Perspectives on 20th Century America: Readings and Commentary

By Otis L. Graham Jr. | Go to book overview

of imagination, for by 1945 quite dramatic changes had been launched in the economic position and social attitudes of black Americans. Soon thereafter the biracial system would come under attack, bringing a crisis whose end we cannot see. Richard Dalfiume published an essay in 1968 which called attention to the effects of the war on the attitudes of blacks -- their expectations, their self-conceptions, their perception of the meaning of American citizenship. This shift in attitudes is historically pivotal, and it may justifiably be seen as the beginning of the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and after. But attitudes shift only as concrete human situations are altered. Behind changes in ideas one invariably finds fundamental alterations in the economic position, political habits, and demographic patterns of groups.

In the essay below, Neil Wynn traces the effects of participation in World War II upon the position of blacks in American society. In a period of four years the requirements of modern war propelled black Americans into integral participation in the armed services and the civilian economy. Blacks were to some extent held to inferior levels of pay and status, and they did not share proportionately in the opportunities of a full-employment economy. Yet they commenced such a substantial participation in the vital areas of American life that there could be no return to prewar arrangements. Blacks in huge numbers had been geographically moved, employed in new roles, sent into battle. As they could never be returned entirely to their former geographical and economic positions, so their attitudes could never again be as fatalistic and compliant as before. The war saw a great stirring of black pride and solidarity; and behind these spiritual shifts lay the unthinking hand of total war mobilization, sending out its revolutionary commands that men and women enter new regions and new duties in service of the nation. Once again, we see that the domestic consequences of the decision to go to war are often epochal and usually unexpected. As an agent of social change, war far outstrips reform in its effectiveness. The study of the impact of upon America's entrenched racial habits reinforces this perception.

Among the numerous adjustments the American people had to make at the end of the second world war was adaptation to a new position of the Negro in the United States." Thus one of the most eminent of Negro historians confirmed the wartime prediction of the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, that "There is bound to be a redefinition of the Negro's status as a result of this war."1 That the war was crucial to the American Negro is generally accepted by historians, sociologists, writers, and social commentators alike. Why, or how, it was so is a question rarely asked. In fact the majority of writers appear to be torn in their attitudes to war, for, while recognizing the importance of the years 1940-45, they are loath to attribute change to the processes of war: war is a messy, bloody business from which no good can come. This "whig" or "classical liberal," view (so described by Arthur Marwick and Alan Milward), was expressed by Franklin himself when he wrote,

What must be remembered . . . is that the historians who have made extravagant claims for war in the role of man's progress have utterly failed to achieve anything resembling a moral appreciation of civilization and, therefore, have called progressive the very things . . . that to many are decidedly unprogressive.2

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