The Long-Established Foundation of George H.W. Bush’s “New World Order”

by Samantha A. Taylor, Ph.D., Guest Contributor

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Photo courtesy of the White House.

Last week, George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States, passed away at the age of 94. He was the last president of the Cold War and the first of the post-Cold War era, and his “New World Order” was the foundation upon which his successors built their foreign policies. Yet, Bush’s worldview was not entirely new. It revived many of Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about a liberal world order that the U.S. had a moral obligation to lead. Embedded in both Wilson and Bush’s international visions were ideas that originated in the Enlightenment and inspired the founders of the U.S. – self-determination, the social contract between citizens and their government, and republicanism. Between 1989 and 1993, Bush attempted to establish a liberal world order that would promote global stability and peace. For much of his presidency, Bush proceeded cautiously and optimistically. However, the chaotic nature of the post-Cold War world regularly threatened his efforts.

Bush entered the presidency with an extensive understanding of U.S. foreign policy and global position built upon his previous experience in federal service. Beginning with his career as a naval aviator during World War II, Bush developed an understanding of the world through his position as a Congressman, head of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and vice president to Ronald Reagan. As president, Bush drew on those experiences as he crafted his responses to the collapsing Soviet Union, transitions to democracy in Eastern Europe, and the evolution of Cold War-era international institutions to address the issues of the post-Cold War world. As he wrote in his 1990 National Security Strategy:

Today, after four decades, the international landscape is marked by change that is breath-taking in its character, dimension, and pace. The familiar moorings of postwar security policy are being loosened by developments that were barely imagined years or even months ago. Yet our goals and interests remain constant. And, as we look toward—and hope for—a better tomorrow, we must also look to those elements of our past policy that have played a major role in bringing us to where we are today. It is our steadfastness over four decades that has brought us to this moment of historic opportunity. We will not let that opportunity pass, nor will we shrink from the challenges created by new conditions…This Report outlines the direction we will take to protect the legacy of the postwar era while enabling the United States to help shape a new era, one that moves beyond containment and that will take us into the next century.[1]

Although the alleged Communist threat that had given purpose to U.S. foreign relations during the Cold War was gone, the interests that had needed protection during that era did not change. In his strategy, Bush outlined four broad U.S. interests: the survival of the United States as a free and independent nation; a healthy and growing economy; a stable and secure world order that fostered democracy, political freedom, and human rights; and vigorous healthy and cooperative relations with allies and friendly nations. As Bush crafted his new world order, he relied on ideas and values that long had given the U.S. an international mission and determined its interests.[2]

The first significant test of Bush’s new world order occurred in Middle East. As Saddam Hussein ordered Iraqi troops into Kuwait, Bush argued that failing to push back Iraqi aggression would establish a precedent for the post-Cold War period indicating that aggression was acceptable in the new era.[3]Although Bush’s collective security solution to the Persian Gulf crisis was at least temporarily successful, he faced difficulties replicating it in response to subsequent crises in Yugoslavia and Somalia. Despite its record of mixed results, Bush introduced the liberal international order to the post-Cold War world, emphasizing collective security, the use of international institutions for conflict resolution, and the promotion of democracy and human rights. Liberal internationalism informed the worldviews of Bush’s successors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, just as it had shaped the foreign policy strategies of several of Bush’s predecessors. Although President George H. W. Bush presided over the transition from the Cold War to a new world order, the ideas that influenced his international strategy had been central to America’s understanding of itself and the world since the nation’s founding.

Dr. Samantha A. Taylor received her Ph.D. in 2017 from the University of Southern Mississippi, where she was a Dale Center doctoral fellow. She is currently a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College teaching national security and finishing her first book, an examination of American military and diplomatic strategy in the first decade after the Cold War.

[1]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States 1990, Preface, June 10, 2015).

[2]George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1990, 2-3. George H. W. Bush, National Security Strategy of the United States, 1991, 3-4, June 11, 2015).

[3]Memorandum “The New World Order: An analysis and document collection, n.d.” folder Dyke, Nancy Beard Files OAID CF01473-012 “New World Order National Security Council George H. W. Bush Presidential Library.

Posted in diplomacy, Foreign policy, George H.W. Bush, international relations, national security strategy, Post-Cold War | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Remembering

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D. and Susannah Ural, Ph.D.

Camp Shelby gold star2

Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication ceremony at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, May 15, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Susannah Ural.

Lindsey Wilbur sat in the front row at the unveiling of a Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby in south Mississippi on May 15 and wondered where were the widows? Where were the children of fallen service members? The ceremony program featured speeches by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, the Camp and state commanders, the last surviving WWII Marine to receive the Medal of Honor, and a mother and a father of slain soldiers. The Gold Star parents shared their heartbreaking stories of losing their children. For Ms. Wilbur, though, who lost her husband, Staff Sgt E-6 Chris Wilbur, less than two years ago, and is now raising an eight-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter alone, wartime loss remains raw, messy, and complicated. The Gold Star Families memorial at Camp Shelby is a moving tribute that fulfills its purpose to remember lost service personnel and their families. But we fail them if we expect a monument to fully address what the Wilbur family and others like it are still enduring. We have failed these families if we remember names and wars without any real sense of why the sacrifices were made and their impact on the families of fallen soldiers.

Camp Shelby gold star1

Gold Star Families Memorial Monument dedication ceremony at Camp Shelby, near Hattiesburg, Mississippi, May 15, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Dr. Susannah Ural.

The event at Camp Shelby and the Memorial Day commemorations that millions of Americans are holding this weekend share a common focus on memory and loss. One of the most famous of these ceremonies included an 1884 address by Union Army veteran and later US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. who promised that it was the “great good fortune” of Civil War veterans that “in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.” He saw deep purpose in these annual gatherings that offered an opportunity for “a national act of enthusiasm and faith.”[1]Such passion, Holmes argued, was key to Americans’ willingness to fight for the good, as they defined it, in their communities and their nation. But Holmes celebrated a life both “profound” and “passionate.” As we embark on our Memorial Day commemorations and Gold Star monument dedications, our passion is certainly intact. Thousands of towns across the nation will host parades, will mark graves, and they will take time to honor and to remember. And this is good. But do we have any sense of what drove us into these wars, how Americans debated them at the time, and what military families endured? If we remember without context and without lessons, are we really benefiting anyone?


Gold Star mothers of World War I. Photograph courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The concept of gold star families dates back to World War I. Families who had a member serving in the conflict flew flags with a blue star for every man fighting. If one of those family members died in the war, then a gold star would replace the blue one. In 1918, the Women’s Committee of National Defenses convinced President Woodrow Wilson to adopt the use of a black armband with a gold star on it to signify the mourning of a dead serviceman. A decade later, a group of twenty-five mothers established the American Gold Star Mothers, Inc. Beginning in 1936, Americans have observed Gold Star Mothers and Families Day on the last Sunday of September. After World War II ended, Congress allowed the military to present gold star pins to families of service personnel killed in combat. In 1973, as the Vietnam War was drawing down, Congress expanded gold star pin eligibility to include families of any service member who died while on active duty.[2]Today, American Gold Star Mothers still exists, along with other organizations, to aid gold star families, who the U.S. Army refers to as “gold star survivors.”

Decoration Day, known today as Memorial Day, had more sporadic origins in the 1860s. Some argue that it started when African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina gathered in May 1865 to lay wreaths and memorialize the deaths of hundreds of Union prisoners of war outside that city. To these mourners, the dead symbolized the sacrifices that led to the emancipation of millions and saved the Union. About the same time, separate groups of mourners gathered in Georgia and Mississippi where local women honored their Confederate dead. Similar ceremonies took place in Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania to honor Union dead. These events were made official by Gen. John A. Logan when, as commander of the largest Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, he declared that every May, Americans should pause to decorate the graves and ensure that the nation never forget “the cost of a free and undivided republic.”[3]

But our memorials are simply moving carvings in stone if we fail to couple them with learning. Civil War monuments are a prime example of this. They exist in hundreds of American communities, but they cannot capture the complexities of that war or its full impact on hundreds of thousands of families. Northern monuments often ignore emancipation with their focus on Union, while Confederate memorials, in addition to ignoring slavery, disregard the tremendous dissent that existed in southern white and black communities that weakened their war effort. Many Civil War monuments focus on the suffering of families, but how many led to the improved care of military personnel and their loved ones? That is not their purpose. Their goal is to honor and remember, and the limitations of that medium inspires powerful emotions, but few lessons. Those are our responsibility.


Cindy Sheehan, founder of Gold Star Families for Peace, lost her son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in Iraq in 2004. Photograph courtesy of

We are no better at remembering the complexities of more modern conflicts. We have largely forgotten events like the antiwar rally in Philadelphia in 1969, when members of the city’s Gold Star Mothers chapter blocked the reading of names of fallen Vietnam soldiers. The mothers did so because they believed that the demonstrators did not value what their sons fought and died for in Vietnam.[4]But rather than publicly castigate them, President Richard Nixon sent the women a message praising their efforts and invited them to the White House. Not all Gold Star mothers held the same views as the Philadelphia mothers. In 1971, some marched with members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War to Arlington Cemetery, where mothers placed wreaths outside the gate. Gold Star mothers also got involved in efforts to recover POWs and MIAs from Vietnam. In 2005, Cindy and Patrick Sheehan, who lost their son, Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, in Iraq in 2004, founded Gold Star Families for Peace. In order to help grieving families heal, we need to learn more about their losses. Monuments are a start; frank conversations must follow.

The journalist Gloria Emerson, who spent years covering the Vietnam War and wrote about Gold Star Mothers for the New York Times in 1973, explained that at the end of World War I, when women suggested to President Wilson that a black armband with a gold star could symbolize a fallen soldier, the point was to emphasize “the glory of death, not the sadness.” The mothers Emerson interviewed spoke easily of their deceased sons. Marie Hart, president of the organization in 1967-68, told Emerson that the mission of Gold Star Mothers was “not to dwell on the loss but to help the living.”[5]It is our job, instead, to discuss those losses. Talking about the deaths of service personnel in all forms is how we will come to terms with what war does to families. As Congress acknowledged in 1973, gold star families have lost active duty service members in various ways, not just in combat. Addiction and mental illness have taken the lives of servicemen and women, and in the age of the all-volunteer military, where service members and families face multiple deployments to war zones, context and conversation about how and why soldiers have died will help us understand more deeply soldier and family experiences.

The Gold Star Families Memorial Monument at Camp Shelby is the first of its kind to be built in Mississippi. Three more are planned for the state, and thirty-five monuments exist in thirty-six states throughout the country. They stand as physical reminders of the sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and children American military families have lost to war. Open, honest conversation across political lines about how and why service personnel die, what grieving military families need, and how the government and the military might better take care of service members so as to prevent non-combat deaths will make the monuments more powerful. Respectful discussion and debate are foundational to a healthy democracy, that political tradition for which American servicemen and women ostensibly fight and die, leaving behind broken families desperate for answers about why their loved ones are gone. A monument will always be a failure if we expect it to tell their full story without subsequent conversations about war deaths and their legacies.

Heather Marie Stur is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a fellow at the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. She is a co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War IIand the author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era.

Susannah Ural is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit.




[4]Holly S. Fenelon, That Knock at the Door: The History of Gold Star Mothers in America(iUniverse, 2012), 263.


Posted in Memorial Day, military families, public history, War and memory, war and society | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Is North Korea Trump’s China Moment?

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.


Richard Nixon meets Mao Zedong in China, 1972. Photo courtesy of the National Security Archive, George Washington University.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. President Donald Trump are set to meet in Singapore on June 12. Since hearing the talk of a rendezvous between the two heads of state, I’ve been thinking about Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Mao Zedong in China in 1972. Nixon was the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, and although the U.S. and China did not establish formal relations until 1979, Nixon’s visit set the process of normalization in motion. Limiting nuclear arms proliferation was among Nixon’s motivations for reaching out to Mao, along with his hope that friendlier relations with China would help Nixon and Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. U.S. diplomatic engagement with the PRC angered American allies Taiwan and Japan, but it allowed the Americans to pressure the Soviet Union on nuclear weapons and was a clear example of détente between the U.S. and Communist countries.

trump kim

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, are scheduled to meet on June 12 in Singapore. Image courtesy of CNN.

On a surface level, it’s easy to compare Nixon’s visit to China with the upcoming summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un. Trump, like Nixon, presents himself as vastly different from his predecessor, particularly in that he is willing to make aggressive moves toward eventual peace. Nixon ran his 1968 presidential campaign on the promise to end the Vietnam War, a product of Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy, if not Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to destroy ISIS and pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear weapons deal. Both Nixon and Trump resolved to meet with brutal authoritarian leaders, Mao and Kim. For both presidents, negotiating with the leaders of enemy or rogue states was acceptable if they believed doing so was in the U.S. national interest. Scandal hovers over Trump’s presidency as it did over Nixon’s. The “White House Plumbers” began their machinations in the summer of 1971; Trump faces all sorts of allegations, from knowledge or worse of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election to paying off adult film actress Stormy Daniels to deny that the two had an affair. On the cultural front, ping-pong diplomacy was part of the Nixon-Mao meeting, and the 2018 Winter Olympics featured a joint North and South Korean women’s hockey team.

The contextual differences between the Nixon and Trump presidencies limit the usefulness of such comparisons, and analysts already disagree about the extent to which we can compare Nixon’s China moment with Trump’s overtures to North Korea. Political scientists Michaela Mattes and Jessica L.P. Weeks argue that the comparison makes sense. Nixon’s established anti-communist record made voters trust his diplomatic advances toward China, while a dovish president likely would have faced harsh criticism from the American public for seeking peace with an enemy nation. Political adversaries might accuse a dove president of being “soft” on Communism or whatever the enemy state’s perceived evil was. Mattes and Weeks believe that Trump’s hawkish rhetoric has positioned him to retain legitimacy among his political base as he reaches out to a rogue state like North Korea. On the other side of the debate, Bloomberg columnist Eli Lake asserts that Trump’s upcoming meeting with Kim will not be the president’s “Nixon to China” moment. Lake writes that China was a Cold War power, and the tensions between China and the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War made the Nixon visit monumental. Conversely, North Korea is a weak, isolated state that depends on China for its survival. A meeting between Trump and Kim will not produce the kind of international ripple effect that Nixon’s China trip did, Lake concludes.

Yet here, again, is the importance of context. North Korea is not a great power, and so at face value, Trump’s planned meeting with Kim Jong-un might seem insignificant compared to Nixon’s visit with Mao. But the international context of 2018 is much different than that of 1972. The contemporary moment is not one in which great power antagonisms shape international relations. Terrorist networks and rogue states with nuclear capabilities pose some of the primary threats to global security. In the context of the early twenty-first century, a meeting that leads to the opening of the Hermit Kingdom and the limiting, or even dismantling, of its nuclear arsenal could provide a blueprint for future diplomatic engagements with isolated states. As historians in the coming decades assess Trump’s foreign policy record, they will let us know whether “Trump to North Korea” was a transformative moment in the history of international relations or a forgettable example of contrarian attention-seeking.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

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“We’re on the Same Side”: Anglophone Exceptionalism, Darkest Hour, and Dunkirk

by Alan Allport, Guest Contributor

“The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.” So declared Winston Churchill in his address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940. Churchill was speaking on the same day that Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Allied forces from the Dunkirk beaches, formally ended. Thanks to the efforts of DYNAMO, most of the men (though not the equipment or weapons) of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been trapped in a small pocket of northern Flanders thanks to the success of the German Blitzkrieg, had been successfully extracted from France back across the English Channel.

But from Churchill’s point of view on June 4, 1940, the campaign in France, and Britain’s involvement in it, was far from over. “We have our duty to our Ally,” he pointed out to his fellow MPs. RAF aircraft were still operating from bases in western France on June 4. British strategic bombers would soon be arriving at airfields near Marseilles to begin raids on Italy, which was (correctly) expected to declare war on the Allies any day. Even as the bedraggled veterans of the Dunkirk campaign were disembarking at southern English ports, the 52nd Lowland and 1st Canadian infantry divisions were preparing to cross the Channel in the opposite direction, to join the British 1st Armoured and 51st Highland infantry divisions still in France. Churchill conceived of them as a second BEF which would help the French push back the Germans massing along the Somme and reestablish stability on the Western Front. As he made clear to the Commons on June 4, he did not believe that the catastrophe at Dunkirk had made the fall of France inevitable. “There is no reason why we should not in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us,” he said. Churchill would take considerable persuading over the weeks to follow that France really was doomed to defeat and that further assistance to Britain’s ally would serve no purpose.


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Focus Features.

None of this, however, makes it into the version of the speech that audiences hear in Joe Wright’s biopic Darkest Hour (2017). So far as Darkest Hour is concerned, it is the Prime Minister’s famous peroration which matters. Churchill, played by Gary Oldman, assures the Commons that Britain will “fight on the beaches … on the landing grounds … in the fields and in the streets” rather than surrender; that he and his compatriots will “defend our island home … if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” To be sure, the movie includes Churchill’s promise that “we shall fight in France”; but this is very much a throwaway remark. Wright’s story, which ends with the successful evacuation from Dunkirk and Churchill’s fervent roar of defiance, leaves its audience in little doubt that the Anglo-French alliance is already doomed by the beginning of June 1940. The future of the war, and further resistance to Nazi tyranny, is very much all in Britain’s hands now – at least until the intervention of the United States after Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, although Darkest Hour spends little time concerning itself with Churchill’s French counterparts one way or the other, the film drops more than a few hints that the whole Anglo-French partnership was, from Britain’s point of view, a mistake from the beginning. At one of his first Chiefs of Staff meetings as Prime Minister, a shocked Churchill is informed by General Ironside that “the entire French Ninth Army – some 200,000 men – have capitulated … surrendered, deserted. It was a rout.” Further evidence of French lassitude is soon provided when Churchill flies across the Channel to rally the leaders of the Third Republic. “We must rouse our old friends to a heroic resistance,” the old warrior insists: but the film makes it clear that this is one of Churchill’s touchingly naïve fantasies, and one that is about to be cruelly exposed. At his meeting with Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, the British leader’s enjoinments for the French Army to immediately counterattack the Germans are met with cool Gallic cynicism. “We have lost,” Reynaud baldly responds. “He’s delusional”, he adds to his colleague Daladier as Churchill’s plane departs. “He’s English,” Daladier notes. The film strongly concurs with Daladier’s view. If the fight against Hitler is to continue, Darkest Hour suggests, les Anglo-Saxons can expect little further assistance from their Francophone neighbors. They simply do not have the same right stuff.


Dunkirk, Warner Bros.

Dunkirk, the other 2017 movie blockbuster which covers much the same historical territory as Darkest Hour, comes to similar conclusions regarding the Anglo-French alliance of 1940. As one of its promotional taglines declares: “When 400,00 men couldn’t get home, home came for them.” Never mind that around half of those 400,000 Allied troops trapped in the Dunkirk pocket were already ‘home’ in May 1940, being French or Belgian troops; Dunkirk is very much a story of deliverance to safety from a hostile and foreign place, of a doomed and foolish overseas venture in the service of incompetent and untrustworthy allies. “Survival is victory”, goes another of the film’s taglines. Survival, for Dunkirk, is to be understood strictly in British terms. Survival after this continental disaster will, after all, be a prelude to victory in the Battle of Britain and all the moral grandeur of the Churchillian ‘finest hour’ of 1940.

The film addresses the question of Britain’s responsibility to its allies most directly in the sequence in which a group of BEF soldiers confront a Frenchmen who has been hiding in their midst, disguised in British Army uniform, and trying, like them, to get off the beaches. The soldiers are making a bid for escape in a leaky trawler; at least one of them must disembark, presumably to be shot by the enemy, if the vessel is to stay afloat. “A Frog! A bloody Frog! A cowardly little queue-jumping Frog!” one of the British soldiers snarls when the duplicity is revealed. Another soldier, ‘Tommy’, tries to defend the Frenchman: “we’re on the same side!” he reminds his comrades. The dialogue that follows is a performance in miniature of the whole moral issue at Dunkirk: do the British on the beaches still have a continuing obligation of any kind to an ally which (it is strongly implied) has let them down so badly?

“It’s not fair!”

“Survival’s not fair.”

“He saved our lives.”

“And he’s about to do it again … we need someone to get off so the rest of us can live – you want to volunteer?”

“Fuck no. I’m going home.”

“And if this is the price?”

“I’ll live with it, but it’s wrong.”

While the film shows some sympathy for Tommy’s moral qualms, it also suggests that the ruthless logic of the other British soldiers might be more defensible in the service of the greater good. “We need our army back,” the unnamed senior naval officer in charge of the evacuation mutters off-the-record when he is asked if he will honor Churchill’s promise to evacuate French and British soldiers at the same rate. Dunkirk offers little challenge to this cold-blooded calculation. If squeamish considerations for the fate of the French had overridden all other concerns, it suggests, then the war might have been lost there and then on the beaches in May 1940. Perfidious Albion was quite right to think solely of its own needs at the moment of crisis.

It’s perhaps not surprising that these visions of British moral exceptionalism and the necessity of detachment from continental entanglements have struck a sensitive chord in the UK in the months following the troubled Brexit vote. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence Party and the bête noire of embattled ‘Remainers’, has urged young Britons to go out and see Dunkirk. Gary Oldman has been asked what he thinks Churchill would have made of Brexit. The London Times journalist Jenni Russell has lamented that Dunkirk was released at this particular moment, for its “narrative of heroic retreat in order to fight another day, cannot help but feed the national pride in Britain’s capacity to triumph eventually, no matter what the odds … nothing could be less helpful to our collective psyche.” Ian Jack accuses the two films of “feeding Brexit fantasies.” Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk’s director, has denied any such thing. Patrick Porter backs Nolan up, insisting that the film “does not end simply celebrating homecoming and a departure from Europe.” Anthony King demurs, seeing Dunkirk as “structured around the question of British nationalism” in a way that depicts “home [as] the only redemption from the alienating emptiness” of France.

The significance of these films for a British people wrestling with their conception of themselves and their place in the world is understandable enough. What is interesting is the extent to which Churchillian and Dunkirk myths might also be resonating with modern American audiences. Both films, though preoccupied with purely British historical stories, and without any leading American characters or actors, have done very well at the US box office. Dunkirk has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture; Darkest Hour too is up for Best Picture, with five other nominations, including Gary Oldman as Best Actor. Churchill’s status, shared only with Lincoln, as the one historical statesman to whom all US politicians wish to be compared, remains as solid as ever. Mike Huckabee attracted much attention, and no end of derision, for his Twitter claims that Darkest Hour demonstrated what “real leadership” looks like, and that in President Trump, “we have a Churchill.”

But perhaps it’s not so surprising that stories of lone Anglophone defiance in a hostile world of babbling foreigners should be gaining traction on the other side of the Atlantic. Most Americans had barely heard of Dunkirk before Nolan’s film. To most of them, perhaps, it remains an obscure overseas battle. But America is going through its own isolationist hour (‘finest’ or not) at the moment: retreating into trade protectionism, eyeing its foreign allies with increasing distrust and resentment, literally raising its border walls. It’s not difficult to see how accounts of a white English-speaking people standing unaided against belligerent aliens might find purchase among certain constituencies of American movie-goers – and voters – in the Trump epoch. Whether they or their President might also see the Dunkirk story as a cautionary tale of the catastrophe that can befall nations that take their allies for granted is not so clear.

Alan Allport is an Associate Professor of History at Syracuse University. His books Demobbed: Coming Home after the Second World War (2009), and Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945 (2015), are both published by Yale University Press. His forthcoming two-volume history of the Second World War, British Iliad, will be published in North America by Knopf.


Posted in Brexit, British history, film, Popular Culture, war and society, World War II | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

“We Danced While They Bombed”: Popular Dancing in Britain during the Second World War

by Allison Abra, Ph.D.

Abra book coverIn the fall of 1939, during the first months of the Second World War, famed American war correspondent Edward R. Murrow undertook what he called an “investigation into London nightlife.” Describing a recent tour through some of the restaurants, hotels, and night-clubs in the city’s West End he observed that “business is good; has in fact improved since war came.” In particular Murrow noted that there were now more dance bands being featured than before the war, and that many establishments “where one could eat without musical distraction in the old days have now engaged small orchestras.” As Murrow summed it up, “Customers want to dance.”[1]

The war was in its infancy when Murrow wrote, but the phenomenon that he observed would endure until its conclusion, when Britons celebrated their victory by dancing in the streets on VE Day. Additionally, as I discuss in my recent book Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50, throughout the war, dancing took on a host of important cultural meanings that helped the British people express who they were as a nation, and to define how and why they were fighting.


East London in the aftermath of the German Blitz of 1940-41.

From the moment the war broke out there was voracious press coverage of Britain’s “dancing boom.” As one dance magazine reported about London’s first and most famous dance hall, ‘It takes more than a war to empty [the] Hammersmith [Palais]… [it] is, in fact, doing better business than ever.”[2] From that point on, the British people’s desire to dance was frequently deployed as evidence of their high spirits, fortitude, and endurance. When the Blitz began, stories about dances carrying on during air raids were abundant. An illustrative report described the scene in a dance hall as German bombs rained down, observing that “the band … played on, and the dancers continued as though nothing had happened, although many of the windows had been blown out.’[3] Special attention was focused on the persistence of dancing in Dover, which suffered under both heavy bombing and enemy shelling across the English Channel from occupied France. A journalist marveled in 1942 that under such conditions the town still staged weekly dances, and that “One occasion saw the orchestra vie with German gunners as to which could make the most noise: dancers remained swaying to the rhythm of war and a ‘hot’ band! … [showing] the ‘carry on’ spirit of a town living under the shadow of German long-range artillery.”[4] Reports of this type helped to establish the belief in the “Blitz spirit,” and the British people’s stalwart refusal to succumb to Nazi aggression.

Dances were also frequently heralded for being spaces where social unity and “community feeling” were on vivid display. A letter to the editor of a dance magazine described his experience at a Manchester dance hall, where “before a few dances were over, I found quite happily that all the dancers were singing as well as dancing – in fact, it almost became community singing – and it really did help us all to feel more cheerful.[5] There was a belief that dances were a unifying force, bringing together people of different classes, from distinct regions within the British Isles and from across the British Empire, and cementing bonds between the British and their military allies, such as Poles or Americans.

Dance hall proprietors also sought ways to enable their patrons to make tangible contributions to the war effort during their visits, positioning dancing as not only a morale-booster but a way of doing one’s “bit.” In a notable example, the Manchester Ritz hosted a “Tank Week” in 1941, during the course of which a large inflatable tank was pushed around the ballroom, and as they danced across the floor patrons dropped coins upon its surface; by week’s end the hall had raised over fifty pounds towards the building of a new tank. Dancing therefore provided enjoyment and relaxation, but also enabled Britons to feel that even in their leisure time they were contributing to the country’s victory in the war.

Meanwhile, with growing restrictions on dancing in Nazi Germany and across occupied Europe, the British saw their very ability to dance as something that distinguished them from the enemy, and reinforced their reasons for fighting. As one writer opined in 1944, in “dictator-occupied countries… force rules and freedom goes and with it dancing which so truly expresses a freedom of spirit and action that is distasteful to rulers and conquerors.’[6] The dance craze in Britain thus came to represent the nation’s continued freedom from tyranny, and the people’s dancing bodies became a physical expression of their enduring democracy.

It is important to note that this vision of the dancing nation – cheerful, defiant, and united – shrouded lingering social tensions, on the dance floor and beyond. While it was a predominant belief during the so-called “people’s war” that shared sacrifices and the collective waging of the war effort were dissolving social divisions of class, gender, race, age and region, historians have clearly demonstrated that many societal fissures were exacerbated rather than eliminated during the war years.[7] This was no less true of the dance floor, where, for instance, controversies over interracial dancing sparked significant tensions or even violence. Even the much vaunted dance craze was to some degree illusory. For all the times that dances continued during air raids, there were other occasions when they simply shut down; attendance at leisure venues also declined significantly during moments when the military situation appeared particularly grim, such as during the German offensive in 1940, when, as one contemporary put it, “the mood of the people is not to go out nearly so much at night to make whoopee in the West End.”[8]

Dancing in London on VE Day

Dancing in London on VE Day, May 8, 1945.

Yet even with these necessary caveats, dancing undoubtedly played a critical role in constructing and presenting – within Britain and around the world – the dominant image of the fighting nation, and the ideals upon which it waged the war. Indeed, I argue in the book that for all of the ways that the “people’s war” was a myth, the dance floor provided a space where that myth could be realized and experienced by wartime Britons, even if only in the ephemeral “moment of dance.”[9] Dancing in World War II Britain thus has much to tell us about the role played by popular culture in wartime, and how it operates not solely as escapism or propaganda, but as a crucial site for the creation and expression of soldiers’ and civilians’ motivations and belief systems.

Allison Abra is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society and the Nina Bell Suggs Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. A specialist in modern British history, she is the author of Dancing in the English Style: Consumption, Americanisation, and National Identity in Britain, 1918-50 (Manchester, 2017).

[1] Edward R. Murrow, This is London (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941), p. 41.

[2] Irene Raines, “London Ballroom Notes,” Dancing Times (November 1939), p. 74.

[3] “Bombed, But Danced On,” Dance News (18 October 1941), p. 1.

[4] Frank Illingworth, Britain Under Shellfire (London: Hutchison & Company, 1942), p. 42.

[5] “Manchester Notes,” Modern Dance (October 1939).

[6] James Mackenzie, Stepping Out (Danceland Publications, 1944), p. 6.

[7] Sonya Rose, Which People’s War? National Identity and Citizenship in Britain, 1939-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[8] MOA: TC 38/8/D, Correspondence, Letter from H.E. Smith to Tom Harrisson (21 May 1940).

[9]The “moment of dance” is a concept articulated by dance studies scholar Julie Malnig in: Julie Malnig, “Women, Dance, and New York Nightlife,” in Julie Malnig (ed.) Ballroom Boogie, Shimmy Sham, Shake: A Social and Popular Dance Reader (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 82.

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Why We Need to Study Soldiers and Families

In honor of today’s release of her latest book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, Dale Center co-director Susannah Ural reflects on a new approach to writing unit histories.

by Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.


Isaac Cline’s ambrotype of Josephine “Josie” Scott, 1863. Image courtesy of the Texas State Historical Association.

In the summer of 1863, Josephine “Josie” Scott walked into Isaac Cline’s photography gallery in Palestine, Texas. Her features and attire in the image Cline captured that day are unremarkable. What stands out was Scott’s decision to hold an ambrotype of her husband while Cline made an ambrotype of her.

Josie Scott’s husband was Lt. John G. Scott, a member of the 1st Texas Infantry. Serving in the Texas Brigade in Lt. Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the 1st Texas was known for aggressive fighting that had won them an unwanted honor the previous September at the battle of Antietam. They suffered the most casualties of any regiment on either side in the war in that bloody fight. But even 87 percent losses (higher than the 82 percent often quoted) had not broken the regiment, though it had made a host of women like Josie Scott widows. Perhaps it was with this in mind that she decided to send her husband a subtle message that, even though he was a thousand miles away, he was with her, just as she was with him.

Josie Scott’s image highlights the strong familial bonds that sustained a hard fighting unit like the Texas Brigade through four years of war. By the time she had the ambrotype made, Hood’s Texans, as they were known, were already famous for helping to roll back Union forces at the battles of Gaines’s Mill and Second Manassas, for their astonishing bravery at Antietam, and for seizing the first if not the second of their objectives at the Battle of Gettysburg. The men of this unit had raced to be among the first to reach Virginia when the war began because it was there that they believed they could best contribute to Confederate victory. They could have fought just as honorably closer to home, but not, they argued, as effectively. So they remained in the east, year after year, suffering such astonishingly high casualties that they earned another dubious honor. Most Civil War soldiers were twice as likely to die from disease as they were in combat, but by the end of the war, the opposite proved true for the Texas Brigade.

Hood’s Texans became a textbook unit in lessons of leadership and soldier ideology, and rightfully so. But too often overlooked is the significant role that their families played in helping their men sustain that determination to fight. This unit reminds us that when we study units to understand what made them effective or ineffective, we need to more closely consider the contributing role played by their immediate families. While some Southern wives, mothers, and fathers were telling men that they needed to come home or writing to governors to insist that soldiers’ families receive the care they were promised, astonishingly few letters like this came from Texas Brigade families. This may be because many of them had the financial stability to offset the hardships caused by the war, to help other brigade families, and to raise funds for their men in Virginia. But families’ letters and diaries also indicate that they shared their volunteers’ belief that sacrifices were necessary to secure Confederate independence.

Texas Brigade soldiers and families continued to face hardships together, as a unit, long after the fighting stopped. When veterans opened businesses, for example, they were more likely to cite their service in the Texas Brigade than anything that had to do with their new enterprise. When Dr. R. J. Breckenridge, who ended the war as chief medical examiner for the Army of Northern Virginia, opened his practice in Houston, he advertised his original position as a surgeon in Hood’s Texas Brigade to attract patients, not his training or prominence in Lee’s army. By 1870, five years after they returned home, those connections helped to ensure that two-thirds of the veterans and families of Hood’s Texas Brigade were more financially secure than their friends and neighbors in the same county. They waged the peace of Reconstruction together as a unit just as they had waged the war.

Josie Scott’s ambrotype reminds us that it is only by studying the full picture of a military unit — the men at the front and their families at home — that we can begin to understand what drove them to war, how they fought and endured it, and how they navigated the rocky peace that followed.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D. is professor of history and co-director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of four books on the U.S. Civil War, including the latest: Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit. Ural credits the Blount Professorship in Military History, which she held from 2013-2015, for giving her the time and support she needed to complete her decade-long study of this unit.

Posted in military families, Military history, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, unit histories, war and society | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The War Stories We Tell

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.

best years of our lives poster

Poster advertising the 1946 film, The Best Years of Our Lives.

My Honors students and I recently watched the 1946 Oscar-winning film, The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows three World War II veterans as they return home and struggle to settle back into civilian life. Homer Parrish (portrayed by an actual wounded World War II veteran) lost both hands while serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Fred Derry, an Army Air Forces captain, suffered from nightmares of his time at war. Sgt. Al Stephenson took to the bottle to smooth the jarring reentry into his roles as husband, father, and banker. There were no ticker tape parades, no triumphant landing of victorious soldiers into the arms of a jubilant public. The three veterans arrived at an airport alone, and in trying to find a flight to their hometown, learned that they were all going to the same place. No one met them when they landed. They shared a taxi, which dropped them off at their respective homes on an ordinary day. They hugged their families, and everyone expected things to get back to normal. But the vets only felt “normal” when they were in each other’s company, sharing drinks and stories at the local bar.

Change the fashion, the cars, and the soundtrack, and The Best Years of Our Lives could have been about Vietnam veterans. The lonely return home, the struggle to cope with war wounds and terrifying flashbacks, and the difficulty reconnecting with family and civilian friends are all hallmarks of the American public memory of the Vietnam veteran. What’s more, we have created an image of the Vietnam veteran as a man whose wartime experience was distinct, especially when compared to the vets of his father’s generation. The Vietnam veteran was ignored, if not abused. The Vietnam War was uniquely traumatic, and all Vietnam veterans served in combat units or were otherwise in the line of fire. America was on the winning side of World War II, so that made it easier for veterans to process the pain. Not so, according to The Best Years of Our Lives.

Burns docThe comparison between the World War II and Vietnam veteran experiences struck me because I was watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War at the same time that my students and I watched The Best Years of Our Lives. Burns enforces the image of the distinctly damaged Vietnam veteran by prioritizing the voices of infantrymen and Marines. The archival footage of Americans shows men in violent battle, and the veterans interviewed describe the horrors of combat. The anecdotes are dramatic, and the documentary’s use of them suggests that combat was the primary American experience in Vietnam. Karl Marlantes, Tim O’Brien, and W.D. Ehrhart no doubt conveyed the feelings and experiences of many Americans who served in Vietnam. Yet historian Meredith Lair has argued with convincing archival evidence that, depending on the year, most American troops served in the rear echelon, where the greatest risk to soldiers and the military’s mission was boredom.

Burns does not tell that story. His is a fairly one-dimensional view of the U.S. soldier’s experience in Vietnam, just as the long-established image of World War II troops gleefully returning home to a hero’s welcome is simplistic. Americans—the public, filmmakers, writers, and historians—seem to be unwilling or unable to complicate the popular portrayals of World War II and Vietnam veterans. Why not acknowledge that some veterans of “the good war” spent their entire lives battling their wartime demons? Why not incorporate into our national narrative stories of Vietnam vets like Joel Blackwell, whose time in-country was an adventure, “a lark,” as he wrote recently in the New York Times?

Why are Americans so invested in the story of the traumatized Vietnam veteran? If American male soldiers appear as victims in our collective memory, does that help us stomach the bad policies and decisions Americans made regarding Vietnam? If Vietnam vets were uniquely traumatized by their war experiences compared to veterans of other wars, does that allow Americans to argue that the Vietnam War was an anomaly rather than a typical example of what the U.S. does in the world? I often wonder what World War II veterans might have told us if they had come out of war into a culture of consciousness raising and protest. Had Ken Burns interviewed American veterans who had no gruesome tales to tell, it would have been more difficult for him to produce a documentary that portrays Americans as victims of the Vietnam War, rather than perpetrators or bystanders.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is the Gen. Buford “Buff” Blount Professor in Military History and a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

Posted in Military history, public history, soldiers, Vietnam War, war and society, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Let Us Speak of What We Have Done

Editor’s note: In the October 2017 issue of Civil War Times magazine, Dale Center co-director Dr. Susannah J. Ural was invited along with 14 other leading Civil War scholars to offer her thoughts on the current debate over Confederate memorials. The post below is an extended version of her thoughts on subject.

By Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D.

There’s an obelisk at Karnak built to honor Hatshepsut, one of the few women pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Its inscription captures her curiosity at how she, who ushered in a period of prosperity and peace, would be remembered: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say — those who shall see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” Hatshepsut’s successor, for reasons still debated, nearly destroyed every memory of her. But history has a way of haunting us. Our current struggle with a Confederate past has me wondering, like Hatshepsut, how future generations will interpret our decisions.

Hood's Texas Brigade monument front of the Texas state capitol

Hood’s Texas Brigade monument in front of the Texas state capitol.

In an era of great division, a point that is often missed in the Confederate monuments debate is that most factions rightly agree that history should not be erased. The question is in how it should be remembered. In my opinion, if citizens come together through a democratic process and agree to remove monuments in their community, they should do so. That’s how democracy works. But don’t hide them away in warehouses. Place them at museums or battlefield parks where historians and interpreters can help visitors learn about the motives behind the Lost Cause. These monuments were erected at the height of this movement to, yes, honor concepts of sacrifice for liberty and family. Countless letters from the men and women who endured the Civil War and raised the money to build these monuments verify that. When Confederate veteran Joseph B. Polley, who fought in the 4th Texas Infantry, debated with his fellow veterans about the design of the Texas Brigade monument in Austin, he insisted that it had to feature an individual soldier rather than Jefferson Davis or a Confederate commander. “If a medallion of Davis appears on the monument at all, it is bound to have the central and most conspicuous place, and the men and women who when we are dead and gone look at it, will accept it as a monument to Davis and the cause he represented.” Instead, Polley and his fellow Texas Brigade veterans decided to depict a common soldier representing “the brave men to whose memory alone it should be dedicated.” (J. B. Polley, Floresville, Wilson County, Texas to Col. B. F. Chilton, Angleton, Texas, July 18, 1908. F. B. Chilton Papers, The Texas Collection, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.)

"Silent Sam" monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

“Silent Sam” monument at UNC-Chapel Hill

We need to recognize, however, that many of these monuments were also erected amid an effort to entrench a ruthless tradition of white supremacy. One of the best-known examples of this is the recently removed Battle of Liberty Place Monument in New Orleans. Another appears in the speech by Confederate veteran and Southern philanthropist Julian S. Carr at the 1913 dedication of the Confederate memorial at UNC-Chapel Hill. Carr celebrated many things in his speech, including “what the Confederate soldier meant to the welfare of the Anglo Saxon race during the four years immediately succeeding the war, when the facts are that their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South — When ‘the bottom rail was on top’ all over the Southern states, and to-day, as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States — Praise God.” (Carr’s full speech is here; this quote is from page 9-B; sources relating to this monument can be found here).

I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the monuments question, just as I fail to see a universal motivation in those who erected them. The past is messy, and that messiness is what inspires so many of us to study it. So, let’s talk about these complexities, and preferably at sites that have trained historians and archivists on staff who can help visitors research and read original sources and enjoy an informed debate about the issues — not so we can all agree, but so we can reach our own informed conclusions about the past to help us shape a better future.

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

Joseph B. Polley, Private, Company F, 4th Texas Regiment, 1862-65

I truly hope the fury over these monuments will inspire a similar fury to support education about the Civil War and its enduring legacy. Rather than mock simplistic videos and erroneous postings from museums that are understaffed and misinformed, we might consider how we can come together to help sites across the nation improve their facilities. We can remind our representatives why funding education in the humanities is so important. We can support groups like the Civil War Trust, which works tirelessly with diverse groups of scholars, educators, and preservationists to save and interpret Civil War history. We can also volunteer our services at historic sites in our area. But I want to be clear that volunteering needs to be done under the direction of a trained public historian, archivist, or museum curator. Otherwise, well-intentioned volunteers can interpret in ignorance or damage more than we preserve. But under such direction, many of us have the education, research, computer, and organizational skills that museums can put to use transcribing and digitizing collections, editing signage, and helping with publicity. These approaches would be a better use of funds and energy than, as some suggest, erecting more monuments that represent alternatives to, say, the White League memorial in New Orleans. In a city that is facing potentially crippling financial challenges, I’m not convinced that erecting and maintaining more monuments is a realistic solution.

Like Hatshepsut’s obelisk, Confederate memorials “speak of what [we] have done.” Let us do just that at historic sites designed for that purpose, where Confederate symbols, including the flag, are and should be part of the landscape from which visitors learn.

Susannah J. Ural, Ph.D., is Co-Director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss and President of the Mississippi Historical Society. She is the author of Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Osprey, 2013) and The Harp and the Eagle: Irish-American Volunteers and the Union Army, 1861-1865 (NYU Press, 2006). Her current project, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit, will be published this year by LSU Press.

Posted in battlefields, Historic preservation, public history, soldiers, U.S. Civil War, veterans, war and society | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Who Gets to Be a Soldier?

Editor’s note: This is a combined post by Dale Center fellows Dr. Douglas Bristol and Dr. Heather Stur, who co-edited Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II. The book was recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“More Likely to be Attacked Than Honored”: Changing the Way We Remember Black Soldiers

by Douglas Bristol, Ph.D.


T/5 William E. Thomas and Pfc. Joseph Jackson in Europe, March 10, 1945. Office of War Information, Overseas Operations Branch, 1942-1945. Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926 – 1951. National Archives.

On Veterans’ Day last year, the Equal Justice Initiative released a new report, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” that says, between 1877 and 1950, “no one was more at risk of experiencing violence and targeted racial terror than black veterans.”[1] The report supplemented the organization’s 2015 report, “Lynching in America,” that documented 4,075 lynchings, which is 800 more than any previous tally. Although historians have noted that white supremacists disproportionately targeted black veterans for assault and murder, the subject has never been examined so comprehensively. Thousands of black veterans were assaulted, lynched, or threatened. Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, said in an interview that the report should change the way we remember black veterans. “We do so much in this country to celebrate and honor folks who risk their lives on the battlefield,” Stevenson said, “but we don’t remember that black veterans were more likely to be attacked for their service than honored for it.”[2]

As sobering as his comment is, Stevenson left out black soldiers who were violently assaulted, unfairly punished, or disproportionately among the casualties while they were serving in the military. Whereas “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans” tells the well-known story of Isaac Woodard, who was blinded in 1946 by a South Carolina policeman while he was travelling home from his service in the Pacific, Integrating the U.S. Military tells the story of Private Felix Hall, who was lynched at Fort Benning in the spring of 1941, just months before Pearl Harbor. The book examines such incidents to provide a historical context for understanding the role that violence, harsh justice, and death have played in the black military experience since World War II.

The chapter on the resistance of black soldiers during World War II, for example, makes the pervasiveness of racial violence a central theme. Beyond the indignity of having to serve in a segregated military, African Americans experienced many varieties of racial discrimination. The most egregious were attacks by white law enforcement officers who patrolled the towns near the southern military bases where most black soldiers were posted. Perhaps the best example is the Alexandria Riot of 1942.

Alexandria, Louisiana was surrounded by three large military bases, which brought thousands of black and white soldiers downtown to mingle with civilians every Saturday night. On January 10, 1942, it was a typical Saturday night until a black soldier responded to a white woman driver honking at him while he crossed Lee Street. He asked the white woman, “Would you hit a veteran?” She responded by calling over a city policeman, who arrested the soldier for “using vile and unnecessary language.” A group of black soldiers thought the arrest was excessive, and they crowded around the policeman and his prisoner. In very short order, white M.P.s, state troopers, and National Guardsmen from nearby Camp Beauregard reinforced the Alexandria police. Instead of restoring order, however, the armed white men began firing volley after volley of shots into businesses patronized by African Americans. Local NAACP leaders said they targeted black soldiers. At least ten African Americans were killed, and no charges were filed. The fact that military personnel joined the police in their rampage illustrates how the military used violence, as did civilian law enforcement, to maintain racial subordination and segregation.

The chapter that examines black soldiers in Vietnam shows that integration did not end discrimination, which often meant black soldiers died. Because the Selective Service drafted African Americans in disproportionate numbers and the military assigned African Americans to the infantry in disproportionate numbers, black soldiers suffered disproportionately high casualties. African American made up around 11% of the U.S. population in 1966, but black soldiers made up 15% of the forces serving in Vietnam and accounted for 22% of the casualties to that date. Although the black casualty rate declined after 1967, the overall death rate for black soldiers was approximately 30% higher than for all U.S. forces fighting in Southeast Asia.

This chapter also shows a pattern of racial discrimination in the administration of military justice. To give one example, a 1972 Department of Defense investigation of military justice at several bases revealed that African Americans made up over 34% of the court-martials. Such high numbers should prompt historians to ask whether mass incarceration, which has emerged as a major topic in the history of African American civilians, existed in the military.

The book also illustrates how resentment over being targeted for unfair treatment and violence led to resistance by black soldiers that, at times, generated enough disorder to force the military command to address racial discrimination. During World War II, the resistance of black soldiers helped lead to deploying black troops overseas and to the trial of integrated combat troops following the Battle of the Bulge. During Vietnam, racial disturbances at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in 1969, which left one soldier dead and dozens injured, initiated another wave of military reform that is examined in the chapter on the history of the Defense Race Relations Institute. Racism was one of the factors that caused the riots since many black soldiers had been outraged when white soldiers celebrated the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. The problems with race relations at Camp Lejeune made the national news, prompted the creation of a special House Armed Services Committee, and ultimately led to the creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute in 1971.

Even within the Defense Race Relations Institute, violent threats against African Americans loomed large. “We had people that threatened our lives,” said one black instructor. “I was threatened, so I bought a .38 Special that I kept in my car when I drove to work. . . . Even in my office, I would have bricks and stones thrown into the office windows.” By not quitting in response to these threats, this instructor resisted attempts to thwart reform in the military. His courage shows that black soldiers were not only disproportionately targeted by racists, but they also played an outsize role in ending racial discrimination.

If the targeting of black soldiers and veterans became central to our understanding of the black military experience, it would transform the history of the U.S. military and of American race relations. The cooperation between military authorities and civilian law enforcement to keep black soldiers in their place disproves assertions by military leaders during World War II that race relations were a civilian affair outside their jurisdiction. Racial disparities in the draft and in the military justice system during the Vietnam War question the commitment of military leaders to integration. Yet, to understand these issues, one must look outside the military to the broader American society that maintained segregation and that accepted racial inequality in the operation of the Selective Service and the criminal justice system. Integrating the U.S. Military explores these and other links between military life and civilian society, and in the process, makes the case for historians to examine this interaction more consistently.

Black soldiers lend new clarity to the investigation of American race relations because, when they donned the uniform of their nation and fought to defend it, they challenged stereotypes about African Americans in ways that domestics and sharecroppers could not. That is why they were targeted so frequently. At the same time, paying attention to the impact of black soldiers when they resisted discrimination adds a grass-roots element to the top-down story of how the military struggled to improve race relations. It also sheds new light on the influence of black veterans on the civil rights movement. Thus, the contributions that black soldiers made to overcoming racism are as important to remember as their contributions to the defense of the United States. This legacy only becomes visible when the enormity of the attacks on black soldiers is recognized as a central part of their history.

[1] Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Targeting Black Veterans,” (accessed April 27, 2017).

[2] Peter C. Baker, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans,” The New Yorker (Nov. 27, 2016), (accessed April 27, 2017)

Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. He is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II and author of Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).

When Military Policies Collide with Civilian Ideas

by Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D.


Specialist DeJesus, a member of the Puerto Rico Army National Guard, presents the Defense of Saudi Arabia streamer to Col. Emmette Y. Burton during the Armed Forces Day celebration at Headquarters, Fort Buchanan. DeJesus was among the first women to be deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm From RG: 330, Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files. National Archives.

Back in March, the Marine Corps and other branches of the U.S. armed forces came under fire after service members posted nude and partially nude photos of their fellow personnel to Facebook and other websites. When Marine veteran Erika Butner discovered photos of her posted on a closed Facebook group called Marines United, she hoped that the Marines would not dismiss the incident as a type of “boys will be boys” prank. Butner is a rape survivor, and she told a reporter that this type of behavior can lead to sexual violence.[1] The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the matter, and U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis issued a statement in which he asserted that “Lack of respect for the dignity and humanity of fellow members of the Department of Defense is unacceptable and counter to unit cohesion.” Mattis went on to say that “We will not excuse or tolerate such behavior if we are to uphold our values and maintain our ability to defeat the enemy on the battlefield.” Far from dismissing the incident as an example of “boys will be boys” behavior, Mattis cast it as the type of activity that destroys unit cohesion and undermines the Marines’ ability to perform its missions.

The story and subsequent ongoing investigation illustrate the difficulty of changing deep-seated cultural attitudes about men, women, and military service even as legal and institutional changes go into effect to open the armed forces to women more fully. Efforts to integrate minorities have shown the military to be “pragmatically progressive.” To meet personnel needs, military authorities have, at times, crafted policies that were progressive relative to a minority group’s position in the civilian world. Yet cultural resistance to military integration has been much more difficult to change. It is difficult, if not impossible, to legislate a mindset change. Laws can open military opportunities to African Americans, women, gay men, and lesbians, but laws cannot force Americans to change the image in their heads of who is an American soldier, of who represents and wields U.S. power in the world. Can it be a woman? Can it be a gay man? There is tension between military integration at the policy level and resistance to policies that appear to challenge the traditional image of the U.S. soldier.

A question I’ve begun to ask related to this is: Where does the traditional image of the U.S. military come from? Did the military create this image, or is it a product of broader civilian attitudes about American identity and American power? Attitudes and behaviors on display in the Marines United incident reflect not just a type of military culture but a much broader civilian culture which offers tacit approval of the objectification of women’s bodies and heterosexual male entitlement to images of them. Marines United brings to mind Tailhook, another private organization with heavy Marines and Navy membership, which got into serious trouble in 1991 when members at its annual convention sexually assaulted male and female attendees. In the context of contemporary culture from the Anita Hill case in the 1990s to the proliferation of rape and sexual assault on college campuses in recent years, we can see the impact of civilian culture on women’s experiences in the military. Given this type of continuity in the interplay between the U.S. military and civilian worlds, Integrating the U.S. Military offers useful historical context for contemporary civil-military relations.

The chapters in our book encourage readers to ask questions that are relevant to the U.S. military from the mid-twentieth century to the present day. Who is a soldier? What is combat? Why have the U.S. armed forces banned certain Americans from service based on race, gender, or sexuality? What has motivated military authorities to lift service restrictions? When we think of military culture, we often think of hypermasculine, aggressive, heterosexual behavior – and men – which may lead us to wonder where that image originated. Is it a military idea, or does it stem from a broader civilian mindset? If it’s the latter, why have Americans invested in this particular image? What does it tell us about American identity? Where have we seen its limits and resistance to it? Integrating the U.S. Military will help readers see the ways in which leaders of the armed forces have responded to social changes in the civilian world and have been pragmatic progressives in positioning the military as a vanguard of social change in order to meet practical personnel needs. It will also guide readers through the much more entrenched conventional wisdom to which Americans cleave about who should serve in the armed forces and why.

[1] Steve Almasy, “Female Marine veteran ‘disgusted’ to see photos posted online,”, Mar. 9, 2017, <> Accessed Mar. 14, 2017.

Heather Marie Stur, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. She is co-editor of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II and author of Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge, 2011).

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Recovering the Experiences of the Black Greatest Generation

by Douglas Bristol


African American troops in the 761st Tank Battalion, World War II.

After conducting hundreds of hours of oral history interviews with Vietnam veterans, the Founding Director of the Dale Center, Dr. Andrew Wiest, persuasively argued in his Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam that historians have overlooked how ordinary GIs experienced war. I contend this is also true of black veterans of the “Greatest Generation” in World War II. In the case of these black GIs, I argue the problem is that historians are too preoccupied with finding the origins of the Civil Rights Movement in the wartime experiences of African American troops. This has led some historians to start with the assumption that most, if not all, black soldiers understood that they were on the front lines of the struggle for racial equality. This assumption has shaped the research questions civil rights historians have asked, both of archival sources and of veterans themselves. Some historians have been surprised, then, to learn that not all African American World War II veterans had the struggle for civil rights on their minds when they served. To make my point, I will examine several oral histories of black World War II veterans conducted by Dr. Neil McMillen for the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi.


Double V Campaign logo.

McMillen is a distinguished historian, whose book, Dark Journey: Mississippians in the Age of Jim Crow, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In his interviews, he focused his questioning of black veterans on civil rights issues such as the Double V Campaign, an effort by the black-owned newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, to encourage African Americans to fight for victory over the Axis powers and victory over racial discrimination in the United States. By doing so, he was assuming that all black veterans understood at the time that their World War II experiences were part of the long civil rights struggle.

The veterans’ answers to McMillen’s questions clearly surprised him. When he asked Dr. John Berry, the first black professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, if he had heard of the Double V campaign, Berry said, “Not during the war, no I did not hear about that.” McMillen seemed perplexed because all he said in response was, “Okay.” Berry explained his answer by saying, “. . . I went into the service when I was eighteen years old.” Another veteran that McMillen interviewed was James Boykin, who was the first African American elected to the Forrest County, Mississippi, Board of Supervisors. McMillen prefaced his question about the Double V campaign by explaining that it had been launched by the Pittsburg Courier during the war. Boykin said, “I don’t remember that.” Boykin went on to explain that he was familiar with the Pittsburg Courier since he had a part-time job at the newspaper when he was a graduate student, but he did not recall anyone in his hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, reading the newspaper. McMillen had asked Berry, Boykin, and several other veterans about the Double V campaign because it set an important precedent for later achievements in the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, none of them were familiar with it during the war. It did not consciously shape how they understood their identity as African American soldiers.

McMillen’s more general questions about the war begin to reveal what World War II meant to black veterans. First, he asked why they served. James Jones, who was the President of the Jones County, Mississippi, Chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., had served with the famous 761st Tank Battalion that fought at the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate three concentration camps. Jones said, “. . . we did it because we were Americans . . . we felt, although we’re being used as second-class citizens, we felt it was our duty, and we had pride in America . . . we always felt that someday the shackles that held us down would be broken. We had faith in this country. This is the only country we had.” The other black veterans also said they served in the military out of patriotism.

McMillen also asked the veterans what they got out of the war, and the major theme that emerged from their answers was how they were transformed by spending time in other countries. Lamar Lenoir had served with the Fifteenth Air Force in North Africa and in Italy, and he remembered being treated with respect. He said, “Color wasn’t a factor when you were in the army. Because we found that the color was these citizens left back here.” What Lenoir meant was that white Mississippians were the ones preoccupied with skin color. John Berry also had fond memories of his time in Europe. When he got together with other World War II veterans, he said they always talked about Paris. He explained why, saying that “I feel like we were more accepted in France . . . .”   Similar comments about the experience of serving overseas in the interviews demonstrates that the war let black GIs imagine better, more equal lives. They did not necessarily see themselves as part of a broader civil rights struggle, but they did begin to think about the possibilities of equality because of their experiences in other countries.

Although historians of the black Greatest Generation have had the best of intentions, their focus on the origins of the Civil Rights Movement has obscured the experiences of black GIs in World War II. Neil McMillen followed the conventional wisdom, asking black veterans questions about the wartime initiatives of civil rights leaders and the Roosevelt Administration only to learn that African American soldiers did not necessarily connect politics with their wartime service. However, when McMillen asked black veterans why they served and how the war changed them, their answers provided a glimpse of what the war was like for them. In some ways, they sounded like white veterans. They were ill-informed about wartime politics and very patriotic. In other ways, the black veterans sounded very different. Their chance to play a role in the defense of their country and to travel overseas led them to question the narrow opportunities available to them as black men in Mississippi. Their later success as civil rights leaders, as college professors, and as politicians suggests that World War II changed their lives even if they didn’t realize its transformative power while they served.

Douglas Bristol, Ph.D., is a faculty fellow in the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at Southern Miss. He has written about the black “Greatest Generation” in Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexuality since World War II (The Johns Hopkins University Press, April 2017), which he co-edited with Dale Center Fellow Dr. Heather Stur.

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