The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is it possible to condemn one empire without upholding another?

The danger of making wars into moral crusades.

An American soldier guards a Japanese internment camp at Manzanar, Calif., on May 23, 1943. (AP)

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.

The Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) marked Japan’s bold entry onto a world stage then dominated by European and U.S. empires. As Roosevelt hosted Japanese and Russian delegations to facilitate an end to the war, his administration held secret negotiations with Japan to maintain the colonial order in Asia. Japan promised to honor U.S. authority over the Philippines; the United States agreed to respect Japan’s expanding claims over Korea. Empires had to work together.

In private, though, Roosevelt sensed a racial war brewing across the Pacific. “I am not at all sure that the Japanese people draw any distinctions between the Russians and other foreigners, including ourselves,” he noted. Beginning in 1906, to defend the U.S. empire’s territorial claims across the Pacific — including over the Philippines, Hawai‘i and Guam — the U.S. Army’s War Plans Division prepared for war specifically against Japan.

Anti-colonial revolutionaries like Ricarte stoked Americans’ mounting fears of imperial Japan. Imprisoned repeatedly for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, Ricarte was banished to the British colony of Hong Kong, where he hoped to organize a revolution against U.S. colonial rule. Ricarte later sought exile in Japan, away from the clutches of U.S. and British colonial authorities. At the same time, the Japanese government attempted to cooperate with the British and U.S. empires to protect its growing imperial ambitions.

Racial divides festered. Denouncing Japan’s imperial ambitions turned into an enduring rationale by U.S. officials to defend the U.S. empire. “Japan has, for many years, desired to unite the people of Asia, with herself as the dominant and controlling power,” a U.S. military intelligence officer argued in 1907. From that distorted perspective, U.S. officials saw in Filipino grievances against U.S. colonial rule only Japan’s nefarious designs to mobilize a pan-Asian movement to undermine U.S. authority and to bolster its own influence around the world.

In report after report, whenever and wherever the Japanese and Filipinos converged — physically, ideologically, symbolically and otherwise — agents of the U.S. national security state suspected a pan-Asian conspiracy masterminded by the Japanese government. A leading U.S. official in the Philippines became so convinced in 1907 of an impending war that he called on the U.S. government to “boost our navy as rapidly as possible and deliberately provoke war with Japan and destroy her sea power before she makes it.”

That historical context informed how the U.S. government would treat Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, including Yoneda and others who fervently pledged to support the U.S. war effort. Born in California, Yoneda had spent his adolescent years in Japan, where he became acquainted with anarchism and Marxism. In 1926, he returned to California to escape military service in Japan. He soon joined the Communist Party, inspired by the communist movement’s forceful stand against colonialism and racism. Yoneda organized with Filipino workers to build a grass-roots labor movement on the Pacific Coast.

The war between Japan and the United States complicated Yoneda’s allegiances and priorities. After his release from the FBI in December 1941, he learned that the leadership of the Communist Party of the United States of America had expelled all Japanese Americans. Though devastated by the racist act, Yoneda focused on the main task at hand, which, in his mind, was “to help smash Japan’s fascist-imperialists who were knocking at our very door!”

To fight fascism, Yoneda pledged loyalty to the United States. As the U.S. government moved closer and closer to incarcerating Japanese Americans en masse, he reiterated his commitment to American nationalism. “If deemed a military necessity that all … should be evacuated from military areas,” Yoneda wrote to a congressional committee, “we are ready to go.”

During World War II, Yoneda even became a voluntary informant to the FBI, offering information on fellow Japanese Americans whom he believed to be pro-Japanese. His incarceration in Manzanar, one of America’s concentration camps, did not alter his views. In the summer of 1942, he suggested that the U.S. government segregate Japanese Americans by citizenship and loyalty. In the meantime, U.S. officials continued to monitor Yoneda as a “dangerous red.”

On the other side of the Pacific, Ricarte moved in the opposite direction. Soon after Japanese forces attacked Hawai‘i and the Philippines, he agreed to return from Japan to his home, the Philippines. Once there, he raised the Japanese flag and delivered a speech advising Filipinos to cooperate with their Japanese “liberators.” To many Filipinos, that moment must have felt like 1898 all over again, with the Japanese empire taking the place of the U.S. empire. Ricarte helped to organize the despised Makapili, a Filipino unit armed to fight alongside Japanese forces in the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Despite his anti-colonial aspirations, in collaborating with Japan, just as if he had pledged allegiance to the United States earlier, Ricarte worked to advance empire.

Especially in times of war, loyalties and allegiances can appear necessary, with clear boundaries between allies and enemies, between morality and criminality. But loyalty to what? Neither Yoneda nor Ricarte found liberation through their divergent wartime loyalties. Today, as U.S. and European officials loudly condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, their pronouncements can ring hollow because they are not accompanied by an acknowledgment of their own histories of imperialism and violence. Beyond moral condemnations of old and new rivals, perhaps the road to justice and democracy lies in an honest and critical reckoning with colonial pasts all around us.