The acute need for wartime production labor, coupled with President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 8802 in 1941 banning discrimination in defense industries, opened up doors of opportunity that had been previously denied to most African-Americans. Between 1942 and 1945, 340,000 African-Americans migrated from the South and Midwest in pursuit of higher paying jobs in the defense plants of California’s cities. Wages were indeed higher with opportunities open to both men and women.
Upon arriving in the cities surrounding major defense plants, however, African-Americans encountered some of the same discrimination that they had known previously. They were excluded from highly skilled and managerial positions, regardless of experience. Full-fledged membership in unions was not allowed, and housing was segregated with living conditions often poor. In some ways the war brought American racism into sharper focus, leading the Pittsburgh Courier to coin the phrase “The Double Victory Campaign.” The “Double V” symbol came to represent the victory over racism at home and the victory over fascism abroad.
The Bracero Program
A severe agricultural labor shortage during the war years led to the Bracero Program (temporary guest-worker program) being set in motion by the United States and Mexican governments. The Bracero Program allowed Mexican laborers admittance into the US to work temporarily in agriculture and the railroads with specific agreements relating to wages, housing, food, and medical care. The program was set to end in 1945 with the end of the war, however, it lasted until 1964. The program became fraught with problems such as employers neglecting to abide by Bracero Program standards, many laborers moving to urban areas away from agricultural work, and a flood of laborers looking for a better life who bypassed the program and were willing to work for lower wages, thus eroding the Bracero Program.
Chinese-, Korean-, and Filipino-Americans living in California were concerned about the global conflict even before Pearl Harbor. For them war had already become a reality with Japan’s expansion in Asia. Since the start of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the California Chinese community had been active in raising funds for war torn China. During the war, many Asian-Americans served in the military, including 20,000 Chinese-Americans. In 1942, the First and Second Filipino Infantry Regiments were created in California. One fifth of the Koreans from Los Angeles served in the California Korean Reserve of the California State Militia, while 10,000 Korean-Americans raised $239,000 in war bonds. Anti-Asian sentiment in the US began to lessen in the face of media coverage of the brutal Japanese occupation of China, Korea, and the Philippines. In 1943, Soong Mayling, wife of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-Shek, visited the US to rally support for China. In the same year, the US government began to remove restrictions on Chinese immigration. Despite this, attacks persisted on Asian-Americans, as many were wrongly assumed to be Japanese.
Adolf Hitler waged two wars: a military war against the Allies, and a racial war against socalled “sub-humans.” More than six million Jews were murdered during the Nazi Holocaust. Six million non-Jews also perished: Romany or Gypsies, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the handicapped and mentally ill, homosexuals, political prisoners, and foreigners.
Between 1933 and 1945, 190,000 European Jews reached the US. Because of the anti-Semitism and strict government restrictions, many more refugees were unable to immigrate to safety in America. Prior to America’s entry into the war, 80,000 Jewish-Americans were caught in Europe. Hundreds, including some Californians, were rounded up and transported to Nazi concentration camps. In California, home to Hollywood, many prominent Jewish directors and producers had begun to make films with anti-Nazi messages prior to Pearl Harbor. Jewish actors, such as the Three Stooges’ Moe Howard (born Moses Horwitz) – who was the first actor to portray Hitler – hoped that their films would alert their fellow Americans to the rising Nazi threat. Despite such efforts, many films came under sharp criticism from American isolationists.
Asian-Americans had been singled out for discrimination in California long before the war. Japanese-Americans in particular faced restrictive anti-immigration laws and legislation forbidding land ownership. This legacy of prejudice would culminate in their forced relocation. The Japanese attacks along the California coast at the beginning of 1942 triggered calls for the removal of all Japanese from coastal areas.
With the signing of Executive Order 9066, President Roosevelt began one of the greatest reversals of civil rights to ever take place in American history. Over 112,000 Japanese living on the West Coast (including 93,000 in California) found their livelihoods, property, and lives under threat. Between 1942 and 1946, they would be forcibly evacuated to dozens of assembly, internment, and isolation camps. Two – Tule Lake and Manzanar – of the ten internment camps were in California. Wartime arrests and internment also included Italian-Americans. Other ethnic and political groups would also be singled out as potential “enemy aliens” by the FBI and local law enforcement. It would be decades before many ever received any formal apology or restitution.