World War 1
White Exceptionalism was not unique to America. During World War One, it was on full display throughout the world. It is impossible to understand the impact of the war on minorities in America without knowing the thought process of America and European countries in the rest of the world. First the world:
World War One pitted the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan and the United States) against the Central Powers (Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Austria-Hungary). This doesn’t include troops from Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand, Australia and others. It also doesn’t show how European “colonies” were stripped of their resources and people to fight on both sides of the war. France for example, had a small population in comparison to Germany. It recruited over 200,000 people from its colonies to work in war industries and over 500,000 fought on its behalf along the Western Front wearing French Uniforms. France “recruited” soldiers from Madagascar, Indochina, and other West African colonies. More often recruitment meant “conscription” meaning France was able to take able-bodied men and force them to enlist in a war not their own. Between 1915 and 1916 out of 53,000 recruits from West Africa, only 7,000 were volunteers. When Britain recruited Indian troops, they only accepted the upper-level castes, propagating prejudice even as they selected those that would fight and die on their behalf.
On the other side, Germans tried to convince captured Muslim soldiers to resist their colonial masters. They were allied with the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan had asked all Muslims to fight Ottomans enemies. The “Half moon” concentration camp was designed to use propaganda efforts to sway Muslims. Their efforts mostly failed but they made a serious effort. It may have influenced in part the failure of the Ottomans to agree to the post-war accords and they continued fighting until they gained their own independence in 1923 as the state of Turkey. The service of Africans, Indians, Arabs and Polynesians in the war could be described as serving the needs of Europeans and Americans when needed. And then neglected after the war was won. In France and England, the foreign workers recruited to those countries to aid in fighting the war were now seen as competition for scarce jobs. Where once welcomed they were discriminated against and forced into substandard housing areas. Ghettos were common in Europe long before America created theirs.
America changed greatly as a result of World War One. In civilian life, a shortage of white males created opportunities for women in factories and when they weren’t enough, the industrial north recruited Southern blacks to work in factories as well. This triggered the great migration which changed the landscape of the nation. Southern blacks were suffering the oppression of Jim Crow and having little or no ability to vote to make legal change. Comparing the job opportunities in the North and West to their problems in the South compounded with a boll weevil infestation destroying Southern crops made leaving the obvious choice for many. Black and Hispanic women were still relegated to primarily domestic work. Men however, were given access to higher paying jobs that transformed families and lives. Progress was dictated by need and not enlightenment.
On the battlefield, in April 1917, President Wilson stated, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” framing the war effort as a crusade to secure the rights of democracy and self-determination on a global scale.
This pronouncement was met different ways in the black community. Many saw an opportunity to bring about true democracy in the US. The black press challenged America to achieve true equality at home as they fought for freedom from oppression abroad. Many black Americans saw their chance to demonstrate patriotism in the hopes it would be rewarded after the war. Others were either apathetic and had no fervor for a war they perceived to be not their own. Some like A. Phillip Randolph vocally opposed the war and encouraged blacks to resist which got them monitored by the Federal government.
Throughout the war, most blacks were relegated to segregated units. Most served in behind the lines support efforts but several units did serve at the front lines including the 369th Infantry Regiment known as “Harlem’s Hellfighters” which had 171 members receive the Legion of Merit. Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment was nominated for the Medal of Honor for bravery while being killed in action but his recommendation was “lost” only to be finally approved 73 years after he was killed.
When the war ended and the troops returned home the promises made to the black soldiers went mostly unfulfilled. In Russia, their equivalent of organized labor staged a revolution which American leaders greatly feared would spread. Competition for jobs not that the white men were home contributed to race riots across the country along with the growing resistance to Jim Crow by those who had fought a war to achieve freedoms abroad they didn’t find when returning home. Military service had exposed hundreds of thousands of black soldiers, even while serving in segregated units, to more accepting cultures than the place they called home.
Much change was initiated as a result of America’s participation in World War One. For all the differences in the country. The constant was that was minorities in America would be used and given opportunity when needed, and when the need was diminished so were their rights.