Recently, when I asked my students an exam question about World War II and pre- and during war mobilization, I began with the statement, “During the first half of the 1940s, Americans found themselves confronted with the paradox of fighting racism abroad while sustaining a racially/ethnically stratified system at home.” Of course, that is a broad statement—you could argue, for example, that given the fact that the military was segregated, the U.S. sustained racism abroad during the war, as well.
And now, the BBC has found another way in which the U.S. “sustained racism abroad” during the war:
Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a "whites only" victory. Much of the Free French fighting force (65%) was African, and they had made tremendous sacrifices:
By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead. But the U.S. and the U.K. were dismissive of their service. When the liberation of Paris seemed possible in 1944 and Charles de Gaulle insisted that the French lead the liberation,
Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.
Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers. To create the “whites only” illusion,
In January 1944 Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, "confidential": "It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.”
Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units. In a sense, this is not surprising for the U.S.—a nation that had always downplayed black military personnel’s service, that relegated black service people to menial duties, that until World War II, excluded them from certain branches of the military. The degradation of African Americans military service went so far that, in 1925, the Army War College issued a report detailing why African Americans were unfit for combat and could never be pilots.
When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.
But this seems somehow, particularly low, that in the midst of what was supposed to be a great triumph, the U.S. took the time to strengthen and assert policies that were supposed to be the very antithesis of what it was fighting for.
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Ahistoricality on 4/08/2009 1:27 PM:
The US military was still segregated in WWII, including units made up entirely of Japanese American citizens who'd been expelled from their homes and whose families remained in detention centers while their loyalty scores were tallied by bureaucrats.
We weren't fighting against racism: we were fighting against overweening aggressive imperialism (as opposed to our own modest and business-oriented imperialism) that threatened our own peace and prosperity.
That our enemies were racists of the first order whose atrocities delegitimized racism, totalitarianism and everything else associated with them was a side effect, a great benefit. But don't confuse the history with "should have beens".
elle on 4/08/2009 9:53 PM:
A comment I posted at Shakesville--I should've been more clear:
What I teach is that after a while, this is how the war was "sold" to Americans--fighting fascism (and related racism) so that the world could experience the wonders of our system!
This, despite the fact that Americans turned an unseeing eye to Japanese and German atrocities all throughout the 1930s, refused Jewish refugees entry, etc.
Some of my students are very resistant to the idea that Americans--and even the average German citizen--knew what was going on. They just refuse to accept that.
So my essay question sets up a simplistic paradox that (as I've mentioned) you could poke a load of holes in, but I want to get them thinking about this country's hypocrisy throughout its existence--how what we say and "dream" rarely matches what we do.
I phrase the question in a way that I hope prods them to talk about the Double V campaign as well.
Ahistoricality on 4/09/2009 11:46 PM:
At what point does the US start decrying racism? As an implicit element of imperialism, I could see it, but both the Japanese and Germans used US racism as a centerpiece of their propoganda.
I have seen propoganda materials which attack the hypocrisy of Japan (for oppressing the Asian nations it claimed to liberate) and attack Japan in the most racist possible terms (bestiality, etc.); I've seen propoganda materials that attack the Germans for their superiority complex, but that's really not the same thing as racism, and for war crimes against French and Allied POWs, but not for their genocidal praxis.
Maybe I'm looking at the wrong materials, though.
mark on 4/10/2009 7:13 PM:
It is not accurate that the U.S. public did not decry Japanese and Nazi atrocities during the 1930's. Both the Rape of Nanking and the Kristallnacht and lesser anti-Chinese or anti-semitic received huge coverage in American newspapers. Sentiment against both Nazi Germany and Japan was not inconsiderable, it simply was less powerful than the isolationism of the Old Right and - for the duration of the Nazi-Soviet Pact - the opposition of Communist Left and fellow travellers.
As for Jewish refugees, the key figure responsible for barring them from entry to the U.S. was a State Department official named Breckinridge Long, a Southern Democratic patrician and an incorrigible racist and anti-semite. Southerners held many important positions in the Federal government and the U.S. military, not to mention a powerful bloc in both Houses of Congress. FDR might appoint the 1st african-American general in the U.S. Army but he feared to desegregate it for political reasons.
The most forceful figure demanding the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor was the Attorney-General of California ( later Governor), Earl Warren.
Ahistoricality on 4/10/2009 7:35 PM:
Interesting details, but not dispositive of anything in this discussion.
We're discussing, or at least I think we're discussing, the extent to which WWII was widely percieved or propogandized as a "war against racism." The refusal to admit Jewish refugees and the internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans were widely seen as necessary and appropriate policies given the nationalistic and racial nature of the conflict and, in the former case, because of continuing US anti-semitism, particularly against more recent Jewish immigrants.
mark on 4/10/2009 11:21 PM:
I would never argue that WWII was a "war against racism". It's an absurd premise, like FDR was a Pope launching a crusade or something. It was a war for national survival in the eyes of most of the Allied leaders, and they were right. The Nazis planned for a European "New Order" based on masive racial extermination in "the East"; the Japanese anticipated destruction of China s national entity and reduction of her people to helot status. The moral lines were unambiguous but also secondary.
These Fascist ambitions were *existential* threats to the United States, to say nothing of the USSR, Great Britain and China. The allies dealt with them as existential threats.
Ahistoricality on 4/11/2009 10:29 AM:
That's what I was saying, too. We still have the problem of public perception to deal with, though: it's certainly true that significant minorities thought of the war as an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and contribution to national life, and use that as leverage to overcome the racism which they faced -- Blacks and Japanese certainly, perhaps others. Did the Jewish community see it that way, or were they too wrapped up in the Holocaust issue; the delegitimization of anti-semitism really is a post-war phenomenon, not a war-related one.
mark on 4/11/2009 2:11 PM:
I haven't studied Jewish-American perceptions of the war but Jewish organizations were active in lobbying the Roosevelt administration in regard to Nazi atrocities, though to very limited effect. Partly, this was a legacy of British WWI propaganda that had left Americans feeling misled, stories of extermination camps were discounted as wild exaggerations; partly it was a belief that the best way to help victims of the Nazis was to focus on winning the war as fast as possible and sadly, some of it was latent anti-semitism and a lack of empathy for European Jewry among high officials at State, the War Department and the White House.
Of European Jews, the Holocaust demolished the Ashkenazim assimilationist ethic that had been dominant since Jews were given full civil equality (19th C.) and gave a tremendous boost to Zionism, previously a small fringe movement. This was aggravated by the postwar "displaced persons" problem, many of whom were Holocaust survivors unwilling or unable to go back to states that had actively collaborated with the Nazis in deporting Jews. Or, in some cases Romania, Ukraine, parts of Poland - exceeded the SS in cruelty and anti-semitic violence. The Iron Guard, for example, in a wild pogrom, managed to appall even the local German Wehrmacht and SS commanders (Hitler had them suppressed by force as a danger to the Romanian government).
Emigration, first to the U.S. and the British Mandate in Palestine, then the new Israel, became an escape from refugee camps and significantly reduced a thorny humanitarian/political problem for the Allied powers.
Arabs at the time and later wondered why the allies did not create a Jewish state in Europe, such as the Rhineland. It was never seriously considered and would have resulted in displacing millions more Germans (added to those already being expelled from new Polish territory) which the Allies would have to become responsible for feeding, clothing etc. and turn Germany into a permanent financial burden for the U.S. and Britain. It was simply not going to happen for the same reason the Morgenthau Plan was rejected.