When Karl Yoneda heard about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he felt driven to act. On behalf of a Japanese American newspaper, he immediately drafted a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to “pledge full cooperation in all endeavors to secure victory for the democracies.” He could not wait to join the war against “the vicious military fascists of Japan.”
Before Yoneda could send the telegram, however, FBI agents surrounded his family’s home with submachine guns and arrested him. The FBI had begun monitoring Yoneda months earlier, assuming that his communist affiliation, labor organizing and racial background somehow meant that he was probably a “secret agent for [the] Japanese government.” Within months, in 1942, the U.S. government would incarcerate Yoneda and other Japanese Americans in concentration camps.
In the 80 years since, historical accounts of World War II have generally refuted the presumed “disloyalty” of Japanese Americans, most often by affirming their “loyalty.” But loyalty to what? Although Yoneda fervently pledged allegiance to the United States, he continued to be viewed and treated as an enemy of the U.S. state. His wartime struggles compel us to recognize that moral condemnations of an archrival — Japan, in this instance — can serve only to disallow a reckoning with a deeper history of race and empire.
When the United States and Japan went to war in 1941, they did so as rival empires, each claiming an anti-imperial mantle. But those claims rang false to those subjected to colonial rule across the Pacific. For example, the United States had bought the Philippines from the Spanish empire at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War in 1898. But Filipino revolutionaries rejected their new colonial master, declared independence and entered into war against the U.S. empire.
On July 4, 1902, after more than three years of bloody conflict, President Theodore Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippine-American War. That declaration reflected his imperial fantasy more than anything else, for Filipinos continued to resist the U.S. empire through outright warfare, labor strikes and anti-colonial movements.
Artemio Ricarte, who had first taken up arms against the Spanish and then the Americans, mocked the U.S. empire’s pretensions. “Where is the boasted right of assembly, the freedom of the press and the liberty of speech?” he asked in 1903. He hoped that an impending war between Japan and Russia would produce volatile conditions in Asia that could incite an anti-colonial revolution in the Philippines toward its liberation and independence.