Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Pearl S. Buck: WWII Freedom Fighter

I grew up just 2-and-a-half miles from Pearl S. Buck’s home in Hilltown, Pennsylvania. My family visited the museum there, and we joined the Easter egg hunt on the estate’s huge back yard several years. As a kid, my takeaway was that Buck was raised in China, she wrote some novels about that country, and she lived in a nice old stone house. And twenty-five years later this WWII history buff learns that she was a forceful defender of freedom.

My interest in Pearl S. Buck’s wartime contribution was sparked by an anecdote I read in Books As Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets in the Era of World War II. Before America entered the war Buck received a letter from her publisher in Poland. Marian and Hanna Kister and their daughters had fled the country after the invasion by the Germans and Russians. As the Nazis destroyed Poland’s publishing houses and libraries, the Kister family raced across Europe. It was Pearl S. Buck and her husband, publisher Richard J. Walsh, who allowed the Kisters to come to the US. In 1941 Buck and Walsh were sponsors in their immigration process, promising financial support if needed. After settling in Brooklyn, the Kisters quickly returned to the book business. Their new company, Roy Publishers, released English translations of Polish authors.

Buck in 1938
I checked out a few biographies from my library to see what else Buck was doing during the war. I expected that she promoted the purchase of war bonds or encouraged book donations to the Victory Book Campaign. Instead I was impressed to find that she used her influence to combat the racist policies of this country.

During WWII the segregation of American public life was duplicated in the US military. African-American troops received what were considered the most menial assignments, and they often faced degrading treatment from their white commanders. Meanwhile, black civilians were barred from employment in the war industry, and were turned away at Red Cross blood drives.

As Paul A. Doyle’s 1965 biography put it, Pearl S. Buck worked tirelessly to “enlighten Americans about Asian attitudes and the real meaning of the battle against the Axis” and “attempted to to make the people see the folly of their treatment of the Negro.” Buck hosted radio programs, wrote essays, spoke at rallies, and chaired the Committee Against Racial Discrimination.

Pear Buck was one of the few white people to speak out against the US government’s 1942 order to force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps in the Western states. She was dismayed that President Roosevelt choose to support Britain’s colonial subjugation of India, rather than encourage that country’s independence. China, although an ally in the war against Japan, was treated less well than the European allies. Buck worked to end the US government’s ban on Chinese immigration, and she criticized America’s lackluster post-war recovery plan for China.

Racism was the unpleasant reality that contradicted America’s idealized fight for freedom. While Pearl S. Buck hated the militant fascism of German and Japan, she feared that the American and British patriotism would strengthen policies of racial inequality. While Buck was a supporter of the war itself, it was brave criticize her government so vocally.

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