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Gary Younge
‘We Return Fighting’

The ambivalence many Black soldiers felt toward the United States during World War II was matched only by the ambivalence the United States demonstrated toward the principles on which the war was fought.

In the summer of 1944 First Sergeant Jefferson Wiggins was just outside the French town of St.-Lô, on his way to help liberate the Netherlands, when a woman offered him a bottle of calvados. “You don’t understand how it is to have your freedom, to lose it and then to regain it,” she told him. Wiggins, an African American soldier from Dothan, Alabama, was in his late teens. He did not speak French. But as he later told the Dutch historian Mieke Kirkels for her self-published book From Alabama to Margraten (2014), he had wanted to reply:

Madam, you don’t understand how it is never to have had your freedom and here you are in the middle of a country that you have never been to before, marching through a town which you know nothing about, risking your life to free someone that you will probably never meet again and knowing that the freedom that you deserve at home, you won’t have.

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.

The Courier took up Thompson’s appeal, and soon the “Double V campaign” was embraced by the rest of the Black press and the civil rights leadership. It became central to the political aspirations that emerged from Black America’s conflicted wartime experience. Thompson’s early challenge to unquestioning patriotism in a time of war, however, had some in Washington claiming treason. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, attempted to indict editors at the Baltimore Afro-American under the Espionage Act after they printed vox pops quoting Black people who were sympathetic to Japan. Jonathan Daniels, an adviser to Franklin D. Roosevelt, lamented the conditional loyalty of Black Americans and called the Double V campaign “extortion.”

The loyalty of African Americans was certainly qualified, but it was not, for the most part, conditional. Those aligned with the Double V campaign pledged to join the war effort in the hope that their demands for civil rights would be met later; they did not demand a commitment to civil rights before they would participate.

While the army was segregated, the draft itself was less discriminatory. From 1940, all able-bodied men between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five were required to register regardless of their race. This presented a significant challenge to the military—partly because some branches did not want to recruit African Americans at all but also because, even when a branch did want to, it did not have the infrastructure to set up segregated facilities to house and feed them. “Thousands of Black Americans went to recruitment centers after President Roosevelt signed the Selective Service Act,” Delmont writes, “only to be told that the army did not yet have space for them.” All told, more than one million African Americans served while hundreds of thousands worked in the defense industries.

The idea that Black Americans would see the war as an opportunity to raise demands for full and equal citizenship should have been no surprise. “The Double V slogan was powerful not because it was new, but because it was old,” Delmont emphasizes. “It was deeply rooted in the lived experiences of generations of Black Americans who had fought for full citizenship.” During the Civil War, Frederick Douglass counseled free Blacks to join the Union forces, describing it in 1863 as a “double battle, against slavery in the South and against prejudice and proscription in the North.” After World War I, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.

It was precisely being treated as “half American” that led to what Du Bois had once called Black America’s “double-consciousness”—the way racism sets the national and racial identities of African Americans in both contradiction and conflict.

Delmont, a history professor at Dartmouth, uses newspaper, government, and military archives as well as personal testimony from letters and diaries to detail how African Americans’ efforts to fully participate in World War II were often undermined and sometimes grudgingly permitted. Black Americans, he shows, lobbied and campaigned for their right to fight for a country that at times didn’t value them enough to let them die for it. “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” Roy Wilkins of the NAACP argued in 1942. The navy, he said, “would rather not have a vital radio message get through than to have it sent by Black hands or over equipment set up by Black technicians.”

The dominant opinion within the US military was that African Americans were ill-equipped—both intellectually and temperamentally—for warfare, so with a few exceptions Black soldiers were allowed only in logistical, support roles: transporting (and preparing) food, ammunition, and parts for tanks, planes, and trucks. Delmont is keen to point out that these contributions were crucial to the Allied victory:

American combat forces…could only go as far as their supply lines could take them. Which meant they could only go as far as Black supply troops could take them…. Almost everything the Allies transported to the front passed through the hands of at least one Black American.

But it was among the exceptions, the 5 percent of all Black troops who did have combat roles, that Black America would find its military legends: the Tuskegee Airmen, who shot down a dozen Nazi planes to provide cover for an amphibious landing of Allied troops at the Battle of Anzio, in Italy, or the 761st “Black Panther” Tank Battalion, which beat back a German Panzer battalion at the Battle of the Bulge and broke through the Siegfried Line. The 92nd Infantry Division, the only Black infantry division to fight in Europe, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was deemed to have underperformed at the time, but that assessment is currently being revisited by military historians, given the harsh racial light under which it was initially made.

Then there were individual moments of heroism and prowess, too, like that of Doris Miller, the twenty-two-year-old cook from Waco, Texas, who was collecting soiled laundry on the USS West Virginia when the Japanese started bombing Pearl Harbor. He raced to the deck and took control of an antiaircraft gun for which he had no training. Or Vernon Baker, the twenty-five-year-old platoon leader from Cheyenne, Wyoming, who took out three German machine-gun nests, an observation post, and a dugout on the mountain stronghold of Castle Aghinolfi in the spring of 1945, in an assault in which nineteen of his twenty-five platoon members perished. The next day he volunteered to lead another battalion that went on to secure the mountain.

Parallels between the evils that African American soldiers fought overseas and the evils they faced at home were at times laid bare. The comparisons became particularly acute during the summer of 1943, when race riots spread through the US. Thurgood Marshall, head lawyer for the NAACP and later the first Black Supreme Court justice, wrote a report on the disturbances in Detroit, which left thirty-four people dead and more than six hundred wounded—most of them Black. He called it “Gestapo in Detroit.” Later that summer, Langston Hughes wrote “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”:

Looky here, America
What you done done—
Let things drift
Until the riots come….

You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man
I guess he took lessons
From the ku klux klan….

I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight

African American soldiers would, at times, see the very people the military depicted as their mortal enemies treated with far more respect than they received as neglected stepbrothers-in-arms. In a letter to Yank magazine on April 28, 1944, a corporal named Rupert Trimmingham described a journey from Louisiana to Arizona with eight other Black soldiers during which they struggled to find a lunchroom that would serve them. Finally, they were permitted to eat in the kitchen of a railroad station, only to see two dozen German prisoners get served at the table in the front. “Are these men sworn enemies of this country?” he wrote.

Are they not taught to hate and destroy…all democratic governments? Are we not American soldiers, sworn to fight for and die if need be for this our country? Then why are they treated better than we are?

So long as white supremacy was the law, the civil rights gains that could be made were limited; but there was still room to make advances in economic rights, even within segregation. Delmont details the interaction between FDR and the African American union leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, who threatened a march on Washington unless the color bar in defense plants and munitions factories was lifted and African Americans allowed to benefit from the war economy. Randolph had initially been skeptical about Black participation in the war, seeing in the Allied forces the “fingers of England and France dripping with the blood of black, yellow and brown colonials.” But in short time he began to view Hitler as a threat of a different order and decided that African Americans had to commit to an Allied victory.

He was nevertheless determined that their commitment should find a home in aviation, munitions, and other war industries, where decent paid work was being offered. When Roosevelt tried to fob him off with vague promises, Randolph stood his ground, rejecting many drafts before signing off on what would become Executive Order 8802. The statute outlawed discrimination in defense industries and job training programs, and it would be enforced by a new agency, the Fair Employment Practices Committee. The FEPC, which was inadequately resourced to begin with, was soon gutted of both staff and funds. Nonetheless, Delmont points out, between 1940 and 1944 the employment of African Americans increased thirtyfold in the aircraft industry, more than trebled in tank manufacturing, and more than doubled in shipbuilding.

The organized Double V campaign articulated the hope that the conclusion of the war would bring significant advances for African Americans. Despite Randolph’s meaningful victories, in most substantial ways it did not. One poll showed that white Americans wanted “the country pretty much the way it was before the war,” by a margin of two to one. They were determined to see that wish fulfilled.

Many Black servicemen, particularly in the South, returned not to confetti and cheers but to lynch mobs and threats. When a supply sergeant named Henry Murphy arrived back in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, with the Purple Heart he had been awarded in Germany, his father met him with a change of civilian clothes. “He told me not to wear my uniform home,” he says in Neil McMillen’s Remaking Dixie: The Impact of World War II on the American South (1997). “Because the police was beating up [Black] GIs and searching them. If they had a white woman’s picture in his pocket, they’d kill him.”

The GI Bill of Rights lifted many white Americans into the middle class by facilitating access to homeownership and further education. Those benefits were largely denied to African Americans. Administered through the states, the GI Bill did not take into account, for instance, that many banks wouldn’t lend money to Black people and many universities wouldn’t allow them access. In all of 1947, Delmont points out, just two of the 3,200 home loans guaranteed by the Veterans Administration in Mississippi went to African American borrowers. Estimates indicate that as many as 50,000 Black veterans each year “did not attend college because there were not enough classrooms or dormitories to accommodate them.” More than one in four white veterans went to college on the GI Bill; for African Americans it was fewer than one in eight.

Delmont focuses on African Americans, but similar tensions were evident in the empires governed by the Allies, whose military forces conquered land, extracted resources, and subjugated local populations across the globe. Belgians, for instance, engaged in torture throughout what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which Belgium colonized from the late nineteenth century until 1960. They destroyed whole villages that resisted their extraction of rubber and chopped off the hands of those who refused to comply.

On several islands in the British Caribbean, a wave of labor unrest and rioting against endemic inequalities and colonial impunity spread between 1934 and 1939. It left more than a dozen dead in Barbados in 1937 and then forty-six dead and more than four hundred injured in Jamaica a year later. On December 1, 1944, in Thiaroye, on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal, the French massacred their own colonial soldiers after deciding their demand for back pay and pay equity qualified as mutiny. The soldiers were freed prisoners of war from Nazi camps. The French said they killed thirty-five; veterans said it was closer to three hundred.

According to David Killingray’s Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (2010), nearly one million African men from independent South Africa and the British, French, Italian, and Belgian colonies fought. More than half of those served in the British military, which in addition included roughly 16,000 Caribbeans. Two thirds of the Free French forces were colonial troops. Black troops in colonial forces generally received lower pay and fewer rations and freedoms than their European counterparts.

The racial hierarchies in European colonies varied, but they generally fell just short of America’s formal, codified segregation, allowing more space for interracial interaction than tended to be possible in the segregated US Army. “In the army we saw those who considered themselves our masters naked, in tears, some cowardly or ignorant,” the Senegalese filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembène, who served in the French colonial army, recalled in a Guardian interview in 2005. “When a white soldier asked me to write a letter for him, it was a revelation—I thought all Europeans knew how to write. The war demystified the coloniser; the veil fell.”

Whereas African Americans organized to challenge the contradictions between the democratic pretensions of the Allied forces and their racial practice during the war, in the colonies, with the exception of India, the resistance came almost immediately after it. On Victory in Europe (VE) Day—May 8, 1945—as Winston Churchill waved at jubilant crowds from the balcony of Buckingham Palace and revelers swarmed the Champs-Élysées, locals in the market town of Sétif, Algeria, came out carrying Algerian flags and independence placards, demanding freedom from French occupation. In response the French police opened fire, killing several demonstrators. Algerian militants retaliated by attacking the settlers, killing 102 white Europeans and wounding several hundred others. Similar disturbances erupted in the Algerian city of Guelma. The colonizers’ retaliation was brutally disproportionate: they bombed small villages, shelled the area from the coast, and ran amok throughout it. By the time they were finished, between 15,000 and 20,000 Algerians had been massacred.

Syria and Lebanon also saw huge protests that May against French colonial rule—and the same pattern of attacks, riots, protests, retaliation, and death. Imperial dominoes began to totter. In Nigeria, six weeks after VE Day, there was a general strike driven by demands for higher pay but informed by a growing militancy for independence from the British. Eight weeks after that, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands (which was recognized only after a brutal four-year war). Two weeks later, Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent from French rule. It would be another thirty years and several hundred thousand deaths before that independence was actually achieved.

In a January 1944 memo stamped “confidential,” Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, expressed concern about the racial optics of the liberation of Paris. This was supposed to be a victory for civilization over barbarism. But with the Free French forces dominated by colonial troops, including from Senegal, Gabon, and Côte d’Ivoire, the United States was worried that it could seem as if the continent were being liberated by dark-skinned people. Smith was especially concerned about Charles de Gaulle’s victory parade:

It is more desirable that the division…consist of white personnel. This would indicate the Second Armored Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.

The British agreed. “It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco,” wrote the British general Frederick Morgan to the Allied Supreme Command. “Every other French division is only about 40% white.” Morgan told the chief of staff of the Free French forces in Great Britain, Colonel Pierre de Chevigné, “that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division.” And yet no all-white division of sufficient size could be found. Allied Command allowed soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East, who were deemed light enough, to be used instead.

America’s pretensions to leadership of the free world struggled to survive impact with the actual world. Europeans saw America’s treatment of Black soldiers and struggled to square the military’s racist conduct with either America’s political rhetoric or their own encounters with Black American servicemen and servicewomen.

The self-image of their hosts was also challenged by their presence. In most countries, very few white people had ever seen a Black person outside of the biggest cities; many believed the rumor that Black people had tails. In Britain this lack of familiarity produced cognitive dissonance. When the US joined the war, the United Kingdom, which practiced segregation throughout the empire, asked the Americans if they would refrain from bringing Black troops to Britain, because the British would react adversely to seeing segregation enforced in Britain itself. When six white American soldiers physically removed a Black soldier from an event in England’s Southend-on-Sea because he had been dancing with a local white woman, a local man wrote an outraged letter to the Foreign Office:

I am particularly disgusted that at this point in the war, when so many men are dying in the fight for the rights of mankind, this sort of persecution should be allowed free hand in our liberty-loving empire.

Few British people could see that the system they regarded as antithetical to their national character was similar in many ways to the ones on which their global status was built.

Throughout Europe, African American soldiers were regarded as less arrogant and more generous—particularly with their rations—than their white counterparts. (“The general consensus of opinion,” George Orwell wrote in 1943, “seems to be that the only American soldiers with decent manners are the Negroes.”) As Graham Smith points out in When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers in World War II Britain (1987), these affections were laced with condescension. He writes that a Ministry of Information review conducted between January 1942 and March 1943 concluded that Britons tended to think of Black GIs as “childish, happy and naive fellows who mean no harm.”

But it was in postwar Germany, where the US military instructed the Germans to respect its color bar even as it simultaneously pursued “denazification,” that the double standards were most glaring. “The military occupation of Germany by American troops elicited two striking responses,” Heide Fehrenbach writes in Race After Hitler: Black Occupation Children in Postwar Germany and America (2005).

One came from Germans, who noted with incredulity and derision that they were being democratized by a nation with a Jim Crow army and a host of antimiscegenation laws at home. The second came from African American GIs who, in their interactions with Germans, were stunned by the apparent absence of racism in the formerly fascist land and, comparing their reception with treatment by white Americans, experienced their stay there as unexpectedly liberatory.

African Americans returned from the battlefield changed and determined for change. They were “not the same Negroes who put on uniforms after Pearl Harbor,” wrote Ebony magazine in 1946. “The war has been an education.” Educating the rest of America would prove a protracted political challenge.

The second V would be gradual, partial, and ultimately elusive. In July 1948 President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, formally ending segregation in the military six years before Brown v. Board of Education. It took more than another decade, and the mobilization of hundreds of thousands, for Congress to provide the kinds of legislative protections that would make nonracial democracy a reality. Half a century later, many of those protections are being eroded in statehouses and courtrooms. As Delmont notes in his conclusion, “Wars seldom end on the battlefield.”

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