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Ethnicity and Race in the Military

Ethnicity and Race in the Military. Ethnicity and race have been less troubling military questions for the United States than for nations where ethnic and racial competition, political power struggles, or caste systems have had a military dimension. Nonetheless, both factors have created military dilemmas for Americans from the earliest colonial settlements. Before the Revolutionary War, many white colonists, who considered blacks biologically and culturally inferior and poor material for soldiers, were also afraid of arming slaves and free blacks and of losing their labor services. Sometimes blacks were excluded from the colonial militias, particularly in the South, but military need could overshadow racial fear, such as during the French and Indian War. Some slaves were even granted their freedom for wartime military service.

Ethnocentrism, suspicion of loyalties, and loss of labor also militated against the military use of some non‐English immigrants, but the need for frontier defense in the eighteenth century contributed to the settlement of Scotch‐Irish, German, Swiss, and French Huguenot groups on the frontier to blunt Indian attacks and discourage slave rebellions. As the frontier moved westward and expeditions to distant places became the military norm, much of the actual fighting was done by recent immigrants on the fringes of the social order.

The Revolutionary War was justified as a war for liberty; but while northerners enlisted blacks, the South was opposed to arming African Americans. Diminished enlistment by whites and British offers of freedom for blacks who would desert and bear arms overcame initial attempts by southerners in the Continental Congress and the Continental army to exclude blacks from military service. Approximately 5,000 African Americans fought with the Continental army or the militias (primarily in northern integrated units), although 1,000 joined British forces. Fighting for their freedom, many blacks were successful, although some masters sought to repossess their slaves and some blacks who fought for the British were later sold into slavery in the West Indies.

The Revolution set an enduring pattern of granting conscientious objector status to pacifist religious groups, some of whom, like the German Mennonites and Brethren, were non‐English, with an obligatory commutation fee, the furnishing of a substitute, or special taxes. The war also established the principle of offering citizenship for military service, especially for enemy troops who would switch sides and to Europeans who came to join the Continental forces. The service of several European military experts in the American army during the Revolutionary War later became a source of pride to their ethnic groups in the United States. Among the most famous of these foreign officers were Marquis de Lafayette of France, “Baron” Johann de Kalb and “Baron” Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of Germany, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko of Poland.

Attempts to exclude immigrants and blacks from military service resurfaced after the Revolution because of decreased need for manpower in the small regular army of the early national period. An 1825 regulation banned foreigners from enlisting in the army without special permission; but the reluctance of native‐born Americans to enlist in an expanding economic era, combined with a wave of immigration from Northern and Western Europe beginning in the 1830s, resulted in the foreign‐born constituting a majority of the army's enlisted ranks by the 1850s, with Irish and Germans predominating. This pattern reappeared in the post–Civil War army and navy, and was beneficial for the foreign‐born, who learned English and American customs, received some vocational training, and gained geographic mobility to the frontier.

Blacks were barred from army enlistment by a general order from Secretary of War John C. Calhoun of South Carolina in 1820, although the army continued to retain black veterans and to employ black labor. The navy was not happy about recruiting African‐American sailors, but its need for black labor was even greater than the army's, and black sailors were less visible to the public than black soldiers. The War of 1812, the Mexican War, and especially the Civil War escalated military need for manpower. Aliens who had started the naturalization process were eligible for the draft during the Civil War, although there was a high rate of volunteering among some of the foreign‐born. About 200,000 German Americans and over 170,000 Irish Americans served in the Union army, often in highly visible ethnic units promoted and led by politically astute immigrant leaders. There was considerable draft resistance in the North, and draft riots, especially the New York City Anti‐Draft Riots in 1863, were often led by Irish and sometimes German Catholic immigrants. The Confederacy was less enthusiastic about ethnic units, although the military participation of immigrants helped to change Southern attitudes toward immigration and led to a limited recruiting campaign to encourage European migration into the South. In the North as well, suspicion and hostility toward immigrants declined, and self‐conscious Americanization was furthered.

Although initial attempts were made to exclude African Americans from the Union army, the flooding of ex‐slaves into Union lines, mounting casualties, the slowing of white recruitment, as well as the growing acceptance of the abolition of slavery as a war aim, led to the ultimate enlistment of approximately 186,000 black troops, nearly 10 percent of the Union army. Blacks constituted about one‐fourth of the Union navy, and a few ships were manned almost entirely by African Americans. By 1865, desperation forced the Confederate Congress to authorize black combat troops, although the war ended before any saw service. In the North, discrimination in pay, assignments, and treatment was prevalent, and Northern appreciation for black military service soon diminished, although the temporarily favorable climate of opinion aided in the passage of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1868.

Military need on the postbellum western frontier resulted in the retention of four black army regiments. Despite hostility by white westerners and the reluctance of some white officers to command the four black regiments, the army did make an effort to evaluate the capabilities and performance of “Buffalo” soldiers on military rather than racial grounds, and black soldiers were military effective, with a high esprit de corps and reenlistment rate, as well as proving highly visible heroes to the black community. By the late nineteenth century, however, racial and ethnic lines were hardening in both the military and civilian worlds. New imperial roles heightened racist sentiments in the army and navy, and the “new immigration” from Southern and Eastern Europe increased ethnocentric fears. In 1894, nondeclarant aliens were banned from first enlistment in the army, and in 1906, three companies of black soldiers were dismissed without adequate investigation following a riot in Brownsville, Texas. The navy began to curtail black enlistments, segregating African Americans aboard ships and favoring Filipinos instead of blacks as stewards.

U.S. entry into World War I created a major need for manpower, met largely by the draft, and also sizable minority problems. The General Staff estimated that one‐fourth of those drafted were non‐English‐speaking or functionally illiterate; this led to unprecedented cooperation with civilian social welfare, religious, and ethnic organizations to increase efficiency by meeting the varied needs of the immigrant soldier. “Development” battalions were created for those with insufficient knowledge of English; organized by ethnic groups, they were instructed in English. The army rejected the idea of single ethnic combat units with their own officers (Polish American leaders offered to raise a Polish legion in the United States). Ethnic National Guard units like New York City's “Fighting 69th” (Irish American) Regiment continued to exist, however. After the conclusion of the war, recruit educational center's were established to induct recent immigrants, conduct military training, teach English, and inculcate the army's version of good citizenship. Psychological tests introduced by civilians to screen mental incompetents from the army and classify inductees on the basis of intelligence were used for racist purposes after the war.

Although initially divided, the black community, like the immigrant community, ultimately supported the war effort for patriotic reasons and in hopes of bettering their condition; a number of violent racial incidents occurred, however, such as the riot in Houston, Texas, in the summer of 1917. The military initially tried to confine blacks to supporting labor roles. Ultimately, a training camp for black officers was established and two black divisions were sent to France, although one lacked divisional trains and artillery and was brigaded with the French. The Marine Corps barred the enlistment of blacks entirely, and from 1919 to 1932, the navy suspended their enlistment. The four black army regiments were retained, although the army continued to assert, based on the failure of one black regiment in France, that African American soldiers were cowardly in combat and fit only for menial labor. Discrimination and violence again awaited returning black servicemen, and race riots erupted in 1919.

After the U.S. entry into World War II, blacks were determined that there be a “Double V” campaign for victory against racism at home as well as victory abroad. Unlike World War I, blacks were underrepresented in the draft, although over million black men and women served in the armed forces, half of them overseas. The Marine Corps and the Army Air Corps admitted blacks for the first time; the army integrated its officer training schools; and during the Battle of the Bulge (1944–45), units were integrated to the platoon level.

Ethnic issues were also more muted during the war (except for the Internment of enemy aliens, particularly Japanese and Japanese Americans). Many groups were better assimilated, there was unprecedented unity in the war effort, an emphasis on ethnic pluralism, and little ethnic discrimination in combat zones, although it persisted in civilian life at home. Military service hastened the Americanization of some groups previously outside the mainstream, creating group cohesiveness and a sense of possible upward mobility. The rate of volunteering among groups such as Native Americans and Mexican Americans, who had the largest number of Congressional Medal of Honor winners of any ethnic group, and the service of more than 33,000 Japanese Americans (the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Nisei soldiers was the most decorated unit in the army), earned the nation's gratitude.

After the war, veterans groups, such as the G.I. Forum of Mexican Americans and Club 100 of Hawaiian Japanese Americans, were organized to promote civil rights, political participation, and group interests, and the services ultimately established personnel centers to compile computerized data on ethnic and racial groups. The military, however, was less concerned than in previous decades about the assimilation of the foreign‐born, as massive immigration from Europe had ended in the 1920s and ideology began to eclipse ethnicity in the Cold War era. Ethnicity also ceased to be a factor in conscientious objection (CO) when the Supreme Court decreed in Welsh v. United States (1970) that religious pacifism was no longer necessary for CO exemption from military service.

Racial issues were more troublesome, although the services were finding segregation difficult in an age with increasingly specialized technological requirements, and President Harry S. Truman, in July 1948, issued Executive Order 9981 for the racial integration of the armed forces. Integration was finally achieved during the exigencies of the Korean War, although the Vietnam War created new tensions. High casualty rates, especially among nonwhites, and the influence of the ethnic rights and Black Power movements, led to protests and antiwar activities within the military. Unrest—especially protest against allegedly unequal military justice—continued after the war. The military responded with seminars on race relations, basic skills, and management training programs, and affirmative action goals that led to improved racial relations. The military was the first federal body in the United States to be officially desegregated, and today it has a higher percentage of black generals and admirals than African American executives in large corporations.

Military service has also been attractive to Native Americans, whose enlistment rates during the twentieth century have been about three times as high as for non–Native Americans. Military service has revitalized the tradition of warrior societies, which performed vital military functions in preceding centuries, and service in World War II, as well as employment in war industries, brought Native Americans much more into the mainstream of American life. Veterans have provided leadership in the movement for self‐determination. The Vietnam War created a generational split as many draft‐age Native Americans clashed with their pro‐war parents; but rejection of the war did not lessen the continuing popularity of military service.

It seems likely that the military services will continue to contain ethnic and racial minorities in excess of their percentage of the total population, and that they will serve in an environment more harmonious and welcoming than in the past. The structured and disciplined environment has always potentially enhanced the military's capacity to eliminate prejudice and discrimination, and the services seem more willing than ever before to define equality as a desirable goal.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Ethnicity and War; Native Americans in the Military; Race Relations and War; Vietnam Antiwar Movement; Volunteers, U.S.]


Bruce White , The American Military and the Melting Pot in World War I in J. L. Granatstein and R. D. Cuff, eds. War and Society in North America, 1971.
Jack D. Foner , Blacks and the Military in American History, 1974.
James B. Jacobs and and Leslie Anne Hayes , Aliens in the U.S. Armed Forces: A Historico‐Legal Analysis, Armed Forces and Society 7 (Winter 1981), pp. 187–208.
Martin Binkin and and Mark J. Eitelberg , Blacks in the Military, 1982.
Bernard C. Nalty , Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military, 1986.
William L. Burton , Melting Pot Soldiers: The Union's Ethnic Regiments, 1988.
Alison R. Bernstein , American Indians and World War II, 1991.
Nancy Gentile Ford , War and Ethnicity: Foreign‐Born Soldiers and United States Military Policy During World War I. Ph.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1994.

Bruce White

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