The story of how America became involved in, fought, and emerged victorious in World War II has by now been solidified from generation to generation. This has been done in near-canonical fashion, focusing mostly on the strategic battlefield contests, personalities, and alliances that culminated in the resounding Allied victory in 1945 over German fascism and Japanese militarism.
That focus obviously makes sense on one level, but as the war itself becomes further and further consigned to the distant past, with the last of its actual participants disappearing from the stage, the risk is that its remembrance loses some context in the gauzy recall of history. At a time when this country still struggles with many of the same internal pathologies that were present when our involvement in World War II began, the reality shouldn’t be overlooked that we entered that war as a racially divided nation, even as we proceeded to eradicate a racist-inspired tyranny from the face of the planet.
The importance of acknowledging one of the war’s more neglected aspects—such as the racial discrimination within the ranks of our military at the time—becomes more acute as efforts by so-called conservatives to sanitize or whitewash this nation’s racist history become more prevalent in our schools. Their proponents claim such efforts are intended to instill a more “patriotic” (read, less discomfiting) sensibility among our young people, implying that such indoctrination will somehow redound to the nation’s benefit. But teaching an incomplete, self-serving narrative of American exceptionalism at the expense of a frank acknowledgement of racism’s profound impact on the development of this country does nothing to serve the national interest; rather, it only serves the interests of those who look to benefit from fomenting continued ignorance.
As British journalist and author Gary Younge, writing for the New York Review of Books emphasizes, the prevailing, historically accepted rendition of America’s involvement in World War II, “that the war against Nazism and fascism was both logically and manifestly a war for democracy and freedom,” remains “rarely” if ever questioned, either here or abroad. As Younge sees it, however, that narrative encompasses only part of the actual reality, which is more nuanced, more problematic, and significantly less satisfying, at least for some.
As Younge writes, quoting from a new book by Matthew F. Delmont titled “Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad”:
[A]t the very moment much of Europe and the US were celebrating their roles in securing freedom and democracy, large numbers of people across the globe, most of them Black and brown, were fighting to secure freedom either from or within those very powers. “Nearly everything about the war—the start and end dates, geography, vital military roles, the home front, and international implications—looks different when viewed from the African American perspective,” writes Matthew F. Delmont.
As Younge notes, over 1 million Black Americans served during World War II, ”while hundreds of thousands worked in the defense industries” in less visible—but no less important—supportive roles. Their service occurred in the midst of a segregation regime at that time still unaddressed by any magnanimous Supreme Court edict, one in which Black Americans were still being effectively denied the right to vote (among many other human rights) in much of the American South. Younge explains in his review of Delmont’s book that when called up by the Selective Service—or when enlisting outright for the war effort—most Black Americans were immediately channeled into segregated, supportive jobs because of the widespread, racist perception that they were not “fit” for combat.
As Younge notes, some branches of the military did not want them at all, while others complained they lacked the capacity to construct segregated facilities to house and train them as soldiers. But it’s not that Black citizens did not want to fight; rather they were prevented, for the most part, from doing so, with only about 5% seeing combat roles, according to Younge.
The disconnect between America’s stated war aims—of fighting for freedom and democracy—and its treatment of Black Americans at home didn’t go unnoticed, at least by Black America. It was particularly highlighted in a single letter to the Pittsburgh Courier, at that time the largest black newspaper in the country, authored by a 26-year-old defense industry worker named James G. Thompson.
As explained by Younge and reported by Euell A. Nielsen, for example, writing for BLACKPAST, Thompson’s letter galvanized what would become known as the “Double V” campaign:
Like most black war workers at the time, Thompson could not work on the factory floor of the aircraft manufacturing company where he was employed. He was confined to working in the factory cafeteria.
Thompson’s letter, “Should I Sacrifice to live ‘Half American’?” challenged the lofty rhetoric of American war aims, contrasting them to the actual treatment of African Americans, then one-tenth of the population. At the end of his letter, Thompson reminded his readers that the “V for Victory” sign was being displayed prominently across the U.S. and among its allies, calling for victory over tyranny, slavery, and aggression as represented by the aims of the Axis Powers: Germany, Italy, and Japan.
Thompson called for a “double V for victory” sign, with the first V standing for victory of enemies from without and the second V for victory over enemies within, meaning those in the United States who limited the freedoms of African Americans.
One week later, the “Double V” and accompanying slogan “Democracy—At Home-Abroad” was adopted by the Courier and displayed on its front page. As Neilsen writes:
African Americans from almost every background embraced the idea that with the sacrifices of over one million black men and women in various branches of the military during World War II and six million more working in defense plants, they would not allow Jim Crow to remain unchallenged either during or after the war. Many historians see the Double V campaign as the opening salvo in the Civil Rights Movement and continued protests for racial justice.
As Younge points out, from a truly historical perspective—one inclusive of Black as well as “white” history—the “Double V” campaign was not new. It echoed sentiments previously espoused both by Frederick Douglass in urging free Blacks to join Union forces in the war against the Confederacy, and by W.E.B. DuBois in support of Black American soldiers who had fought alongside the French in World War I. Still, as Younge explains, it drew the ire of some within the Roosevelt administration, including FDR’s assistant and eventual press secretary Jonathan Daniels, who characterized the campaign as “extortion,” suggesting it showed (as Younge describes it) “conditional” loyalties.
But as Younge points out, for most Black Americans, loyalty was anything but “conditional.” The demand for civil rights was aspirational, and “Double V” was simply a statement about their own existence under an American system that demanded their loyalty but denied them equality under the law.
The contributions by many of those Black soldiers “permitted” by this country’s white majority to serve in combat, of course, have made their way into the popular history of World War II. As Younge writes:
[T]he Tuskegee Airmen, who shot down a dozen Nazi planes to provide cover for an amphibious landing of Allied troops at the Battle of Anzio, in Italy, or the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion, which beat back a German Panzer battalion at the Battle of the Bulge and broke through the Siegfried Line. The 92nd Infantry Division, the only Black infantry division to fight in Europe, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was deemed to have underperformed at the time, but that assessment is currently being revisited by military historians, given the harsh racial light under which it was initially made.
Mostly overlooked is the fact that in the supportive, transport, and other logistic capacities they were assigned to, Black Americans were absolutely critical to the overall war effort. Younge quotes Delmont’s book, observing that:
American combat forces … could only go as far as their supply lines could take them. Which meant they could only go as far as Black supply troops could take them…. Almost everything the Allies transported to the front passed through the hands of at least one Black American.
Meanwhile, as Younge’s review of Delmont’s book recounts, Black servicemen were sometimes shown less respect and deference than even their captured German counterparts in even such seemingly routine things like dining privileges. And for Southern Black soldiers returning from the war, the “welcome” some of them received upon arrival spoke for itself:
Many Black servicemen, particularly in the South, returned not to confetti and cheers but to lynch mobs and threats. When a supply sergeant named Henry Murphy arrived back in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the Purple Heart he had been awarded in Germany, his father met him with a change of civilian clothes. “He told me not to wear my uniform home,” he says in Neil McMillen’s Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South (1997). “Because the police was beating up [Black] GIs and searching them. If they had a white woman’s picture in his pocket, they’d kill him.”
A standard tenet of modern 20th-century history is that the GI Bill was the impetus that propelled millions of Americans into a fairly comfortable middle-class existence. But, as Younge’s review of Delmont’s book points out, that is a selective reading of history.
Those benefits were largely denied to African Americans. Administered through the states, the GI Bill did not take into account, for instance, that many banks wouldn’t lend money to Black people and many universities wouldn’t allow them access. In all of 1947, Delmont points out, just two of the 3,200 home loans guaranteed by the Veterans Administration in Mississippi went to African American borrowers. Estimates indicate that as many as 50,000 Black veterans each year “did not attend college because there were not enough classrooms or dormitories to accommodate them.” More than one in four white veterans went to college on the GI Bill; for African Americans it was fewer than one in eight.
Younge also observes that while segregation by color during this time frame was an established fact in the U.S., ”nearly one million African men from independent South Africa and the British, French, Italian, and Belgian colonies” fought on the Allied side during the war, even as their colonial “masters” continued to wield oppressive policies over their fellow countrymen back home. As Younge notes, even before the war’s end, as Allied troops marched through Paris to commemorate its liberation from the Nazis, Allied commanders were so concerned about conveying appropriate “optics” about the triumph of “civilization over barbarism” that they specifically sought out all-white divisions to parade before the cameras.
At the same time, however, Black soldiers in a conquered Europe found themselves still segregated under the U.S. military but suddenly cast among European citizens who regarded such segregation as a backward and curious hypocrisy coming from their “liberators.” As Younge notes, many of those same Black soldiers came back to the U.S. “changed and determined for change.”
Younge’s and Delmont’s point is that while segregation in the military formally ended a few years after the war, Black Americans came out of the war with a far different perspective about their own role in American society, one that led inexorably—if painfully slowly—to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Republican party’s current legislative crusade against “critical race theory” has often been met with the objection that CRT is not actually taught in our primary, intermediate or secondary public schools. That’s true, of course (it is a college graduate-level subject). However, Republicans already know that.
The purpose of the anti-CRT campaign now underway in several Republican-dominated states was never to single out one obscure class subject. The purpose is to intimidate public school teachers into approaching any race-oriented content with fear and trepidation, with the understanding that any single parent, child, or school board member could police such content (and threaten their jobs) by linking it to CRT. It’s broadly defined as the idea “that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” Thus, any mention of (or allusion to) institutionalized racism—almost everything contained in this post, for example—is fair game for attack and self-censorship by beleaguered public school teachers, even if the very subject is nominally permitted by the school’s curriculum.
It is precisely these long-neglected aspects of “traditional” American history—most often (if not invariably) Black history—that Republicans in states like Florida and Texas want to erase or otherwise obfuscate. They’re passing laws designed to silence and muzzle the teaching of what (for them) amount to disturbing and uncomfortable truths not just about the country they claim to revere, but about themselves as well.