C – Political Globalization
Afro-Americans under American Imperialism
IV – Afro-Americans in American Combat Forces
We shall now examine the role and the official status of Afro-Americans as combatants in American military campaigns , both within and outside the United States of America.
We are writing a special article for this particular theme concerning the history of Afro-Americans, whether as slaves or as free American citizens, because it provides us with the opportunity to reflect upon and examine ‘’racism’’ as it manifested itself within the American military forces , as well as from government policy coming from Washington or from the military high command.
Afro-Americans have fought for the United States throughout its history, sacrificing their lives and their well-being in defending and supporting a country and a nation that has denied them ‘’equal basic rights’’ and ‘’social opportunities’’ , similar to those enjoyed by White American citizens. We shall examine every military campaign or conflict where Afro-Americans have directly participated as military combatants or as supportive military personnel, extracting facts and details of their officially prescribed role and status. The official treatment of Afro-Americans as ‘’second class citizens’’, who were officially considered as individuals with ‘’inferior’’ mental and moral capacities, able to fulfill the role of an effective and trustworthy military combatant.
We will begin with the American Revolutionary War( 1775-1783), where the settlers of the American colonies fought the British military forces to achieve political independence , up to America’s war in Iraq(2003-2011), which reinforced American geo-political dominance in the Middle East.
A very clear and objective indicator reflecting the ‘’enormous official discrepancy’’ between an Afro-American combatant and a White American combatant is the military institution of the ‘’Congressional Medal of Honor’’ , which represents the highest military award given for military duty and accomplishment.
On December 21, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln(1861-1865), signed into law the bill instituting the awarding of this medal, ‘’…to such non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguished themselves by the gallantry in action , and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection…’’.(https://www.history.com) President Lincoln is here referring to America’s Civil War(1861-1865)
Of the 3,470 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded as of June 2015, only 90 have been given to 89 different Afro-American recipients. Robert Augustus Sweeney ,is one of the 19 men and the only Afro-American to have been awarded Two Medals of Honor.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
25 Afro-Americans received the Medal of Honor during the American Civil War. 18 Afro-Americans received the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars in the western territories of the United States late in the 19th century. 6 Afro-Americans received this Medal during the Spanish-American War in 1898, while no Afro-American was awarded the Medal of Honor in WWI and WWII. 2 Afro-Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean War(1950-1953), 25 Afro-Americans were awarded the Medal in the Vietnam War(1954-1975), and finally, 1 Afro-American received the Medal of Honor for both the latest American wars in Iraq(2003-2011) and Afghanistan(1999-2012).(https://en.wikipedia.org)
Before we examine the role and status of Afro-Americans as military combatants, fighting for American ‘’territorial integrity’’ and ‘’political independence’’ , we shall briefly examine a very important event in American history, when Afro-Americans as slaves and in cooperation with Indigenous Indians, and more specifically the Seminole Indians of Florida, fought American military forces in order to establish an independent nation in Florida, which was then a Spanish colony. By seizing this territory in Florida militarily, the government activated the First Foreign Invasion by the United States in its history.
In July 1816, General Andrew Jackson ordered Army, Navy and Marine units of the United States to invade Florida, a Spanish colonial possession. President James Madison then, believed that the ‘’slave economy’’, the ‘’slave trade’’ and its ‘’valuable human property’’ were under threat by the establishment of an independent community of several thousand Native Americans and Afro-Americans, including Afro-American slaves. These Afro-Americans had escaped American slave territory , founding the Seminole Nation in Florida soil , where under Spanish law, slavery was outlawed .(www.counterpunch.org)
The slaveholding American establishment of the South, believed that Florida’s ‘’slave haven’’, endangered the ‘’slave status quo’’ of Georgia, the Carolinas and the South’s entire slave plantation system. In today’s political terminology, these Afro-Americans and Seminole Indians were perceived as potential ‘’terrorists’’ to the slaveholders’ political establishment in the South, whose vast economic clout put great pressure on Washington and Congress to respond militarily on foreign territory.
General Andrew Jackson, a future American President(1829-1837), who was an important slave and landowner , as were President James Madison and Secretary of State Quincy Adams, used American military forces to service their own economic interests by invading this ‘’foreign territory’’. This would become the First Seminole War(1817-1818),and as a result , in 1819, Spain was forced to cede its colonial Florida territory to the United States.(www.britannica.com)
The Second Seminole War(1835-1842) was the longest and the costliest for the American government. After the 1830 Indian Removal Act, both houses of Congress agreed that the President could negotiate ‘’removal treaties’’ with the Indian Nations and tribes, where these Native Americans would give up their ‘’sovereign territories’’ east of the Mississippi River in exchange for ‘’virgin’’ and ‘’unexplored’’ land west of the Mississippi River.
The Seminole Indians with their allies of ‘’runaway’’ Afro-American slaves, did not accept the official American terms of departure, and fought back, using all their resources . In this prolonged Indian War with its thousands of Afro-American slave combatants at the epicenter of the campaigns, American military forces had a large number of casualties.
Finally, after many military defeats , thousands of Indian and Afro-American Seminoles, accepted the assurances of the American government that they could remain free and united as a ‘’nation’’, and agreed to migrate to the Oklahoma Indian Territory. There were many who neither surrendered nor departed from their Florida encampments.
This was a great historical victory by the military and political alliance of the Indigenous Indians and the Afro-Americans under the political banner of an Independent Seminole Nation.’’…The Seminoles of Florida had operated the largest Underground Railroad *** , and had emerged undefeated , with their community intact, from nearly 50 years of siege . Their accomplishment has no equal in United States history…’’. (www.counterpunch.org)
*** Underground Railroad- a secret system used in the U.S. before the Civil War for helping thousands of slaves to escape to the free northern states or Canada . The slaves were called ‘’passengers’’, the people who helped them were the ‘’conductors’’ , and the slaves hid in ‘’stations’’(safe houses) along the way.(https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com)
American War for Independence (1775-1781)
The American War for Independence or the American Revolutionary War, lasted from 1775 to 1781 ; it was a war waged by the settlers of the American colonies to free themselves from British rule and become politically independent. While these American revolutionaries , who called themselves ‘’patriots’’, were eventually the winners against the British forces, initially ‘’…deciding whether to fight in the war was far from an easy choice…the great majority were neutral or Loyalists…’’.(https://www.pbs.org)
For Afro-Americans, especially for Afro-American slaves, what was critical in supporting either side, was their own ‘’political emancipation’’, not political allegiance. It is here very crucial to remember that when the War for Independence began, the socio-economic institution of slavery existed in all of the thirteen American colonies.(https://www.battlefields.org)
In July of 1775, George Washington, who was the Military Commander of the Continental Army waging war against the British, held a council of war, sending an order to recruiting officers, instructing them ‘’…not to enlist blacks, or vagabonds, or enemies of liberty to America…’’.(https://www.njstatelib.org)
George Washington, the First President of the United States (1789-1797), equated Afro-Americans to ‘’vagabonds’’ and ‘’enemies of liberty’’, this despite the fact that Afro-Americans had fought ‘’side by ‘’side’’ with White Patriot Soldiers at the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill in 1775.(https://www.njstatelib.org)
On the British side, Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued an ‘’emancipation proclamation’’ in November 1775, promising freedom to ‘’runaway slaves’’ who fought for the British, while Sir Henry Clinton, a British Military Commander, issued a similar edict in New York in 1779. The British also actively recruited Afro-American slaves belonging to Patriot slave owners, so naturally more Afro-Americans fought on the British side. 100,000 slaves escaped to the British lines, while also many died or were killed during the American Revolution. It is estimated that at least 5,000 Afro-American combatants fought with the Patriots and 20,000 served with the British.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
As we have already mentioned, initially George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, prohibited the enlistment of Afro-Americans into the army, especially Afro-American slaves, because like most slave owners, he was afraid that arming Afro-Americans, especially Afro-American slaves, might produce the socio-political incentives for their rebellion. But when the British authorities in November 1775, issued an official proclamation that they would free any Afro-American slave who left his master to serve in the British forces, as well as the fact that as the war continued and men were needed in the Patriot ranks, George Washington reversed his decision of prohibiting Afro-Americans in enlisting. He permitted the already enlisted ‘’free’’ Afro-Americans to remain in the Continental Army, and recruitments of ‘’free’’ Afro-Americans was allowed.
Eventually, the most famous mixed-race fighting unit on the Patriot side was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, organized in 1778, which was endorsed by George Washington. In this military unit ,Afro-American slaves were permitted to participate.’’…Enlisting in the regiment were 88 slaves who were guaranteed freedom at the end of their service. The Rhode Island State Assembly, promised compensation to their former masters…’’. (https://www.battlefield.org)
There were far fewer Afro-Americans who ultimately served in the South than in the North, due to the fact that that there were strong racist sentiments there and also because almost all of Afro-Americans living in the South were ‘’slaves’’ and not ‘’free” as many were in the North . Many northern states after the War for Independence, abolished slavery, nevertheless, Afro-Americans could not officially serve in the military. For the southern Loyalists who held slaves, when they departed from the United States, they took their slaves with them, especially these who settled in the British colonies in the Caribbean. (https://www.battlefields.org)
Of the total three hundred thousand who fought on the American side, about five thousand Afro-Americans participated as regular combatants. Afro-American combatants were present at all the major battles in New Jersey, such as Trenton(1776), Princeton(1777), Fort Mercer(1777), Monmouth(1778) and Springfield(1780), as well as those elsewhere , such as Saratoga(1777), Savanah(1779)and Yorktown(1781). Most of the Afro-American soldiers were ‘’free’’ and from the northern colonies, but some of them were slaves.(https://www.njstatelib.org)
The law of 1792, which generally prohibited the enlistment of Afro-Americans in the Army, became the United States Army’s official policy until 1862. No legal restrictions regarding the enlistment of Afro-Americans were placed on the American Navy, because of its chronic shortage of manpower.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
This racial inflexibility and persistence through American official policy to downgrade the status of Afro-Americans as viable combatants, especially those who were slaves or freedmen, represented a historical paradox, since the banners of the War for Independence was ‘’freedom’’ and ‘’independence’’ from British authoritarian rule. The American political establishment ignored the fact that they also were trying to maintain an ‘’authoritarian’’ and ‘’undemocratic’’ political system which accepted and legitimized the status of Afro-Americans as ‘’second class citizens’’, who could not officially serve in the country’s military forces.
The French nobleman , Marquis de Lafayette, who served personally as general in the Continental Army, was very critical of George Washington’s policy on slavery and his stance on Afro-Americans not being eligible to enlist to serve officially for the American cause. In 1824, when the 67 year old Lafayette made his triumphal return and tour of the United States, visiting New Orleans to greet his Afro-American Revolutionary War Veterans who had migrated there, according to historian Jack Kelly, Lafayette ,’’…was troubled by the failure of the founding generation to confront the great paradox of a people dedicated to freedom holding others in bondage…’’.(https://www.battlefields.org)
The Revolutionary War had important consequences on Afro-Americans in general. Their cooperation with the British authorities permitted the reduction of the slave population by about 100,000, many fleeing to Canada and Florida, a Spanish colony. Others who lived in New Jersey , left when the British departed between 1782 and 1783, and settled in Nova Scotia, Great Britain, and later , Sierra Leone in Africa. Some Afro-American slaves were freed by their masters because of their service as combatants with the American forces. Second, and most importantly, Afro-American participation in the War for Independence, helped the abolitionist sentiment in the North, who saw an ideological contradiction between slavery and the ideals of the American Revolution. This popular political trend in the North, helped Pennsylvania in 1780, to become the first American state to abolish slavery. By 1790, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont had all abolished slavery through legislation or court decision.(https://www.njstatelib.org)
TheAmericanWarof 1812 (1812-1815)
For the United States, the War of 1812, which practically lasted until 1815,officially ended in December 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent. It represented a second War of Independence against Britain, but more importantly it was the historical event which provided America with an international political identity as an independent nation-state with a unitary national culture. The war ended with neither side winning , but for the United States, it was the start of its historical role as an international player to be reckoned with.’’…But the war ended without a clear-cut victory for neither side. Still the United States gained international recognition as an independent nation. The conflict further helped to cement the union of the various states and forged a new American identity…’’.(https://www.cutluraltourismdc.org)
The main reason for this war was the fact that the United States played a neutral role in the Napoleonic Wars(1803-1815) between Great Britain and France, trying to benefit economically and politically. This strategy failed because Great Britain and France used America as a pawn to service their own interests , causing a great decline on its foreign trade.
A British blockade of Napoleon’s shipping resulted in the seizing of American vessels trading in French ports, while the French responded with a similar strategy by capturing American and other ships which called at British ports.
A second factor for the political conflict between the United States and Great Britain was the measure taken of ‘’impressment’’ by the British navy when seizing and searching American ships for British deserters. Many British sailors chose to opt for the freer life of an American sailor, while the British authorities refused to recognize former British sailors as American citizens. By 1811, more than 6,000 American seamen had been impressed and held as prisoners in bondage.(p.124 ,Freedom, a History of U.S.- Hakim, Joy, Oxford University Press, 2003)
As we have already mentioned relative to America’s Revolutionary War(1775-1783), Afro-American participation as combatants did not involve a sense of loyalty for either the British nor the American Patriots because it was not a matter of defending their own homeland , since they had no homeland which protected their basic civil freedoms. Afro-American combatants participated on the British or the American side with the incentive that either side would provide them with their own political emancipation. That is exactly the reason why many more Afro-Americans chose to fight with the British than with the Americans, because as we saw ,the British provided them with their freedom ; once they participated actively in their war campaigns against the American Patriot forces.
Eventually, many of these Afro-American combatants migrated to Canada and the British colonies in the West Indies and Africa, under the auspices and protection of the British government. Exactly the same political scenario occurred during the War of 1812,where American military forces had to restrain British military incursions on their own territory and on their own extraterritorial economic interests.
In the War of 1812, most of the Afro-American participation as combatants was in the naval forces of both sides, where there was a lack of personnel. Once again, choosing to side with the British paid off in the end for the Afro-Americans, as we shall soon see.
Although the official policy of the American government at the start of the war forbade the recruitment of Afro-American sailors, a shortage of manpower, forced the American navy to accept any able-bodied man. Eventually, Afro-Americans made up at least 15% of the personnel of the American navy. Their fighting ability was clearly demonstrated at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 1813, where the American fleet stopped the advancement of the British naval forces.
Afro-American sailors were also very effective combatants on non-military ships, as privateers or pirates, directed by the American government to attack British merchant vessels. On some of these privateer ships, more than half of the crew were Afro-Americans and they often were successful at seizing British merchant ships. Besides the Navy and privateering , there were also a few Afro-American battalions in the American Army, but the British government’s position of freedom for slaves made the British more attractive for recruits.(https://www.pbs.org)
On April 1814, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, made the British government’s position official, inviting Afro-American slaves to either enter into his Majesty’s Forces, or be sent as ‘’free settlers’’ to British colonies in North America and the West Indies. Through this policy , more than 4,000 Afro-Americans were freed from slavery, the largest emancipation of Afro-Americans in the United States until the American Civil War.(https://www.blackpast.org)
Three companies of Colonial Marines were formed officially on May 18, 1814. The British Corps of Colonial Marines, most of them Afro-Americans, took part in the burning of Washington(1814), fought in the Battle of Baltimore(1814), and battled against American forces all along the Atlantic coastline of the United States. Afro-American males who chose to fight as regulars in the British forces were drilled and called Blue Jackets, while others chose to participate as laborers, helping the British to build Fort Albion on Tangier island at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, a strategic location. The American government saw this recruitment of Afro-American slaves in the British forces and their activities as effective combatants as an Afro-American insurrection from within.
Although they were of African descent and many of them former slaves, they received the same training, uniforms, pay, and pensions as their Royal Marine counterparts. Eventually 3,600 Afro-Americans joined the British military effort, with between 550 to 700 trained as troops.(https://www.battlefields.org)
The Corps of Colonial Marines saw extensive military action from Canada to Georgia in the years between 1814 and 1816. They supported the British forces who burned Washington ,D.C. , in 1814 and who were later repulsed by American troops at Baltimore.
The role of the Colonial Marines at Prospect Bluff in Florida near New Orleans, in 1816, demonstrated perfectly their contribution after the War of 1812. The Marines were ordered to defend a Spanish-fortified stockade at Prospect Bluff, that was now the target of the American military forces. The fort had become an important sanctuary for escaped Afro-American slaves and the reason it was called ‘’Negro Fort’’.
Major General Andrew Jackson, wanting to expand American power into the Florida-panhandle, attempted to capture the stockade militarily. He assembled 4,500 combatants to drive off the British marine forces. This military unit was comprised largely by both free Afro-Americans and many Afro-American slaves who were provided by Louisiana’s great plantation owners.’’…These enslaved men had neither a say in their conscription nor the promise of emancipation in exchange for their war efforts. In pursuit of their freedom, many bondmen defected to the British camp which explicitly mandated manumission for any enslaved man who fought against the U.S….’’.(https://tennesseehistory.org)
The British accepted defeat on January 8, 1815, yet this American military victory by General Andrew Jackson was mainly due to the efforts made mostly by his Afro-American slave soldiers. Eventually, General Jackson not only ordered his Afro-American troops out of New Orleans to calm its white residents, but he also went back on his promise to free his Afro-American slave combatants, by ordering them and making them return to their slave-masters in Louisiana.(https://tennesseehistory.org)
The historical details we just described concerning the Battle of New Orleans between American military units and the British Colonial Marines, demonstrate perfectly well the type of official treatment by the British Military Command with respect to their own Afro-American combatants in the British Colonial Marines and the unjust and racist policy of General Andrew Jackson towards his own Afro-American soldiers, especially his slave soldiers. These are exactly the reasons why during the American War for Independence and the American War of 1812, Afro-Americans , whether slave or free, provided greater support for the British side than the American side. We should mention here that General Jackson became the 7th President of the United States (1829-1837), an important slave owner, and one of the most racist and authoritarian presidents in the history of America.
In the final analysis, what we witness historically, is that the contribution made by Afro-American combatants fighting with the American forces, did not result in their political emancipation or in providing them with greater freedoms as members of American society.’’…In the end, the War of 1812, did not provide greater opportunities or equality for free blacks as they anticipated, nor did it initiate a wave of emancipation for enslaved Americans seeking freedom…’’.(https://www.nps.gov)
The American Civil War (1861-1865)
The American Civil War established the Afro-American at the epicenter of all political developments in the United States, directly and indirectly. Directly, because the American Civil War broke out when the elected Republican President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln(1861-1865), opposed in 1860 the expansion of slavery, into the newly founded western territories of the country. This position by the Presidentand his government , led seven American states in the South, whose economies depended on slave-labor to secede from the Union of American States, establishing the Confederate States of America. The Afro-American influenced indirectly the political evolution of the country because by his involvement as a soldier in the Union Army of Abraham Lincoln, it facilitated the defeat of the Confederate military forces and the Southern States which supported them.
The participation by Afro-American soldiers in the Union’s military forces was significant throughout the war, and the numbers clearly testify this critical historical fact.’’…By the time the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 black men had served as soldiers in the U.S. Army. This was about 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. Most- about 90,000- were former (or ‘’contraband’’) slaves from the Confederate states. About half of the rest were from the loyal border states, and the rest were free blacks from the North. Forty thousand black soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection…’’.(http://www.history.com)
The enlistment of Afro-Americans in the Union Army was not an easy political initiative to take, because even though Afro-American soldiers had fought in the Revolutionary War and- unofficially in the War of 1812,state militias had excluded Afro-Americans from their ranks since the Militia Act of 1792.This Act imposed on American armed forces not to enlist Afro-Americans as regular soldiers. The Act did not specifically exclude Afro-Americans from the militias, but it did require the states to enlist, ‘‘…all able-bodied white males , between the ages of eighteen and forty-five…’’.
Three states disagreed with these specifications of the Act, North Carolina, South Carolina , and Georgia, but the War Department chose to side with the majority of the states and excluded Afro-Americans from the regular army. This became the official policy of the American Army until the enactment of the Militia Act of 1862 under the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
After the Civil War broke out in 1861, abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglas(1817-1895), son of a slave woman and an unknown white father, met several times with President Abraham Lincoln(1860-1865), trying to convince him to enlist Afro-Americans in the Union Army with the promise that they would be granted full American citizenship. Frederick Douglas was a prominent and active protagonist of the abolitionist movement, and a well respected Afro-American leader.(http://www.whitehousehistory.org)
Frederick Douglas argued with President Lincoln that by enlisting Afro-Americans in the Union Army, it would help the North win the war, while at the same time, this would promote equal rights for Afro-Americans which was the official political stance of the Republican Progressive Party of Abraham Lincoln. Douglas said that,’’… Once let a black man get upon his person : the brass letters U.S. , let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship…’’.(http://www.history.com)
Initially, President Lincoln was hesitant about arming Afro-Americans , especially former or escaped slaves, because those loyal border-states with the South, would secede from the Union since they maintained slave-economies. The secession of these border states would make it difficult for the Union to win the war. However, after two difficult years of waging war, President Lincoln had to reconsider his position of not enlisting Afro-Americans, first of all because the war seemed to drag on , and the Union Army was in great need of soldiers due to the high death toll among the soldiers. There was also a lack of white volunteers and Afro-Americans were more than willing to participate with the Union Army and fight against the Confederate States, states which protected and defended slavery.
The Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862, was the initial step by Lincoln’s government to promote the enlistment of Afro-Americans in the Union Army. The Militia Act of 1862, enacted on July 17, allowed Afro-Americans to participate as war laborers and combatants for the first time since the Militia Act of 1792. The Act of 1862, did not specifically allow Afro-Americans to enlist but it authorized the President ,’’…to employ as many persons of African descent as may deem necessary and proper for the suppression of this rebellion…’’.
Therefore, the 37th United States Congress which passed this Militia Act, neither directly supported the enlistment of Afro-Americans in the Union Army nor continued the exclusion of Afro-Americans to enlist. This unclear position by Lincoln’s Republican Party which controlled both the Senate and the House of Representatives, was because they were very hesitant in arming Afro-Americans, while there was also widespread racial discrimination in the general American public.
As well ,there was great opposition from the Military high command of the Union Army, who considered Afro-Americans as incapable of functioning as effective combatants. ‘’…In general, the Union army was reluctant to use African American troops in combat. This was partly due to racism: There were many Union officers who believed that black soldiers were not as skilled or as brave as white soldiers were. By this logic, they thought that African Americans were better suited for jobs as carpenters , cooks, guards, scouts and teamsters…’’.(http://www.history.com)
Alongside the Militia Act , the 37th United States Congress also issued the Confiscation Act on July 17,1862, declaring that all slaves belonging to a ‘’rebel’’ American or a Confederate American were free.(en.wikipedia.org)
Following the Militia Act of 1862, some Afro-Americans saw it as an opening for them and began to form infantry units of their own. Afro-Americans from New Orleans , put together three National Guard Units, the First, Second, and Third Louisiana Native Guard, which by the end of the Civil War became the 73rd, 74th and 75th United States Colored Infantry.(http://www.history.com)
On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, where he declared that all persons held as slaves within any state which was in rebellion against the central government in Washington, shall be free. Nevertheless, this Proclamation did not affect the status of 1 million slaves who were held in the loyal border states and in the Union-occupied parts of Louisiana and Virginia. While at the same time, the Proclamation declared that ‘’…such persons(referring to Afro-Americans) of suitable condition, will be received into the armed –service of the United States…’’.(http://www.history.com)
In February 1863, the abolitionist Governor John A. Andrew of the state of Massachusetts, made the Civil War’s first official enlistment of Afro-American soldiers. More than 1,000 men enlisted and they formed the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first Afro-American regiment to be formed in the North. Many of those who volunteered for this Regiment came from outside the state. One quarter came from slave states , and some came from Canada and the Caribbean.
On July 18, 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment attacked Fort Wagner, which defended the port of Charleston in South Carolina. It was the first time in the Civil War that Afro-American troops had led an infantry attack.(http://www.history.com)
Even though Afro-American soldiers in the Union Army were fighting to end slavery and bring social justice by combating the Confederate States, they were treated unfairly by the army. The United States Army paid Afro-American soldiers 10 dollars a week, minus a clothing allowance, in some cases, while white soldiers received 3 dollars more , plus a clothing allowance , in some cases. At the end of 1864, the American Congress passed abill authorizing equal pay for black and white soldiers. By May 1863, the Bureau of Colored Troops was established to coordinate the Afro-Americans who enlisted.(https://www.historynet.com)
Afro-American army units and soldiers that were captured by the Confederate Army, suffered harsher treatment than white prisoners of this war. In 1863, the Confederate Congress threatened to punish captured white Union officers of Afro-American troops, and enslave captured Afro-American soldiers. In response, President Lincoln issued General Order 252, on July 31, 1863, which threatened heavy reprisals on Confederate prisoners of war. Lincoln declared that, ‘’…For every one enslaved by the enemy or sold into slavery, a rebel soldier shall be placed at hard labor on the public works, and continued at such labor until the other shall be released and receive the treatment due to a prisoner of war…’’.(slate.com)
Afro-American troops in the Union Army played a critical role during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia, in July 1864, and represented a significant part of the Union force during the Battle of Nashville in December 1864.(https://www.historynet.com)
Afro-Americans were not allowed to serve in the Confederate Army, since they were slaves. As slaves, there were many who were brought along by their masters to take care of their everyday needs in the camps of the Confederate Army. Therefore we could say that many thousands of Afro-Americans served in the South indirectly for the cause of the Confederate States, willingly or otherwise.
There were voices in the South which expressed the belief that the government of the Confederate States should consider recruiting and enlisting Afro-American slaves in the Confederate Army. This especially when they were facing the dire consequences of the war and considering their weak position with respect to the Union Army at the end of 1863. They were inferior in numbers, and their sources of manpower were limited compared to the North.
The most outspoken proponent for utilizing Afro-American slaves in the Confederate Army was General Patrick Cleburne and some of his fellow officers. They proposed to train a large reserve of Afro-American slaves , with the guarantee of freedom within a certain time period whereby they could demonstrate their loyalty to the Confederacy in the war. This proposal by Cleburne did not receive official support from the Confederate Government most of 1864.(https://www.historynet.com)
There were a few Confederate political and military leaders who were willing to pursue their independence without slavery, but most of the political and military establishment valued slavery above all else, although the South was in a desperate situation by that time.
Afro-Americans on both sides of the war were used in relief roles, for example as nurses , cooks and blacksmiths. Even though the South refused Afro-Americans to serve as regular soldiers , they were used to build fortifications and perform camp duties. Also, many officers of the Union Army who thought Afro-Americans as inadequate combatants, assigned them to non-combat duties or were placed in the rear lines guarding railroads and bridges. Racism was prevalent in both the North and the South.’’…Racism pervaded the social landscape in both the North and South. Although the war settled the question of secession vs. union, it failed to bring equal rights to African Americans…’’.(https://www.historynet.com)
Finally, we have to note here, that 16 Afro-American soldiers won the Congressional Medal of Honor for their brave service in the Civil War.(http://www.history.com)
World War I
Before we look into the status of Afro-American soldiers during World War I, we have to examine the socio-political environment in the United States. It was a period of great social change in all of society, especially for Afro-Americans.
The first and most important transformation occurred between 1914 and 1920, when more than 500,000 Afro-Americans from the South migrated to the North, in order to find a better life and a less repressive political environment. This vast displacement of people, soon transformed the social, cultural and economic fabric of the major urban centers in the North, such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit.
There were two major socio-economic developments which caused this large scale internal migration, which would define permanently the image of Afro-American society and the American nation as a whole.
The first development was the fact that during the period between 1915 and 1916, there was an infestation of a plant disease which ruined the cotton crop of the southern plantations. This, in conjunction with the poverty experienced by southern Afro-Americans as sharecroppers in perpetual debt and the enforcement of the Jim Crow racist laws in the southern states, made their life very difficult. Politically, Afro-Americans in the South were essentially denied the vote and equal protection by the justice system.
The second socio-economic factor which caused this massive migration of Afro-Americans towards the North, was the fact that during the War, immigration from Europe was stopped, and many industries in the large urban centers of the North, were in great need of labor. Therefore, there were work openings and opportunities for Afro-Americans to work in manufacturing, packing houses and in the automobile plants.(http://exhibitions.nypl.org)
The social consequences of this Afro-American Migration were closer links between Afro-Americans from the southern states and their family relatives in the North, who could provide them with their first necessities until they could settle down; necessities such as housing, work and community support. The southern Afro-Americans brought to the social culture of Afro-Americans in the North, especially in the large urban centers, their vitality in political consciousness having struggled for centuries against racism and injustice. They also introduced an authentic African cultural vibrancy, which inspired new forms of music, literature and art, both within the Afro-American communities in the North, as well as its white American society there.
The United States had remained neutral in the beginning of World War I(1914-1918), because President Wilson in his first term in office(1912-1916), argued that the United States had no gain or political reason to get involved in a purely inter-European military conflict. Wilson was reelected in 1916 on a political promise of neutrality for his country, but German military provocations through their submarine warfare in the Atlantic and Germany’s encouragement of Mexico to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers, forced President Wilson on April 2, 1917, to declare war against Germany.(http://exhibitions.nypl.org)
The paradox is that the central theme of Wilson’s declaration of war against Germany and the Central Powers was that ‘’The world must be made safe for democracy’’, while in the United States , Afro-Americans were treated as ‘’second class citizens’’ under his official policy of ‘’segregation’’. Segregation was enforced in all federally controlled institutions such as the Military, the Justice Department and the Post Office, as well as protecting the continuation of the Jim Crow racist laws in the southern American states.
The case of President Wilson’s official racist policies is indicative of the political environment that galvanized the political culture of the United States, since he and his government controlled the agenda which defined all national activities, social, economic, political and cultural ones.
President Wilson was governor of New Jersey when he was elected President of the United States in 1913, but he was a southerner . He was born in Virginia in 1856, and was raised in Georgia and South Carolina. He had many relatives in his family who had served in the Confederate Army as officers. His family’s political ideology as described in his book, ‘’A History of the American People’’, glorified the southern political culture , which according to him had tried to preserve a decent agrarian way of life against the materialistic and unethical North. In his book he is generally sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, who he thought had fought to maintain the purity of southern white culture.(https://www.vox.com)
For Wilson Afro-Americans then(during the Civil War), were not ready to be introduced to Emancipation as stable and viable citizens, while he thought that Reconstruction had to be ended in order to establish once again the ‘’wise rule’’ of American Whites. Wilson’s political identity revolved around the philosophy of White Supremacy, and that is the reason why southern politicians and southern states saw in Wilson the opportunity to reinstate ‘’white supremacist’’ values and guidelines in all of government policy.
Wilson himself fired 15 out of 17 Afro-American supervisors in the federal service and replaced them with white Americans, while after the Treasury Department and the Post Office began segregating , many Afro-American employees were let go. Wilson’s racism even extended to foreign affairs. At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, Wilson helped to defeat the proposal made by Japan, where the Treaty would recognize the principle of racial equality.
While 11 out of 17 permanent members of the Convention favored the amendment , Wilson who was presiding , decided that the amendment had to be defeated because the vote was not unanimous. This was not an actual rule that proceedings were operating under , since a simple majority vote was enough to decide that the League of Nations would be headquartered in Geneva.’’…Wilson just really didn’t want the treaty to recognize racial equality and wanted to appease the British Empire, which premised on subjugating African and South Asian people…’’. (https://www.vox.com)
It is exactly this same racist person and politician , that one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, Princeton University, had elected to serve as their president from 1902 to 1910.
Two national events during this period in American history clearly demonstrate the prevalence of racism against Afro-Americans which existed within American society.
The first one occurred on July 2,1917, in East Saint Louis , when tensions erupted between Afro-American and White industrial workers, which resulted in riots which lasted for 4 days. This caused more than 125 Afro-American residents of the city being killed. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) , organized a Peaceful Protest Parade in New York City on July 28, 1917, where 8,000 Afro-Americans, men and women, marched down Fifth Avenue.
The second incident took place a month later in Houston Texas, when Afro-American soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Camp Logan revolted , marching through the city and killing 16 white civilians and police officers. This was a violent reaction by these soldiers stationed there who had suffered racial violence from Houston’s white residents and its police force. 110 Afro-American soldiers were court-martialed , 63 receiving life sentences , while 13 were hung.(http://exhibitions.nypl.org)
The Armed forces of the United States were ‘’segregated’’ throughout World War I , nevertheless, many Afro-Americans volunteered to join the cause of the Allies then, once the American government of President Wilson declared war on Germany in April of 1917. Almost 350,000 Afro-American soldiers served with the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, while 770 Afro-American soldiers had died by the end of the war when the armistice with Germany was concluded on November 11, 1918. The reason there were so very few Afro-American casualties was because only 40,000 to 50,000 Afro-American soldiers saw combat, as most of them served as camp laborers and in logistical support because they were considered as not fit for combat.(www.washingtonpost.com)
The white officers didn’t support the idea of arming Afro-Americans and training them how to use weapons. Nevertheless, the American military command created two combat-divisions of Afro-Americans, the 92nd Division which was composed of draftees and officers, and the 93rd Division, which was made up mostly by National Guard units from New York, Chicago, Washington,D.C., and Cleveland.(http://www.pbs.org)
The American army ‘’transferred’’ the 93rd Division to the French Army , and it was the only American division to serve exclusively under the French military command, while it was the division that was most effective as a fighting force. In comparison to the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division under the command of white American officers, was characterized by great disunity due to rampant racism by these white officers.’’…White army officials characterized black soldiers of the division as rapists and spread vicious lies among French civilians. African-American officers were particularly singled out for racist treatment because of their status…’’(http://exhibition.nypl.org)
The 93rd Division’s, 369th Infantry Regiment from New York, became the most famous Afro-American fighting unit overseas. Two soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment , Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first American soldiers to receive the French Croix de Guerre(War Cross) , the highest medal for bravery during combat, while 171 members of the same regiment were awarded the French Legion of Merit. This Regiment was nicknamed the ‘’Harlem Hell fighters’’, because almost all of its soldiers came from the city of New York. The regiment served for 191 days and ceded no territory to German forces, while they were the first American regiment to reach the Rhine river in Germany, after the armistice was concluded at the end of 1918.(http://exhibitions.nypl.org)
Gerard Torrence , director of Strategic Planning at AMBC(American Battle Monuments Commission) in an interview by Dr. Jeff Gusky, an emergency room doctor and National Geographic photographer, explained to him that there was a secret memo by American General John Pershing(1860-1948), High Commander of American forces in Europe then, to the French Command, detailing how to treat Afro-American soldiers. The memo explained that ‘’…You don’t treat blacks with too much respect, you don’t give them compliments in front of white officers, you don’t treat them too well , because you don’t want them to come home and be disappointed…’’.(https://www.armytimes.com)
No Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded at that time to Afro-American soldiers!!!
World War II
I am going to begin this section recounting the official role of Afro-American soldiers during World War II, with a reference made concerning Afro-American soldiers during World War I.
This commentaryfrom an article states that,’’…while they were eager to join the fight(referring to Afro-Americans), the U.S. military was still segregated . The white officers didn’t particularly like the idea of arming blacks and training them how to use weapons. Most African-American units were largely relegated to support roles and did not see combat…’’.(http://www.pbs.org)
More than 20 years had passed since the end of World War I , and this description corresponds perfectly with the status and the real circumstances of Afro-Americans participating as soldiers during World War II. This is a true reflection of perpetuating a ‘’racist policy’’ both by the American government and its Military Command concerning the status of Afro-American soldiers and naturally, the status of Afro-Americans as American citizens.
What we shall try to present here are specific historical facts which identify ‘’official racism’’ against Afro-American military personnel during World War II.
The first and most important historical fact then, was that the Military Forces of the United States were ‘’segregated’’, which remained official policy until President Truman(1945-1953) changed that in 1948.(https://www.pbs.org). Nevertheless, this reform was very slow, and it wasn’t until 1953 that segregation officially ended, when the American Secretary of Defense, Dean Acheson, announced that the last all Afro-American military unit had been abolished. This policy development was due to the enormous manpower military needs which the United States had experienced during the Korean War (1950-1953).(https://en.wikipedia.org)
The second vital fact was that more than 2,5 million Afro-Americans had registered for the draft when WWII began and 1 million Afro-Americans served in the United States Forces. Although they faced ‘’segregation’’ , even during combat , these Afro-American soldiers tried to fight racial discrimination within the armed forces also wanting to promote through their direct participation in the war , their quest for civil rights .(https://www.pbs.org)
The third important information was that the tasks of Afro-American soldiers were reserved to non-combat military units, servicing the hard labor needs of the military during the campaigns and within the military camps. Even though 125,000 Afro-American soldiers ‘’in principle’’ fought for the Armed Forces in Europe and the Pacific, a total of 708 Afro-American soldiers were killed, a similar number to that of World War I.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
The marines had no Afro-Americans enlisted in combat infantry, while there were ‘’segregated’’ Afro-American sailors in the Navy Seebees(naval construction battalions). In the United States Air Force, the Tuskegee ‘’segregated’’ Airforce squadron , the ‘’segregated’’ 452nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion, and the ‘’segregated’’ 761st Tank Battalion, distinguished themselves in combat , proving the value of Afro-Americans as effective war combatants. These developments slowly led to ‘’desegregation’’ of all American armed forces by Executive Order 9981 of President Truman in July 1948.(https://www.pbs.org)
The whole American Army had only 5 Afro-American officers and 48 Afro-American nurses who were segregated from white nurses and white soldiers. These Afro-American nurses were assigned to take care exclusively Afro-American soldiers.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
As we have already mentioned, the great majority of Afro-American soldiers were assigned to ‘’segregated’’ non-combat units because the American Military Command did not consider them ‘’fit and able’’ to fulfill their duties as modern combatants. Yet, during the War there occurred an event which for the long run would reverse this ‘’racist’’ stance towards Afro-American combatants, as well as the viability of non-segregation within the various military units during wartime.
In the Battle of the Bulge in France in 1944, American General Eisenhower(1890-1969), the Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe and future American President(1953-1961), was desperate for replacement troops in existing all-white companies. As a consequence, he decided to allow 2,000 Afro-American volunteers to serve in segregated platoons under white lieutenants.’’…These platoons would serve with distinction, and, according to an Army survey in the summer of 1945, 84% were ranked ‘’very well’’ and 10% were ranked ‘’fairly well’’…’’.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
These platoons were often looked down upon by the white military units in occupied Germany and were soon sent to their old segregated ‘’non-combat’’ service units when the war ended. This temporary experiment with Afro-American combat troops was proven a success and it was one of the reasons why there began a slow process towards permanent integration of the American Forces during and after the Korean War.
Even though there was a high enlistment and participation by Afro-Americans during World War II, racism remained a dominant social factor and Afro-Americans were not treated equally, justly and humanely. At military parades, church services, in transportation and canteens, the races were kept separate through enforced official regulations , both government and military ones.’’…After battling for freedom and defending democracy worldwide , African American soldiers returned home after the war only to find themselves faced with the existing prejudice and ‘’Jim Crow’’ laws , which imposed ‘’separate, but equal’’ segregation…’’.(https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org)
No Medals of Honor were given to Afro-American soldiers during World War II!!!
The Korean War (1950-1953)
What is very relevant in describing the status of Afro-American soldiers during the Korean War are two very important historical factors , revealing the many institutional weaknesses of the United States as a Constitutional Democracy, as well as the depth of official racism against Afro-American citizens.
In principle and officially, the American military units which participated during the Korean War as part of the United Nations Military Force (which was organized to protect the sovereignty of South Korea from invasion by North Korea), were to have been ‘’desegregated’’ by law. On July 26, 1948, American President Harry Truman, had signed Executive Order 9981, declaring that,’’…there should be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin…’’.(https://koreanwarlegacy.org)
Even though the President of the United States under the American Constitution was also the Commander in Chief of the country, ordering the ‘’desegregation’’ of the armed forces, many senior military commanders ignored this presidential Executive Order. These American military commanders did not want to conform with the ‘’desegregation’’ of their forces because during their entire careers , in training and in fighting, they had functioned with segregated military units. We therefore see that in artillery units fighting in the Korean War, like the 503rd Battalion, they remained segregated , with only Afro-American soldiers in their ranks.(https://koreanwarlegacy.org)
We clearly witness a rejection by many of the American Military commanders of the Constitutional Powers of the Executive branch of government and those of the President of the United States.
General MacArthur (1880-1964), who was the American Commander-in-Chief of the Far East, also being appointed Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command Forces in South Korea, believed that Afro-American soldiers were inferior to white American soldiers, becoming the greatest impediment to the Army’s desegregation in Korea. There was a turn around to this ‘’official racist policy’’ , when in 1951 President Truman fired General MacArthur from his powerful posts and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway(1895-1993). General Ridgway began to actively promote the desegregation of all American military units, declaring that ‘ segregation in all its forms was un-American and un-Christian’.(https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
One very important event then, which demonstrates clearly the degree of racism which existed within the American Armed Forces, as well as the fact that President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 of 1948, was not fully implemented 2 years later during the Korean War, is the case involving the 24th Infantry Regiment , which was an all Afro-American military unit. Although this Regiment’s history of military accomplishment dated back to the Civil War, it lacked resources, training and was often assigned very dangerous missions.(https://americanradioworks.publicradio.org)
In 1950, American military commanders arrested 50members of this segregated 24th Regiment , who were falsely accused of AWOL( Absent Without Leave) and cowardly behavior when facing the enemy in battle. Themilitarycourtlastedaslittleas ‘’tenminutes’’!!! A newspaper reporter of Baltimore’s newspaper the ‘’Afro-American’’, informed this ‘’racist military stance’’ to Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993), a prominent Afro-American lawyer and a future supreme court justice ; the first Afro-American court justice in the history of America’s Supreme Court(1967-1991). He informed him that 50 Afro-American soldiers had been arrested in South Korea, a number out of proportion to the average arrest of white soldiers.
In 1951, the NAACP( National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) sent Marshall into the war zone to investigate the affair and he eventually cleared most of the soldiers’ charges.
While in Korea, Thurgood Marshall met with General MacArthur , the American Commander in Chief of the United Nation’s forces in Korea. Marshall questioned MacArthur about his policy in continuing segregation in the American Army. He reminded the General that the Air Force was completely integrated , and that the American Navy was at the point of full integration, except for the American Army. General MacArthur told Marshall that he personally didn’t find Afro-Americans as qualified to undertake the job, but that once he found them qualified, they would be integrated into the army units.
After the meeting, Thurgood Marshall met the reporter from the Baltimore newspaper to discuss what were his opinions of General MacArthur and his attitude concerning the full integration of the American Armed Forces. Marshall told the reporter that the General was basically a racist, explaining to him that ‘’he was as biased as any person I’ve run across’’. Then the reporter asked Marshall, ‘’…In other words, he(meaning MacArthur) felt basically that blacks were inferior ?…’’. To which Marshall replied, ‘’…Inferior. No question about it. No question about it…’’. (https://americanradioworks.publicradio.org)
In 1987, Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr. , ordered an official study to resolve the controversy over the 24th Regiment’s performance which for many years was propagated in the military circles and was being cited to criticize the fighting abilities of Afro-American soldiers.
The conclusion that was reached from this study was that there was no single reason for what happened then. The many factors were, aggressive enemy forces, old and worn out equipment, a lack of organization at many levels, a void of leadership, a lack of bonding and cohesion, nevertheless, there was no lack of courage among the officers or the soldiers. According to the report,’’…If the 24th went into battle much as the other regiments in the Eighth Army did, it carried baggage none of the others possessed , all the problems of trust and lack of self-confidence that the system of segregation had imposed…’’. (http://www.chicagotribune.com)
In June 1950, almost 100,000 Afro-Americans were on active duty in the United States armed forces, which was about 8% of the total personnel. By the end of the war, more than 600,000 Afro-Americans had served in the American military. Of the 600,000 Afro-American soldiers who fought in the Korean War, 5,000 died in combat. In the Army , 9.7% of active duty service members, including 72,000 enlisted men and 1,200 officers were Afro-American. In the Air Force , 4.4% of active duty personnel were Afro-Americans, including 21,000 enlisted men and 300 officers. About 6,000 Afro-Americans, or about 3% of personnel , served in the Navy and the Marine Corps.(https://www.nj.gov)
Two Medals of Honor were awarded to Afro-American soldiers for their bravery during action in the Korean War.
The Vietnam War (1965-1973)
The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of Afro-Americans ever to serve in an American War. At the same time, this war was the first American military conflict in which Afro-American soldiers were fully integrated after Executive Order 9981 had officially desegregated the American armed forces in 1948, nevertheless many military units remained segregated until the late 1950s. There was increased political pressure on the American government to establish full racial integration of the armed forces when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were passed through Congress under the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson(1963-1969).(https://www.nytimes.com)
What we shall focus on in this section related to the Vietnam War is whether through President Truman’s Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the American Armed Forces in 1948, and President Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, permitting Afro-Americans the same political status as White Americans, translated into full racial equality within the country itself and within the military camps and in the battlefields during the Vietnam War.
2.5 million Americans fought in the Vietnam War , of these , 300,000 were Afro-Americans. In total, 58,000 American servicemen and servicewomen died during the war, of these, 7,262 were Afro-American. Of all the enlisted men and women who died in Vietnam, Afro-Americans made up 14.1% of the total,at a time when Afro-Americans represented 11% of the young male population nationwide.(https://americanwarlibrary.com)
Before we refer to the inconsistencies which existed between actual and official integration of Afro-American military personnel within the various fighting units in Vietnam and what really occurred on the ground, we would like to mention a historical fact which I believe few Americans know, concerning the direct involvement by Afro-Americans in establishing Memorial Day as a national holiday for all American citizens.
The idea of Memorial Day was initiated just after the American Civil War (1861-1865), by a group of free Afro-Americans who decided to assign a date which would pay homage to the Union veterans who were buried in temporary graves at a racetrack in Charleston, South Carolina. Through time, more American communities assembled to remember those who died during the Civil War.
Within a few years, it became a holiday in all American states, except for the former Confederate states. It was only until the beginning of the 20th century, when the Confederate states were fully incorporated in the Union, that it became Memorial Day for all Americans, who would pay tribute for the dead of all American wars. In 1968, the American Congress agreed to move the holiday from its traditional May 30th date, to the last Monday in May, creating a three-day weekend.(pages 19-20, Wright, James, Enduring Vietnam, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2017)
The Vietnam War basically started when American combat troops were introduced in South Vietnam after March of 1965, which expanded in numbers the next four years.
Officially, the purpose of American military involvement in Vietnam was to protect the territorial and political integrity of South Vietnam as an independent country from the territorial and political expansionist strategies of Communist North Vietnam. In actuality, it was an American military and political response to Communist expansion in South-East Asia, which also included Laos and Cambodia. It was a Communist expansion which was supported politically and militarily by China and Russia, the major defenders of International Communism. ‘’…Yet the Vietnam War was not primarily about Vietnam. It was about a global geopolitical contest with communism, it was about protecting positions in U.S. domestic policies, and it was about the personalities of the American presidents and other leaders…’’.(p. 101, Wright, James, Enduring Vietnam, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2017)
We have to emphasize here , that the brunt of this American military effort was carried by America’s racial minorities and White Americans who were economically dispossessed . These underprivileged social sectors of American society saw the military as an opportunity for a stable income, as well as educational and vocational opportunities , both within the American Military Forces and afterwards, through government sponsored educational programs for veterans such as the GI Bill in the early 1970s, which very soon proved inadequate due to a lack of financial resources.
We could therefore say that America’s military participation in the Vietnam War, carried class and racial dimensions nationally , which put into question its legitimacy as a liberating political effort. An effort to protect the freedoms of the peoples of South-East Asia from a geopolitical Communist Authoritarian Hegemony.’’…As a number of critics then and scholars later have agreed , among the baby boomer generation ,the burden of American military service was not equitably shared. The sons of blue-collar families, African American, Hispanic and Native American young men, were disproportionally out in the jungles of Vietnam…’’.(p.5, Wright, James, Enduring Vietnam, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2017)
During the first years of the Vietnam War, thousands of young Afro-Americans enlisted wholeheartedly in America’s military forces because they believed that this would provide them with educational and vocational opportunities, as well as a steady income in ‘’theoretically’’ the most racially integrated national institution. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1960s, the factor of ‘’institutional racism’’ became apparent to them, in all sectors of the military services, such as inherent bias in the procedures of drafting and the unjust and discriminatory treatment of Afro-American soldiers by White American servicemen, especially by White American officers. With the civil rights movement in the United States, these racial disparities became even more evident and acute.
The initial zeal of Afro-Americans to be full participants in the war slowly faded, producing serious racial conflicts within the military ranks in Vietnam, seriously affecting the organization and the effectiveness of all American combat forces.
In September 1969,the reporter of ‘’Time’’ magazine Wallace Terry, who had spent more time with Afro-American servicemen in Vietnam than any other reporter, and who in the past had emphasized the positive relations between Afro-American and White soldiers in the combat forces, changed his opinion drastically, now saying that ,’’…there is another war being fought in Vietnam–between black and white Americans…’’.(https://www.nytimes.com)
Wallace Terry also noted that racial incidents in most of the American military installations in South Vietnam, were occurring on a daily basis. This institutionalized racial factor in the military forces deteriorated as the war progressed.
In October 1970, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, General Walter T. Kerwin, revealed that ‘’…in the past year, racial discord has surfaced as one of the most serious problems facing Army leadership…’’, while the journalist and retired colonel, Robert Heinl Jr., noted in 1971, that racial conflicts within the American military forces in Vietnamwere tearing the services apart…’’.(https://nytimes.com)
In an interview with ‘’People’’ magazine in 1987, Wallace Terry , an Afro-American journalist with “Time’’ magazine, recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous speech in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, when he said that ‘he had a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of slave owners would sit at the same table’. For Wallace Terry, that dream came true in only one place, on the front lines during the Vietnam War.(https://www.nytimes.com)
This was not ‘’the norm’’ in most of the activities of the American military in Vietnam, it was a ‘’personal choice’’. Fighting on the front lines, in life threatening and unpredictable circumstances in the jungles of South Vietnam, where the fighting was not conventional, but a ‘’guerrilla warfare’’, with hidden snipers, booby traps and ambushes, close bonds with a fellow combatant in a platoon, even between an Afro-American and White soldier was an absolute existential necessity, a matter of ‘’personal survival’’.
An Afro-American soldier who had fought in Vietnam and was interviewed years later , said that then , he had told himself, ‘’…I’m stuck out here in the boonies, and the white guy from the South is stuck out here, and it’s life and death , we’d better begin to erase all this coloration immediately…’’. He also emphasized that ‘’…you couldn’t think just white or just black-you had to think for everybody…’’.(p. 239, Wright, James, Enduring Vietnam, Thomas Dunne Books, New York,2017)
But that wastrue on the front lines of the Vietnam War, in the everyday bureaucracy and routines of the American armed forces, the story was different. Afro-American soldiers put out hundreds of official complaints that they were disproportionally assigned menial duties, that they were refused the promotion to the ranks they deserved, and that they were unfairly targeted and punished.
In 1964, Afro-Americans represented less than 9% of all American Armed Forces, yet by 1976, they made up more than 15% of all combat servicemen . Even thoughthe percentage of Afro-American officers doubled between 1964 and 1976, they still accounted for less than 4% of the total. Furthermore, Afro-Americans were tactically underrepresented on local draft boards , while in 1966, Afro-Americans accounted for slightly more than 1%of all draft board members, with some states having no Afro-American representation at all.
Although Afro-Americans made up less than 10% of all combat soldiers, and about 13% of the population of the United States between 1960 and 1966, they accounted for almost 20% of all combat-related deaths in Vietnam during this period. In 1968, Afro-Americans who made up approximately 12% of Army and Marine total strengths, these frequently represented half the men in front-line combat units.(www.english.illinois.edu)
Martin Luther King described the Vietnam conflict as ‘’racist’’, ‘ a white man’s war, a black man’s fight’. Luther King believed that the Afro-Americans represented a disproportionate share of early draftees and that Afro-Americans faced a much greater chance of seeing combat.’’…Anger over the second-class treatment of blacks in the military was a major reason for Martin Luther King Jr.’s , and other civil rights organizations’ break with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War. In fact, debates over the Vietnam War divided African Americans more than any other issue in American history…’’.(https://www.tandfonline.com)
20 Medals of Honor were awarded to Afro-American servicemen for their courageous acts during the War of Vietnam.
The War in Iraq (2003-2011)
The War in Iraq has historical aspects which are particular, compared to other wars waged by the United States in the past. Some of these aspects are related to the political stance Afro-Americans took with respect to this war. This war lasted for almost 10 years, but the real fighting , the conventional war, took about 2 months.
In the first phase, from March 2003 to April 2003, the combined troop forces from the United States and Great Britain, with much smaller military units from several countries, invaded Iraq and quickly defeated the Iraqi military and paramilitary forces. This was a conventional war of unequal dimensions.
This first phase of warfare was followed by a longer second phase, where the military occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies was opposed by insurgent military forces coming mainly from those loyal to Saddam Hussein’s previous government and were mainly Sunni Iraqis. The United States gradually reduced its military presence in Iraq after 2007, formally completing its withdrawal in December 2011.
The reasons for initiating the invasion of Iraq by American President George W. Bush ( 2001 -2009 ) were on false premises as was proven later on. President Bush accused Saddam Hussein the dictator of Iraq, of supporting Islamic terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, who were responsible for the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York, in September 2001. He also defended his bellicose position towards the government of Saddam Hussein, by supporting the position that the Iraqi government possessed and manufactured weapons of mass destruction. (www.britannica.com)
Both of these criteria by President Bush were soon proven false and it was the reason why there was no unanimity in the Security Council of the United Nations for the invasion of Iraq. Even the then United Nations Secretary –General, Kofi Annan, noted in September 2004, that, ‘’…I have indicated it was not in conformity with the U.N. Charter. From our point of view and the U.N. Charter point of view , it(the war) was illegal…’’.(https://en.wikipedia.org)
There was no official declaration of War on Iraq when the United States with its allies invaded Iraq, first of all because it was not approved by the American Congress as such, and secondly , because it did not have the approval of the United Nations Security Council which was a prerequisite in authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.
On March 17, 2004, President Bush not relying on further resolutions by the United Nations and on diplomatic efforts made by the Security Council of the United Nations, presented an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, the President of Iraq, to leave the country in 48 hours. The leaders of France, Germany, Russia, and other countries rejected this American decision, fearing the danger that this would escalate into a generalized war in the Middle East. When Saddam Hussein refused to leave Iraq, the United States and its allies launched a military attack on Iraq on March 20, 2003.(www.britannica.com)
Public opinion in Europe and the Middle East was overwhelmingly against the invasion of Iraq , but so were Afro-Americans compared to White Americans.’’…The one large national survey that measured black attitudes in the midst of the war- the Gallup Poll released March 28, 2003, showed a wide racial divide. Just 29 percent of Black Americans favored the war with Iraq, while 78percent of white Americans supported it…’’.(https://baltimoresun.com)
The main reason for this divide between Afro-Americans and White Americans concerning the War in Iraq, was the fact that even though Afro-Americans represented 12.3% of the population of the United States, they made up 26% of the Army’s personnel, while Afro-American women accounted for nearly half of the women in the Army. Overall, Afro-Americans represented about 20% of the service people in all the branches of the volunteer military forces of the United States. For the War in Iraq, all the service personnel in the Armed Forces were volunteers , compared to the War in Vietnam, where there were many who were drafted.
The fact that minority groups in the United States, like Afro-Americans, volunteer to enter the armed services is out of necessity, due to their socio-economic status, which allows for few socio-economic incentives compared to White Americans.’’…Although today’s military is made up of volunteers, critics say it still draws minorities and white from the lower end of the socio-economic scale. ‘On a level playing field’, they might have gone directly from high school to college or been able to find decent jobs in the private sector, critics say…’’.(https://baltimoresun.com)
This division between Afro-American and White American support for the war in Iraq should not be surprising, as we take into account that since 2,000, a period which includes the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001,and the military start of the Iraq war in 2003, there was an important decline of Afro-Americans volunteering to join the American Armed Forces. In 2007, statistics from the American Defense Department indicate that the number of young Afro-American volunteers had fallen by more than 58% since 2,000.
Afro-Americans who saw in the American Armed Forces a channel in their lives to prove their abilities and to reinforce their socio-economic status, began to reevaluate this longstanding institutional relationship. In 2007, Michael O’Hanlon, military analyst for the Brookings Institution, a liberal leaning ‘’think tank’’ or research center , commented that, ‘’…there’s obviously been a degree where the black community in the United States has seen the military service as culturally valuable and promoted it. That whole culture and value system is at risk in the black community. That is a big, big change…’’.(https://archive.boston.com)
By 2017, the racial and ethnic minorities of the United States made up 43% of the share of active duty military personnel. Within this group, Afro-Americans dropped from 51% in 2004 to 39% in 2017,while the share of the Hispanics rose from 25% to 36%.(https://pewresearch.org)
As we have already mentioned, 43% of the 1.3 million men and women on active duty in the United States Armed Forces are people of color, yet the people who make the critical decisions concerning military priorities like the number of troops which are employed in Afghanistan or in Syria, are almost exclusively white males. Of the 41 most senior commanders in the military, those with four-star rank in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guards, only two are Afro-American.(www.nytimes.com)
The top military academies which provide the officer class in the Armed Forces, like West Point in New York, the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, and the Air Force Academy in Springs, Colorado, have increased the enrollment of minority recruits in recent years, but to a large extent they are largely white Americans. This important data clearly demonstrates that there is still a strong current of ‘’systemic racism’’ in the American Armed Forces. But even when Afro-Americans become officers, they are directed to specialize in logistics and transportation, the movement of supplies and maintenance, rather than to combat arms specializations which lead to the top positions in the military infrastructure.(www.nytimes.com)
In the Iraq War, 1 Medal of Honor was awarded to an Afro-American!!!