Friday, November 06, 2020

James Campbell - The Color of War

Books about World War Two are two-a-penny in most bookshops in the UK. Most simply retell a relatively well known military history, few of them find a new angle. So I was very pleased to discover James Campbell's The Color of War in a second hand bookshop a few months back. It is, essentially, a history of black Americans in the Marine Corps and Navy during World War Two. Reading it, I was struck by its relevance for a new generation of Civil Rights activists. There is a forgotten history of the early Civil Rights movement and social movements during and before World War Two. In particular, there was a major struggle by the  Civil Rights movement so Black people should be allowed to join the US military, fight and serve on an equal level with their white comrades.

In the run up to the start of World War Two the US military and government strongly resisted the use of Black men in the different branches of the services. The explicitly racist opposition to this was, in fact, detrimental to the US's military strength because it cut them off from millions of potential recruits. Here, for instance, is a report from the Army War College on why black "manpower" should not be used "in war". I apologise for the racist language here, but I think the insights this gives us means its worth requoting from James Campbell's book:

In the process of evolution the American Negro has not progressed as far as other subspecies of the human family... The cranial cavity of the Negro is smaller than whites... The psychology of the Negro, based on heredity derived from mediocre African ancestors, cultivated by generations of slavery, is one from which we cannot expect to draw leadership material... In general the Negro is jolly, docile, tractable and lively but with harsh or unkind treatment can become stubborn, sullen and unruly. In physical courage, [he] falls well back of whites... He is most susceptible to 'Crowd Psychology.' He cannot control himself in fear of danger... He is a rank coward in the dark.

Such clear racism undermined the ability of the US military to mobilise to fight their country's enemies. It is also worth noting though, that their racism towards other peoples, would also come back to haunt them. For instance, in his recent trilogy on WWII in the Pacific Ian Toll has shown how racist ideas about the Japanese meant that the US military simply didn't believe their airforce was a threat. Pearl Harbour taught them a terrible lesson in this regard.

So it is no surprise that the early Civil Rights movement fought to allow integration in the Army. In fact figures like A. Philip Randolph put enormous pressure on US President Roosevelt to allow black people to serve in the military and work in war industries. They were, at least, partially successful. One consequence was the involvement of black men and women in the airforce industries and space-programmes that are detailed in Margot Lee Shetterly's book Hidden Figures. A less well known consequence was that black men were recruited into the US Navy.

Campell's book tells the story of many of these men. In particular he focuses on a convergence of events during World War Two in the Pacific. The US invasion of the island of Saipan which saw the first combat experience of black marines in the battle and the experiences of black naval personal at Port Chicago, a munitions loading port near San Francisco. The two stories are closely intertwined, mostly because it was the enormous pressure to supply vast quantities of ammunition to US invasion forces that led to one of the greatest, and least known, racial disasters in US history.

The black men who joined the Navy through the war hoped to fight for their country. Instead hobbled by institutional and personal racism, the navy authorities directed them to load ammunition at Port Chicago. There, hundreds of black men, worked in dangerous conditions - driven by their officers to ever more intense work in highly unsafe environments. No white naval personal were given the same work. Subject to racism, humiliation and intolerable conditions to black men worked hard, but everyone knew that there was a extremely high risk of explosion. As Campbell writes, "the depot was ill equipped to handle such an onrush of ordnance, and the longshoremen's union warned that Port Chicago was a powder keg waiting to blow."

When the explosion happened it was the "worst home-front disaster of World War II" and "one of the largest explosions in American history". On 17 July 1944, some 390 men lost their lives and almost 400 more were injured. The inquiry that followed was a literal whitewash, but exposed racism, bullying and "the inequities of the Navy's benighted policy on race." As Campbell explains:

When Port Chicago's [black] seamen learned that the [white] officers had been given survivors' leaves that had been denied to them, they grew bitter. Many felt like lambs being led to slaughter. Black servicemen, in general, had always done the work that no one else wanted. They were the one who buried the dead, build bridges and airfield, cleaned latrines, drove trucks, peeled potatoes, handled toxic chemicals and loaded ammunition.

It is no surprise that the men revolted. Hundreds of them refused to return to work loading ammunition and many of them were court-martialled for mutiny. The case became a major Civil Rights issue, with "all of black America" fed up. The trial "heaped injustice upon misfortune" and the one-sided trial led to appalling unjust sentences.

Faced with this, the Black community fought back. 1000s of black servicemen went on hunger strike, A Philip Randolph threatened a boycott of the draft and eventually the new President, Truman, relented and desegregated the military. The resistance of the Port Chicago men had born fruit.

The story is told extremely well, though Campbell sometimes struggles to tie the twin histories of Saipan and Port Chicago together. Much of his descriptions of fighting on Saipan are about the white marines and this seems peripheral (though interesting) to the main story of the experience of the black servicemen. Told through personal reminisces the book is full of memorable accounts and heart-breaking stories of racism in the United States. Many of the fifty who were found guilty, though released early back to the military. Joe Small, the alleged ringleader was particularly harshly treated, and on being released to the navy in 1946 was finally allowed to serve on a ship. But neither he, nor other black sailors had any duties, "Nothing to do but make mess call, roam about the ship and sleep". 

The most interesting part of the book is the struggle of the black seamen themselves to work safely, but also to fight for their country. This is a key part of the Civil Rights struggle that setup the movements that would evolve and then exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. But there is also a contradiction, and unfortunately James Campbell doesn't explore this. By winning the desegregation of the military, long before any other section of US society was opened up in this way, the Civil Rights movement allowed black men to become part of the machinery of imperialist violence that oppressed millions of others around the world. This became starkly real to many black servicemen in Vietnam, as they were used to kill in the name of the United States, a country that still worked hard in many states to prevent black people voting or going to school with white children. Ironically one of the victories of the early Civil Rights movement was to allow black people to support US imperialism.

2020 has seen new growth for the Civil Rights struggle with the emergence of Black Lives Matter. It's a movement that is fighting the deepseated racism within the US. James Campbell's fascinating book is more than military history. Its a contribution to understanding how racism has been fought, but also, paradoxically, it shows the limitations of trying to fight for liberation within a system that is fundamentally built upon oppression. Its a story that James Campbell tells well which deserves to be much better known so new generations can celebrate the forgotten struggles of the past.

Related Reviews

Shetterly - Hidden Figures
Younge - The Speech: The Story Behind Martin Luther King's Dream
Richardson (ed) - Say it Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism
Gregory - N*****
Prasad - A Rebel's Guide to Martin Luther King
Hamilton - A Rebel's Guide to Malcolm X

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