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How did Participation in America's Wars affect Black Americans? American Studies Today Online

The treatment of Black soldiers in the American forces reflected the discrimination they suffered at home, but their experience led to increased political awareness and helped the development of the Civil Rights movement. This theme is explored by this year’s essay competition winner, Jill Woodland, a final year student at Liverpool John Moores University.


by Jill Woodland
The Civil War
World War I
World War II

Internet Bibliography

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America has repeatedly been at war, from the Revolutionary period to Vietnam. As a result of these wars American society has suffered outbreaks of paranoia, racial prejudice and discrimination. Which racial group, ethnic minority or ideological beliefs are discriminated against correlates with who the enemy was at that period, be it Southerners, the Japanese, Germans or communists. But despite this the Black American has suffered continual and unprecedented discrimination regardless of who the enemy was. This essay will consider Black involvement in the Civil War, World War I, World War II and Vietnam. I believe that tracing their changing involvement and treatment shows how participation in America's wars has affected Black Americans' perceptions of themselves, their country and their place in it. I will begin my analysis by looking at the Civil War and World War I.

The Civil War

The Black American experience predating the Civil War was predominantly one of slavery. Even though Black men came to fight in a war which initially began to end secession, emancipation became a chief concern as the Northerners recognised the huge resources which lay at their hands, if they accepted Black recruits. Simultaneously Black leaders like Frederick Douglas recognised that Black participation in the Civil War was

a powerful argument in their future demands for full rights of citizenship ... (for)"Once let the Black man get upon his person the brass letters, US; let him get an eagle upon his button ... bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth ... which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.'"1

Nevertheless, Black soldiers Continued to suffer discrimination as Berlin states in Slaves No More, 'Dealings between Black soldiers and their officers generally ... carried all the historic burdens of white-Black relationships in the United States'. 2 They were assigned menial positions as it was argued that they had no skill in fighting. However, those who were armed proved indispensable, relishing the prospect of maintaining their freedom through Union success. They helped achieve emancipation and paved the way for changes such as the establishment of the Bureau of Colored Troops in 1863.3

Prior to World War I American society developed increased racism and once again Black men had to fight to enlist. The President, Woodrow Wilson, even stated that it was a "White man's wai". 4 Any progress which had resulted from the Civil War was undermined by the inherent racism within American society. Once again Black soldiers were generally placed in menial positions; J R. Johnson identifies that 'Of the 200,000 Negroes who went to France some 160,000 were used as servants and in labor battalions'. 5

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World War I

World War I was billed as a war for democracy; consequently Black Americans believed that if they defended democracy abroad they were more likely to receive it at home. The Black leader W. E. B. Du Bois advised,

"Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens ... fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly. "6

Despite this General Pershing's office was secretly warning the French to avoid forming friendships with or commanding Black soldiers. Nevertheless, three Black regiments were awarded medals of honour by France, illustrating the difference liberal treatment had upon morale and performance.

Through their experiences in France, Black Americans began to recognise how oppressive the situation in America was, whilst the Germans highlighted their paradoxical position as a form of propaganda. However, as R. W. Mullen says, 'Despite the obvious truth of the German statements, the appeal had little direct effect' 7 as Black Americans felt a strong sense of patriotism and were optimistic that their situation would improve.

The changes which World War I had brought to America meant more Black employment in the North and subsequent migration. As a result white Americans became nervous concerning the changing societal structure. The most poignant example of this vulnerability was identified by Mullen,

'The Ku Klux Klan ... began its growth into a national organization in the early 1920s' and 'more than seventy Black Americans were lynched during the first year following the war, some of them returned soldiers still in uniform.'8

Although the war had done little to enhance the position of the Black American it helped generate an awareness that such extreme racism was neither acceptable nor universal through their experiences abroad.

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World War II

Black Americans approached World War II in a decidedly different manner to that of the previous war. The major awareness which had developed in the 40s was of the enormous contradiction which lay in fighting a war for democracy abroad which they did not have in America. Mullen states that,

'the Black press frequently compared the similarity of American treatment of Blacks and Nazis’ treatment of minorities, the white-supremacist doctrine of America and the master-race doctrine in Germany’. 9

Evidence that this disillusionment was widespread can be observed in the increased interest in protest organisations. 10 The recognition that wartime was precisely the moment to raise issues concerning racial discrimination was compounded by the success of Randolph’s Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters’ March-On-Washington Committee. The damage which their march would have done, had it gone ahead, to the image of a united America was seen by President Roosevelt who acquiesced to some of the demands. As a result in 1941 he 'issued an Executive Order to abolish all discrimination ... in employment in defense industries and government agencies'. 11 Despite this he managed to defer the issue of desegregating the military.

One Black soldier vocalised the futility of their situation saying "just carve on my tombstone, Here lies a Black man killed fighting a yellow man for the protection of a white man". 12 So disparaged were some Black Americans that they became involved in another form of protest: draft resistance. This peaceful refusal to accede to Jim Crow segregation within the military was punished with imprisonment. The white response was to discriminate more rigidly: Black blood was initially refused by the Red Cross and finally only accepted for Black GI's; air raid shelters were segregated, and similar to World War I; lynchings and race riots grew more prevalent. 13

Despite this one million Black Americans fought in the war. Those at home continued to experience discrimination regardless of the fact that their 'Brothers’ in the military were fighting for their country. Those who fought abroad realised to a greater degree what some had already learnt from experiences in World War I: that the United States was one of the most racially discriminatory of all the allies. Extracts" from Bill Horton's poem Just A Negro Soldier illustrates feelings of despair concerning race relations, and helps explain how the concept of "Double V" developed:

I’ m just a Negro soldier
Fighting for "democracy!'
A thing I've often heard of
But very seldom see...

Yet I must be patriotic
Must not grumble or complain
But must fight for some "four freedoms"
On which I'll have no claim...

They expect me to be loyal
But in my heart I'm not
For how can a second-class citizen
Be a first-class patriot?

To hell with a war impelled by greed
while the hungry masses cry
But to win complete equality
I’d fight and gladly die"14

Underpinning "Double V" was the belief that fighting for victory against racism at home was as important as fighting fascism abroad.

Returning to a life of segregation and discrimination at the end of World War II caused the politicisation of many Black Americans. The resultant civil disobedience campaign, e.g. the draft resistors, was one of the catalysts of the 50s and 60s Civil Rights Movement. As America emerged as a world superpower, the rest of the world focused upon her internal political shortcomings and they found 'the major domestic criticism to be America's handling of its racial minorities'. 15 As a result of this and the recognition that Black soldiers were needed as part of the military in a country which was often at war, in 1948 Truman ordered full integration of the military.

Writing in 1944 Myrad expressed an expectation that radical changes lay ahead for the Black American. After the conformity of the McCarthy era, protest began to increase rapidly. In the late 50s and 60s many Black protest organisations emerged: The Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). For these groups Black rights combined with an anti-war focus were integral. The emerging youth culture created a new lease of life and injection of idealism into these protests; and with the outbreak of the Vietnam War, they were presented with a fresh focus for even more intense opposition, particularly as the reasons for intervention were not wholly understood.

With the integration of the military, Black Americans were more readily accepted. S M. Kohn in Jailed for Peace states that they were in fact 'over represented, ... in the armed services ... drafted in ... at a rate almost twice as high as whites'. 16 Although during previous wars this acceptance and increased recruitment may have been welcomed, in Vietnam it was not as the belief that military involvement and a willingness to fight for one's country would result in full citizenship had disintegrated.

Involvement in the war was also affecting those at home. Eldridge Cleaver suggested that the government were sending so many Black men away "to kill off the cream of Black youth". 17 The Black Panther Party stated in its ten point plan that it wanted them to be exempt from military service, while other organisations, if not so explicit in their aims, were sympathetic to, and supportive of, draft resistance. Martin Luther King and others saw government spending drained away by the war thus usurping funds which could have been used to 'improve housing, education and job opportunities' 18 for an impoverished section of the community.

Opposition to the war also changed the nature of protest. There were increased incidents such as bus boycotts and sit-ins and a change for some from non-violence to increasing militancy. It was on this aspect that Civil Rights protests divided. Malcolm X argued that if the government used violence to achieve its desired aims why should Black Americans not do the same. He also suggested that separatism should be the aim of Black Americans wishing to escape racism, in part rejecting the long-term aims of integration, which had so far been unsuccessful.

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This separatism affected the soldiers in Vietnam, with some choosing to fight in all-Black units and live in all-Black barracks. Anti-war supporters could be found in the regiments both in Vietnam and America. Indeed it was not unusual for soldiers to take part in peace protests. This militancy had developed as the recognition that the war they were fighting was futile and that participation was more likely to be detrimental to race relations at home than advantageous.

Dissatisfaction with the army resulted from the fact that the enemy was also coloured and suffering white discrimination. Gwendolyn Patten believes that warfare was escalated when the enemy was non-white and it was for this reason that the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan not Germany - a white nation, and defoliant was deployed in Vietnam.19 It is unsurprising that the Black soldiers began to identify with the enemy - as Muhammad Ali said: "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger". 20 This idea was widespread, as Michael Herr discovered, when talking to one Black 'grunt' who justified his lack of participation stating that if he were to 'go firin' back, I might kill one a th' brothers'. 21

The continuing discrimination Black soldiers experienced, despite their many military efforts, had weakened the loyalty which they felt for their country and which had insulated them from the German propaganda of World War I. The negative effects which military involvement had on Black men can be identified in the fact that Black protest organisations began sending recruiters to Vietnam. Herr was told that 'there were more than a dozen Black Panthers' in one platoon, and that one man 'was an agent for the panthers, sent recruit'. 22 Nevertheless, not all Black soldiers were politicised by their experiences in the military; as one Black paratrooper said "I thought the only way I could make it out of the ghetto, was to be the best soldier I possibly could’. 23

Participation in America's wars undoubtedly changed Black Americans, although not in the ways expected by those who first fought in the Civil War. The initial optimism with which they faced the prospect of military recruitment through the Civil War and World War I was dashed by the failure of America as a nation to recognise their integral role. G. Perret suggests that 'war exfoliates into the fissures of a divided, insecure nation and (binds) it together as nothing else could'. 24 Instead of being the 'social cement' 25 he identifies, involvement in America's wars for Blacks served as a catalyst for political enlightenment. Not only were they made clearly aware of the paradox of fighting for democracy abroad when they did not have it at home, but they inaugurated struggle against the endemic racism in America through politicising every Black American. The negative effect this has had is so far reaching it is recalled in popular culture, explicitly in the film Boyz in the Hood (1991) as the father tells his son "Black men shouldn't fight in wars." 26

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1. R.W Mullen, Blacks in America's Wars, (New York, Monad Press, 1974), p22
2. I. Berlin et. al, Slaves No More, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), p216
3. Ibid, p24
4. Muller op. cit, p2 1 0
5. J. R Johnson, "Why Negroes Should Oppose The War' in F. Stanton (ed), Fighting Racism in World War II, (USA, Monad Press, 1980), p34
6.Mullen, op. cit, p45
7. Ibid, p48
8. Ibid, pp49-50
9. Mullen, op. cit, p54
10. For, more detail on increasing membership of protest organisations, see G. Myrdal, An American Dilemma, (London, Harper & Row, 1962), p851
11. Ibid,
12. Ibid, p1006
13. Mullen, op. cit, p55
14. B. Horton "Just A Negro Soldier', in Stanton, op. cit, p324
1 5. Myrdal, op. cit, p xxxii
16. S. M Kohn, Jailed For Peace, (London, Praeger, 1987), p80
17. Mullen, op. cit, p79
18. Ibid
19. Ibid, p76
20. J. & S. E. Albert, The Sixties Project, (New York, Praeger, 1984), p17
21. M. Herr, Dispatches, (London, Picador, 1988), p147
22. Ibid
23. A. E. Woodley. Jr, in W. Terry.(no date).Bloods, [internet]. [18/11/991]
24. G. Perret, A Country Made By War, (New York, Vintage, 1990), p458
25. Ibid
26. J. Singleton dir, Boyz In The Hood, (1991)

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Bibliography ALBERT J & S. E, The Sixties Papers, (New York, Praeger, 1984)
BERLIN 1. et. al, Slaves No More, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993)
CARSON C. et. al (eds), The Eyes On The Prize: Civil Rights Reader, (London,Penguin, 1991)
EDELMAN B. (ed), Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam, (London, Pocket
Books, 1985)
HERR M, Dispatches, (London, Picador, 1988)
JACKSON G, Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters Of George Jackson, (London,Penguin, 1973)
KOHN S. K Jailed For Peace, (London, Praeger, 1987)
MULLEN R. W, Blacks in America's Wars, (New York, Monad Press, 1974)
MYRDAL G, An American Dilemma, (London, Harper & Row, 1962)
PERRET G, A Country Made By War, (New York, Vintage, 1990)
POLENBERG R, One Nation Divisible, (New York, The Viking Press, 1980)

RALSTON, I America At War Handbook,

SNOWMAN D, USA: The Twenties To Vietnam, (London, Batsford, 1968)

STANTON F (ed), Fighting Racism in World War II, (USA, Monad Press, 1980)
Internet Bibliography BROOKS T.(1995)All Men Are Brothers-Part 2,[intemet. http..// [18111/99]
TERRY.W.(no date).Bloods, [intemet. [18/11/99]

Boyz In The Hood dir. SINGLETON J. (1991)

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