At the time, it should have been an easy argument to make: World War II was a total war, requiring an enormous mobilization of resources; therefore anything impeding the efficient deployment of American forces had to be renounced — including the military’s policy of segregation and, most glaringly, the brutal Jim Crow regime in the South.
But as Matthew F. Delmont details in “Half American,” his new book about African Americans and World War II, even the bluntest appeals to the national interest couldn’t get some white Americans to budge. Although President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order to desegregate private defense contractors, he would continue to resist desegregating the military. This was despite the obvious costs. Redundant buildings continued to be built and maintained; troop transportation continued to be a logistical nightmare.
Racist violence in the South meant that even something as basic as the homeland safety of Black soldiers couldn’t be secured. As one of those soldiers put it in a letter to the N.A.A.C.P., the mighty federal government seemed to cower before local sheriffs and lynch mobs — the petty tyrants of Jim Crow: “It’s odd that the U.S. govt. would let a small town of a few thousand people rule them like that.”
Delmont, a historian at Dartmouth whose previous books include “Why Busing Failed” (2016), points out how so much of World War II “looks different when viewed from the African American perspective” — even the start date. For many Black Americans, the real war began several years before Pearl Harbor, with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935. “Half American” begins with a chapter on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an integrated battalion of Americans who fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War. In August 1936, a headline in The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s Black newspapers, announced: “WORLD WAR SEEN AS DUCE, HITLER AID FASCISTS IN WARTORN SPAIN.”