Teaching Racism in a war to “Make the World Safe for Democracy”

In the most recent issue of Harper’s Magazine you will find in the “Readings” section a very interesting directive that was issued by Colonel J.A. Linard (chief of the French Military Mission) to French military officers on the front lines informing them of how to handle race relations with black American soldiers. The document reveals that American officers were deeply concerned about reports that “the French public has become accustomed to treating the Negro with familiarity and indulgence.” The report stresses the concern on the part of American officials as to the consequences of such interaction as they relate to the expectations of black soldiers once they returned home: “They are afraid that contact with the French will inspire in black Americans aspirations that to them (the whites) appear intolerable. It is of utmost importance that every effort be made to avoid estranging American opinion.” The directive issued three conclusions:

1. We must prevent the rise of a pronounced degree of intimacy between French officers and black officers. We may be courteous and amiable, but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as the white American officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them, must not shake hands or seek to talk or meet with them outside of the requirements of military service.

2. We must not commend too highly the black American troops, particularly in the presence of (white) Americans. It is all right to recognize their good qualities and their services, but only in moderate terms strictly in keeping with truth.

3. Make a point of keeping the native cantonment population from “spoiling” the Negroes. (White) Americans become greatly incensed at any public expression of intimacy between white and black men. They have recently uttered violent protests against a picture in the Vie Parisienne entitled “The Child of the Desert,” which shows a (white) woman in a “cabinet particulier” with a Negro. Familiarity on the part of white women toward black men is furthermore a source of profound regret to our experienced colonials, who see in it an overweening menace to the prestige of the white race.

This document is analyzed in great detail in Richard Slotkin’s new book, Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. I hope to read it at some point.

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