When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park is set in occupied Korea during World War II. It follows a brother and sister as the Japanese inflict more and more hardships.
The story itself didn’t blow me away, but the history was a perspective I knew nothing about. I don’t know much about Korean history, so it was fascinating to get this glimpse.
Much of the World War II story we get is the brutality of the Nazis. I’ve heard some about Japanese soldiers, but this viewpoint is more from a civilian point of view as Korea has been occupied by Japan for more than 30 years. The story chronicles many of the ways the Japanese tried to eliminate Korean culture, including banning the language and writing, forced renaming of citizens and even uprooting and burning the national tree of Korea.
The Japanese were working to homogenize their empire, crush the spirit of any resistance and wipe out any unique identifiers that Koreans could take pride in.
With this backdrop it becomes painfully obvious how offensive it is when non-Asians treat all Asians with a broad brush, confusing Koreans for Japanese for Chinese and then dismissing it all as meaningless.
Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and World War II is yet another area that has captured my interest. Racial segregation was the norm across the South, in the nation’s capital and also in the armed forces. Even blood collected for wounded soldiers had to be segregated by order of the War Department.
In that atmosphere of inequality and second class citizenship, it’s not hard to see parallels between the fascist and racial supremacy ideals of Hitler and the segregation of Jim Crow.
As civil rights activist (and my new hero) Pauli Murray put it in a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt, “We are as much political refugees of the South as any of the Jews of Germany.” As the Holocaust showed Hitler’s tyranny was far more gruesome and deadly, but blacks in the South faced lynchings, intimidation and degradation as a way of life. White racists of the South weren’t that far removed from Nazi Germany.
Murray argued for equality as part of the war effort, saying: “We cannot come into the world struggle for democracy with dirty hands.”
As the draft began blacks posed a fair question: “Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?” That’s how James G. Thompson of Wichita, Kan., put it, as he proposed the Double V campaign:
“The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory for our enemies from within. For surely those who perpetuate these ugly prejudices here are seeking to destroy our democratic form of government just as surely as the Axis forces.”
Published and promoted by the Pittsburgh Courier it became a rallying cry that gave blacks an opportunity to support the war effort and maintain their dignity.
The Double V campaign didn’t succeed initially on the home front, but in 1948 Harry Truman ended segregation of the armed forces by executive order. In the 1950s other challenges to segregation would mount and it would eventually crumble beneath the march of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, 20 years after World War II and the Double V campaign.
History lesson. How would you like to be Leo Szilard? The man worked on the Manhattan Project, building the first atomic bomb for the U.S. military. Then, when he realized its potential, he fought against any military use of the bomb. But to no avail. The bombs were dropped and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled. Days later the Japanese unconditionally surrendered. What is the state of humanity when it becomes necessary to level a city to end a war? Many argue that the use of nuclear weapons was necessary. My grandfather fought as a marine in Iowa Jima, and would have undoubtedly been a part of any invasion force, had it been necessary to invade Japan. Such an invasion would not come without great casualties. Therefore many people argue that the atomic bombs saved American lives.
Continue reading Leo Szilard’s Plan to Avoid Nuking Japan