C. Knauer: Let Us Fight as Free Men

Let Us Fight as Free Men. Black Soldiers and Civil Rights

Knauer, Christine
Politics and Culture in Modern America
Anzahl Seiten
352 S.
$ 49.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Matthias Reiss, Department of History, University of Exeter

There is no shortage of books on African Americans in the military and their role in the long struggle for civil rights. As Manfred Berg once pointed out, however, many of them “indulge in endless tales of black military exploits. They often espouse a naïve nationalism, glorify war, […] uncritically celebrate the ideal of the male warrior as the epitome of the American citizen” and neglect how African Americans simultaneously challenged white supremacy at the home front.1 Christine Knauer’s book “Let Us Fight as Free Men” does not fall into any of these traps. On the contrary, the author provides a critical, comprehensive and well-researched study of how the United Nations’ “police action” in Korea between 1950 and 1953 impacted on race relations in America society. It is a largely familiar story, but it is very well contextualised, told with impressive analytical skill and based on a remarkable range of sources.

Throughout her book, Knauer focuses on the concepts of “image” and “masculinity”. The struggle for civil rights is largely portrayed as a public relations battle against negative stereotypes and slanderous stories about underperforming or failing black troops. Black manhood was an important factor in this campaign to change public opinion and mobilise the African American community, and Knauer skilfully highlights how this concept was redefined over time.

The first two chapters deal with the Second World War and illustrate the similarities between this conflict and the struggle in Korea. Civil rights activists and the black press tried hard to correct the negative public stereotype of African Americans in World War II and have their military contributions acknowledged while “white supremacists used the defamation of black soldiers as a powerful strategy to disfranchise and degrade the black community.” (p. 32). The black community responded by inverting “white racism and its language” (p. 37) and also began promoting a new concept of heroism which revolved around serving well despite constant discrimination and humiliation.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the fight against segregation in the military after World War II within the context of the debate about universal military training and the Selective Service Act. Knauer carefully examines Grant Reynolds’ and A. Philip Randolph’s campaign for nonviolent civil disobedience in the spring of 1948 and highlights the significance of Randolph’s call on young men of both races to refuse service in a segregated military. It was, Knauer argues, a turning point in a debate which had long linked faithful service to full citizenship and “questioned established concepts of manhood.” (pp. 69–70). Randolph now framed draft resistance as a marker of true masculinity and those who opposed this tactic as effeminate. He explicitly referred to Gandhi as his main inspiration but also stressed the American roots of the civil disobedience campaign. However, Randolph’s tactic was rejected by white Americans as well as many African Americans. “Swaying from the path of activism within the framework of white concepts of respectable male behaviour and displays of patriotism was not yet an option for many African Americans” (p. 92). Nevertheless, the campaign forced established civil rights organisations like the NAACP to think about more innovative tactics and proved its “quality as an instrument of coercion” (p. 91), even though its time had not come.

Chapter 5 offers a critical discussion of the history and impact of President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces before the focus turns on the Korean War in the following three chapters. All-black units were among the first to be shipped to Korea when the North attacked the South on 26 June 1950. The leading civil rights organisations and even A. Philip Randolph gave their unconditional support to what was framed as a war against communism and once again asked black troops to serve well. African Americans who saw the war as an imperialist endeavour were more critical. The black press and their readers predominantly supported the war effort but used the conflict to accuse white segregationists of disloyalty. “Despite the recurring pledges of patriotism and loyalty,” Knauer concludes, “blacks’ criticism of the war and American action was more frequent than previous research has admitted” (p. 137).

American problems in Korea were blamed on “white racial arrogance and ideas of white supremacy” (p. 140) and used to ridicule the latter. Knauer carefully and convincingly examines how race became a lens through which both black and white commentators in the United States interpreted the events in Korea and tried to give them meaning. Especially noteworthy is her rebuttal of the idea that African American troops were free from racial prejudices against Koreans and therefore, as the contemporary black press claimed, able to “be trailblazers of interracial understanding and peacekeeping” (p. 144). Knauer convincingly demonstrate that this was a phantasy and that American Americans “underestimated and disliked Koreans as much as their white counterparts did” (p. 151). By adopting a “black orientalism” they also expressed their “claim to Americanness, and their inclusion in the American nation” (pp. 152f.).

The perception and treatment of Asian women by black soldiers further highlights this point, as the female Korean body came to represent “the underdeveloped status of the nation that needed the guiding hand of the Western world” (p. 157). However, such feelings of superiority were undermined by the fact that some South Korean men served with white American troops on an integrated basis while African Americans initially did not.

The black press highlighted stories of African American heroism on the battlefield to challenge long-standing racial stereotypes and promote integration in the military as a first step towards full civil rights at home. The Army, in contrast to the Air Force and the Navy, resisted desegregation, and the black press faced a dilemma as a result. It had to praise and defend the combat performance of all-black army units in Korea while at the same time highlighting the negative impact of segregation on morale and lauding the efficiency of integrated units. Occasional white praise for victorious all-back units “proved harder to contest than any open racial slur and defamation” (p. 182). Civil rights organisations and the black press also used the war in Korea to pressure for a new Fair Employment Practice Committee in the United States to ensure equality at the workplace.

In the final chapter, Knauer turns her attention to disproportionally high number of court-martialled black soldiers in Korea and the harsher sentences they received compared to white GIs. As in previous armed conflicts, black soldiers in Korea “came under particular scrutiny and were publicly blamed for general failures and the commanding officers’ weak strategy” (p. 195). Knauer links the NAACP’s support for court-martialled soldiers to its legal campaign against segregation in the United States but concludes that the conflict in Korea “unveiled the limits war placed on the civil rights movement” (p. 213). The attempt of African Americans to gain control over the image of black soldiers ultimately failed, and the war and their contribution to it “seemed to have lost their domestic usability” (p. 213).

The book concludes with a discussion of prisoners of war and the legacy of the Korean War. The most celebrated result of the war was the integration of the U.S. Army under General Ridgway from the spring of 1951 onwards. In addition, many black veterans joined the civil rights movement after their return from Korea, and their struggle for a just appraisal of their role and achievements in Korea continues to this day.

“Let Us Fight as Free Men” is a meticulously researched and very well-written book. Knauer has managed to produce a monograph which appeals to both specialists as well as those with little or no previous knowledge of the topic, which is no small achievement. The book represents an important contribution to a relatively neglected field of African American history and can also be recommended to anyone with a general interest in the Korean War.

1 Manfred Berg, American Wars and the Black Struggle for Freedom and Equality, in: Georg Schild (ed.), The American Experience of War. Krieg in der Geschichte Band 51, Paderborn 2010, pp. 133–134.

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