Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"Whites Only"

Recently, when I asked my students an exam question about World War II and pre- and during war mobilization, I began with the statement, “During the first half of the 1940s, Americans found themselves confronted with the paradox of fighting racism abroad while sustaining a racially/ethnically stratified system at home.” Of course, that is a broad statement—you could argue, for example, that given the fact that the military was segregated, the U.S. sustained racism abroad during the war, as well.

And now, the BBC has found another way in which the U.S. “sustained racism abroad” during the war:
Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a "whites only" victory.
Much of the Free French fighting force (65%) was African, and they had made tremendous sacrifices:
By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead.

Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.
But the U.S. and the U.K. were dismissive of their service. When the liberation of Paris seemed possible in 1944 and Charles de Gaulle insisted that the French lead the liberation,
Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers.

In January 1944 Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, "confidential": "It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.”
To create the “whites only” illusion,
Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.

When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.
In a sense, this is not surprising for the U.S.—a nation that had always downplayed black military personnel’s service, that relegated black service people to menial duties, that until World War II, excluded them from certain branches of the military. The degradation of African Americans military service went so far that, in 1925, the Army War College issued a report detailing why African Americans were unfit for combat and could never be pilots.

But this seems somehow, particularly low, that in the midst of what was supposed to be a great triumph, the U.S. took the time to strengthen and assert policies that were supposed to be the very antithesis of what it was fighting for.


Kimberly said...

My Morrocan grandfather was shot in the head by Nazi's in 1944. He was in the French military as part of the "French Resistance". He was actually shot while off duty when my grandmother was being harassed, the Nazi "police" called to the scene, shot my grandfather in the head point blank. My white grandmother and her three girls (my mom a newborn and my grandfather's only biological child) were then shipped off to Birkenau (the female camp next to Auschwitz) because my grandmother dared marry a non-white and mix genes.

I knew about Nazi's killing non-white troops, but I had no idea the actual liberation was intended to be all white. You learn something new everyday.

landismom said...

That's pretty appalling.

But somehow, not unbelievable.

Which is a whole other level of appalling.

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