Why the Confederate Flag Flew During World War IIRoundup
tags: racism, military history, Confederacy, public history, World War 2
The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently decided to ban the Confederate flag from military installations, and the Army is considering renaming 10 bases named after Confederate generals. But if you want to understand how the U.S. military came to embrace the Confederate flag in the first place, the answers lie in World War II.
When white southern troops went overseas during the war, some of them carried Confederate flags with them. As American forces took over Pacific Islands or European towns, the troops would sometimes raise the Confederate flag alongside or instead of the U.S. flag to celebrate their victory. The Baltimore Evening Sun described this as a “recurring phenomenon which has been observed in areas as widely separated as the Southwest Pacific, Italy and France.”
The embrace of the Confederate flag by white troops, politicians, and civilians made it clear to black Americans that many of their fellow citizens understood the goals of the Second World War in very different terms. As black Americans fought a Double Victory campaign over fascism abroad and racism at home, most white Americans understood the war only to be about defeating the Nazis and Japanese military, a “single V” abroad and the status quo at home. Edward Moe, a federal investigator who surveyed racial attitudes during the war, found that many white people believed that World War II was about preserving things “as they have been in America.” “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins quipped.
While white officers and enlisted men had no difficulty displaying the Confederate flag at home or overseas, Senator Millard Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, wanted to ensure they could do so officially. In 1943, he introduced a bill to allow Army units to carry Confederate battle streamers. “The sons of those who fought on the southern side in the Civil War ... at least should have the right to carry these streamers as a matter of maintaining military morale,” he argued. The Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, struck back immediately, calling the bill a “master stroke of hypocrisy” that proposed to have “American troops carrying the banner under which bitter war was waged for the perpetuation of slavery, into a so-called fight for democracy.” Among Tydings’s opponents, the Defender reported, there was talk of amending the bill to call for German Americans “to enter battle under the swastika, right next to the old Confederacy’s Stars and Bars.”
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