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Divisions: A New History of Racism and Resistance in America's World War II Military

Resisting racism within America’s WWII military: stories from the frontline

America’s World War II military was a force of unalloyed good. While saving the world from Nazism, it also managed to unify a famously fractious American people. At least that’s the story many Americans have long told themselves…

But the reality is starkly different. The military built not one color line, but a complex tangle of them, separating white Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans in various configurations—effectively institutionalizing racism and white supremacy throughout the military to devastating effect. The segregation impeded America’s war effort; undermined the nation’s rhetoric of the Four Freedoms; further naturalized the concept of race; deepened many whites’ investments in white supremacy; and further fractured the American people. 

Yet freedom struggles arose in response to the color lines, and succeeded in democratizing portions of the wartime military and setting the stage for postwar desegregation and the subsequent Civil Rights movements. From the women who were the first Black WAVES to a decorated Japanese American soldier and his friendship with a white comrade, the following slideshow is just a portion of the sweeping, yet personal, stories of resistance to racism within America’s World War II military.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

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Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the US Army’s sole African American general during World War II and an important adviser to the War Department on race issues. Some African Americans, soldiers included, faulted him for “fail[ing] to see the plight of his black brother.” But Davis occasionally worked behind the scenes to root out army discrimination, proposing, for example, the establishment of a bureau at the highest, general-staff level to remedy racist “conditions surrounding the colored soldier.” Black officers would have to be well represented, Davis added: “It is utterly impossible for any white man to appreciate what the colored officers and soldiers experience in trying to develop a high morale under present conditions.” The War Department passed on Davis’s proposal, further proving to him that “it refused to attempt any remedial action to eliminate Jim-Crow.” Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis Sr. in August 1944. Courtesy National Archives, 111-SC-192258-S.

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