Justice  /  Book Review

Double V: Military Racism

Today, the military is perhaps the largest integrated institution in the US. But how it came to be this way reveals a history of racism and resistance.

In American​ popular memory, the Second World War remains the ‘good war’, fought, to borrow the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, by the ‘greatest generation’. It is remembered as a time of national unity that not only destroyed tyrannies overseas but assimilated young men from all regions and ethnic backgrounds into a shared American identity. The war in Vietnam, by contrast, is widely viewed as a needless contest fought by an army that fell apart while experiencing the aftershocks of social divisions at home. Its legacy, reinforced by misbegotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ – a reluctance among political leaders and the broader public to become involved in combat in faraway places.

Two new books challenge these ideas. After reading Matthew F. Delmont’s Half American, the greatest generation, or at least its white component, seems considerably diminished. Although more than a million African Americans served in the armed forces during the Second World War, the default soldier in representations of the war is almost always white. When one directs attention to the Black experience, Delmont writes, ‘nearly everything’ about that war looks different. What, for example, was the conflict’s purpose? Roosevelt’s claim that it was being fought to ensure universal enjoyment of the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear) rang hollow for many African Americans denied basic civil and political rights at home. Delmont’s title is taken from a letter by a Black cafeteria worker in Wichita, Kansas, to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Should I sacrifice my life,’ he wondered, ‘to live half American?’ The Courier used the letter to launch the campaign for a ‘Double V’ – victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home.

Delmont, who teaches history at Dartmouth College, employs an impressive variety of sources – diaries, letters, newspapers, military and government documents – to explore the deep-seated racism of the armed forces and the emergence during the Second World War of a militant movement for racial justice. Beth Bailey’s focus in An Army Afire is somewhat different. A professor of history at the University of Kansas and director of its Centre for Military, War and Society Studies, Bailey paints a sympathetic portrait of the army’s struggle to adjust to the radical social changes sweeping the US, to which the military could hardly remain immune.