Yet the truth is more complicated and understanding it couldn’t be more relevant as we fight to uproot white supremacy, including in the military. The simple but essential fact is that America fought World War II – the war designed to realize the four freedoms – with a military steeped in racism. And this racism has seriously harmed countless Americans of all races.
Despite numerous racist restrictions on their enlistment, more than one million black GIs served in World War II. “Jim Crow in uniform”, however, constantly tormented them.
Military leaders asserted that the American armed forces should be strictly separated and controlled from top to bottom by whites, in part to accommodate the alleged wishes of white troops. This meant funneling black servicemen into separate teams, whose senior officers were invariably white, and limiting black soldiers to the least desirable and lowest-paying jobs. This meant blocking their promotions and access to senior officer ranks. That meant confining them to Jim Crow recreational spaces from Alabama to Australia. This meant a court-martial system that charged, convicted and executed them at unfairly high rates. And that meant denying too many of them the rewards and honors they deserved.
Military racism, not just its civilian variety, has also deprived blacks of the vaunted benefits of the GI Bill. Well-documented discrimination in mortgages, job boards, college admissions, hiring and more has taken its toll. But so has a grossly unfair dismissal system that disqualified a disproportionate share of black veterans from receiving those benefits. And, of course, the sweeping restrictions on black enlistment during the war also became in effect sweeping limitations on African Americans’ access to GI Bill-provided home and business loans, job training, and fees. school after that.
In response to this sprawling structure of white dominance, the black military and their supporters built a far-reaching and long-forgotten civil rights movement. In addition to military heroism, they used both politics and the courts – lobbying, voting and litigation – and more militant tactics – boycotts, strikes and armed self-defense – to fight for equality. This movement demanded an army that lived up to the ideals professed by America.
In the face of sometimes fierce opposition from the White House Roosevelt, Congress, the courts, and the military, the movement still scored some wartime victories. It has enabled the desegregation of certain training stations, military recreational facilities and combat gear in the European theatre.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of this movement was that it forever transformed the feelings of some Americans toward military racism. Support for integrated military units, for example, shifted from the fringes to the mainstream of liberal and left-wing public opinion during the war. Editorials, marches, mass meetings and the like embittered growing numbers of Americans over a segregated army. They argued that it depressed the morale of some troops, discouraged allies abroad, widened petty racial divisions at home, doctored Nazi racial theories, further fractured the working class, and trampled on so-called democratic ideals and nation’s war aims.
President Harry S. Truman often receives credit for desegregating the military after the war in 1948. But militant Black GIs and their allies deserve their fair share of credit for creating the political conditions in which Truman could operate.
Truman’s decree eventually led to the mixing of black and white units. But what about those soldiers who don’t fit neatly into either side?
At times, the wartime military counted anyone non-black — including Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans — as white, offering them a share of the myriad benefits that come with that status. But, in many other cases, non-black minorities have encountered their own particular brand of racism. Although he lacked the power and reach of Jim Crow, he still produced many cruelties and injustices.
For example, for a period after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US military prohibited the enlistment of Japanese Americans. Once allowed to join the army, they were sometimes directed to separate units and subjected to excessive scrutiny and other injustices, including mistreatment by fellow soldiers and select commissions. Chinese-American, Filipino, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Native American soldiers sometimes faced similar difficulties.
And yet war could disrupt these well-worn racist conventions in part because non-black minorities were often allowed to fight alongside white troops. Serving together forged bonds of camaraderie. Many years after the war, an Ojibway man recalls “his first feeling of complete acceptance while serving in the army during World War II.”
Even some black troops sometimes expressed similar sentiments, especially overseas, where they praised the friendliness of strangers and pointed out that “there are no colored lines in the foxholes.”
Ultimately, the US military in World War II shaped post-war race relations in a confusing way. On the one hand, some veterans of all colors have returned home ready to fight for a more democratic America, bolstering existing freedom struggles and setting the stage for future civil rights victories, beginning with America’s own desegregation. the army. It’s a story we love to tell.
But too often we forget that military racism – so pervasive for the 16 million American servicemen during World War II – also pushed America in less egalitarian directions. This reinforced the very idea of race. This encouraged many whites to double down on their racist, especially anti-black, investments. And it has etched ever deeper divisions among the American people, with lasting consequences.
Today, as the military again struggles with its own ingrained racism – in the form of barriers to promotionthe high command blinding whiteness, white supremacy in the ranks and more – a few lessons from WWII can frame the battle and improve the chances of success.
Military racism undoubtedly interfered with the effective execution of the war, likely lengthening America’s time in the conflict and costing American lives. Army restrictions against the enlistment of African-Americans and Japanese-Americans, or against their promotions and commissions and those of other minorities, for example, have deprived it of more than half a million soldiers additional and countless numbers of people, who, if given the chance, would have excelled as, say, pilots or paratroopers or admirals. Contrary to what some like Sen. Complaint by Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in the present, and what segregationists long nurtured during World War II—structural racism—not efforts to eradicate it, undermined unit cohesion, morale, and success.
Winning the battle against military racism requires recognizing how white supremacy can affect various minority troops differently. It also requires tailoring remedial measures accordingly, but never in a way that takes advantage of one non-white group against another.
Success often comes from the bottom. The decisive force behind the Army’s most significant egalitarian changes came from pressure from below, primarily from servicemen of color, especially blacks, in the ranks of enlisted and junior officers and their civilian supporters. This story argues for following their lead in trying to make the military a more equal environment.
And the story is clear: military racism spares no one. To varying degrees, African Americans, Japanese Americans, and other non-whites suffered incalculably during World War II, and their damage lasted well into the post-war years. But whites also paid a price, sometimes the ultimate price.
Racist barriers at enlistment and elsewhere ensured the overrepresentation of whites among those who served in World War II, fought on the front lines and died. Seen in this light, military racism has crowned few outright winners. And this is true of all forms of racism, past and present.