4.4

The Politics of Race

Jennifer D. Keene

That World War I citizen-soldiers truly were civilians in uniform became apparent whenever racial tensions emerged: both white and black soldiers brought racial agendas into the army that made race relations unpredictable and volatile. From the army's perspective, citizen-soldiers' pursuit of their respective goals had little to do with the overall military mission of defeating Germany. Conflicts between white southern soldiers' desire to minimize the visibility of blacks and black soldiers' hopes to improve their societal status by serving as combatants had great potential to sidetrack soldiers into waging their own internal civil war. Soldiers never saw their racial clashes as detrimental to the nation's international crusade, but army officials did. They had little faith that whites would control themselves in racially motivated situations or that blacks would willingly subordinate their own campaign for equality to winning the war.

As might have been expected at such a dreadful period in American race relations, most army commanders (with a few notable exceptions) concurred with white soldiers on the need for segregation, but the demands of the war sometimes forced the army to place black soldiers in close proximity to whites and even in positions of minor authority. Whenever white soldiers protested these arrangements, army commanders accommodated their demands. This pacification bore consequences that transcended the parameters of this particular debate. For in acquiescing to these demands, the army compromised its own unilateral authority to set internal military policy and direct the behavior of all troops regardless of their preferences. What was at issue was how much power army commanders would have to forfeit in tackling the unprecedented challenge of turning millions of citizen-soldiers into a viable mass army. Citizen-soldiers' ability to dilute the principle of unquestioning obedience offers a compellingly vivid illustration of the powerful role these troops played in shaping the wartime army.


The Army's Dilemma

Early on, the General Staff decided both to use most black troops in noncombatant capacities and to maintain white majorities at all training camps. While for the most part quelling the apprehensions of white civilians that military service might create

-272-

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