ON MY MATERNAL grandmother’s mantel once sat photographs of the veterans in our family—her brother, my great-uncle, in his World War I doughboy uniform; one of my maternal uncles, a World War II veteran; and my mother, who joined the “desegregated” Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1954. At my paternal great-grandmother’s home, there was the photo of my father, who served in the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War, the precedent for Vietnam. And later came the photos of my older first cousins, who were Vietnam veterans.
This sort of display was not unusual. All throughout my neighborhood, there were such shrines to love of the “fatherland,” which is the etymology of patriotism. Black, Brown, and Red folk exuded great pride that their fathers, daughters, mothers, and sons had served their country. And the photographs were commemorative altars to patriotism that also spoke of communal dignity, family pride, and personal self-respect. The wrenching question, given the racism in the military as well as among citizens, is whether the country loved these faithful service people in return. Over the course of the 20th century, from the 1898 Spanish–American War through what Time magazine founder Henry Luce called in 1941 the “American Century” up to the 1989 ending of the Cold War, the answer to this question, as described by the three historians whose new work is considered here, is mixed.
In light of the three different approaches these historians use—biographical, institutional, and popular narrative—the country’s martial history does not appear as grand as its nostalgia. In Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (2022), Dartmouth historian Matthew F. Delmont offers an incisive overview of African Americans during World War II. Delmont’s depiction is quite different from that of retired NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, who hagiographically coined the term “the Greatest Generation” to describe white participants in World War II. Brandeis historian Chad L. Williams, in The Wounded World: W. E. B. Du Bois and the First World War (2023), offers a meditative biographical history of Du Bois, describing how the influential figure grappled with the Great War and his failure to complete a history of Black soldiers. Finally, in An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era (2023), Beth Bailey, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, examines how the army in the midst of the Vietnam War attempted to resolve white racism as a military problem, because protest by Black and Brown soldiers, as well as Black antiwar protest stateside, was impeding US Cold War strategies, challenging the military’s institutional legitimacy amid an ongoing war. Taken together, these three histories demonstrate how the US military (and white civilians) repeatedly rejected African Americans as citizens, even though Black airmen, marines, sailors, and soldiers routinely exhibited the sort of martial bravery that defines a patriot.
The unconscionable treatment of African Americans by the military over the course of the 20th century reflects the structural history of the United States. The struggle that African Americans had inside the military began with the American Revolution. People of African descent fought on both sides of the conflict, the issue for them being who would free them from enslavement. This is how loyalty was determined: which government would secure and protect their liberty? This pattern would recur over the course of US history.
Frederick Douglass, one of the most widely recognized abolitionists of the 19th century, used military service to bolster gendered notions of manhood: he believed armed Black men fighting for the Union would demonstrate to the nation their worthiness. As a result, he persistently harangued Abraham Lincoln to induct Black men into the army as a moral imperative to eradicate slavery. The defeat of the Confederacy with the deployment of African American soldiers was paramount for him and others. African American men’s martial prowess was deeply feared, especially throughout the South. It was not until the First Kansas Colored Infantry, a volunteer corps, was fortuitously ordered to root out proslavery guerrillas in the Battle of Island Mound in Missouri on October 29, 1862, that Lincoln as commander-in-chief learned the full value of Black troops.
The bravery showed by First Kansas Colored Infantry did not go unnoticed. Here was a visible demonstration of martial bravery even when these soldiers were outnumbered. As heroic as the First Kansas volunteers were, the logic of racism remained on full display. Captain William Matthews, who organized the corps, and Lieutenant Patrick H. Minor, the first commissioned African American officer in the United States at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, were both forced to resign their commissions when Lincoln issued the order that allowed African Americans into the regular army. Though the Civil War ended institutional slavery, it did not end racism. In fact, the armed forces were one of the country’s staunchest purveyors of institutional racism.
From its inception, the standing army was a synecdoche for white political dominance. As the US empire expanded globally in the late 19th century, so did its racism—into Cuba, Guam, Haiti, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Military command made up of numerous Midwesterners and Southerners spewed racist language and enforced ideological racism as they encountered the wider world. This is where Chad Williams’s moving biographical study of Du Bois comes into focus. Williams tells the story of Du Bois’s failed effort to write a “definitive” history of Black soldiers during World War I with compassion, insight, and amazing research. In this regard, this book joins older classics on Du Bois such as David Levering Lewis’s two- volume biography, W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868–1919 (1993) and W. E. B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919–1963 (2000), and Arnold Rampersad’s The Art and Imagination of W. E. B. Du Bois (1976). Williams offers a gripping story of how World War I posed a dual dilemma for Du Bois, one stemming from his ego and the other from the brutal surveillance state that evolved under President Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Wilson’s presidency brooked no dissension: he approved and signed into law the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, both of which severely limited any criticism of the government’s execution of the war. Under these restrictions, Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was arrested and imprisoned, and anarchist Emma Goldman was deported, due to their criticisms of the war. The actions of the Wilson administration were scary enough for white dissenters, and it made a multiracial organization like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) even more vulnerable and fearful of a government clampdown.
Du Bois was editor of The Crisis Magazine, the official NAACP organ, and he found himself in a no-win situation as to how to negotiate with the administration’s draconian wartime acts. Additionally, he romanticized militarized manhood as part of his ideological thinking about what race and civilization actually meant. He wanted to be seen as having martial ranking and was tempted by Arthur B. Spingarn, one of his fellow co-founders of the NAACP, to write what became at the time an infamous editorial calling for African Americans to support the Wilson war effort. Entitled “Close Ranks,” the editorial, which appeared in the July 1918 issue, opined:
Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.
These lines were immediately seen as hypocritical given that the NAACP was formed in response to a pogrom in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln’s hometown, in 1908. A year before the article’s publication, in July 1917, the organization held a dramatic silent march through the streets of Manhattan responding to yet another pogrom in East St. Louis, Illinois. “Close Ranks” stained Du Bois’s career. Over a decade later, in 1933, Langston Hughes continued jabbing at the flub in his essay “Negroes Speak of War”:
When the time comes for the next war, I’m asking you, remember the last war. I’m asking you, what you fought for, and what you would be fighting for again? I’m asking you, how many of the lies you were told do you still believe? Does any Negro believe, for instance, that the world was actually saved for Democracy? Does any Negro believe, any more, in closing ranks with the war makers?
Du Bois, though he intended to, never completed his history. His grandiose vision of writing a definitive account was, in a sense, disempowering. There were several reasons for his blockage. First, his “talented tenth” perspective romanticized the officer class, a rosy view further cemented by his close friendship with Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young. Second, he did not pay enough attention to the huge cohort of Black soldiers who kept the war moving: engineers, cooks, stevedores, and laborers who dug trenches and buried the dead. As Williams observes, Du Bois might have followed the example of Addie W. Hunton and Kathryn M. Johnson, authors of Two Colored Women with the American Expeditionary Forces (1920), who offered insights into the daily routine of regular enlisted soldiers. Finally, Du Bois’s well-earned but sizable ego prevented him from fostering a cooperative relationship with his peers—journalist Emmett Jay Scott, historian Carter G. Woodson, and the officers who loaned him primary documentation. He viewed these figures as junior partners rather than peers, which stymied an editorial project of assembling volumes of primary documents on the global war from the perspective of African American soldiers.
Prior to the war and in its aftermath, Black civilians and soldiers alike were subjected to deadly pogroms. The East St. Louis “race riot” was followed by the largest mass court-martial on record, the Camp Logan Mutiny, wherein members of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry Regiment were tried and convicted of insubordination and murder. The Black soldiers of the Twenty-Fourth had defended themselves from constant harassment by white Houstonians, including the city’s law enforcement. They counterattacked and were ultimately held responsible, resulting in prison or death sentences for those involved. After the trial, the army instituted its IQ test, Army Alpha, to measure emotional and intellectual fitness—a test specially designed to keep out nonwhite soldiers. Not long after, in July 1918, Black soldiers in basic training at Camp Dodge in Iowa were forced to witness three of their comrades being hanged for the alleged rape of a young white woman. Finally, as the war receded, local attacks resumed upon Black communities and servicemen who returned home from the war. The Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, and the Rosewood Massacre in 1923 pitted white against Black World War I veterans.
Through it all, Du Bois endured and fought valiantly to rebuild his reputation. His failure to produce his grand history haunted him, but what he wrote in the interwar years amply demonstrated his genius. The grim realities Du Bois saw firsthand on World War I’s bloody battlefields bled into the Second World War.
Throughout the 1930s, as fascism loomed in Europe and Japanese imperialism moved through the Pacific Rim, diverse people everywhere felt threatened. Italy invaded Ethiopia for a second time in 1935, an act of colonialist aggression that drew African American volunteers willing to fight for Ethiopia’s independence. The boxer Joe Louis’s rise to the heavyweight championship took on global significance that same year when he fought Primo Carnera. Sprinter Jesse Owens’s victories at the 1936 Olympics were hailed by the Black press as a triumph over Hitler’s Nazi regime. And Langston Hughes went to Spain, reporting for Baltimore’s Afro-American on the civil war and the anti-fascist integrated army that fought to defeat dictator Francisco Franco.
The military, according to Matthew Delmont’s wonderfully accessible book Half American, continued institutionally to be one the country’s great purveyors of racism during the World War II years. Though African American soldiers exhibited bravery and heroism, their patriotism was rarely appreciated by mainstream society. This posed a conundrum for Black-led organizations such as the NAACP, as well as for historically Black colleges and universities, the Black press, and religious institutions. Would assimilationism, communism, consumer capitalism, labor organizing, or some separate political economy resolve the constant madness of US racism?
Delmont notes incisively that African American battles had to be waged on two fronts—what the Black press dubbed the Double V campaign: victory at home and victory abroad. At home, it involved battling the legal, cultural, and socioeconomic systems of apartheid, while abroad combating European fascism and Japanese imperialist aggression. Domestically, Black soldiers faced the same hellish treatment they had received during World War I. White Southern-born officers degraded African American soldiers of every rank. Racist hostilities and class resentments manifested everywhere during the war years, leading civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph to propose a 1941 March on Washington, which forced President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s hand in issuing the significant, if anemic, Executive Order 8802, prohibiting discrimination in wartime-funded industries. In 1943, beginning first on Detroit’s Belle Isle and continuing into the ironically named Sojourner Truth Housing Project, a riotous white pogrom against Blacks took place. Like the Red Summer of 1919, such pogroms and urban rebellions emerged across the country, from the Texas city of Beaumont to Detroit, from Harlem to Los Angeles, even as Black men were being drafted and Black women were volunteering for service.
Just like in World War I, all units exhibited bravery throughout the war despite domestic violence. At every turn, Black military personnel exhibited exceptional courage in such units as the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the 761st Tank Battalion (a.k.a. the “Black Panthers”), the combined transportation unit known as the “Red Ball Express,” the all-women’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the Eleventh Marine Depot Company, and the Seventh Marine Ammunition Company on the island of Iwo Jima. Delmont brings these units and the soldiers peopling them back to life in the context of an internal struggle for human rights. My only criticism of his rich synthesis is that he shares too much in common with Du Bois’s talented tenth perspective, and so does not discuss in depth the internal conflicts over class inside Black communities and the military itself. Some folks went to World War II for a regular paycheck after nearly starving to death during the Great Depression. A much more astute class analysis of the situation is available in Nelson Peery’s now-forgotten 1994 memoir Black Fire: The Making of an American Revolutionary. As Peery shows, Black officers and enlisted personnel came into conflict over the issues of status and advancement. And Delmont does not fully discuss the trial of Emmett Till’s father, Louis, who was court-martialed for rape and hanged in Pisa, Italy, 10 years before his 14-year-old son’s brutal lynching in 1955. Given the military’s track record, we will never know for sure the actual innocence or guilt of the senior Till, and are left with the speculations of John Edgar Wideman in Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File (2016).
Though the war ended in Europe and throughout the Pacific, it was not over. Across the 48 contiguous states, as well as Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the US Virgin Islands, racism structured society. In 1946, a disturbing racial attack that led to the blinding of Isaac Woodard, a veteran returning to his native South Carolina, truly disturbed President Harry S. Truman’s conscience. Indeed, the persistent reports of racial violence against former military service personnel was a moral and diplomatic failing as the Cold War unfolded. Subsequently, in 1948, Truman issued two executive orders: 9980, which overturned Woodrow Wilson’s discriminatory practices in federal hiring, and 9981, which integrated the armed forces. It is too bad that we do not have a book that discusses the toll of Black soldiers in the US forays into Korea, as we now have with World Wars I and II. What we know from the work of historians Brenda Gayle Plummer (in her 1996 book Rising Wind: Black Americans and U.S. Foreign Affairs, 1935–1960) and Mary L. Dudziak (in her 2000 book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy) is that the military and the foreign service still held tightly to a racialized worldview. And we know that the Black soldiers who fought in Korea were still treated more harshly than white soldiers, just as their predecessors had been in the two previous wars.
And this brings me to the third book under review, An Army Afire, written by my University of Kansas colleague Beth Bailey. Bailey has done a great service by exploring the military side of the “racial crisis” of the 1960s and ’70s, a topic that has been underexplored by historians. The military, Bailey observes, was shaken by protest both in the streets and within its ranks. Black veterans, as well as West African ones from Senegal to Ghana, had been radicalized by World War II. In fact, the process of African decolonization began with veterans. In the United States, Black veterans of both World War II and Korea became the phalanx of the Civil Rights Movement. Medgar Evers, Douglass Kilpatrick (founder of the Deacons for Defense), Bobby Seale (co-founder of the Black Panther Party), Hosea Williams (one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s chief lieutenants), and Robert F. Williams (whose infamous 1962 book Negroes with Guns shook up calls for nonviolent action), to list just a few notables, were all veterans. The military had in fact trained its opposition. These veterans fell on various sides of the great questions of the Civil Rights Movement, but they all wanted their communities defended. Bailey’s close reading of the military’s position sometimes misses Black people’s greater struggles with the larger society.
At the inception of the Vietnam War, Black soldiers were disproportionately drafted compared to their white counterparts. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that justified the country’s full incursion into Vietnam passed the US Congress on August 7, 1964, some two weeks after the urban rebellion in Harlem that followed the shooting death of 15-year-old James Powell by the New York City Police. The point here is that the crisis was not simply the military’s; it was also the country’s. As the incursion into Vietnam’s civil war increased, so did the struggle inside the United States. The voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965 and the rebellion in Watts in August of that year urgently pointed to the enduring crisis of structural racism.
As the war ground on in Vietnam, back home in the United States, the second half of the Double V Campaign was in full swing, with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Stokely Carmichael (a.k.a. Kwame Ture), Coretta Scott King, and Martin Luther King Jr. taking positions against the war. Meanwhile, Black soldiers were challenging the military’s racist use of authority. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the ensuing urban rebellions occurred simultaneously with the Tet Offensive raging in Vietnam. In many instances, African American troops were at a loss as to why and what they were fighting for. Bailey’s thoughtful history is insightful into the military brass, which was dominated by white men, though I feel she tries to be too “balanced” in her assessments. The fact is that the military had created the crisis for Black Americans long before African Americans fired back collectively by protesting the racism that fueled the Vietnam War. As Bailey rightly points out, this protest was joined by Mexican Americans and other nonwhite people too. These alliances were cultivated, just as Black Panther Fred Hampton built bridges with white Appalachian “hillbillies” on Chicago’s North Side. While the military records Bailey pores over are crucial, so are the oral histories of the former marines and soldiers in the rice paddies who fostered solidarity. Protests both inside the military and outside by civilians drove the high command to reconsider the deleterious effects of institutional racism, especially in the wake of the military failure in Vietnam. It is to the military’s credit that they rethought how the armed forces should conduct themselves, though this continues to be a politically fraught question given our current electoral politics (e.g., Republican attacks on so-called “wokeness” in the armed forces).
African Americans patriotically served the country in every war, including all the country’s imperialist excursions, even ones against Indigenous nations. Civic loyalty is a larger virtue than military service. Patriotism among African Americans has been engendered through protest as well as martial bravery. These three well-researched and rich histories provide insight into the more than a century of struggle to transform the military and make the country a more inclusive place for its entire citizenry. In light of the recent Memorial Day celebrations, it would be wise to remember the holiday’s origins in the US Civil War and the ongoing dedication that has been shown by those who have not always received their country’s benefits.
Randal Maurice Jelks is an author, a documentary film producer, and a professor at the University of Kansas. His latest book is Letters to Martin: Meditations on Democracy in Black America (2022).