Justice  /  Comment

The Military, Minorities, and Social Engineering

Trump’s transgender ban restarts the debate about the relation between military service and social policy.
Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Once the war ended, racial and ethnic fears and resentments reasserted themselves.
Jim Crow was violently reaffirmed by lynchings and racial pogroms, and in 1925 an Army report distorted the combat record of its black units to justify policies limiting the role of black troops in future conflicts.

New policies of “race”-based exclusion were aimed against white ethnics too. The tone was set by Congress’ passage of the Reed-Johnson Act, restricting immigration by ethnic groups deemed undesirable – Jews, Italians, Eastern Europeans. Most Ivy League colleges adopted formal quotas limiting the number of Jewish students, and informal rules affecting Italian applicants. Real estate “covenants” barred Jews and other ethnic groups from purchasing or renting homes in certain towns or districts.

However, the war experience had roused the political consciousness of racial and ethnic minorities. Black civil rights organizations cited their people’s record of military service in demanding an end to Jim Crow. New ethnic veterans organizations, most notably the Jewish War Veterans, were prominent in fighting for veterans’ benefits and civil rights. Blacks, Jews and other working-class ethnic groups gained influence as part of the New Deal coalition.

The crisis of mobilization for World War II recreated the opportunity for social change that had been squandered after World War I.

Once again the large-scale enlistment of black and ethnic minority soldiers was a necessity. And this time the conflict pitted Americans against the explicitly racist ideology of Nazism. The resemblance of Nazi race laws to the segregation and exclusion enforced by Jim Crow helped discredit the South’s racial regime with a broad public. And Hollywood played a critical role in transforming public opinion, through its production of war films, later known as “platoon movies.”

The pattern was set by “Bataan” in 1943, which symbolizes America in a small unit whose members include (in addition to some white regional types) a Jew, a Pole, an Irishman, two Filipinos and – most extraordinarily – an African-American. The U.S. Army was still racially segregated, but Hollywood deliberately set reality aside to create an ideal vision of an integrated America.