President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is known primarily from his time in the White House and untimely death but many forget that he was also an accomplished writer. In the well-received “A Nation of Immigrants“, he gives his take on how immigration built the nation known as America. Images of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty will surely come to the minds of readers who decided to read Kennedy’s work. However, there is more to the immigrant story in America and often forgotten are the many other groups who have emigrated to the land of opportunity. Roger Daniels decided to take a further look into the Chinese and Japanese experience in America and what he found may surprise many of us.
The story begins in 1849 as California becomes ground zero for the gold rush. We learn right away that over 300,000 Chinese came to America to work in mines and in other trades, such as building cross-continental railroads. By 1882, the gold rush was over, the railroads had been nearly completed and hundreds of thousands of Chinese now found themselves out of work. They were far away from China in a new country that did not rush to embrace them. In fact, what happened after the gold rush opened my eyes to the Asian experience in America and revealed many dark parts of American history.
This book could easily be added as required reading in high school classroom and in a college syllabus. It reads like a textbook but the exception is that is has not been heavily sanitized. Daniels had no intention of sugar coating anything and the facts that are presented here are beyond sobering. Paranoia, suspicion and fear of a “yellow invasion”, gave birth to some of the most discriminatory laws passed in United States history. Beginning with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1870 and the later Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the anti-Chinese movement gained in momentum and threatened the very existence of Chinese-Americans. Similarly, Japanese immigrants who arrived to America by way of Hawaii, soon found that their new home was not so welcoming. The anti-Chinese movement soon became part of larger anti-Asian sentiment spreading across the United States. And contrary to what we may think about Asian immigration, the Pacific played an even more important role than the Atlantic. Exactly how is explained in detail by Daniels.
As the world found itself embroiled in two world wars, the Chinese and Japanese in America were struggling simply for recognition as human beings. California remained the battle ground in the struggle between natives and new immigrants from the Far East. San Francisco was the scene of some of the most absurd moments in the book and will cause readers today to wonder at how such inhumane treatment of others was tolerated and endorsed in the late 1800s into the early 1900s. The Alien Land Act of 1913 is a prime example of some of the draconian laws passed to disenfranchise America’s Asian citizens. However, in spite of outright racist treatment and propaganda, the Chinese and Japanese remained firm in their belief of the American dream. World War II became the moment where life for the Japanese in America was turned upside down and would test the patriotism of even the most ardent believers in the United States.
The book is not a full examination of the Japanese internment in camps during the war. However, Daniels does a thorough job of explaining how the program developed, what President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) knew and the effect it had on the Japanese mindset both during and following the war. High focused is placed on the Japanese American Citizens League, which played an integral role in the affairs of Japanese Americans in many ways, some of which will surprise some. However, its importance cannot be understated. What I did find to be mind-boggling was that the U.S. Military never had a deep suspicion on a whole of Japanese Americans taking up arms in defense of Toyko, but the media and politicians clearly had a different agenda.
Today, the treatment revealed in the book would cause shock and outrage. I have many friends whose families originate throughout Asia. They are as American as I am but the thought of legislation being passed to bar them from citizenship, prevent them from assimilating in society or to prevent them from even entering the country, is beyond horrifying. However, this was the reality for thousands of Chinese and Japanese in the United States before the passage of civil rights bills and Supreme Court decisions that struck down bans of segregation and interracial marriage. America has come a long way but there is still work to be done.
While reading Daniel’s words, I could not help but to feel that some of the divisive rhetoric employed by politicians then is also heard now. Fears of “invasion” and “threats to our way of life” permeated beliefs in the 1800s and 1900s, resulting in regrettable treatment of Chinese and Japanese Americans. And in some cases, that rhetoric proved to be deadly. That same danger exist today. If we are to continue to move forward, then we must remember that less than one hundred and fifty years ago, anyone who was not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, found that life in America was a contradiction to the belief that all men are created equal. If we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. I truly hope we do not. Roger Daniels has given us a guide to study and learn from so that we do make the same mistakes. Highly recommended.