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Thursday, June 8, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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JERRY LARGE

War! What was it good for? Author/historian has an answer

Seattle Times staff columnist

America was prepared to fight World War II with one hand tied behind its back. It was prepared to do this because it was committed to and blinded by a social hierarchy in which the only true American was a white American.

America was prepared to do battle with racist Nazis and nationalistic Japanese when it was itself infected by and weakened by those diseases.

But Americans who were pushed aside by racist ideology forced the country to see their strength and to use it in the war effort. They fought two wars, one abroad and another at home, and their contributions to both made America stronger.

Historian Ronald Takaki tells this story in his latest book, "Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II."

Takaki, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, will speak in Seattle at Barnes & Noble tonight and Elliott Bay Book Co. tomorrow night.

I spoke to him by phone yesterday.

"Most histories of World War II are written from the top down," he said. Those that get to ground level are told through the eyes of white soldiers, "Saving Private Ryan," for instance, or are specific to one minority group.

"There was no book like mine that tells the story of World War II through the eyes of ordinary people from all groups."

Takaki says it is important to reconceptualize the war because it was a major turning point: not only the biggest event of the century, but the catalyst for moving the United States closer to realizing its destiny as a multicultural democracy.

Each minority group has a unique history and place in America. What binds their stories is the desire, repeated again and again throughout the book, to take this opportunity to improve their lot in this country, to be all that an American can be.

African Americans knew the drill, having fought in every one of the nation's wars, hoping each time that finally the country for which they shed blood would recognize its African sons and daughters.

Takaki quotes the editor of the Chicago Defender, "Why die for democracy for some foreign country when we don't even have it here?"

But people did fight, even when they had to demand the right to risk their lives.

At home, some unions and most defense industries rejected minority workers. The Japanese and Germans used that division in their propaganda. President Roosevelt was forced by that propaganda and by the threat of demonstrations by African Americans to order industries to hire minorities.

A law passed in 1790 had declared that only white people could become naturalized citizens of the United States. It was a clear statement, if any were needed, of how the majority viewed this nation.

Takaki quotes from a letter Harry Truman wrote in which he said this was meant to be a white nation.

World War II put a crack in that vision. After the war, Asian immigrants were allowed to become naturalized citizens.

The services were integrated in 1948, allowing black soldiers to serve in units with other Americans.

Mexican Americans gained the right to attend the same schools as whites in California in a 1946 court decision that laid the groundwork for the decision eight years later to allow African Americans to attend integrated schools.

The NAACP, the American Jewish Congress and the Japanese American Citizens League all joined in supporting the Mexican-American case.

The changes wrought by World War II are still happening, he said, creating a new and better America.

"We need not be fearful of this more accurate past . . . it helps us realize that what binds us together are our founding principles."

American minorities will continue to draw attention to those principles, Takaki said.

Jerry Large's column appears Sundays and Thursdays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 206-464-3346. Fax: 206-464-2261. E-mail: jlarge@seattletimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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