Memorial Day Was a Chance to Reflect on Hard Truths about Racism in the MilitaryRoundup
tags: military history, African American history
Thomas A. Guglielmo is author of DIVISIONS: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America's World War II Military (Oxford, October 2021), and associate professor and chair in the department of American studies at George Washington University. DIVISIONS offers the first comprehensive look at racism within America's World War II military.
Memorial Day tends to be a moment when we reflect fondly on the Greatest Generation — especially those who fought for the United States in World War II — and on the U.S. military from that supposed golden era. The armed services were a force of unalloyed good. While saving the world from Nazism, they also managed to unify a famously fractious American people behind the war effort.
Yet the truth is more complicated and understanding it couldn’t be more relevant as we struggle to uproot white supremacy — including in the military. The simple but essential fact is that America fought World War II — the war designed to achieve Four Freedoms — with a military steeped in racism. And that racism did grievous harm to countless Americans of all races.
Despite numerous racist restrictions on their enlistment, more than 1 million Black GIs served during World War II. “Jim Crow in uniform,” however, tormented them constantly.
The military leadership asserted that America’s armed forces had to be strictly segregated and controlled top to bottom by Whites, in part to cater to the supposed wishes of White troops. That meant shunting Black service members into separate outfits, whose most senior officers were invariably White, and limiting Black soldiers to the least-desirable and poorest-paying jobs. It meant blocking their promotions and their access to the higher officer ranks. It meant confining them to Jim Crow recreational spaces from Alabama to Australia. It meant a court-martial system that charged, sentenced and executed them at unjustly high rates. And it meant refusing too many of them the awards and honors that they had earned.
Military racism, not simply its civilian variety, also deprived Black people of vaunted GI Bill benefits. Well-documented discrimination in mortgage lending, job counseling, college admissions, hiring and more took its toll. But so too did a grossly unfair discharge system that disqualified a disproportionate share of Black veterans from receiving these benefits. And, of course, sweeping restrictions on Black enlistment during the war also became in effect sweeping limitations on African Americans’ access to GI Bill-provided home and business loans, vocational training and college tuition after it.
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