The Nation’s War, the War’s Nation03-27-2012
U.S. involvement in twentieth-century warfare has mobilized conceptions of American nationhood in ways that have blurred, affirmed, and redrawn the boundaries of collective belonging in complex ways. That was the central message of Richard Slotkin’s lecture, “The War Bargain: Military Conflict and the Democratization of American Citizenship,” held at Bard College on Thursday, March 22nd. Slotkin, an emeritus professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University, has written extensively on the role of the frontier in American national mythology. During this talk, however, he was primarily concerned with the “platoon movie,” a genre of 1940s Hollywood film that relied on the small military unit to envision a pluralist, multiracial America.
In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most political figures and public commentators defined America as a white if not pointedly Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation that secured its standing as a civilized polity, in no small part, through its frontier conquests of “savage” Indian and Latino populations. As Slotkin noted, a similarly racialist conception of American nationhood also prevailed in the years leading up to World War I. Although at the time more than one third of U.S. residents had been born abroad, the federal government continued to define the American nation as a community of common blood and bodily constitution in a manner that excluded most immigrant and minority groups.
This conception of nationhood began to shift with American participation in World War I. Slotkin argued that the need to raise “an army of millions” compelled the federal government to incorporate recent immigrant and non-white minority populations into the country’s military forces. In order to achieve such incorporation, key federal agencies constructed a new social bargain that promised to reward loyal military service with new forms of national inclusion. In the process, they redefined the American nation along liberal egalitarian and hyphenated lines. Immigrant and minority soldiers could thereby proclaim themselves American while continuing to affiliate with their ancestral groups and countries of origin.
This bargain proved tremendously successful: Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Irish enlisted in disproportionate numbers, even when they were not naturalized U.S. citizens. But Slotkin contended that it was also marked by telling contradictions and concerted opposition. On the one hand, the new conception of American pluralism went hand in hand with a racially tinged demonization of the German enemy. Indeed, wartime propaganda did not so much repudiate as recycle prevailing American stereotypes by attributing animalistic Black sexuality, Asian deviousness, and cunning Jewish self-interest to the German people. On the other hand, the new dispensation contributed to a significant racist backlash: the years following the war witnessed a spate of race rioting and lynching, often with Black veterans among the targets, while increased efforts to exclude Jews and Eastern Europeans culminated in the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act.
These efforts to re-conceive the nation and its military forces resurfaced in the platoon movies of the 1940s, when the federal government once again sought to rally the nation’s varied constituencies to the war effort. Hollywood producers, in cooperation with federal agencies like the Office of War Information, created films like Bataan (1943) and Sahara (1943), which portrayed America’s military units as cohesive social worlds in which racial integration appeared self-evident. As Slotkin rightly observed, these films’ inclusion of Asian and Black soldiers was particularly radical given that actually existing military units were still segregated along racial lines, as were many of the theaters in which audiences viewed the movies.
Nevertheless, Slotkin argued, these films continued to deploy figures of racial animosity in at least two ways. First, a predilection for ethnic and racial hatred was projected onto the Nazi or Japanese enemy in a manner that justified the American war effort and the films’ imagining of national pluralism. And second, white soldiers in these films did impugn the Japanese (in particular) in overtly racist ways, but such diatribes were commonly accompanied by imagery of American transracial cooperation or of Asian soldiers who turned a blind eye to anti-Japanese racism. In the end, then, these films retained a racialist idiom, but they also cast it as more palatable and legitimate than the one adopted by America’s foes.