Saturday, February 11, 2012

Dangers of self deception - American racism in WW2

At the risk of this being taken as another anti-American rant, I want to make another comment on the self delusion in their history.

(Though I will pause to note that I recently wrote that Americans have the worst written and perceived history in the Western world, which viewpoint i have had to revise recently after looking at some more French history. Lets just say the two fight for worst place.)

In 1942 Roosevelt lectured Churchill about granting immediate independence to India. He was of course contentedly ignorant of what effect setting off a civil war between hundreds of millions of Hindu's, Muslim;s, Sikh's, Independent Principalities, etc: might have on the Allies losing World War Two.

Churchill, being a polite, as well as somewhat more intelligent and knowledgeable, world player, contented himself with pointing out that of all the nations in the world with armies in the millions, only one was entirely composed of volunteers not conscripts. India was the only nation with a completely voluntary military, and deserved respect for that fact that it raised the largest all volunteer force in history.

He did not go on to point out that India was at the same stage in the Independence process as the Philippines, and way ahead of Puerto Rico and various other American imperial possessions.

But what he might have pointed out, had he been impressed enough by Roosevelt's ignorance to think it worthwhile, was the complete hypocrisy of the American position. Particularly that of the American military.

There is an episode of The West Wing, where the military's representatives are arguing with the White House staff about why it is not possible to acknowledge gays in the armed forces. The Chief of Staff wanders through and amusedly asks if they have used such and such half a dozen excuses as to why it would be a bad idea. When they ask how he knew, he laughs and says they are the same excuses used against him when he first joined. He is of course black.

The racism in the British or French or Russian or even German forces during World War Two was at least tempered by officers regularly commanding units of different races and nationalities. In fact in the British and French army, it was practically impossible to progress without time spent working in the colonies or with native troops at some time. Racism was there, but tempered by some small elements of knowledge of reality.

Americans however were different. (Though in fact service in teh Philippines or Panama was also important to the careers of many officers!) Racism in their forces was almost completely untempered by any version of reality. Whereas the Royal Navy had had Asian or Jamaican sailors for centuries (in fact it had been some black Jamaican frigate captains in the RN that had caused much of the outrage by American financial/piracy interests in the 1770's): the USN was still trying to keep blacks off its battleships in WW2 because of their 'poor eyesight'.

Whereas the British army in WW2 was composed of dozens of races - including Indians, Jews, Poles, East and West Africans, Jamaicans, Burmese, Kerens, Sikhs, Ghurkha's, etc, etc. The American army was violently opposed to letting black troops into front line units... until manpower shortages in France caused the more progressive generals like - God help us - Patton, to overcome the resistance of men like Bradley and Bedell-Smith.

(The attempts that were made with Japanese American units in Italy were actually quite successful. But I suppose Americans had worked out the Japs could be tough opponents by 1943? The attempt at an American black division - the 92nd - was less successful, but its incredible failure - it actually had to be rescued on occassions from attacks or counter-attacks by Italian troops! - was probably more to do with the way the higher command and its senior officers treated it, and failed to train it, than with any inadequacy of basic personnel.)

But the cincher on the argument could have been taken from the American black non-combat units in Australia. 1942 saw the mutiny by the black troops in the US 96th Engineers - a labour battalion in Queensland. 600 of them went on the rampage, hosing down their (white) officers tents with machine gun fire, and then many escaping into the Australian outback for weeks or months. They were furious about institutional racism, and apparently the mutiny was spiked by the death of a black Sergeant, supposedly at the hands of a white officer.

The future President Lyndon Johnson, then a junior Congressman, investigated while in Australia and produced a report (or more probably plagiarised it from the work of Robert Sherrod, a journalist for Time and Life magazines). The whole incident was hushed up, and Johnson felt it should be kept that way. It is almost by accident that the report resurfaced from Johnson's archives recently.

Now this is not to say that terrible things did not happen in many nations backyards. Particularly during the stress of major wars. Mutinies and violent repression of them are part and parcel of modern industrial scale war.

The point I am making here is that American 'holier than thou' attitudes, particularly during WW2, were shrouded in ignorance and self delusion.

Having said that, I will point out that a holier than thou attitude is just a sign of national immaturity. Every major nation I can think of has gone through it, from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to modern Russia and Iran. (China has almost never not had a 'holier than thou' attitude, and Japan has often been a close second.)

Unfortunately the Americans were still in the worst stages of theirs when events thrust them into the international limelight. Wilson's ridiculously idealistic 14 points - a major cause of WW2, and Roosevelt's 'Independence for India now', while still running a 'I can work with Stalin' line - major causes of the Cold War and the drop into dictatorship and penury for much of the third world after WW2 - are just samples of how unhelpful such an attitude is for 'statesmen'.

I would happily give samples of many other nations holier than thou attitudes, but in this case it is more fun to point out that most of the people now lecturing the Americans from a holier than thou perspective (say the Europeans for instance), are using exactly the same language, and often with the same self delusional self righteousness, as American used 50 or 100 years ago (towards the Europeans for instance).


PS: Just to be clear. Racism is stupid. And that includes affirmative action, or cultural relativism, or any other sort of hypocrisy... People are people and virtually any person of any race has strengths and weaknesses and information or ignorance that defines them, and what they can do. But that's for another post.

4 comments:

  1. 1. You're saying the GERMAN ARMY in WWII was less racist than the American. Do you know what the holocaust was? Or why Hitler felt Germany should rule the world?

    2 "Whereas the British army in WW2 was composed of dozens of races - including Indians, Jews, Poles, East and West Africans, Jamaicans, Burmese, Kerens, Sikhs, Ghurkha's, etc, etc." You did not mention a single race here, only nationalities. Read Stephen Ambrose's "Citizen Soldiers" The Brits were racist against many black G.I.s

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  2. The Brits were racist against many black G.I.s

    This is nonsense: White American soldiers often assaulted black GI's who went into pubs, or dated white women. I remember reading of one incident where a group of British Commandos turned up and beat the white GI's to a pulp because they were assaulting their black fellow-soldiers.

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  3. That many American officers had no experience with black troops is not completely true. The American Army had numerous regiments that were comprised of black troops, and white officers, that were created after the civil war. All of these units were quite active during the Indian wars. The US Navy also had many black sailors even before the American Civil war. It was not until the Administration of Woodrow Wilson that these units were marginalized and black sailors were removed from all but the most menial positions. It should also be noted that Wilson’s father had been a Confederate officer during the civil war. By the way, how do you think that General “black jack” Pershing got his nickname?.

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  4. Some of the very small number of professional officers had much more experience of black or Indian or Philippine or Peurto Rican or whatever troops than most wartime conscripts, but that does not alter the fact that many of them (particularly the lower middle class ones like Bradley) were still hopeless racists anyway.

    Actually i think the really interesting thing about the Civil War was the number of black and indian troops on the side of the South. Guess what race the last Confederate general to surrender was?

    I did find the Lincoln film amusing for that. For all its idealistic twaddle, I wonder how many Americans were surprised to learn that the Democrats were the bastions of racism for all those years? (As were the Australian Labor Party who would now be equally shocked to have to admit the same thing here.)

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