Justice  /  Book Review

‘We Return Fighting’

The ambivalence many Black soldiers felt toward the U.S. in WWII was matched only by the ambivalence the U.S. showed toward principles on which WWII was fought.

The ambivalence that many Black soldiers felt toward the United States during World War II was matched only by the ambivalence the nation demonstrated toward the principles on which the war was fought. The United States claimed to be waging a war against tyranny and totalitarianism. It undertook that battle with a racially segregated army while it denied African Americans the vote and their basic civil rights in the South. This was not a contradiction unique to the US. Throughout Europe a myth endures that the war against Nazism and fascism was both logically and manifestly a war for democracy and freedom. Rarely is it challenged.

A central element of this claim is obviously true. Conquering the Axis powers in general, and Nazi Germany in particular, was an unequivocal triumph over genocidal and militaristic pathologies. But at the very moment much of Europe and the US were celebrating their roles in securing freedom and democracy, large numbers of people across the globe, most of them Black and brown, were fighting to secure freedom either from or within those very powers. “Nearly everything about the war—the start and end dates, geography, vital military roles, the home front, and international implications—looks different when viewed from the African American perspective,” writes Matthew F. Delmont in Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad.

A couple of months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a twenty-six-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, named James G. Thompson wrote a letter to the African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier that anticipated the conflicted feelings of Wiggins and so many others as they assisted in the war effort. “The V for victory sign is being displayed prominently in all so-called democratic countries which are fighting for victory over aggression, slavery and tyranny,” Thompson wrote.

If this V sign means that to those now engaged in this great conflict then let we colored Americans adopt the double VV for a double victory. The first V for victory over our enemies from without, the second V for victory over our enemies from within.