citation streamers.
The 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The American public and government largely regarded Japanese Americans as “enemy aliens” after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. They feared that the Issei and Nisei would join forces with their country of origin to concoct more attacks against the United States. These fears were unfounded, and Japanese Americans sought to prove their skeptics wrong by fighting in World War II.

Japanese Americans in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th Infantry Battalion were highly decorated. They played crucial roes in helping the Allied Forces take Rome, liberating three French cities from Nazi control and rescuing the Lost Battalion. Their bravery helped to rehabilitate the U.S. public’s image of Japanese Americans.

The Tuskegee Airmen

Tuskegee Airmen receiving award
Tuskegee Airmen honored in Maryland.

MarylandGovPics / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

 The Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of documentaries and blockbuster motion pictures. They became heroes after receiving international recognition for becoming the first Blacks to fly and manage aircraft in the military. Before they served, Blacks were actually banned from being pilots. Their achievements proved that Blacks had the intellect and bravery to fly.

Navajo Code Talkers

Navajo code talkers posing with flags.
Marc Dozier / Getty Images

Time and time again during World War II, Japanese intelligence specialists managed to intercept U.S. military the code. That changed when the U.S. government called upon the Navajo, whose language was complex and mostly remained unwritten, to create a code that the Japanese wouldn’t be able to crack. The plan worked, and the Navajo Code Talkers are largely credited with helping the U.S. win the battles of Iwo Jima Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Okinawa.

Because the Navajo-based military code remained a top secret for years, these Native American war heroes were not celebrated for their contributions until New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced a bill in 2000 that resulted in the code talkers receiving gold and silver congressional medals. The Hollywood film “Windtalkers” also honors the work of the Navajo Code Talkers.

No-No Boys

flags of U.S. and Japan torn and laid together

Racide / Getty Images

Japanese American communities largely shunned No-No Boys after World War II. These young men refused to serve in the U.S. military after the federal government stripped 110,000 Japanese Americans of their civil rights and forced them into detention camps following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. It wasn’t that these young men were cowards, as Japanese Americans who felt that military service provided a chance to prove one’s loyalty to the U.S labeled them.

Many No-No Boys simply couldn’t stomach the idea of pledging loyalty to a country that had betrayed them by robbing them of their civil liberties. They vowed to pledge loyalty to the U.S. once the federal government treated Japanese Americans like everyone else. Vilified in the years immediately after World War II, No-No Boys are lauded today in many Japanese American circles.

Literature About Japanese American Internment

plaque describing internment camp

JannHuizenga / Getty Images

Today, Farewell to Manzanar is required reading in a number of school districts. But that classic about a young Japanese girl and her family sent to a detention camp during World War II is far from the only book about Japanese American internment. Dozens of fiction and nonfiction books have been written about the internment experience. Many include the voices of former internees themselves. What better way to learn what life in the U.S. was like for Japanese Americans during World War II than to read the recollections of those who experienced this period in history firsthand?

In addition to "Farewell to Manzanar," the novels "No-No Boy" and "Southland," the memoir "Nisei Daughter" and the nonfiction book "And Justice For All" are recommended.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Effects of Racism During World War II." ThoughtCo, Dec. 24, 2020, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2020, December 24). The Effects of Racism During World War II. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "The Effects of Racism During World War II." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 25, 2021).