The Second World War continues to cast a long shadow. Legacies abound—the death of 60 million, the horror of the Holocaust, and the decolonization of European empires among them. The emergence of two new superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, would yield a geopolitically bifurcated world. And both Americans and Russians continue to shape their national identities on the basis of that epic clash of arms.
Russian historians, cultural producers, politicians, and ordinary citizens alike tend to draw upon the evocative power of the “Great Patriotic War,” a notion grounded in the Soviets’ heroic and costly four-year campaign against the Nazis, while selectively brushing aside the nonaggression pact that had been signed in August 1939 between Stalin and Hitler. And the brutal Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe that followed the Second World War would be portrayed (falsely) as a mutually beneficial and fully consensual epilogue to the defeat of Germany. Even the current war is framed by Putin and his state-controlled media through the lens of World War II-era moral imagery, with Ukraine being (ludicrously) depicted as a Nazi-controlled state bent on destroying Russia.
Americans, on the other hand, remember the conflict as the “Good War,” with the United States as a reluctant belligerent, dragged out of isolation to both assist beleaguered Britain and smite Japan after its attack on Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, and other sites. By this narrative, Americans were involuntarily thrust into a heroic role, which the “Greatest Generation” acquitted through massive industrialization on the home front, and an overwhelming mobilization of armed might overseas.
But this narrative can appear very different when events are viewed through the eyes of African Americans. “It’s hard to be a patriot when you don’t even feel like a citizen,” recounted Joseph LaNier, an African-American veteran of the US Navy’s 23rd (Special) Naval Construction Battalion. During America’s struggle against fascism—led by the Nazis, with their odious, explicitly racist ideology—it was not lost on African Americans that they were being called upon to fight for the freedom of the oppressed overseas even as they faced prejudice and injustice at home.
This is the dark history presented by Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College and author of several books related to the struggle for civil rights. In Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, Delmont offers a robust survey of the war based on the African-American experience. Drawing from a large cast of military personnel, journalists, and activists, he illustrates how the service and sacrifice of African Americans within their country’s segregated military reflected the racism and hypocrisy of US society at large.
From the start of the war, African-American journalists, writing in their own effectively segregated publications, demanded that blacks be allowed to fight for the United States. Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert Vann captured the sentiment: “Let us die for America if need be! We are AMERICANS.” At the same time, many African-American elites understood that military service could be a tool to chip away at Jim Crow laws and other racist barriers.
While some African Americans did serve in the prewar military, they’d almost invariably been consigned to menial jobs, and denied roles as combatants. The attack on Pearl Harbor helped spark change, especially as news emerged about African-American heroes. The most celebrated was Doris Miller, a mess attendant (essentially, a cook) on USS West Virginia, who carried his wounded captain to a sheltered spot on the burning battleship, and, as in a scene out of a Hollywood film, shot down multiple Japanese planes with a deck-mounted anti-aircraft machine gun, despite having received no training on its use. Miller became the first black American to receive the Navy Cross, the Navy’s highest decoration for valor. (Three years later, he died aboard the escort carrier Liscome Bay when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine.)
General Jacob Devers, then commander of the Armored Force, personally publicized the story of Private Robert Brooks, an African-American driver in the 192nd Tank Battalion who’d been stationed in the Philippines for just a single day at the time he was killed by a Japanese bomb. Devers, who’d eventually become the Army’s European Theater of Operations commander, renamed Kentucky’s Fort Knox’s main parade ground after Brooks, saying at the ceremony that “In death there is no grade or rank. And in this, the greatest democracy the world has ever known, neither riches nor poverty, neither creed nor race, draws a line of demarcation in this hour of national crisis.” It was a daring thing for Devers to proclaim on a segregated base, and marked him as an early proponent of desegregation.
The separation of African Americans from whites continued in the combat arms during the war. Only the merchant navy allowed for racially mixed crews, which were needed on the cargo ships making the perilous trip across the Atlantic to deliver supplies to Britain. In the many training bases across the United States, African American barracks, food, and equipment were always separate from those of whites, and always of inferior comfort and quality. After African Americans swam in a pool, it was drained and refilled for the next group of white soldiers. Even life-giving blood transfusions were tagged by race, so that black blood didn’t go into white bodies.
African Americans serving in uniform faced grave danger even before they left US soil. Around bases in the South, there were multiple documented cases of African American soldiers being attacked by white police officers and local vigilantes. While this racist climate often aroused little concern among local white officers, the blatant disrespect being displayed toward the uniform (if not the human being wearing it) was eventually seen as a serious problem. But even then, African Americans often were blamed for provoking the beatings and insults inflicted upon them, resulting in their confinement to base.
Most of these incidents were hidden from white Americans, since they were off-script from the patriotic ideal of a nation united in struggle against fascist enemies. But the details were laid bare in the African American press, whose editors lamented the injustice and sought change. V for Victory had become a prominent sign in many Allied countries—on posters, in speeches, and in hand gestures. But African Americans talked increasingly of their own Double-V campaign: victory overseas against the fascists and victory at home against racism.
Even before the United States formally entered the war, President Franklin Roosevelt had declared his nation to be the “great arsenal for democracy,” with massive federal government contracts for war materiel creating employment for millions who’d been eking out hard existences during the Depression years. And yet African Americans were often blocked from these well-paying jobs. By October 1940, African Americans still faced 22 percent unemployment. The NAACP and other groups appealed to Washington, but it was not until the threat of a march on the city in the summer of 1941 when the worried president caved to the pressure, and passed Executive Order 8802, forbidding discrimination in war-related industries.
It was a win for African Americans, but many owners found ways to continue blocking black workers from the factory floor. And some white workers responded with strikes and violence in response to integration efforts. Slowly, however, jobs opened up to black workers, although only in certain parts of the country. That generally didn’t include Georgia, one of whose senators, Richard Russell Jr., claimed that the federal agency tasked with promoting equality, the Fair Employment Practice Committee, was “the most dangerous force in existence in the United States today … it is a greater threat to victory than 50 fresh divisions enrolled beneath Hitler’s swastika or the setting sun of Japan.”
Such open displays of racism against American blacks assisting the war effort weren’t confined to the South. In 1943, there was a large-scale riot in Detroit following the influx of legions of black workers needed by the area’s machine plants. As hundreds of rioters came at each other with fists, sticks, and bottles, gangs of whites and African Americans wreaked havoc, but the police soon were raiding only black neighbourhoods. The army was brought in, deploying 2,500 soldiers armed to the teeth. Some 34 people were killed, most of them African Americans. Thurgood Marshall, then a lawyer with the NAACP, was on the scene to document the brutality perpetrated by the police, whom he labelled the “Gestapo of Detroit.”
Over time, however, the patriotic service being rendered by African Americans became impossible for ordinary white Americans to ignore, with no fewer than 750,000 blacks in uniform by late 1943. Segregated aerial units such as the Tuskegee Airmen became spoken of with great pride in the African-American community, especially following reports that they fought effectively in aerial combat against the Luftwaffe. “If all American could see these boys taking off and landing day after day,” wrote one pilot, “I feel there would be much less bitterness and prejudice in our native land.” (One of those Tuskegee Airmen, Harold Brown, died last month at the age of 98. In 1945, just months before the war ended, he bailed out of his P-51 fighter-bomber over Austria, whereupon he was almost lynched by a mob, not because of his race but because of his uniform.)
Delmont goes into some depth in exploring the war memories of African Americans, though no author could exhaustively cover such a broad subject in the 400 pages this book spans. The author also explains how bigoted attitudes toward African Americans caused them to be edited out of early high-profile photographic histories of the war effort. The same can be said of the hundreds of war films and propaganda reels that were produced during the war, a subject I would have been eager to read more about.
One theme I would have liked to see explored, but which is almost entirely absent from Half American, is the means by which blacks and whites in uniform communicated, and bonded over, their common cause. We know from abundant historical examples that the forge of battle often burns away many misconceptions and prejudices. But save for a few references, such as veteran Albert Bryant recalling the hell of Iwo Jima—“We were all Americans once the chips were down”—it’s hard to find much mention of this shared spirit in Delmont’s book. (One presumes that there also must have been close interracial friendships maintained within veterans’ communities, especially from the 1960s onward, once the Civil Rights movement had become ascendant, although that too is absent from this account.)
Brown, the aforementioned Tuskegee Airman captured by Austrian villagers, was liberated on April 29th, 1945 by an armored division led by none other than Gen. George S. Patton. But when he got back to the United States, it was as if he’d never left. “The first time I was integrated was in a P.O.W. camp,” he later said. Ironically, he’d experienced more race-mixing under Nazi guards than at his own American base, which was still segregated when he returned stateside after the war.
In some cases, returning African-American veterans were assaulted and even murdered by the men whose freedom they’d fought to protect, sometimes with the connivance of local police officers. “The veteran from Okinawa may well be lynched on the streets of a Georgia town if he does not step off the sidewalk when a white woman or man passes,” wrote journalist Dan Burley. “He had better not wear his uniform or battle ribbons in Mississippi.”
If the “Greatest Generation” is the term we use to describe the cohort of Americans who fought fascism, it’s hard to know what additional superlative we should apply to the sub-cohort that enlisted in that struggle while also battling the evil of racism not only during the war, but throughout their lives. The “Good War” ended in victory, which is one reason Americans like to talk about it so much. When it comes to the fight against racism, unfortunately, the second V remains elusive.