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World War II, pt 1: African-Americans' experience

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Interviewer: What was the experience of African-Americans during World War II, in combat or at home?

Eric Foner: World War II was really a watershed for African-Americans. In fact, I would say that this was where the modern civil cights movement really began, in World War II. I think what happened was that the contradiction between the rhetoric of American life and the reality of segregation and racism became a public issue for the first time since the Reconstruction. After all, the United States was fighting World War II in part to repudiate the Nazi race theory, the theory of the master race that one group was superior to another, with horrifying consequences (which people learned at the end of the war), and yet we had our own system of master races and inferior races in the United States, and many people, both black and white, began to say this is a contradiction. How can we talk about equality in the world, democracy in the world, when we don't really have democracy at home? Moreover, the mobilization for war drew millions of blacks out of the South into defense employment, into the army. It really reshaped the racial map of the country. Millions moved north, millions moved west, and many many went into the army. Of course in the army they were segregated, they were maltreated, but the experience of change, the experience of fighting, mobilized a whole generation of African-Americans to fight for what they called the "Double V": victory abroad but also victory at home over segregation and inequality.

World War II, pt 2: internment of Japanese-Americans

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Interviewer: Can you speak about the significance of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II?

Eric Foner: The Japanese American internment—in which about 120,000 people, the majority of them American citizens, were rounded up on the West coast and moved involuntarily into what were called "concentration camps," which meant simply places to "concentrate" them (later on that term came to be used for the Nazi death camps)—was the biggest violation of civil liberties in American history, other than slavery. It shows what can happen in wartime when hysteria takes hold, when people are willing to sacrifice liberty in the name of security. There is no evidence whatsoever that the internment of these 120,000 people contributed in any way to the war effort, that it led to stopping any potential acts of sabotage, or treason, or anything like that. It was simply an act of racism, of fear, and also of economic self-interest. Large numbers of whites in California seized the property of Japanese Americans or bought it at fire-sale prices when people had to leave their homes. The Supreme Court upheld the internment in the Korematsu case later in the war, and I think that experience warns us that we must be vigilant about liberty and that even when it's only one group being stigmatized it still is a terrible violation of the principles for which the country supposedly stands.

World War II, pt 3: Roosevelt's and Wilson's wartime administrations

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Interviewer: How, then, do you assess the record of the Roosevelt administration during World War II on issues of civil liberties, and how would you compare the experience during the war to previous wars, World War I for instance?

Eric Foner: In most ways, with one glaring exception, the Roosevelt administration was much more careful and respectful of civil liberties than the Wilson administration, which ran roughshod over them, had been during World War I. You didn't have the mass jailing of dissenters; you didn't have stigmatization of European ethnic groups. In World War I, you couldn't even speak the German language; it was barred in many states; Germans were persecuted. In World War II, the government made a sharp distinction between the German people and the German government. They said, we're not fighting the German people, and German Americans are just as loyal as anybody else, Italian Americans are just as loyal, even though we're fighting the Italian government. The government promoted liberty, promoted tolerance and promoted pluralism. Of course, there was much less dissent in the United States in World War II—you didn't have organized groups opposed to American involvement the way you did in World War I.

The glaring exception to the respect for civil liberties was the treatment of Japanese Americans. Over a hundred thousand of them were rounded up—most of them living on the west coast—and sent to what were called concentration camps or internment camps, deprived of all their basic liberties, purely on racial grounds. Nobody was ever convicted of espionage, or of sabotage, or of aiding the Japanese war effort, or anything like that, but the government just assumed that if you were Japanese, you had a racial bond to the Japanese government, and you were not trustworthy. Two-thirds of those people were actually American citizens, but they still were deprived of all their basic civil liberties by being forced into these camps—no trial, no habeas corpus, no charges against any individual person —this was a massive violation of civil liberties for one particular, hated ethnic group during the war.

World War II, pt 4: treatment of Japanese-Americans 

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Interviewer: What was the subsequent history of that [treatment of Japanese-Americans] episode?

Eric Foner: The Supreme Court, in one of the most regretted decisions, Korematsu, in 1944, upheld the internment of Japanese Americans as constitutional, making the argument, which was completely illogical, that it was not a racial discrimination, that it was a military order. Even though it only applied to one racially defined group, they said it was not discriminatory. Justice Jackson issued a powerful dissent, saying, the government is going to do what it wants, but the court must not uphold the constitutionality of something that so flagrantly violates the basis of our civil liberties. Today, the internment of Japanese Americans is viewed as one of the low points in the history of American freedom. It's universally regretted, and, indeed, in the 1980s, under President Reagan, Congress passed a law apologizing to those who were interned and offering compensation—I think about $25,000 each—to individual people, if they were still surviving (and many were), who were interned. So the government itself subsequently admitted that this was a flagrant violation of civil liberties.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

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Interviewer: How would you assess the significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the UN in 1948?

Eric Foner: Out of World War II, because of the horrific actions of Nazi Germany, an international sense of human rights was greatly strengthened. Of course, the idea of human rights goes back to the Enlightenment, goes back to the French Revolution, to the American Revolution—certain rights that no government can deprive you of nor trample upon. But the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after World War II is the first international effort to try to specify what those rights are and it’s a very long document that includes an enormous number of rights, both political rights such as we’re familiar with—freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to vote—and many social rights—the right to an education, the right to a job, the right to decent housing, the right to a decent standard of living, and also the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race or gender. All the nations of the world adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at least parts of it, but many of them don’t actually live up to it. I think the significance is, it set forth an international set of principals that people could appeal to even within their own country against their own government, saying our human rights are being violated. This is an international standard now, the world is watching, so it greatly invigorated the discourse of human rights, the demands for human rights, which still exist throughout the world today. No one would claim that human rights are universally respected. Even our own country falls short in some respects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it gives a weapon to people throughout the world who are fighting for human rights, now that it is an internationally recognized set of standards.