The Colored People Are Still Waiting, Still Watchful

By February of 1942, the United States had been reluctantly pulled into the global turmoil of World War II as a direct result of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From the beginning, however, the United States fought a war both against Japan in the Pacific and against the German-Italian military juggernaut in North Africa and Europe, and American popular opinion tended to associate US aims with those of traditional European allies such as Great Britain and France.

Summary Overview

By February of 1942, the United States had been reluctantly pulled into the global turmoil of World War II as a direct result of the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. From the beginning, however, the United States fought a war both against Japan in the Pacific and against the German-Italian military juggernaut in North Africa and Europe, and American popular opinion tended to associate US aims with those of traditional European allies such as Great Britain and France.

American author and former Chinese resident Pearl S. Buck spoke out against that Eurocentric mindset in this 1942 speech. Buck argued for a more global US foreign policy that recognized the nation’s deep interests in Asia. She also contended that the US history of racism against its own African American and Asian American residents complicated its message of democracy and freedom to people of color around the world.

Defining Moment

When Buck delivered her speech to an assembly of bookstore owners and other merchants in February of 1942, she was speaking to an American public fervently dedicated to a US victory over the Axis powers. Americans had come to see US intervention in the global conflict as central to protecting national security and to supporting the ideals of democracy and freedom worldwide. Yet the history of US interaction with Asia did not necessarily adhere to those ideals. The country had opened economic relations with the highly isolationist Japanese government in the 1850s through the threat of force. More than once, the United States had intervened in Chinese affairs to further its own economic interests. The Spanish-American War (1898–99) had provided an opportunity for US forces to claim the Philippines as a US holding. When Japanese forces began their own aggressive campaign against mainland Asian territory in the 1910s, however, the then isolationist-leaning United States had declined to step in to support national determination there.

The United States additionally had a history of racism and discrimination against ethnic minorities, Asians among them, within its own borders. Widespread racism against Asian immigrants, popularly believed to be culturally inferior and economically threatening to white Americans in the West, had led to the passage of restrictive immigration legislation and discriminatory foreign policies beginning in the late nineteenth century. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, barred practically all immigration from China and prevented immigrants from gaining naturalized citizenship. Under the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement negotiated between the United States and Japan in 1907 and 1908, the Japanese government agreed to limit emigration of unskilled Japanese laborers from Japan to the United States. These arrangements gave way to restrictive US immigration quotas in the 1920s, which kept Asian immigration at very low levels well into the 1960s.

Suspicions against Japanese immigrants and even native-born Japanese Americans were high, as many white Americans believed that those people felt greater loyalty to their Asian heritage than to the United States. Federal policy allowed for the investigation and detention of Japanese Americans, and not long after Buck delivered her speech, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of 117,000 Japanese Americans living in the West. Although German and Italian immigrants also underwent some official discrimination, unquestionably it was Japanese Americans who received the harshest treatment. Racism against Japanese Americans spilled over to other Asian American ethnic groups, with Chinese Americans—a group tracing their heritage to one of the nation’s wartime allies—sometimes feeling so persecuted that they wore buttons proclaiming, “I Am Chinese.” The relationship between the United States and Asian countries was, therefore, one tinged by racism and imperialism on one side and resentment on the other.

Author Biography

An American born in West Virginia, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (1892–1973) was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries who raised her in the Chinese village of Zhenjiang (Chinkiang), near Nanjing (Nanking), with brief stays in the bustling city of Shanghai. Growing up, the future author developed a deep affinity for Chinese culture. After attending college in the United States, she returned to China for several years, writing on Chinese society and penning novels that channeled Chinese life for a Western audience, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Good Earth (1932). This and other writings by Buck greatly shaped the US view of China and its people. Buck settled in the United States permanently in 1934.

Over the ensuing few decades, Buck was an outspoken supporter of civil rights for African Americans and women, adoption of mixed-race children, and other humanitarian causes. Her 1942 novel Dragon Seed addressed the brutal Japanese occupation of the Chinese region of Nanjing and was a popular source of information on the conflict for American audiences.

Historical Document

I was asked to speak today about China, but when I came to prepare that which might be said, I found that China is no more to be talked about as a separate entity in this world in which none of us is any more an individual or whole in himself. China has become a part of the world, the same world of which we are a part. She is not even our only ally in Asia. In one fashion or another, in this complete division in which the world now finds itself, Russia is also our ally, and so are the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies, and so is India, in her own right and not only as a part of the British Empire, and so are Malaya and Burma. In a word, our most numerous allies in the war against the Axis are in the Far East, and there is also our bitterest enemy, and in Asia, too, is for us the center of our war against the Axis.

Japan considers us her chief enemy, for several reasons. We are stronger now than the British Empire and she knows it. In the future she knows that we will be her keenest rival, not England. She knows, moreover, that it is because of us and not because of Great Britain that she has not been more successful in her war in China. For many decades it has been the American influence in Asia which has kept the balance of power there so even that Japan has been continually baffled. She has seen what even at this moment most Americans seem unable to grasp—that actually the American stake in the Far East is far greater than it is in Europe. If the American way of life is to prevail in the world, it must prevail in Asia whether it prevails in Europe or not.

The lack of interest of Americans in their own stake in the Far East, and indeed the very lack of knowledge of their own stake there, is perhaps because of the cultural connection which we have had with Europe rather than with Asia. This cultural connection has been kept alive by two groups of citizens, first by the highly educated, so-called upper classes who have been educated after the English and European manner, whether at home or abroad, and who have made it a fashion to ape English manners especially—and, of course, we read and speak the English language—and, second, by the fact that most of immigration has been from European rather than Asian sources, so that for long those who have come here to be Americans have brought with them European ways and thoughts.

“Unreal and Nostalgic”

But this preoccupation with a part of the world which we have left behind us, by our own choice, has been unreal and nostalgic.

In Europe our influence has been of little importance. In Asia it has for long been the chief influence. It is in Asia, not in Europe, that we have for more than two generations maintained the balance of power, always by the same policy, always defending our territory and our nationals, always protecting and enlarging trade. While the minds of Americans were preoccupied with English and European literature and tourist travel, our firmest political interests were not in Europe but in Asia.

This Japan knows and has known all along, even though so many Americans have not. Japan began to build up her economic power in Asia while we, the Americans, built up our ideological investment, particularly in China, where, because of missionaries, because of many Chinese students sent to the United States to be educated, because of our balance of power policy and the open door, which has kept China from becoming divided into European colonies, and finally because of the Chinese revolutionary government, based upon our democratic form of government, the Chinese looked to us rather than to Japan. So we have so far the ideological leadership in Asia, and Japan knows it. Her economic hold there is stronger than ours, but so long as she is not able to break the hold we have upon the minds of the Chinese and the Philippines and to a lesser degree even upon the other peoples of Asia, she cannot persuade the peoples she conquers materially to be conquered completely. Since we have little territory in Asia, since our influence is mainly political and cultural, Japan is resorting to heavy propaganda to displace us. What the peoples of Asia want out of this war is their freedom. Knowing this, Japan is trying to prove to them that freedom is the one thing they will not have if America wins. She is using that most vulnerable point in our American democracy, our racial prejudice, as her weapon. Tokio radio programs daily send their broadcasts over Asia in their campaign to drive out the white man. “The colored peoples,” this Japanese propaganda says over and over again in a thousand forms, “have no hope of justice and equality from the white peoples because of their unalterable racial prejudice against us.”

Would Acknowledge Danger

It will be better for us if we acknowledge the danger in this Japanese propaganda. The truth is that the white man in the Far East has too often behaved without wisdom or justice to his fellow man.

It is worse than folly—it is dangerous today not to recognize the truth, for in it lies the tinder for tomorrow. Who of us can doubt it who has seen a white policeman beat a Chinese coolie in Shanghai, an English captain lash out with his whip at an Indian vender—who of us, having seen such Oriental sights or heard the common contemptuous talk of the white man in any colored country, can forget the fearful bitter hatred in the colored face and the blaze in the dark eyes? Who of us can be so stupid as not to see the future written there? The most dangerous human stupidity has been that of the white race in the baseless prejudice through which even the meanest of white creatures has felt he could despise a king if his skin were dark.

The effect therefore of this Japanese propaganda cannot be lightly dismissed. It lies uneasily in the minds and memories of many at this moment who are still loyally allied with Britain and the United States, in the minds and memories of colored peoples of Asia. Yes, and it lies uneasy, too, in the minds and memories of many colored citizens of the United States who cannot deny the charge and must remain loyal in spite of it. For such minds realize that though Nazism may give them nothing but death, yet the United States and Britain have given them too little for life in the past and not even promises for the future. Not only peace aims are still unknown—war aims are not clear.

Calls Empire Impossible

We must realize, we citizens of the United States, and this whether Britain realizes it or not, that a world based on former principles of empire and imperial behavior is now impossible. It cannot exist. We must clear our determination for real freedom for all peoples, with mutual responsibility demanded of all to fulfill its conditions. Nor can we postpone such decision for freedom saying “Let’s win this war first.” We cannot even win this war without convincing our colored Allies—who are most of our Allies—that we are not fighting for ourselves as continuing superiors over colored peoples. The patience of colored peoples is at an end. Everywhere among them there is the same resolve for freedom and equality that white Americans and British have, but it is a grimmer resolve, for it includes the determination to be rid of white rule and exploitation and white race prejudice, and nothing will weaken this will.

We can, of course, utilize the force of this will if we have the wisdom. Nothing would so nerve our colored allies toput forth their whole effort now as the conviction that white leaders mean what they say about freedom. There is hope even in India that England would mean what she said if she could be got to say it. There are few simple things in this world, but at the moment the simplest, if one is at all familiar with mass thinking among the colored peoples, is that our colored allies will fight with all their strength for freedom. But if they are not soon convinced, and by no unmistakable means, of the sincere democratic determination of the English and Americans, if they fear that they must be reduced one day to fighting for themselves, there will be many thoughtful men and women who will declare openly what they are now thinking and saying secretly, “Will it not be better for us to come to terms, not with Hitler, who is after all a white man of the most arrogant type, but with Japan, and utilize the military and modern resources of the country to free us from white rule?”

It takes no great practical sense for any colored people to see that even if Japan took the position over them of conqueror it would be easier to get rid of one victor than of several. There could have been nothing reassuring or comforting to our Asiatic allies in the closing words of Churchill’s first speech in Washington, “The British peoples will for their own safety and the good of all walk together side by side in majesty, justice and peace.” An England, a United States, walking together in majesty can only mean to the colored peoples a formidable white imperialism more dangerous to them than anything even a victorious Japan can threaten.

Opposes “Union Now”

The advocates of an American union now with the white, English-speaking portions of the British Empire, “with such other peoples as may be found ready and able to unite” are heading us straight into the gravest war we can yet imagine. What can China, that oldest and most pragmatic of democracies think of a white, English-speaking union which excludes her at the very start? We may as well present Japan with battleships and bombers as to go on with a union which denies democracy at the very start. Only Atlantic-minded persons can fail to see that in so limited a union we would already be sowing the seeds of the next war.

No, it does not do for us to be only Atlantic-minded at this moment.

It is only natural that England should think first and most of Hitler, the wolf at her own door. It is to be expected that English minds cannot take seriously enough the full threat of Japan to us. Why should they, when Americans themselves have not taken Japan seriously enough, and do not now take any Asiatic people seriously enough? Pearl Harbor and Manila are today awful witnesses of our ignorance. There will be other witnesses as stern before we are done with this war. If England cannot understand fully our danger in the Pacific, let us not ourselves be misled. We Americans face the Orient, and we face it not as the ruler of a great subject people held under military power. We face an Asia in which we have no long-established power. It is too dangerous for us to accept any estimate of the Pacific except our own. We must for our own sakes give our Allies in the Far East confidence in our leadership toward full democracy.

But can the United States provide such leadership? This also the Far Eastern allies are asking. Japan is busily declaring that we cannot. She is declaring in the Philippines, in China, in India, Malaya that there is no basis for hope that colored peoples can expect any justice from the people who rule in the United States, namely, the white people. For specific proof the Japanese point to our treatment of our own colored people, citizens of generations in the UnitedStates. Every lynching, every race riot, gives joy to Japan. The discriminations of the American Army and Navy and air forces against colored soldiers and sailors, the exclusion of colored labor in our defense industries and trade unions, all our social discriminations, are of the greatest aid today to our enemy in Asia, Japan. “Look at the Americans,” Japan is saying to millions of listening ears, “will white Americans give you equality?”

Who can reply with a clear affirmative? The persistent refusal of Americans to see the connection between the colored American and the colored peoples abroad, the continued and it seems even willful ignorance which will not investigate the connections, is agony to those loyal and anxious Americans who know all too well the dangerous possibilities.

Colored Peoples “Still Waiting”

Today the colored peoples are still waiting, still watchful. But they are lending an ear to what Japan is saying because they know there is truth in it. For once Japanese propaganda is more than propaganda, and they know it. Lies can be laughed off, but truth is a sober thing. Who can blame our colored allies if they have reservations toward us, if they doubt our intention for true democracy for them? Our ignorance of how they feel is dangerous as the ignorance of England is dangerous, as the ignorance of France was dangerous even to destruction. But ours is a peculiar danger, for one-tenth of our own nation is colored. Our relation to the colored peoples and democracy does not even lie so far off as Africa or India. It is just outside our doors, it is inside our homes. The deepest loyalties today may not be national.

But even if Americans realize our danger, our responsibility, our peculiar position, can we produce the necessary leadership for democracy? That is this division between our belief in democracy for all and our practice of democracy only for some? It is not hypocrisy. We Americans are not hypocritical except in small amusing ways. Talk to any dirt American and he honestly believes in equality and justice and in giving everybody the rights of freedom. But mention to him the colored man and you will not believe your own

ears. This cannot be the same man talking, you will say. No, the colored man cannot have the same treatment as the white man, it seems. “Why?” you inquire. The white American scratches his head. “Well, it just don’t work that way,” he says, and thereby gives huge comfort to our present enemies, the Japanese.

What is the matter with this American? It is clear enough. He suffers from what is called in psychology a split personality. He is two distinct Americans. One of him is a benevolent, liberty-loving, just man. The other one of him is a creature who may or may not be benevolent, but who is certainly undemocratic in his race attitudes.

This division in personality is desperately serious at this moment when millions of people in the world are looking for leadership in a democracy from us. If we cannot assemble ourselves and provide it, leadership will be found elsewhere. Japan may furnish it, or Russia may furnish it—Russia is justly proud of her freedom from race prejudices. But let Americans be sure of this—unless we can declare ourselves whole for democracy now and do away with prejudices against colored peoples, we shall lose our chance to make the world what we want it to be, we shall lose even our place in the world, whatever our military victories are. For most of the people in the world today are colored.

How can we integrate ourselves for democracy? The first step toward unifying a split personality is to realize that there is the split. The next step is to reject the undesired self. We must be willing to see that the situation within our own nation has the gravest relation now to outer events, to the success of this war for us, to world events which will shape an entirely new era. Whether it will be a golden age of democracy depends entirely on whether we choose democracy now.

If we intend to persist blindly in our racial prejudices, then we are fighting on the wrong side in this war. We belong with Hitler. For the white man can no longer rule in this world unless he rules by totalitarian military force. Democracy, if it is to prevail at this solemn moment in human history, can only do so if it purges itself of that which denies democracy and dares to act as it believes.


coolie: an offensive slang term for an unskilled laborer, especially one from China or India

Document Analysis

Buck spoke at the American Booksellers Association gathering shortly after the publication of Dragon Seed, a novel that emphasized her authority as an expert on not only China but also the contemporary conflicts taking place in the region. As such, Buck notes that she had been asked to discuss China in her remarks but “found that China is no more to be talked about as a separate entity.… China has become a part of the world.” Her speech therefore requests that listeners and the broader American audience consider Asia as a region—and one in which the United States has lasting, important interests and interactions.

Buck claims that Asia, not Europe, is the key area of US influence abroad and deserves greater national attention. American fascination with Europe is “unreal and nostalgic,” she says, and US involvement in Europe has relatively little effect. Americans, Buck states, are unaware of their role in Asia, but their enemy Japan is not; Japan employs the US history of racism in propaganda intended to undermine regional support for the United States. Because this demonstrated history of white-on-Asian racism and violence is true, potential Asian allies view the United States and its key European allies warily. Allying exclusively with Great Britain without regard to Asian interests is therefore not conducive to intelligent, forward-thinking foreign policy, Buck asserts. Buck rightly predicts a world in which traditional European powers would lose their imperial colonies abroad. New, native governments in Asia and elsewhere present the best opportunities for emerging democracies, but also the greatest challenges in establishing productive intra- and interregional relations. Buck argues that the Japanese understanding of this situation and their willingness to use propaganda that causes a deep unease in the Asian audience present a significant foreign policy problem for the United States.

The solution that Buck proposes is an end to racist influence in both foreign and domestic policy. Creating an inclusive, internationalist foreign policy would allow the United States to truly support the growth of democracy abroad and prevent the rise of a strong influence from regional competitors such as Japan or the Soviet Union. This international leadership could serve US interests in all parts of the world where “the colored peoples are still waiting, still watchful,” a subtle linguistic nod to not only Asia but also Africa and Latin America, where other “colored” peoples formed a majority.

Essential Themes

Buck’s concerns about the relative influence of Japan over Asia were ultimately rendered moot by the complete political and military surrender of the Japanese empire to the United States at the end of the war. Nonetheless, Buck’s arguments represent a remarkably forward-looking and prescient view of the postwar world, and the US role within that world, for the time when they were delivered. The author’s central point that the United States must abandon its Eurocentric outlook in favor of a more international role presage the emergence of the United States as one of the world’s two superpowers with a truly global cultural influence and military authority in the wake of World War II.

Buck also correctly suggests that the Soviet Union would present a potential challenger to US influence in Asia and elsewhere, the state of affairs that characterized the power struggle of the Cold War from the late 1940s into the early 1990s. The development of the Truman Doctrine in the late 1940s, for example, reflected a growing US concern about Soviet influence in nations such as Turkey and Iran—places arguably occupied by those Buck had termed “colored people.” Her argument that inadequate US attention to the needs of its Asian allies presented potential geopolitical dangers was also soon proven correct as a Chinese communist revolution successfully overthrew the US-preferred nationalist government in China in 1949. At that time, the United States was dedicating huge resources to rebuilding war-torn Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan. In the longer run, US foreign policy toward Asia, Latin America, and Africa at the height of the Cold War somewhat reflected the internationalist principles supported by Buck. Interventions in Vietnam and Latin America, for example, ostensibly supported democratic ideals but practically reflected US political interests and concerns over national security and Soviet influence.

Racial and ethnic conflict also remained a point of significant global concern well into the twenty-first century. US support for governments that adhered to Western cultural and political practices contributed to deep instability in the Middle East. The idea of the United States as an oppressor of nonwhite culture, for example, has informed radical Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Conn, Peter.Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge UP, 1996. Print.
  • Kang, Liao.Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge across the Pacific. Westport: Greenwood, 1997. Print.
  • Leong, Karen J.The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley: U of California P, 2005. Print.
  • Weatherford, Doris. “Buck, Pearl Sydenstricker.”American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2010. 64. Print.