Winning the Peace: Georgia Veterans and the Struggle to Define the Political Legacy of World War II

Article excerpt

IN TRAVELING AROUND THE NATION AND THROUGHOUT THE EUROPEAN AND Pacific theaters during World War II, soldiers from the South encountered cultures, economies, and political ideas beyond the realm of southern tradition. After the war, armed with new exemptions from poll taxes, Georgia soldiers injected a strong dose of uncertainty into state politics.(1) Local dynasties pondered the electoral potential that the veterans represented: Would they vote to defend southern tradition and, by extension, the fight of incumbents to rule? Or had wartime service altered their attitude to the southern status quo?

In Georgia black and white veterans confirmed both the worst fears and best hopes of political pundits across the region. They launched numerous powerful and multifaceted assaults on the provincial and undemocratic nature of southern politics, expressing an energetic sense of civic duty and entitlement derived by and large from service in the war. Above all, Georgia's veterans wanted their well-deserved share of political and economic opportunities unleashed by the war. When they returned home from the service, however, they confronted a conservative, complacent, and often reactionary leadership determined to hold onto the power and privileges that had long perpetuated Bourbon rule. For veterans weary of war and anxious to take advantage of new opportunities, postwar Georgia posed a disturbing conundrum: achieving the quality of life they believed they had earned required waging another war--this time at home--against the political, economic, and racial traditions that upheld the one-party South. An account of their efforts to achieve these goals illustrates the difficulty in determining whether World War II was an agent of political change or political continuity in Georgia and the South.

The activities that black and white veterans pursued were fraught with contradiction. For example, those who assaulted the citadels of southern racial tradition confronted other veterans policing the ramparts of white supremacy. These contradictions, however, make veteran activism a useful barometer by which to measure the war's political impact. Through their efforts to implement often conflicting understandings of the war's meaning, southern veterans did much to define the political legacy of the war as disruptive and contradictory for Georgia and the South. They destabilized conservative Democratic hegemony, made racial reform and economic development the key issues of the postwar era, and determined that the politics of growth would prevail over the politics of progressive racial reform. It was a complicated political legacy, one that testified to the war's role in generating considerable political and social turmoil.

African American veterans who returned to Georgia were determined to exercise their rights of citizenship.(2) They organized to protect their veterans' benefits, protested police brutality, and used voter registration drives to increase black political influence. Through it all, Georgia's black veterans asserted a strong moral claim to citizenship, respect, and justice, which they felt should reward their service in the war. Their efforts helped to elevate postwar registration and voting to unprecedented levels, boosted postwar movements for progressive reform--and eventually touched off a reactionary backlash. In the wake of the white primary's demise in Georgia in 1946, this surge in black political activism made race a key issue in postwar politics throughout the state.(3)

Service in the war both increased black soldiers' frustration with racial injustices and boosted their expectations for the future. W. W. Law, a black veteran from Savannah, Georgia, found military service to be a series of disheartening encounters with the barriers and humiliations of Jim Crow. When drafted, Law recalled, "I asked for frontline duty as an infantry soldier. But they assigned me to the quartermaster, as was typical. …


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