Black soldiers at Normandy: The Forgotten Ones
On War, Racism and American Exceptionalism
Almost everything Americans know about the history of US wars is what they learn from the movies and media cheer leaders who serve up heroic stories designed to promote patriotism in the populace. Hence it is in the nature of things that the average citizen’s views on this question are shaped far more by propaganda – which attempts to selectively arrange the facts to show America in a positive light – than the work of historians who are committed to showing the good, the bad and the ugly. Hence it is no accident that World War II films are dominating the movie schedules on television.
This was the last war in which the US won a clear victory and the objectives were understood by the majority of Americans. The wars that followed were based on ambiguous objectives and the outcomes were unclear. We are still officially at war in Korea over a half century after the fighting stopped.
Vietnam was by any measure a disaster. And while Operation Desert Storm, directed by Colin Powell, was successful in its objectives it was not a full scaled war like Iraq and Afghanistan, and we seemed destined to leave these lands much as we left Vietnam.
It is no wonder that the nation concentrates so heavily on World War II in our search for serviceable war memories. In the war against the racist genocidal Nazi’s there is no ambiguity about who the good guys were; the same is true of the Japanese fanatics and the Italian Fascist. This contrast is most clear in the minds of the rah-rah America crowd, the American Exceptionalists, who argue that the US is the polar opposite of Nazi Germany in every respect.
However the facts are quite different. Hitler got his basic racial theories from the American Eugenics movement, specifically the writings of Madison Grant in his 1917 tome “The Passing of the Great Race.” In his book, “Defending the Master Race,” historian Jonathan Spiro tells us: “Grant was also the leader of the eugenics movement in the United States. He popularized the infamous notions that the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordics were the “master race” and that the state should eliminate members of inferior races who were of no value to the community. Grant’s behind-the-scenes machinations convinced Congress to enact the immigration restriction legislation of the 1920s, and his influence led many states to ban interracial marriage and sterilize thousands of ‘unworthy citizens.’”
It is no wonder that a letter from Hitler turned up in Grant’ papers, where Der Fhurer gushes: “Your book is my bible!” The Nazi racial laws, as well as their ideas about sterilization and euthanasia were made in America! Ironically, white Americans was discriminating against its own Afro-American soldiers under “master race” dogma while fighting against such ideas in Germany – even forcing black soldiers guarding German prisoners of war to do their toilet in the bushes, while allowing their white German enemies to use the same bathrooms as them.
Black soldiers sent for training in the South couldn’t use their army issued meal tickets to have a meal, they were refused while in uniform while fascist POW’s from the German and Italian armies were readily served. Black soldiers who protested this racist treatment were jailed and sometimes lynched.
The late Afro-American historian John Hope Franklin personally witnessed this discrimination against black soldiers in North Carolina. He recalls an humiliating incident in his autobiography, where he was packed into an overcrowded segregated train car with black soldiers, while German prisoners rode in comfort in a “Whites Only” car while pointing at them and laughing at the absurdity of their predicament.
There are many such instances of white Americans favoring German Prisoners of war over black American soldiers detailed in the 2004 book “Icons of Insult: German and Italian Prisoners of War in African American Letters during World War II, by the German scholar Matthias Reiss. American Exceptionalism indeed!
Firing Artillery at Japanese Troops
Black men fought in the Atlantic and the Pacific Theaters
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 29, 2012