In today’s edition of Now the Hell Will Start Extras Month, we’re going to delve into one of the book‘s main themes: Military segregation during World War II. Time and again in the course of my research, I was struck by the virulence of Jim Crow attitudes within our nation’s armed forces. Despite the desperate need for manpower, especially as the conflict wore on, the generals and War Department planners continued to resist calls for even mild forms of integration; like their Axis opponents, they had been deeply influenced by the specter of scientific racism, and were thus hard-pressed to believe that African-Americans could function as combat soldiers.
One of the most intriguing documents I came across is atop this post. It’s a 1942 memo addressed to the Secretary of the Navy, regarding the debate over whether or not the Navy should use black enlistees for duties other than cooking. The author portrays himself as a pragmatist, arguing that the more widespread use of black sailors would hamper the war effort. To give himself a bit of plausible deniability, he quotes from an anonymous “southern congressman” in order to make his argument:
In this hour of national crisis, it is much more important that we have the full-hearted cooperation of the thirty million white southern Americans than that we satisfy the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People. I realize you have never lived in the South. I have lived there all my life. You know that our people have vounteered for military service more readily than the people of any other section of the Nation. If they be forced to serve with Negroes, they will cease to volunteer; and when drafted, they will not serve with that enthusiasm and high morale that has always characterized the soldiers and sailors of the southern states.
I do not mean to urge the complete seclusion of Negroes from military or naval service, but I do most earnestly plead with you to see that there is a complete segregation of the races. To assign a Negro doctor to treat some southern white boy would be a crushing insult and in my opinion, an outrage against the patriotism of our southern people.
Click on the image to read the whole memo, which has been scanned and posted by Stanford Law School’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” project.