The "Double-V" Campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, Racial Ideology, and Federal Power

Article excerpt

Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the United States joined the war that had been raging for so long, the largest circulation African American newspaper in the country called for a "Double V" campaign: "Victory over our enemies at home and victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad."(1) The editor of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote: "We call upon the President and Congress to declare war on Japan and against racial prejudice in our country. Certainly we should be strong enough to whip both of them."(2) Only one of those wars would be declared. President Roosevelt and his advisors had no intention of dividing America's efforts between the war and troubling domestic social issues. In this vein, it was decided that the nation would fight its enemies with segregated armed forces. The official rationale for racial segregation had been clearly stated in 1939: "The War Department administers the laws affecting the military establishment; it cannot act outside the law, nor contrary to the will of the majority of the citizens of the Nation."(3) This official statement suggests a unity of both authority and policy that is misleading, and which obscures the complexity of racial issues during the war. During World War II the federal government (partly in the guise of the War Department) greatly expanded the reach and range of its power. In practice this meant that the federal government exercised control over all matters deemed pertinent to winning the war, reaching into people's lives and into local communities in an unprecedented manner. The possibility for uniform national policy was greater than ever before. But government agents, military or civilian, did not enforce laws and policies in a completely standard fashion. On particular issues and in specific cases, they often bowed to the weight of local (or regional) custom and tradition. Race was one of those issues. It was potentially inflammatory, politically dangerous, divisive of the American will. Thus federal policy on race was most inconsistent, played out in the complicated contexts of local desires and traditional understandings, pressured by the acts of often outraged citizens, and always subordinate to the larger aim of winning the war. During World War II the policies affecting black Americans--and thus to some extent their experiences as Americans--were shaped by the competing, overlapping, and uncertain lines of political power and social authority. Though policies might be coherently stated at a national level, the importance of local situations, of contingency, and of individual action could be enormous. Still, it was to a great extent the presence of the federal government that created the spaces in which these factors could play such important roles.(4) The struggles about race are most obvious where it seems inevitable they would be obvious--in Southern training camps. There the limits of America's promises were fully demonstrated, as the military and federal government frequently set local custom over national law. But it is also instructive to look to a less predictable example. It was in Hawaii that the meaning of divided sovereignty and local difference was perhaps most complex for black Americans. Southern training camps demonstrated the limits imposed on African Americans; Hawaii demonstrated a complicated set of possibilities. In Hawaii during the war, there was a volatile combination of extreme state power, a complex system of race relations that was not bi-polar and had no established place for African Americans, and the tensions of a war zone that had to absorb hundreds of thousands of men from the mainland, all of whom carried the cultural codes of their diverse homes. The men who came to Hawaii found it a strange place in many ways, but they also found the familiar structures of American life. This juncture of familiar and unfamiliar created in Hawaii a certain liminality. Some would use this liminal landscape to construct new paradigms of race and new possibilities for struggle as yet unexplored in mainland America. …