The US Military and the Lost Promise of Interracialism in Mid-20th-Century America

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:50 AM
Continental B (Hilton Chicago)
Thomas A. Guglielmo, George Washington University
Over the last decade there has been an explosion in scholarly interest in interracial solidarities--from formal coalitions to everyday affinities, cultural fusions to radical imaginaries--among a broad range of groups, including Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, South Asians, Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans, Palestinians, American Indians, and whites. In some of this work, World War II is seen as an especially generative moment for a range of promising interracialisms, from civil rights unionism to colored cosmopolitanism. But the military offers little evidence for these solidarities and, after substantiating this point, my paper asks why and to what effect. Drawing on extensive archival research of civil rights groups and leaders, military branches, and government agencies and focusing on Japanese Americans and African Americans, I insist on the importance of the state in making or breaking people’s ability to transcend racial boundaries. By organizing troops according to a dizzying variety of color lines, the military--intentionally and unintentionally, it appears--snuffed out or hobbled some of the war’s most promising interracialisms. The difficulties that some of these political projects--and the left, more generally--faced in postwar America had many causes, of course. But surely among them was the deep and convoluted racial divides that sixteen million Americans experienced on a daily basis in the World War II military, and the fractured sense of solidarity they produced.