About This Section: Deaf North Americans

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While World War II began in 1939, the United States did not officially join the war until 1941 after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii by Japan. The US joined on the side of the Allied Powers (United Kingdom, France, and USSR) against the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan). Recovering from World War I and the Great Depression, most Americans preferred to be isolationists while Europe and the Pacific waged its battles in the East.

The US joined the second Great War when the Imperial Army of Japan decided to bomb our naval fleet at Pearl Harbor in a pre-emptive strike against the US threat to cut of oil trade with Japan unless it ceased its attacks on China.

This section covers Deaf peoples’ experiences in Pearl Harbor, Deaf Japanese-Americans who were interned, and how Deaf Americans served the US via defense work, war efforts, and military service. Lastly, it will examine US exclusionary immigration practices when admitting disabled Jewish people to the US during this time period.

Political Causes of WW II

  • Treaty of Versailles from WW I (Germany pays reparations for WW I to Allied Powers)
  • Imperialism (Germany, Italy, and Japan each wanted to create empires – especially Germany = Third Reich)
  • Nationalism (belief that one Nation is better than all others – ethnocentrism and extermism)
  • Militarism (belief in having a HUGE army and weapons to take over other countries)

Political Effects of WW II

  • Communism spreads into Eastern European Countries
  • Germany divided (West and East Germany) – Democracy and Communism
  • Israel is established to give the Jewish people a Homeland
  • Atomic Age and Cold War begins

Deaf Canadians

Excerpts taken by permission of Clifton F. Carbin, author of Deaf Heritage in Canada: A Distinctive, Diverse, and Enduring Culture (1996), Whitby, Ontario, Canada: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.

Excerpts from Deaf Heritage in Canada: A Distinctive, Diverse, and Enduring Culture

Pearl Harbor

In the early morning hours of December 7th, 1941 Japan bombed the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan decided on this attack after the US had threatened an oil embargo if Japan refused to cease its aggression against the mainland of China.

All the US battleships in the harbor were sunk or severely damaged and over 2,400 American lives were lost. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) went before the U.S. Congress requesting a declaration of war against Japan and the other Axis Powers (Germany and Italy) in response to a “date which will live in infamy.”

To see FDR’s original speech with editing changes click title or go to: A Date Which Will Live in Infamy for lessons on Pearl Harbor and primary documents.

Japanese-American Camps

In response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and increasing U.S. racism and hysteria, Japanese-Americans were rounded up on the West coast of the U.S. and forced to live in concentration camps scattered throughout the West and Southwest in barren and isolated areas. Interestingly enough there were no camps in Hawaii which had a very high population of people of Japanese descent and had been directly attacked by the nation of Japan. In response to military pressure to incarcerate Japanese-Americans on the mainland as a military necessity for fear of sabotage and espionage, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order allowed the military to essentially imprison and deny U.S. citizens their constitutional rights without due process of law (no trials).

It is estimated that as many as 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent were put into “internment” camps (as the government called them) from 1942-1946. Their property, land, businesses, and homes were not returned to them after the war. A few Japanese-Americans challenged the legality of this order (Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui, and Fred Korematsu) but it was not until over 40 years later that the courts ruled in their favor and their criminal status for refusing their incarceration orders was over turned. In these new trials, FBI reports declaring there to be no evidence of Japanese-Americans being a threat to our national security surfaced despite having been suppressed by the U.S. government during the war.

It is suspected that the motivation to incarcerate innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II was a result of racism and economics – many Japanese-Americans had desirable jobs, farm land and businesses.

Deaf Japanese-Americans suffered greatly during this time due to isolation and lack of education. Many of their family members and fellow prisoners did not know sign language. When schools were set up in these camps they often did not have any teachers of the Deaf or employ sign language. Deaf children’s educational experiences were severely limited or non-existent.

The Deaf Nikkei
Hannah Tomiko Holmes

Supporting the War Efforts

US Deaf people tried to support the war efforts in a variety of ways – buying bonds, donating funds to the American Red Cross, and also gaining employment in war-related industry / factories.

Military Service

Most deaf people were exempt from military service during the war but a few did get called up for duty. Adult children from Deaf parents often served in the war and sign language was considered as a possible “secret” language to utilize.

Immigration to the US

The United States had numerous restrictions and quotas on immigrants coming to the US especially during the war. Disabled people, prostitutes, people from certain countries, religious groups, or political beliefs were often denied passage. Many Deaf people (Jews and non-Jews) reported difficulty in gaining a visa from the US consulates in their native countries due to their being deaf. Even after gaining the necessary papers to emigrate, many of them encountered difficulties being admitted to the US at Ellis Island.

Photo: Manzanar Relocation Center from tower by Ansel Adam (Library of Congress, USA)