8/11/2001 • American History Reviews, Lyndon B. Johnson

DOUBLE VICTORY: A MULTICULTURAL HISTORY OF AMERICA IN WORLD WAR II, by Ronald Takaki, Little, Brown and Company, 282 pages, $27.95.

For most Americans, World War II was a galvanizing experience, a blending of battlefield tenacity and heroism on foreign soil with unprecedented sacrifice and production on the home front, all in the name of freedom. It was this unified effort that Studs Terkel referred to when he labeled the world’s greatest global conflict “the good war.”

For some Americans the Second World War was also a desperate fight against discrimination here at home–black intellectual W.E.B. Dubois called it the “War for Racial Equality.” Author Ronald Takaki recounts that struggle in Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II, at once a valuable addition to the literature of the period and a disturbing look at the dark side of America’s World War II experience.

Takaki tells the story through the lives of ethnically diverse Americans: a Japanese American who feels betrayed by his own country when he and his family are sent to an internment camp; a black soldier in uniform, whom a Southern bus driver orders to move to the rear, forcing his white buddies to intervene on his behalf; a Navajo code talker who uses his complex native language to transmit secret battle messages and confound the Japanese, while his people are living in desperate poverty on a government reservation. Their dual struggle to defeat the enemy abroad and overcome racism at home gives the book its title and its texture.

The author uses rich detail to support his thesis. It is difficult to forget his haunting example of a Texas funeral director who refused to allow services for a Mexican-American soldier killed in the Philippines, “because the white people wouldn’t like it.” Senator Lyndon B. Johnson intervened and arranged to have the soldier buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

Takaki does not portray minorities just as victims; he also focuses on their contributions to the American war effort. There are heroic accounts of the Tuskegee airmen battling the Luftwaffe over Italy and the exemplary performance of the Fighting 442nd, the Japanese-American regiment that became the most decorated unit in United States military history.

If the book has a flaw, it is Takaki’s failure to draw a clear distinction between the morally indefensible–a racially segregated U.S. Army, the internment of Japanese Americans–and the strategically debatable, especially Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. Takaki portrays the latter as purely racially motivated–an attack of “racialized rage” against the Japanese. But he neither sufficiently documents this conclusion nor fully examines other valid reasons for Truman’s decision.

Nonetheless, Takaki presents a strong central argument, and Double Victory is both an important and affirming book. It illuminates the incongruity of America’s own oppressive behavior toward minorities at home, even while proclaiming her role in World War II as a fight against oppression abroad. It also pays tribute to the determination and perseverance of ethnically diverse Americans in their two-front war against prejudice and fascism.

STEVE PULEO holds a master’s degree in history and is the author of an upcoming American History feature on the Great Boston Molasses Flood.