The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military

  • Rawn James, Jr.
  • Bloomsbury Press Hardcover
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paul Dickson
  • March 4, 2013

A history of the struggle for racial justice in the Armed Services.

Washington writer Rawn James, Jr.’s newest work, The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America’s Military, is a hard book to put down — not in the normal sense that a page-turning thriller is hard to put down, but rather in the sense that one holds on waiting for the moment when, at long last, one segment of the population stops abusing another: when justice is served, equality becomes the order of the day and civility reigns. 

The story told in these pages is of the struggle for racial justice in the Armed Services. James tells it deftly from the perspective of a man whose grandfather served in the segregated Army of World War II in part so that his sons — including the author’s father — might, in his words, “serve in a better military and live in a fairer nation.”

James’ narrative is not the same old tale of the citizen soldier who fought for his country in a series of wars but rather of the specter of Jim Crow in uniform maintaining a bar that kept African Americans from fighting for their country despite their determination to do so. The story begins in October 1775, when the Continental Congress voted for the first time to keep blacks — enslaved or free — from serving in the military. The delegates believed that training blacks in armed warfare would lead to slave insurrection and trouble down the road. While many blacks fought for the Union in the Civil War, it was seldom on an equal footing and never under black officers. 

In World War I blacks were quick to enlist in both the Army and the Navy, not only to serve their country, but to show their fellow Americans that they deserved full citizenship and an end to the tyranny of Jim Crow laws and practices. The treatment offered in return for this pledge of patriotism was disgraceful. Names uttered in reverence in the traditional telling of the American story during this period become men of duplicity and dishonor when viewed through the prism of the black military experience. Woodrow Wilson, for example, was complicit in the transfer and dismissal from the Army of its highest ranking black officer, a West Point graduate. An exemplary officer, the man was discharged because he outranked white junior officers and white enlisted men would have to salute him.

Then there was the case of General John Pershing, who refused to permit American blacks to fight under the American flag. Instead he arranged for them to serve as units in the French army, where they fought with valor and served as great morale boosters for the war-weary French. A few months after the men were reassigned Pershing directed French military leaders to treat black Americans as white Americans did. “We must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers,” the order said in part. “We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of Americans.” The French dismissed the order as a crude absurdity which had nothing to do with winning a war then being waged in rat- and lice-infested trenches. 

In July 1919 France hosted a Bastille Day victory parade in Paris. The United States was the only country to forbid its black soldiers from marching. Upon returning to the United States a black man in uniform was, as one black leader put it, “like a red flag flown in the face of a bull.” Veterans were lynched with sickening regularity — 78 in 1919 alone, including 14 who were burned alive. 

These memories were still fresh as the United States prepared to enter World War II. This time it would be different as African Americans serving in the military and the leaders of an emerging civil rights movement strove for a fair deal. The double V of the title was the name for the campaign launched during World War II by African Americans to achieve victory over the Axis but also victory in desegregating the armed forces and establishing equality in military service. The rhetoric may have changed but the results were much the same as during the First World War. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and Secretary of War Henry Stimson were, in James’ words, “bulwarks against efforts to desegregate the army.” 

The struggle did not end until after Roosevelt died and Harry S Truman became President. On July 26, 1948, Truman, a World War I veteran, desegregated the Armed Forces by issuing Executive Order 9981. Truman was not only responding to the pressure of black leaders but acting on his own sense of fairness. Further, Truman acknowledged that African Americans supported him at the polls; this was in part because as early as 1940, in front of a nearly all-white audience, he had declared: “I believe in the brotherhood of man; not merely the brotherhood of white men, but the brotherhood of all men before the law.” The second V may have been won with a stroke of the pen, but as Truman soon learned, there remained battles and skirmishes to win, and there would be cleanup operations left for the administrations of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, who completed the job by wiping out pockets of resistance. 

The U.S. military is and has been fully integrated for several decades and today serves as the model for successful racial integration. Meanwhile, anyone wanting to know more about who we are as a people and how we got to where we are today should take the time to read Rawn James, Jr.’s disturbing but inspiring narrative. 

Paul Dickson has just begun working on a book on baseball, integration and civil rights.

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