How did black people experience racism in the armed forces during World War II? In what ways did they make strides towards equality? What were the goals of the "Double V" campaign?

Black people experienced racism in the armed forces during World War II that was similar to that in civilian life. They were denied opportunities open to whites and made to serve in segregated units. Formation of all-black combat units, however, allowed them to serve with distinction. The goals of the “Double V Campaign” were to achieve victory over both Germany and Japan overseas, and over racial discrimination at home in the United States.

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Consistent with the prejudices and stereotypes that defined relationships between ethnicities within the Armed Forces of the United States (this extended to Asian Americans as well), African Americans serving in uniform were subjected to demeaning and pejorative policies. They were relegated to positions of inferiority throughout most of World War II. Considered racially inferior, black people were prevented from serving in combat positions. In general, they were treated just as poorly as in the civilian communities from which they came.

Institutionalized segregation existed in the armed services, and all-black units were the norm just as they had been almost a century earlier in the Civil War. African American commissioned officers were few and far between, and those blacks allowed commissions to serve as officers served mainly as chaplains. In short, the Armed Forces of the United States in the years leading up to and during World War II reflected racist society as a whole.

Two factors caused a change in the treatment of blacks serving in the military during World War II. The first was President Franklyn Roosevelt’s decision, in response to political pressure from civil rights organizations, to allow formation of a unit of all-black fighter pilots. This unit became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. For the first time, African Americans were commissioned as pilots: a position heretofore off-limits to blacks as a result of racial prejudices. The second factor was the need for trained soldiers to serve in the European and Pacific theaters of operation. All-black Army units were trained for and eventually deployed into combat zones. (As noted, the same prejudices affecting Japanese Americans belatedly gave way to the requirements of warfare with the resulting Nisei units serving honorably and courageously in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese army.)

Because of the exemplary performance of segregated African American units during the war, white counterparts gradually came to accept and respect their fellow American servicemen. White bomber pilots protected by the Tuskegee Airmen were known to develop tremendous admiration for their black protectors, and blacks pilots were finally allowed to fly bomber aircraft as well as fighters.

The “Double V Campaign” was an effort on the part of African American civil rights activists as well as black-owned newspapers to wage battle against racism and segregation on two fronts: foreign and domestic. Black Americans could not help but view with cynicism the rhetoric and actions of the US Government, the president, and others rallying the country behind a fight for freedom while simultaneously denying to African Americans those same basic rights.

It is difficult to quantify the campaign’s record of success, as racial segregation continued until President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order in 1948 desegregating the armed forces. It is fair to suggest, however, that the “Double V Campaign” influenced public opinions, including those of elected officials, to support Truman’s action. The reason that it is difficult to quantify the campaign’s success is because racial segregation, while ending in the military, remained in force across the American South for 20 more years despite the admirable military records of all-black units during the war.

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