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Review: The Unfinished Business of "Double V"

Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War Two at Home and Abroad 
by Matthew F. Delmont.
Viking, 374 pp., £25.69, October 2022, 978 1 9848 8039 0

An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era 
by Beth Bailey.
North Carolina, 360 pp., £36.95, May, 978 1 4696 7326 4

In American‚Äč popular memory, the Second World War remains the ‘good war’, fought, to borrow the title of Tom Brokaw’s 1998 book, by the ‘greatest generation’. It is remembered as a time of national unity that not only destroyed tyrannies overseas but assimilated young men from all regions and ethnic backgrounds into a shared American identity. The war in Vietnam, by contrast, is widely viewed as a needless contest fought by an army that fell apart while experiencing the aftershocks of social divisions at home. Its legacy, reinforced by misbegotten wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ – a reluctance among political leaders and the broader public to become involved in combat in faraway places.

Two new books challenge these ideas. After reading Matthew F. Delmont’s Half American, the greatest generation, or at least its white component, seems considerably diminished. Although more than a million African Americans served in the armed forces during the Second World War, the default soldier in representations of the war is almost always white. When one directs attention to the Black experience, Delmont writes, ‘nearly everything’ about that war looks different. What, for example, was the conflict’s purpose? Roosevelt’s claim that it was being fought to ensure universal enjoyment of the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear) rang hollow for many African Americans denied basic civil and political rights at home. Delmont’s title is taken from a letter by a Black cafeteria worker in Wichita, Kansas, to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. ‘Should I sacrifice my life,’ he wondered, ‘to live half American?’ The Courier used the letter to launch the campaign for a ‘Double V’ – victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home.

Delmont, who teaches history at Dartmouth College, employs an impressive variety of sources – diaries, letters, newspapers, military and government documents – to explore the deep-seated racism of the armed forces and the emergence during the Second World War of a militant movement for racial justice. Beth Bailey’s focus in An Army Afire is somewhat different. A professor of history at the University of Kansas and director of its Centre for Military, War and Society Studies, Bailey paints a sympathetic portrait of the army’s struggle to adjust to the radical social changes sweeping the US, to which the military could hardly remain immune.

But they almost always had to fight for the right to fight. During the War of Independence, the Continental Army initially excluded Blacks, a policy reversed only when the British offered freedom to slaves who enlisted in their ranks. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Black men were almost entirely barred from the militia and regular army, although during the War of 1812 Andrew Jackson called on Louisiana’s free Black militia – a legacy of French rule – to help defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson, who owned many slaves, issued an address condemning the exclusion of Blacks from the army as a ‘mistaken policy’ and praising the Black soldiers as ‘sons of freedom’.

African Americans were employed from the start as labourers in Civil War army camps. But Abraham Lincoln waited until almost two years into the war to authorise the enlistment of Black combat soldiers. (This was one provision of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Some 200,000 Black men had served in the Union army and navy by the end of the war. Confined to segregated units commanded by often racist white officers and initially paid less than their white counterparts, their experience was anything but equal to that of whites. Their presence helped to ensure that Union victory would mean the end of slavery and recognition of Black citizenship, but within a few decades, many of the rights won in the war’s aftermath had been rescinded. White America’s attitude, the Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, seemed to be: ‘Negroes, you may fight for us, but you may not vote for us.’

Read entire article at London Review of Books