In December 1941, nothing else brought home the reality that the entire world was suddenly at war more than the awful sight of smoke billowing from the shattered remains of the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. With the surprise Japanese attack on December 7, what many Americans had expected would remain yet another European bloodbath had finally jumped beyond the borders of that war-ravaged continent.
Incensed at the assault on their homeland, hundreds of thousands of patriotic citizens rushed to recruiting offices everywhere, among them blacks, Asians, Latinos and other minorities. As desperate as the country was for manpower, however, these volunteers were often thanked for their loyalty by being shunted off to a variety of unglamorous units and assignments. Military officials clung stubbornly to the racial stereotypes that permeated the country at the time, refusing to integrate the armed forces. With America fighting for its life, they insisted, they were too busy to engage in “social experiments.”
U.S. military leaders, of course, weren’t the only ones to feel that way. Until Pearl Harbor and then Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States, Great Britain pretty much had stood alone against Nazi Germany. Facing dire manpower shortages of his own, Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned to Britain’s dominions for assistance, and as they had done in all the empire’s previous wars, the colonies answered the call. However, though the native volunteers were all citizens of the empire, more often than not they were placed in segregated units.
But it quickly became apparent that this was a different war. In 1942, as reports of Jewish internees being shipped to extermination camps and Russian civilians having to endure horrible excesses at the hands of German invaders began to reach the Allied powers, they realized that more was at stake than boundaries on a map. This was a war that pitted democratic governments against Fascist dictatorships espousing frightening racial theories.
Seeing this as an opportunity to reverse decades — or even centuries — of discrimination or indifference, the leaders of minority and native populations around the free world began to ask, “How can governments fight fascism abroad while ignoring injustice at home?” It was a simple question that laid bare the hypocrisy of outdated notions of racial inferiority and, at least for the nation’s armed forces, registered the first cracks in long- established color barriers.
In the United States, minority leaders began to speak out for greater rights and demanded that all Americans be treated as full citizens. Black leaders pushed the Roosevelt administration to provide greater opportunities for African Americans in uniform and in industry. This pressure, along with mounting casualties, led to the creation of several black combat groups, among them the Tuskegee Airmen and the 761st Tank Destroyer Battalion. It even led to experiments with full integration (see “Blood for Dignity,” P. 26). By the end of the war, more than 1 million African Americans had served in uniform.
Without the help of these men and women, the war would not have been won. Once it was, however, the genie could not be put back in the bottle. The millions who had helped defeat fascism would not placidly return to their roles as subjects or second-class citizens. As Michael Gambone pointed out in The Greatest Generation Comes Home: “World War II became the launching pad for the modern Civil Rights movement. Its ranks were populated and stiffened by the same veterans who had sacrificed their lives and their youth for a better America. When they returned, their expectations began on that basic point.”