Strength for the Fight : A HISTORY OF BLACK AMERICANS IN THE MILITARY by Bernard C. Nalty (The Free Press: $22.50; 544 pp.)

June 15, 1986|David K. Carlisle | Carlisle commanded the Army's last black combat unit, a much-decorated engineer company in Korea. and

"Since colonial times, blacks have made an increasingly important contribution to American military might. . . . When given an opportunity to fight, black soldiers and sailors (and eventually airmen and Marines) did well, whether in the North American wilderness, at sea, or on (and above) foreign battlefields. . . . Helping defeat America's foes did not gain acceptance within the military. . . . Besides fighting the wartime enemy, black Americans faced a second and far more dangerous foe . . . racism. . . . The accomplishments of blacks in combat all but disappeared when examined through the distorting prism of white supremacy."

Although Barnard Nalty's thesis is typical of that employed by virtually every author attempting to record all or a part of the record of black fighting men, by the time this professional finishes he has (1) written what is simply the best as well as most readable one-volume comprehensive account of these contributions throughout American history; (2) effectively synthesized black military historians and others who have argued over the years that official (i.e., governmental) history volumes consistently fail to record the true quality of such contributions; and (3) clearly set forth the pervasive influence of institutional racism within what were formerly "Jim Crow" military services; and then (4) uniquely summarized the beneficial effects of corrective efforts taken by somewhat enlightened civilian officials and military leaders since President Harry Truman's historic desegregation order of 1948.

The book reflects the scope and depth of personal knowledge and salutary insight Nalty has gained from his experience in co-editing (with Morris J. MacGregor Jr.) 13 volumes of documents published in 1977 as "Blacks in the United States Armed Forces: Basic Documents." Nalty's book is a marked departure from the type of biased work that continues to be produced essentially "by the numbers" by official military historians and serves as a pioneering example of how these careerists can begin to produce more useful work.

It would be an impressive achievement just to document virtually every significant facet of 300 years of black military history in a single volume of moderate length. But to supply also technical discussions of important military developments in the light of then-contemporary American society at large and the prevailing climate of interracial relations--and to do so in a lucid, attention-holding and thought-provoking manner--is truly remarkable. Some will argue that Nalty is guilty of eliminating some traditional historical detail, but not everything traditional is technically significant.

It might appropriately be argued, however, that in attempting to explain how and why black American soldiers and sailors (and eventually airmen) experienced curiously curtailed commitments to combat during World Wars I and II, Nalty has overlooked much of who, what, when and where.

Although the work is heavily footnoted, the author utilizes a clever technique of multiple references at intervals to enable the reader to progress without undue distraction.

Unfortunately, Nalty has failed to negotiate the minefield laid by senior Army commanders and official historians charged with the responsibility properly to record the valiant service of the white and black officers and black soldiers who served during 1950/1951 with the Army's last black 24th Infantry Regiment in Korean combat. He fails to point out that what has so far been officially recorded is only the initial 3 1/2 months of the 24th Infantry's 14-month overall tour of Korean service. He mistakenly accepts the seriously distorted version of the action at Yechon on July 20-21, 1950, recorded in the Army's "South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu." The result is that even Nalty fails to credit the 24th Infantry with what was actually the United States' highly significant initial victory over invading North Koreans, as well as this regiment's subsequent outstanding performance in northwesternmost North Korea in late 1950 and two extraordinary regimental assault river crossings in South Korea during early 1951.

Nalty devotes too much of the latter portion of his book to emphasizing the importance of integration as a causative factor in improving black soldiers' combat performance. Blacks have always fought and otherwise served loyally and well in the interest of preserving American democratic principles, even when they themselves have been excluded from sharing in these principles fully by being required to serve under highly unacceptable conditions and/or in segregated military units.

This reviewer believes that Nalty has, with but one important exception, his Korean War chapter, given us the work that has for too long been missing from the library of American military histories.

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