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American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU
|How did Participation in America's Wars affect Black Americans?|
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 years essay competition winner, Jill Woodland, a final year student at Liverpool John Moores University.
by Jill Woodland
World War I
World War II
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 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
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'.
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".
|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. "
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'
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.'
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.
|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
Evidence that this disillusionment was widespread
can be observed in the increased interest in protest organisations.
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".
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
Yet I must be patriotic
They expect me to be loyal
To hell with a war impelled by greed
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'.
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'.
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".
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.
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.
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 over...to recruit'.
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'.
Mullen, Blacks in America's Wars, (New York, Monad Press, 1974),
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, PocketBooks, 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)
T.(1995)All Men Are Brothers-Part 2,[intemet.
TERRY.W.(no date).Bloods, [intemet. http://www.coax.net/people/lwf/vietnam.htm [18/11/99]
Boyz In The Hood dir. SINGLETON J. (1991)
Studies Today Online is
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