- Black Yanks in the Pacific: Race in the Making of American Military Empire after World War II by Michael Cullen Green
In Black Yanks in the Pacific, Michael Cullen Green traces the experiences of a population who was critical to manifesting the U.S. military vision of the Cold War, but has been often overlooked in historical narratives of the Cold War—the African American soldiers in the U.S. military. Green points to the exponential increase in the numbers of African American servicemen in the years after World War II, as “nearly two million black citizens” came to serve in the U.S. military during the decade after 1945 (p. 2). In the midst of a galvanizing Cold War, why did such an increase occur, and what kind of meaning did African Americans’ overseas participation in the U.S. military come to hold? In his response to these questions, Green argues for what he sees as a significant change in the attitudes held by the black public regarding the U.S. military during the period from 1945 through the Korean War in the 1950s. What started initially as “disgust” for the segregated U.S. military in 1945 would eventually transform into what Green calls the “postwar embrace of a military empire,” when black soldiers and the black press eventually came to invest in U.S. military ventures abroad as the trappings of consumer domesticity and social mobility offered by U.S. military service became more and more attractive to those confronted everyday with the realities of a Jim Crow America (p. 4).
A key contribution of the book is Green’s demonstration that the increasing presence of African American soldiers in the U.S. military was not the result of an inevitable lessening of the U.S. military’s grip on the discriminatory and racist bounds on enlistment. Faced with structural and daily racism that effectively shut them out of the postwar boom, certain segments of the African American population demanded that the segregated U.S. military revise its enlistment procedures. It was such a demand, coupled with the Truman administration’s insistence upon a global military presence, that brought an essential contradiction of U.S. race and empire to the fore: how could the U.S. military be segregated when it was the direct representative of the United States in its overseas projects of “democratization”? Here, Green treads on ground laid by scholars such as Brenda Gayle Plummer and Mary Dudziak as he examines how the U.S. military and the African American servicemen negotiated the basic contradiction between U.S. domestic racism and the overseas projects of bringing “freedom” via the U.S. military in the post-1945 era. [End Page 247]
But it is in articulating the broader significance of his work for this historiography that Green makes a critical stumbling block for his book’s significance and argument. The frame of his intervention results in claims that are ultimately not demonstrated and detracts from the valuable contributions of the work. In the introduction, Green critiques the “Afro-Asian solidarity” traced by scholars like George Lipsitz, Penny von Eschen, and Gerald Horne, stating that such a vision of antiwhite supremacist, cross-racial politics was primarily in the purview of a few privileged intellectuals among African Americans at the time. In order to unsettle the “Afro-Asian solidarity” frame, Green claims to focus upon the encounters between African Americans and Asians during this time. Green himself notes, “At its core this book integrates international relations into the racial politics of black servicemen’s informal relationships and violent encounters with East Asian civilians and combatants” (p. 5). However, this book is less a study of the “encounters” themselves and more an examination of the perceptions held by African American servicemen and the African American press surrounding the meaning of African American participation in U.S. military projects abroad. The voices in Green’s book belong to African American servicemen, the African...