Remember those World War II movies where the gung-ho unit was made up of one soldier of every color, religion and ethnic group, each bearing a tough but affectionate nickname? Well, Thomas Guglielmo is here to offer an alternative reality to the “band of brothers” trope.
In “Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America’s World War II Military,” the historian amasses a mountain of evidence to show that the military’s color lines ‒ whether enforced as official policy or simply followed by dint of tradition ‒ not only undermined the war effort but also created “enduring fractures” that affected American postwar politics for years. “Military racism hurt everyone,” he writes. “Even white people, by far the biggest beneficiaries of the military’s color lines, also paid a price, sometimes the ultimate price” ‒ by being overrepresented and dying on the front lines. “Military white supremacy,” he writes, “crowned few true victors.”
Guglielmo presents his case in five main sections ‒ Enlistment, Assignment, Classification, Training and Fighting ‒ describing in each how military racism affected African Americans as well as non-black groups such as Japanese Americans, American Indians and those of Mexican descent. Their experiences are disheartening, from being forced to serve in segregated units and assigned the dirtiest jobs to being denied promotions and given harsh punishments for trumped-up charges.
“It just don’t make any sense,” one African American soldier observed. Once the enemy starts shooting, he said, “they don’t try to find out who is white and who is black before they aim. Yet they draw all kinds of damn fool lines and say ‘black boys on this side, whites on the other.’” The racism was so profound, especially in the South, that some soldiers were relieved when they were sent overseas. Many soldiers of all stripes returned home haunted by the humiliation and trauma of being treated as less than full citizens no matter how valiant their service.
Featuring countless first-hand accounts and backed up with extensive research, “Divisions” exposes a seldom-seen side of military history, where soldiers were faced with the paradox of serving in a “Jim Crow army” that embraced the twin goals of fighting for democracy while at the same time protecting white supremacy. In his relentless focus on the injustices perpetrated on men (and some women) merely trying to do their patriotic duty, he sends a powerful message that continues to resonate.
Thomas A. Guglielmo is associate professor and chair of the Department of American Studies at George Washington University and author of “White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1940,” which won the Frederick Jackson Turner Award of the Organization of American Historians.
Karen Lyon is the President Emeritus of the Literary Hill Bookfest and Editor of both the Literary Hill and Poetic Hill columns.