The Politics of Racial Integration in the Cold War US Marine Corps

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 3:50 PM
Maryland Suite A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Cameron McCoy, Brigham Young University
During the fall of 1944 in the Marines’ bitterest World War II battle, a platoon of African American Marines fought their way to capture an airstrip and save a company of embattled, white Marines on the Island of Peleliu. These black heroes, like so many others in wars past, received no medals; no front-page news story covered the events that occurred on the small coral island, and when they returned home, the endured the systemic racism that was so common in mid-century America – both from civilians and from their fellow Marines.

I will show that despite the lip service paid to race, class, and gender by the field of military history, the stories of the tens of thousands of African-American Marines who served in World War II and Korea are still woefully undertold and misunderstood. In addition to detailing these Marines’ combat accomplishments, I also explore the Marine Corps’ institutional responses to racial integration, as well as the psychological effects of belonging to an organization that required a life of service but then refused to confer the rewards of dignity that such service merits. Besides reclaiming voices that should have long ago been a part of the Marine Corps’ story of itself, my project also explains the racial pressures inside the military that exploded into violence after the war on military bases and throughout society in the second half of the twentieth century. Ultimately, I argue that the Marine Corps suffered from a critical leadership failure during the Cold War by embracing distinct forms and practices of systemic racism that violated the Corps’ own ideals and the instructions of their Commander in Chief.