From World War to Cold War: Churchill, Roosevelt, and the International History of the 1940s

By David Reynolds | Go to book overview

11
Churchill's Government and the Black GIs,
1942–1943

Just before lunch on Tuesday 13 October 1942 the British War Cabinet assembled for a hasty meeting in the Prime Minister's room in the House of Commons. Sandwiched on the agenda between discussion of the impending visit of the South African premier and the arrangements for celebrating Armistice Day was a unique item, one on which no less than six different Cabinet ministers had submitted papers. The subject was the treatment of the black soldiers who were in Britain as members of the US Army's expeditionary force. The American policy was to segregate them as much as possible from white troops. The Cabinet had now to make up its mind about a War Office proposal that British troops should be encouraged to adopt a similar attitude to the black GIs. The issue, bluntly stated, was whether the British Government should approve a discreet colour bar.1

To understand British policy towards the black Americans, we need to look first at the Government's attitude to British colonial manpower. In World War I the Army had avoided using West Indian troops in combat, except against nonwhites in the Middle East, and they were mostly employed in labour battalions. Indian troops were used in action in France, but care was taken to minimize their

This chapter appears here virtually as first published in the Transactions of the Royal Historical
Society
, 5th series, 35 (1985), 113–33, except for some cuts to the final paragraph. For further
discussion of these issues see Graham Smith, When Jim Crow Met John Bull: Black American Soldiers
in World War II Britain
(London, 1987), and David Reynolds, Rich Relations: The American
Occupation of Britain 1942–1945
(London, 1995), chs. 14 and 18.

1 Aspects of this subject have been dealt with in Thomas E. Hachey, 'Jim Crow with a British
accent: Attitudes of London Government officials toward American negro soldiers in England
during World War II', Journal of Negro History, 59 (1974), 65–77 (a collection of edited docu-
ments); Christopher Thorpe, 'Britain and the black G.I.s: Racial issues and Anglo-American
relations in 1942', New Community, 3 (1974), 262–71; Graham A. Smith, 'Jim Crow on the home
front, 1942–1945', New Community, 8 (1980). 317–28; J. E. Flint, 'Scandal at the Bristol Hotel:
Some thoughts on racial discrimination in Britain and West Africa and its relationship to the
planning of decolonisation, 1939–47', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 12 (1983),
74–93. This chapter concentrates on the policy of the British government rather than the wider
questions of the race issue in transatlantic diplomacy, colonial policy, or wartime Britain, as dis-
cussed by Thorne, Flint, and Smith.

-199-

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