Black and White: War and Race in the United States

Black and White: War and Race in the United States

Steven Braverman

Racial divide has existed since the creation of the United States.  It is especially evident in the military during both World War II and the Vietnam War. This will be a race and class analysis of soldiers’ experiences of war in WWII versus Vietnam.  The Vietnam War is tough to quantify as to the backgrounds and historical connotation of these men. “Though the military made endless, mind-numbing efforts to quantify virtually every aspect of its venture in Vietnam, it did not make (so far as anyone has discovered) a single study of the social backgrounds of its fighting men. Quantitative evidence must be gathered from a variety of disparate studies.”(Appy, 2000, p. 36).   This can be interpreted as the true impact of Vietnam and social endeavors were not thoroughly being researched.

This is an important historical information to consider in terms of relevance toward racial minorities as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Important questions that will be addressed include: how did working-class and black soldiers experience fighting in/returning from WWII?   How did working-class and black soldiers experience fighting in/returning from Vietnam?  These important questions will be answered by a variety of sources and authors.  This will be a race analysis of soldiers’ experiences of war in WWII versus Vietnam in terms of impact on culture and social depictions for minorities. Soldiers’ experiences will be discussed in order to show how race and class has a big impact on relations and soldier interactions during both wars.

Racial gap leading up to WWII for soldiers

Racial treatment and inequalities of African Americans during WWII was a very prevalent matter. Hubner, a leading historian claimed, “People who endeavored to portray a “typical” American GI or veteran faced an impossible task. More than 16 million men and women served in the armed forces between 1941 and 1945. The vast majority were white males (of various ethnic backgrounds), but there were nearly a million African American troops, mostly in service units but some fighting in segregated combat outfits. The famed Ninety-ninth Fighter Squadron, or Tuskegee Airmen, for instance, flew missions over North Africa and Europe.” (Huebner, 2008, p. 30). This probably means that majority-black soldiers were forced to do the brunt of physical combat. Segregation was prevalent even for soldiers, willing to lay down their life for the cause.    

Propaganda and racial tropes affect African Americans during World War II. Huebner expresses in his book that, “Road to Victory was one of the first expressions of that effort, representing obvious, uncomplicated propaganda. It suggested that American soldiers were capable, proud, eager participants in a conflict strangely devoid of bloodshed. The exhibit gave viewers no reason to think, moreover, that combat would have any negative effect on American servicemen, boys reared in the heartland and steeled by a mighty resolve.” (Huebner, 2008, p. 28). This can show that the “Road to Victory” is a propaganda implementation that allowed the public to censor the harsh realities of war.

Denial is prevalent in the United States as to the toll that battle can take on service men during the war. Hubener (2008) claims on Paul Fussell’s behalf: “The radio and film industries, for instance, cooperated readily with government officials in packaging the conflict and GIS for the public; they showed little blood, little psychological breakdown, and plenty of patriotism, good will, teamwork, and camaraderie” (p. 28). 15 various critics have similarly charged the press corps of World War II with willingly delivering a sanitized version of combat to the public.” (Hubener, 2008, p. 32). This can show that soldiers are in a lower bracket in terms of race than the everyday person because rather than the public making an attempt at understanding their struggles they did not do anything to help them.  Radio and film industries seem to be largely a byproduct of the government.  This is a brainwashing of sorts, showing the public what they should believe rather than what is actually happening during these battles and events from World War II.

African Americans in particular advocate for increasing military presence and want to start fights with Japan. “Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the United States joined the war that has been raging for so long, the largest circulation African American newspaper in the country called for a Double V campaign: Victory over our enemies at home and victory over our enemies on the battlefields abroad. The editor of the Pittsburgh Courier wrote: We call upon the president and congress to declare war on Japan and against racial prejudice in our country. Certainly, we should be strong enough to whip both of them.” (Bailey & Farber, 1993, p. 817).  This showed that African Americans supported this country wide propaganda campaign. African Americans want to take this a step farther by also declaring war on Japan to conserve democracy. This shows the pride that is taken in war efforts and the willingness by the black community to increase its presence and soldiers in foreign wars.

Segregation of the armed forces in America is prevalent during World War II in terms of representation and leadership in the Army. Dwight Eisenhower, a General and President describes the treatment and separation of soldiers and minority leaders in terms of infantries during World War II. Eisenhower claims regarding this issue, “Now, it is perfectly true the problem of segregation in the service has been discussed, to my certain knowledge, for 45 years, because I was in the Army that long” (Eisenhower, 1956). Eisenhower was a veteran of war and as such he saw the racial divide first hand during World War II. “I organized them into squads, and some of them had Negro squad leaders, some white squad leaders. But they all got along together. They lived together in the same camping grounds, ate at the same messes. And General Patton, who, at first, was very much against this, became the most rabid supporter of the idea, he said, this way. Some of these white units, by the way, were southern units; this was the thing that convinced me that the thing could be done” (Eisenhower, 1956). Eisenhower, largely on the basis of this quote, seems to disagree with the notion that there was severe racial disparity. And yet, he proceeds to show that he had two squads he seems to have the “separate but equal” mentality which is anything but what it may seem. He has two racial leaders representing their groups that in it of itself being needed is racist in terms of the breaking up of the platoon. 

Propaganda is a prominent source during World War II for depictions of soldiers. Huebner (2008), a specialist on “Road to Victory” claims that “the photographs for Road to Victory had been selected from a limited and censored body of images and included no pictures of combat, wounded soldiers, or the dead. During World War II federal and military authorities exerted tight control over the dissemination of photographs, making what one scholar has called “the most systematic and far-reaching effort in its history to shape the visual experience of the citizenry” (p. 29).  This can be used to show the manipulation by the government to show the appropriate gender and race to the public. This can show manipulation by the U.S government over how certain soldiers are to be portrayed and thought about in terms of the everyday person.

Racial inequities during WWII

Fear among the public over veterans coming back with mental hardships is prevalent during World War II. Sharon Raynor (2018), who studies societal effects on soldiers claims:

In 1945, Harold Wilke, a journalist for the Baltimore Afro American newspaper, provided a socio-political commentary on both the pity and fear that the nation exhibited toward veterans with disabilities by stating: When you greet your wounded friend or relative for the first time, use your intelligence and imagination. Greet him as your friend, who was away and has now returned. Letting horror spread over your features and get in your voice because of his crutches or empty sleeves or sightless eyes will make him realize that you think of him, not as a personality, but as a cripple. Greet the Man, not the wound (p. 207).

 This claim can mean that socioeconomics is a huge factor in treatment of individuals with disabilities. Rather than making an attempt at empathy, the public relishes in their ignorance toward soldiers returning home from battle.

Masculinity is another factor in the public view of military personnel. The image of the white, strong, soldier based on propaganda, previously stated in section 2, was prevalent throughout the United States. Christina Jarvis claims, “The creation and maintenance of a hegemonic militarized masculinity that emerged in and across U.S. institutions…as America engaged in a global war.” (Jarvis, 2005, p. 4). This can be interpreted that America had a preconceived bias towards the military, making them out as superior super soldiers. The goal was to look confident and to look like a champion for the military.

Leadership and being a minority soldier is of great importance to the NAACP in terms of providing and advocating for power for black people. The NAACP was instrumental in advocating for the advancement of blacks in positions of national defense. The letter in 1941 by A. Phillip Randolph claims, “Now I have been thinking about the Negro and national defense and have come to the conclusion that something drastic has got to be done to shake official Washington and the white industrialists and labor forces of America to the realization of the fact that Negroes mean business about getting their rights as American citizens under national defense. To this end I have decided to undertake the organization of a march of ten thousand Negroes or more upon Washington” (Randolph, 2014). This could mean that there were organized protests for soldiers and military similar to the Vietnam War protests. There are racial injustices being fought from World War II which parallels Vietnam and their protests against the war in the 1960s.

Nazis in some ways are treated with more respect than black American soldiers in the mid- 1940’s. Huebner does a good job displaying this by stating, “In early 1945 Lena Horne performed before Nazi prisoners in Arkansas, while African American troops were excluded from the show. Meanwhile, near St. Louis a white lieutenant ordered several black soldiers to give up their seats—in the front of the black car—for fifteen Italian POWS being transported by rail” (Hubener, 2008). This can be interpreted as African Americans are not able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. The Nazis who commit genocide and crimes against humanity were able to bask in the entertainment. This shows that even though they committed heinous acts, they were almost given a free pass because they were the right color. Reverse logic is being shown because the people that should be able to enjoy the music and festivities cannot enjoy them, while the Nazis are being treated with a modicum of respect that is not deserved or earned by their actions.

Racial inequalities from economically disadvantaged communities

Class divide in terms of race for Vietnam soldiers is immensely vast for the black community in terms of racial relations. Christian G. Appy can show the racial divide in terms of economics, “Poor and working class soldiers whether black or white were more likely to be trained for combat than were soldiers economically and educationally more advantaged. While enlisted men from both races were primarily from the bottom half of the social structure, blacks were considerably poorer. One study found that 90 percent of black soldiers in Vietnam were from working class and poor backgrounds” (Appy, 2000, p. 35). This can mean that economic backgrounds can be of great consequence in war and especially during the Vietnam War. Those who enlisted in the Vietnam War tended to come from economically disadvantaged areas.

The Veterans Bureau of Physicians shows racial bias towards veterans of different races. Sharon Raynor (2018) contends that, “Historian Robert F. Jefferson contends that the history of the development of service-related disability policies in the twentieth century often reflected nonclinical evaluative practices couched in cultural and racial values. For example, Veterans Bureau physicians and administrators defined disability with reference to medical characteristics they thought innate to each race and that distinguished racial groups of veterans from one another” (p. 211). This can be interpreted as racism that blinds the public from characterizing disabilities for military personnel. Innate traits is the attempt at biological racism which has been completely disproven but shows the racial division in the thinking of this country. This type of racial superiority is what the Nazis advocate for and try to determine if one being is worth the right to live.

Vietnam War soldiers statistics of Racism

The racial gap during both wars can be shown through the numbers of soldiers that may be of a poorer class. Blacks were excluded in the military, although on paper this was not to be the case. Appy points this out claiming, “For blacks, whatever their economic standing, to become a reservist or guardsman was nearly impossible. In 1964 only 1.45 percent of the Army National Guard was black. By 1968 this tiny percentage had actually decreased to 1.26. Exclusion of blacks was especially egregious in the South” (Appy, 2000, p. 50). This can be taken as reality is skewed on the basis of not being taken at face value this idea of racial equality is something that only exists on paper because society seems to largely not be ready to integrate blacks into certain sections of the military during this time of the mid-1960s. In the 1960s, the number of people in the guard positions actually went down as time went on the opposite of the intention of allowing integration into the military for Reserve positions.

Blacks seem to almost always get the short end of the stick when it comes to their population of soldiers in heavy duty combat. Raynor (2018) shows just how disproportionate these percentages are in terms of the amount of people who could actually serve in the Vietnam War.  Some of Raynor’s statistics from the war include:

86.3% of the men who died in Vietnam were Caucasian (includes Hispanics); 12.5% (7,241) were African American; 1.2% belonged to other races. 86.8% of the men who were killed as a result of hostile action were Caucasian; 12.1% (5,711) were African American; 1.1% belonged to other races. 14.6% (1,530) of non-combat deaths were among blacks. 34% of African Americans who enlisted volunteered for the combat arms. Overall, African Americans suffered 12.5% of the deaths in Vietnam at a time when the percentage of African Americans of military age was 13.5% of the total population (p. 207).

  This can lead one to believe that, although a vast majority of White Americans served during the Vietnam War, African Americans lost 13.5 percent of their total military age population and have over 12.5 percent of their soldiers die. This means that very little to any African American soldiers survive during the Vietnam War.  This could also be telling, by the fact that most African American soldiers have some of the most demanding jobs and death tolls. They are clearly the most expendable soldiers because of their race, hence the extremely high death rate among their community.


There is the establishment of racial disparity when it comes to soldiers from WWII to the Vietnam War. Race is indeed a problem for soldiers as to how they were depicted in the public. There seems to be a glossing over in terms of war and facts as to what really happens in terms of race relations by the media during both wars. The legacy of these soldiers that they leave behind is hidden by the world because the United States likes to support their vision and not the reality for these black soldiers.  The racial divide seems to be on three fronts, from the media, the government and the military itself. This was shown that the laws in place do not fully represent the actual positive consequences of these minority soldiers in terms of agency that they actually had in their environment.

Minority soldiers are largely a representation of a bigger issue in society in terms of their treatment and their lack of respect from a military standpoint from the United States. Minorities are often the first to die and to see battle in both of these wars. During the Vietnam War there are numbers disproportionate to the number of Caucasian soldiers that died and were willing to serve, sacrifice for the country. There seems to be a census of glossing over battles and wars in order to depict an America that never exists in terms of African American soldiers being erased from battles. The reality is that America repeatedly uses African Americans in a way that treats them as lesser citizens, in terms of the military and being forced to segregate from the white soldiers during World War II. The experiences of these minority soldiers is an important and often overlooked factor in racial equality and can be branched alongside the civil rights movement. This paper has proven that there are many racial factors that decide a lot of the military tactics and treatment of soldiers in terms of racial relations in the United States. Overall, it seems that roles are being played by the Government, Movies and the Civil Rights Movement. Each of these factors are quintessential in determining race relations and how they evolve in the United States from World War II to the Vietnam War.


Appy, C.G. (2000). Working-class war: American combat soldiers and Vietnam. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.

Bailey, B., and Farber, D. (1993). The ‘Double-V’ campaign in World War II Hawaii: African Americans, racial ideology, and federal power. Journal of Social History, 26 (4), 817.

Eisenhower, D. (1956, October 5). The President’s news conference. The American Presidency Project. Retrieved from

Hubener, A.J. (2008). The warrior image soldiers in American culture from the Second World War to the Vietnam era. The University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC.

Jarvis, C.S. (2004). The male body at war. Northern Illinois University Press: Dekalb, IL.

Randolph, A.P. (2014). “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A long struggle for freedom/World War II and Post War (1940–1949).Library of Congress. Retrieved from Raynor, S.D. (2018). “The double consciousness and disability dilemma: Trauma and the African American veteran.” Word & Text: A Journal of Literary Studies & Linguistics, 8, 207–21

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