World War II is remembered as a conflict between democratic and fascist countries. But during the 1940s, nearly 10% of the residents of the world’s largest democracy were considered second-class citizens because of their race. Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad by Matthew F. Delmont, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, chronicles how Black Americans had to fight for the right to combat racism abroad because of the racism at home.
The irony of this was not lost on African Americans, who were acutely aware of how segregation kept them from full citizenship. Adopting a “Double Victory” strategy, Black Americans treated the war as a means of defeating foreign fascism and domestic racism. Half American recounts the history of this struggle, from Langston Hughes’ newspaper coverage of the Spanish Civil War to the mistreatment—even murder—of returning African American veterans. Furthermore, Delmont demonstrates that this story is not frozen in the past but is key to understanding—and changing—our present.
This book would have been a significant contribution to our knowledge of World War II history even if Delmont had only focused on the performance of African American combat troops. The Tuskegee Airmen are famous, but fewer people are aware of the Black Panthers, a Black tank battalion that served in Italy, or the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African American marines and fought valiantly at the battles of Saipan and Iwo Jima. But Half American is more than an excellent introduction to this underappreciated chapter of military history. It is also a groundbreaking illumination of African American civilians’ complex involvement in World War II.
In addition to official records, Delmont used archives, oral histories and contemporary coverage from the Black press to document his work. As a result, Half American gives voice not only to prominent African American leaders such as Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Thurgood Marshall, but also to Black soldiers, factory workers and other everyday people who contributed to the war effort—people who are rarely mentioned in history books, even though they created history.