Recent Facebook meme: “America – My Ancestors Didn’t Travel 4,000 Miles for the Place to Be Overrun by Immigrants”
It is a continual and stupefying realization to me that a large percentage of self-professed “patriots” in the United States oppose such concepts as diversity, multiculturalism, and multilingualism. Their ideas are often expressed in opposition to immigration–or as President Trump often noted, immigration from “the wrong countries”–but also in statements decrying the loss or dilution of “American culture” or in demands that everyone speak English. Discussions and polls have shown that nobody is sure what, exactly, a definition of the common culture in the United States would include, but significant and vocal percentages of U.S. citizens believe that it would include belief in a Christian God, vague notions of “shared” northern European ideals, the ability to speak English, multi-generational family residence in the country, and support for the U.S. Constitution, flag, and/or the national anthem. Accordingly, people who are not Christian, or those who speak English poorly or not al all, or who are, or appear to be, of non-European ancestry are regarded as suspect or illegitimate. Often such people are deemed not worthy of citizenship, of remaining in the country.
In the past few years this bigotry seems to have gotten worse. We’ve seen increasing numbers of physical or verbal attacks on Asian Americans, Middle-Eastern Americans, Hispanics, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and others. Public demonstrations by White supremacy groups and Christian Nationalists have become more common and blatant, joining and amplifying pundit messages expressing fears about the potential loss of “American culture.” In perhaps the most egregious example of the ignorance of such activities, a Navajo state legislator in Phoenix was accosted by a group demanding that he should leave the U.S. and return to his own country. A Navajo!
There are many things that could be said about such astonishing intolerance, but the most important base fact to begin with is that the United States has always been a multicultural and multilingual country. That is true despite our efforts to keep Africans enslaved, to chase Natives and Hispanics out of the lands we stole from them, to reject Catholic immigrants, and to send the Chinese and Irish and Mexicans and Italians back after they had completed the necessary and often backbreaking tasks we needed them to accomplish. Our country has had an unending history of accepting immigrants from virtually anywhere when we needed massive numbers of workers to build our economy, only to follow with backlash actions that attempted to “cleanse” our society of the “un-American” individuals and influences we had previously recruited.
What we so often fail to do is to recognize that those diverse peoples and influences have always been a significant net benefit to out country. To provide just one time-limited but very significant example of that benefit, as we lead up to the 80th anniversary of our official entry into World War II, I would like to list a few of the many ways that those “un-American” citizens, the ones we have so often unfairly tried to reject, helped us to succeed against that war’s threat to our country and to democratic government, often risking their lives to do so.
Start with a group that suffered from a dual deficit. During the war years hatred against Germans and Italians grew. Many were subjected to group internment under the revised Alien Enemies Act and Presidential Proclamation 2526, much like the Japanese-Americans. A number were also victims of an older, more persistent prejudice; they were German Jews. One example was The Ritchie Boys, a group of recent European immigrants that was especially effective. These were individuals, including Jews, who had escaped the advance of Axis armies across Europe and who joined the U.S. war effort. They were trained to apply their knowledge of Europe and of German language and culture in efforts to collect useful intelligence from prisoners of war. As much as 60 percent of the actionable information about the enemy may have come from the efforts of this group. Prominent members included J.D. Salinger and David Rockefeller.
While we were recruiting refugee Europeans into the war effort there was one marginalized group at home that initially was ignored because they were considered unacceptable for combat: African Americans. The military had a pervasive policy of racial segregation. Despite that, more than one million African-Americans served in the war. Among these was the 761st Tank Battalion. The first Black tank battalion to see World War II action, the 761st played a significant role in holding back German forces in the Battle of the Bulge, spending 183 consecutive days in action. Other all-Black units also had prominent roles. One, the 969th Battalion, was later recommended for the Distinguished Unit Citation for its actions around Bastogne.
While Black infantry and artillery units were distinguishing themselves on the ground an experiment by the Army Air Corps was proving to be remarkably successful. This was the creation of a group of pilots, trained at Tuskegee University and at a variety of Army bases The formation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron was supported by first Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1943 they received a Distinguished Unit Citation for their first combat action, the bombing of an Axis garrison on the island of Pantelleria, leading to its surrender in advance of the allied invasion of Sicily. The 99th was later re-designated the 99th Fighter Squadron and along with another Tuskegee unit, the 332nd Fighter Squadron, achieved an extraordinary combat record as escorts for bombing raids over Italy and Germany. Members of the 332nd earned 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses. On March 29th, 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bush and the U.S. Congress.
In the Pacific theater, the Marine Corps generally resisted using African-American units in combat; instead they were assigned supportive tasks in Ammunition and Depot companies. Working on small islands occupied by a stubborn and often hidden enemy, they inevitably ended up in active fighting. After learning of their courage and spirit, Lieutenant General Alexander Vandegrift, the commandant of the Marine Corps, noted, “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines—period.”
Japanese Americans were yet another group that was, like Germans and Italians, initially subjected to internment at the beginning of U.S. involvement in World War II. Soon, however, the Army decided that they were yet another resource that could not be ignored. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, formed almost entirely of second-generation (Nisei) volunteers, fought in Italy and France. It became the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history, earning more than 18,000 awards in less than two years. Twenty-nine of its members were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Many Japanese Americans also volunteered for the U.S. forces as field translators in the Pacific theater and used their language skills to gather intelligence from prisoners of war and from messages they decoded. The Allied war effort against Japan was aided significantly by the useful information provided by these men. It’s undeniable that German- and Japanese-speaking citizens and immigrants were of immeasurable benefit in anticipating and countering the movements of Axis forces.
Finally, there is one other minority group whose efforts should be recognized. Members of Native American tribes used their distinctive languages to create unbreakable codes to transmit plans and intelligence on radio communications that could otherwise have been intercepted by the enemy. Code talking had been pioneered by Cherokee and Choctaw speakers during World War I. During the Second World War there were members of the Lakota, Meskwaki, Mohawk, Comanche, Tlingit, Hopi, Cree, Crow, and Navajo serving on all of the war fronts. These men were most often assigned to front-line combat units and paired with radio operators, one of the most dangerous infantry assignments in the war because they were specifically targeted by enemy snipers. Code talkers made it possible to rapidly transmit useful information from the front with virtually no likelihood that the enemy could decode it. The relatively large number of Native languages and limited knowledge of them outside the United States made it all possible.
This focus on World War II is not intended to marginalize the many other contributions that these or other minority groups have made to the United States in its relatively short history. We tend to focus on the English colonists, but our country began as an amalgamation of indigenous peoples and immigrants from many countries, and that vaunted national culture that conservatives want to preserve is an indivisible, unique mixture of their traditions and contributions along with those of northern Europe. For the continued success of our government and economy we are indebted to all of the many and varied residents, recognized and unrecognized, documented and undocumented, whether they speak English or not, whether they look like northern Europeans or not, whether they arrived 20,000 years ago or in 1650 or just last week. They all deserve to be here and to be recognized as full citizens and colleagues.