A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States

Ethnic & Racial Groups


            As a Jew growing up in the Bronx of the 1950’s, I never encountered anti-semitism. No doubt, it helped that that I grew up in an all Jewish neighborhood. It wasn’t until I got to college that I heard some anti-semitic talk and realized that there were some in upstate New York who had never met a Jewish person  The whole incident less angered than amazed me. It all seemed so bizarre and pathetic.

            It was with considerable surprise, then, that I later learned that anti-semitism had been quite common in American as late as the thirties and forties. Here are some examples:

            • The New York Times (itself a Jewish-owned publication) routinely carried job and apartment advertisements which included the words “For Gentiles only”;
            • Many colleges, including Harvard, maintained strict “Jewish quotas”;

            • The membership of the anti-semitic Ku Klux Klan increased in the ‘30s by 50%, to over 300,000 members;
            • Increasingly, the  New Deal was criticized as “the Jew Deal”;

            • Charles Lindbergh (the very same!), the most famous member of “America First,” was publicly criticizing Jews for being one of the main groups allegedly trying to drag the U.S, into a war with Hitler;

            • In 1936, a Fortune Magazine poll reported that 40% of Americans were “indifferent” to the fate of German Jews; 10% of Americans said they were prepared to join anti-  semitic groups like Father Coughlin’s “Christian Front”;

            • In 1942, a terrible fire swept a Boston nightclub called the Coconut Grove. Over 484 people died, mainly Holy Cross and Boston College students celebrating a football game. The clubs owner was one Barnet Walansky. Because he was a Jew, he was accused of trying intentionally to kill Christians  (It turned out the fire had been of accidental origin). Such was the mentality of the times;

            • Finally, a year later, on the Boston holiday known as ‘Evacuation Day,” Jewish school children were attacked through the city by roving groups of anti-semites.

            These events all testified to the strong current of anti-semitism that had long coursed through American life. With the rise of the Nazi party in German, Jews there faced a far more lethal threat. Anti-Jewish riots in 1938 on the so-called Krystallnacht--”the night of broken glass” --made it clear that neither Jewish lives nor property would be protected in the Germany of Adolph Hitler.

            As the threat to German Jews became clearer and more horrifying, American Jews tried, unsuccessfully, to get their government to extend a helping hand. From 1936 to 1943 the U.S. Immigration Service was headed by Breckinridge Long, himself an anti-semite. He refused to expand the quotas for Jewish refugees, claiming these were more than adequate. An investigation after the war revealed that, under Long’s administration, even existing quotas were only 35% full. Moreover, Long refused to waive certain requirements for obtaining a visa to the United States, such as acquiring a favorable report from the local police. For German Jews, fulfilling this requirement was an impossibility. Clearly, many more Jews could have been saved had the doors to the United States been opened more widely.

            The consequences of U.S. policy was dramatically revealed, as early as 1939, in the tragic case of the SS St Louis, the last steamship allowed out of Hamburg harbor loaded with Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi nightmare. These Jewish passengers did not have visas allowing them immediate entry into the United States. But many of them did have their names on waiting lists which would allow entry within one to three years. The plan was to take the ship to Cuba, where the refugees could join family members and wait until their U.S. visas were valid.
            The ship made it to Cuba, but a new wrinkle soon developed. The corrupt Cuban government would not allow the passengers to disembark until a large bribe was paid. Stuck on the ship, the refugees passed their time shouting down to family members on the pier below. Jewish groups in the United States raised over a million dollars to pay the “entry fee” to the Cuban government, but every time payment was about to be made, the Cuban officials raised the price. Finally, the deal fell through. At this point, the German ship captain was forced to prepare for a return to Hamburg. Food and supplies were running low, and sanitary conditions on the ship were deteriorating.

            Having grown sympathetic to the the plight of his passengers, for whom a return to Germany could mean imprisonment and even death, he charted a course which would play for time. Rather than heading directly across the Atlantic, he first headed the ship up the coast of the United States, hoping that the America would relent and allow the refugees into the country. The only response of the U.S. government, however, was to send a Coast Guard cutter to sail between the SS St Louis and the Florida coast, so that no passengers could jump overboard and try to swim for shore. Finally the German captain had no choice but to swing the ship to the east and head back to Germany. Passengers became despondent, and suicide patrols were set up.

            At the twelfth hour, as the ship approached the British islands, Great Britain, France, and Holland agreed to take the passengers in. Their lives were saved! Or were they? In a year, Germany would conquer Western Europe. One-third of the 900 passengers of the SS St. Louis would find themselves in Nazi concentration camps, where they would die, a tragic conclusion to an incredible story.

            Several recent book have charged that the United States bears a large, indirect responsibility for the millions killed in German death camps. The authors cite American immigration policies (see above) which made it difficult for Jews to flee to the United States. Beyond this, some historians claim that Jewish groups begged the U.S government--without success--to bomb the gas chambers of the concentration camps. It is now clear that U.S. and British governments knew about the Final Solution to exterminate European Jewry.

            Why didn’t the U.S do more? The standard defense is that Roosevelt and other wartime leaders believed that the best way to help the Jews was to bomb the most strategic targets and bring the war to as early a conclusion as possible. To Roosevelt’s credit, when he was informed of Breckinridge Long’s anti-semitism, he saw to it that entry rules were amended so that displaced Jews could find their way to the United States during the later phases of the war, as well as just after it.

            As a result of the Holocaust, and the sympathies which it engendered, anti-semitism has largely disappeared as a mass phenomenon in American life. It turns out that the fate of European Jews and that of America itself were strangely intertwined by  a relatively unknown fact: on December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II. On that very same day, the Nazis regime began gassing German Jews.

Americans of Italian, German, and Japanese Descent           

            On December 8, the day after “a date that will live in infamy,” the United States entered WWII. After we declared war on Japan, their allies--German and Italy--declared war on us, and we reciprocated. On that day, life became a little more complicated for those Americans who families originally hailed from the countries with which we were now at war.

            In 1940, a year before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Americans were asked which group of their fellow citizens might be most loyal to a foreign government. The result were as follows:
            • 82% believed Germans-Americans might be most loyal to a foreign government;
            • 29% believed Italian-Americans might be most loyal to a foreign government;
            • 24% believed Japanese-Americans might be most loyal to a foreign government.

            The United States government moved swiftly to control the potential threat of divided loyalties. German and Italian immigrants who had emigrated legally but who had not yet become citizens were designated “enemy aliens” and were placed under travel restriction within the country. As Italian constituted 60% of the enemy alien group, these 600,000 people received the greatest scrutiny. Wartime anxiety stimulated many rumors. One vigilant citizen reported hearing Italian aliens speaking in code in our own North End. The reputed coded statement was “Roberto Vincera!” (See if you can crack the code. If you can’t, remember to ask me in class).

            But the intense persecution visited on German-Americans  during WWI was not to be repeated. German- and Italian-Americans had become important voting constituencies within the Democratic Party. And on Columbus Day 1942, the Franklin Roosevelt, a good democrat and a good politician, removed the “enemy alien” designation from all German and Italian aliens.

            (Incidentally, the relatively few German and Italian citizens who happened to be visiting the U.S. at the time we went to to war--a incredibly unfortunate time for them to have chosen for a fun vacation here--were arrested and interned on Ellis Island for the duration of the conflict).
            Ironically, the group that suffered the most on the homefront was the very group whose loyalty has been least questioned in the poll cited above: Japanese-Americans (the so-called Nisei generation)  and their parents, the so-called “Issei” generation, who by the terms of a previous immigration law were permanent aliens and could never become American citizens. In 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which required that the 81,000 Nisei and 30,000 Issei living on the West Coast, be evacuated in-land and placed in internment camps in remote, barren locations locations. [See documents that follow].

            How this came to be is a complicated story.  Here are the main factors that explain why this ethnic group was the hardest hit.
Fear and Panic

            After the attack on Pearl Harbor, nerves were frayed. On December 8, severe thunderstorms hit the San Francisco area, and many citizens took cover, convinced that the Japanese were now bombing the American mainland. In this state of high anxiety, public suspicion focused on Americans of Japanese origin.  It was easy for many to believe that Japanese-Americans were acting as a treacherous “fifth column” assisting the Japanese government. Proof was supplied by mere rumor: for example, that the Issei and Nisei (who figured prominently in California agriculture) were growing tomato plants in patterns which served as navigational aids to Japanese bombers,  forming arrows pointing to important military installations. Even Earl Warren, attorney-general of California (who would one day become a great Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, noted for his concern for civil liberties), became caught up in the public hysteria. He urged action again Japanese-Americans and aliens with these words: “They haven’t done anything yet, but this means they they may do something soon.”


            Asians immigrants and Asian-Americans had long been targets of an another American tradition: racism. Scorned as inferior, castigated as the“yellow peril,” Asian-Americans were restricted by special immigration laws, victimized by discrimination, and even even subjected to physical attack, all because they were “different” or  perceived as competition for low-wage jobs.

            This racism erupted anew in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. One group, “The Native Sons of the Golden West,” warned that “Japanese breed like rabbits” and called for them to be put into sex-segregated  internment camps. A Congressmen Rankin felt moved to assert that “A Jap is a Jap--you can’t convert a Jap, make him like a white man any more than you can reverse the laws of nature. Barbers in California put signs in their windows: “Free shaves for Japs. Not responsible for accidents.”

Economic Factors
            Whites farmers--organized together in the Western Produce Growers Association--had long coveted the agricultural land that Issei and Nisei had made bountiful through their arduous labor. Though a relatively small group, Japanese-Americans and their families produced 40% of California’s vegetables, and 22% of the country’s. Wartime hysteria offered the WPGA an opportunity, finally, to acquire Issei- and Nisei-owned land.
Military factors

            The military (led by General DeWitt) helped to convince President Roosevelt that the threat of a Japanese attack on the West Coast was a real possibility and that Americans of Japanese origin were prone to divided loyalties and were, therefore, security risks. FDR then issued a famous executive order declaring the western states a military zone.The Issei and Nisei were then to be evacuated from them--at first voluntarily, soon forcibly--and interned for the duration of the war.

            The WWII internment of Japanese-Americans and their “alien” parents is one of tragic stories of the WWII homefront. (The story is so lamentable that I was never taught about it in high school. During the Cold War, countries on both sides of the Iron Curtain preferred to emphasize their positive sides). Over 120,000 of them were confined, against their will and without due process of law, in concentration camps, surrounded by barbed wire and machine gun towers, and plunked down in the middle of nowhere. The government tried to assure these Asian Americans that the internment was necessary for their own protection, though the internees noted that the spotlights and machine guns were always aimed into the camp.  Ironically, the United States government used the same criteria by which Hitler decided who was Jewish. Anyone who was 1/16 Japanese had to report to the internment camp. This included the round-eyed, red-haired Heywood family, that the government insisted on calling “Hyabashi.” Despite all the hysteria, the fact remains that no wartime act of sabotage or espionage or disloyalty on the part of any Issei or Nisei was ever proven. None. Yet they were imprisoned regardless.           
Life in the camps were difficult. Some internees were allowed to work for local farmers, though at slave wages. In a few camps there were riots. About 28% of receiving refused to swear allegiance to the United States, claiming that they were loyal citizens should not be required to do so. An embittered few renounced their citizenship and moved to Japan after the war. Other young Nisei, in hopes of proving their loyalty and freeing their parents from the camps, took the opportunity to join the U.S. Army. They were put in a segregated, all-Nisei unit, the 442nd regiment, which was allowed to fight only in Europe. It became the most highly decorated American fighting unit of WWII.

            Apart from the human costs--the humiliation and the deprivation of freedom--the Issei and Nisei suffered vast economic losses. Encouraged to demonstrate their patriotism by cultivating their fields up to the last minute, and hoping to gain a  reprieve by doing so, the Japanese-Americans were then forced to sell their farms and homes at below market prices. They lost $70 million in farm land, $35 million in fruits and vegetables, and $500 million in annual income over the years of internment. In 1964, Congress appropriated only $38 million to settle claims.

            There are several important postscripts to the civil liberties disaster that was the Japanese-American internment. The Supreme Court ruled on the episode in two separate decisions. The Korematsu Case, involved one Fred Korematsu, a Californian who refused to cooperate with the mandatory evacuation, saying he had done nothing wrong. In his case, a majority of the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, stating that the government did have the right to forcibly evacuate citizens in the event of emergencies. Three justices dissented, one saying the ruling fell “into the ugly abyss of racism.”  In a later case called Ex Parte Endo, the issue revolved around a citizen who refused to report for internment. Here the Court ruled that while forced evacuation does not violate citizen’s constitutional rights, forced internment without due process of law (i.e., a formal accusation, assistance of counsel, a fair trial, etc) does. And so the internment was declared unconstitutional and the Nisei and Issei were allowed to return home, but not before many had spend as long as three years in the camps.
            One of the strangest facts about the internment--and one which put its underlying causes into some perspective--is that none of the 160,000 Nisei and 90,000 Issei on the Hawaiian islands were interned. Hawaii is of course more than a thousand miles closer to Japan than the California, and was much more exposed to the possibility of a Japanese invasion. Why no internment? Apparently the Issei and Nisei on the islands were needed as labor to harvest the sugar and pineapple crops.

            A final postscript to the internment years came in 1988 when Congress issued a formal letter of apology to Japanese-Americans and to their elderly parents, and authorized a payment  of $20,000 to each of them who had been interned.


            African-Americans entered the WWII-era with their lives still defined by deeply-entrenched patterns of racism. They were still “last hired, and first fired...suffered an infant mortality rate 60% higher than whites..had 3x as much tuberculosis and syphilis...enjoyed a life span of 47 years, compared to 59 years for whites. Politically, they were still unable to vote in the South, and remained locked in the impoverished ghettoes in the North. Lynching was still a reality.
            Some things had changed over the course of the century. DuBois and Marcus Garvey had pointed out new strategies for black liberation. Almost a million blacks had escaped the terror of the South during the “Great Migration” of the WWI-era. Joe Louis had instilled blacks with pride during the thirties. The New Deal had reached out to them. Eleanor Roosevelt had become their champion. Things had changed, but the more things changed, the more they remained the same.

            Indeed, new and disturbing examples of racism emerged. In 1938, a black nightclub, “the Rhythm Club,” burned down in Natchez, Miss. Though 198 people died, the incident was barely deemed newsworthy in the press, unlike the tragedy at the Coconut Grove in Boston, where most victims were white.
            Humiliation continued in 1939 with the case of Marian Anderson, a black operatic singer of whom the great conductor Arturo Tuscaninni said: “A voice like hers comes along once in a century.” She had been invited to give a concert  at Constitution Hall in Washington. When the owners of the building, the exclusive Daughter of The American Revolution, found out about the concert they ordered it cancelled. They didn’t feel that the ideals of the Revolution were consistent with having a black perform on their property. In this case, Eleanor Roosevelt intervened. She resigned her membership in the DAR, and used her influence to organize an outdoor concert at the Lincoln Memorial for Marian Anderson.
            Blacks also began intensifying their own efforts to liberate themselves. Though not labeled a “Great Migration,” close to a million blacks followed the example of their brethren during WWI and moved North. Here, in the somewhat freer air of northern cities, they began to organize in their own behalf. Leading them was the A. Phillip Randolph, the president of the Sleeping Car Porters’ Union, the only black union president in the United States. (See his statue in Boston’s Back Bay RR Station)

            In 1940, on the eve of U.S. entry into WWII,  Randolph demanded that FDR issue an executive order banning job discrimination in industries which received defense contracts. He wanted to ensure that African-Americans got their fair share of defense jobs, and threatened to organize a giant March of Washington to support his demands. Initially, FDR refused to act, fearful that any pro-black action would erode national unity. Later, FDR reversed course, deciding that unity would be even more impaired by the threatened march. By executive order, he created the FEPC--the “Fair Employment Practices Committee”--which made hiring blacks a condition of keeping government contracts. Progress was made, even if blacks were usually restricted to low-paid positions.

            Randolph’s triumphant efforts in the “March on Washington  Movement,” are considered by some historians the beginning of the modern civil rights movement. (Incidentally, the march was never held. But it inspired Martin Luther King to organize his own March on Washington twenty-three years later. The man who introduced him as  he came to the podium to deliver his
“I Have A Dream” speech” was the elderly A. Phillip Randolph. Sometimes there is a wonderful symmetry to history).
            When war broke out, racist fantasies ran wild. Rumors spread throughout the South that blacks would use “blackouts” as an opportunity to rape white woman. Other whites believed that  a temporary shortage of ice picks signalled that blacks had bought them up to stab white people during the first blackouts. Psychologists might find guilty consciences at work here.

            As for military service, African-Americans had to fight for the right to die for their country. Though blacks constituted 10% of the population, only 3% were drafted through 1943, and even this figure has to be credited to the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Within the military services blacks were relegated to servile position. In 1940, there were only two black officers in the entire U.S. Army.

            The word “irony” has ben used several times in this reading, but it must be used once again. One of the greatest ironies of the war is that the United States fought against Hitler and his insane racist theories with an army was kept racially segregated. Roosevelt did not feel that wartime was a good time for social experimentation, and resisted calls to integrate the military. Even military blood banks were kept rigidly segregated. (Integration of the military would not come about until 1948, when the U.S Army became the first major American institution to be desegregated).

            Black soldiers ( or “Eleanor Roosevelt’s niggers,” as they were sometimes called) suffered humiliation in many ways. They were not even allowed to fight along side white combat groups until 1944, very late in the war. Pent up racial feelings exploded across the homefront. In 1941, race riots broke out on military  bases, most of which were located in the South where warm weather facilitated training. The first person killed in the war with the standard issue M1 rifle was not a German, but a black sergeant in the United States. In 1942, over one hundred people were arrested in a riot at the opening of the Sojourner Truth housing project in Detroit. Poor whites resented housing being provided for black migrants. This riot served as a prelude to an even larger ones several cities the following year, including Detroit where 35 were killed and 1000 arrested. As the war raged abroad, racial tensions smoldered and flared on the homefront.

                        All the contradictions of WWII, all the complicated emotions that it stirred in the “souls of black folk,” can be summed up by this true story.  It was a common experience for black soldiers, stationed at training camps in the South, to be denied service at local lunch counters. One day, a group of black soldiers went to a local restaurant to eat. They were stopped at the front door by a sign that said “white-only.” Instead of leaving, they stood transfixed at the front door gazing at something inside. What they saw, in total shock and disbelief, was a group of German POWs sitting at the very counter from which they themselves were banned. Such was life for African-Americans during the “Great Crusade” against fascism, 1941-1945.
            Still, the experience of black military service during became a powerful impetus to the creation of a civil right movement after the war. African-Americans who had fought for democracy aborad were not about to accept any less at home--not after having risked and sacrificed their lives.


Charles Lindbergh
America First
The SS St. Louis
The Cococobana Fire
Breckinridge Long
Enemy aliens
“Roberto Vincera”
Native Sons of the Golden West
Western Produce Growers Association
Executive Order 9066
Korematsu case
Ex Parte Endo
Joe Louis
Marian Anderson
The Rhythm Club
A. Phillip Randolph
March on Washington Movement


All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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