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Asian Americans in the Military

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The following is a guest post by Courtney Nomiyama, an intern with the Digital Resources Division of the Law Library of Congress. She is a graduate of the M.L.I.S. program at the University of Washington and a fourth-generation Japanese American.

Poster of Uncle Sam pointing to viewer with top hat and text saying "I want YOU for U.S. Army / Nearest Recruiting Station"
I want you for U.S. Army: nearest recruiting station. Flagg, James Montgomery, artist. 1917. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Uncle Sam declared “I want you for U.S. Army.” But, who exactly is “you?” Asian Americans have fought in the United States military since the War of 1812, though the treatment of Asian Americans in the U.S. military has been defined and redefined.

The U.S. census played a role in “reflecting the politics and science of the times” and thus, how Asian American enlistees in the military were categorized. The shifting of these categories over time meant that Asian American veterans had challenges receiving benefits from their service. The ever-changing status of Asian Americans’ enlistment reflected the complex dynamics of race in the U.S. military.

During the Civil War, military officials used the 1850 Census Act to classify Asian American recruits. It declared three categories for color: white, black, or mulatto, determined by enumerators that filled out the census themselves. Depending on the enumerator, Asian Americans were marked as either “white,” “mulatto,” or even left blank. As a result, Asian Americans in the military served in varying types of units. For example, Joseph Pierce of Chinese descent enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment, an all-white unit. Similarly, William Ah Hang, also of Chinese descent, enlisted in the Navy and served alongside white colleagues. John Banks, who was of East Indian descent, however, enlisted in the United States Colored Troops alongside African Americans. Such categorizations impacted benefits as members of the United States Colored Troops were paid at a reduced rate.

Records on aged paper with "Pierce, Joseph Private Corporal" handwritten on top and red writing of numbers down the page
Joseph Pierce’s military records. War Department. Compiled Military Service Record of Corporal Joseph Pierce, Company F, 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Series: Carded Records Showing Military Service of Soldiers Who Fought in Volunteer Organizations During the American Civil War, 1890 – 1912, 1890.
Photograph in muted colors of Joseph Pierce, sitting in military uniform.
Corporal Joseph Pierce of Co. F, 14th Connecticut Infantry Regiment in uniform. Hunt, William. 1862-1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

After the passage of the Geary Act in 1892, all Asian service members, including those who had served in white regiments, still had to apply for citizenship and pension authorization. William Ah Hang, for example, enjoyed citizenship and voting rights for years post-war until the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act stripped him of these benefits.

The turn of the 20th century introduced new race categories to the census, including distinctions between Asian groups that reflected growing concerns over Asian immigration. In the 1910 and 1920 censuses, the category “color” was renamed “color or race” and included designations for white, black, mulatto, Chinese, Japanese, American Indian, or other. The system of having enumerators record respondents’ information was still in practice in 1910 and 1920.

Although the census had introduced more specific categories pertaining to race, during World War I, Asian Americans were still largely described in relation to other ethnic groups. For example, the U.S. military described Asian Americans as non-white recruits. In 1922, the Supreme Court interpreted the 1870 Naturalization Act to extend naturalization to “free white persons…and persons of African descent.” Specifically, Ozawa vs. United States and Bhagat Singh Thind vs. United States deemed those of Japanese or Indian descent, respectively, ineligible for naturalized citizenship since they were not considered “white.” Notably, Bhagat Singh Thind was a World War I veteran. The 1935 Alien Veteran Naturalization Act, also known as the Nye-Lea Act, restored citizenship after a long legal battle especially involving Asian American veterans. Tokutaro Slocum, of Japanese descent, was one such individual who advocated for the restoration of citizenship based on veteran service.

The attack on Pearl Harbor and the World War II Pacific Theater increased tensions among Asian ethnic groups to avoid the label of “enemy.” While the census still retained “color or race” as a category, President Roosevelt invoked the Alien Enemies Act to deem Japanese Americans and those of Japanese descent as “enemy aliens.” This shifted the focus of Asian Americans’ status in the military from race and citizenship towards loyalty, patriotism, and belonging.

Photograph in black and white of men in army uniforms looking center at a tank.
“And this,” says a lieutenant of the Japanese-American 442nd Combat Team anti-tank company, “is what you look through to see what you’re going to shoot”. Mississippi Camp Shelby, 1943. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Meanwhile, Chinese, Filipino, and other Asian Americans fought early on and throughout the war without these interrogations. As the need for more volunteers grew, the U.S. military allowed for the recruitment of Japanese Americans, even while their families were relocated to internment camps. In order for nisei to serve, they were required to fill out what became known as the “loyalty questionnaire,” which purported to measure an individual’s loyalty to the United States.

Issues of citizenship and recognition emerged again following the aftermath of World War II. In particular, Filipino soldiers who had been promised citizenship struggled to gain full benefits post-war. The Rescission Act of 1946 determined that the service of Filipinos “shall not be deemed to be or to have been service in the military or national forces of the United States or any component thereof or any law of the United States conferring rights, privileges or benefits.” Decades later, the government gradually reversed this policy through the passages of the Immigration Act of 1990; the Veterans Health Care, Capital Asset, and Business Improvement Act; the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the Filipino Veterans of World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2015.

Executive Order 9981 called for the integration of all armed forces in 1946. The Vietnam War used the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which made no reference to race or color. However, many Asian Americans faced discrimination and trauma as the United States fought another Asian enemy. During training, Asian Americans were likened to the Viet Cong and used as a reference for enemy profiles.

The United States recruited local Southeast Asians to fight in the Vietnam War. Hmong and Montagnards fought in Laos and Vietnam, assisting U.S. war efforts, but after the war faced many challenges. Many became refugees after the U.S. withdrew from Southeast Asia. The passage of the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and United States Refugee Act allowed for the resettlement of some refugees, but did not automatically grant citizenship. Also, Hmong veterans did not benefit from veteran status until the passage of the Hmong Veterans’ Naturalization Act of 2000.

The service of Asian Americans has faced challenges and still does today. Asian servicemembers are underrepresented relative to the U.S. population, and the United States has created special immigrant programs for those that aided the U.S. war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For more information on Asian Americans in the military, please see the story map: Belonging On and Off the Battlefield: Asian Americans in the U.S. Military.

Further Reading


Lee, Erika. Making of Asian America, 2015.

Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Veterans History Project, Asian Pacific Americans: Going for Broke.

National Park Service, Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War, 2016.

Shenk, Gerald. “Work or Fight!” Race, Gender, and the Draft in World War One, 2005. 

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