Two recent releases chronicle the contentious history of blacks in the US military.
For advocates of civil rights, the buck looked as if it might stop at an accidental president named Harry Truman – and then return to sender.
There had been a discouraging line of Democratic disappointments in the White House through World War II, and some black voters thought the GOP might be a better option. After all, Truman came from a Show-Me state full of Confederate sympathizers (his mother was an "unreconstructed rebel"), hadn't shown tremendous interest in equality, and sounded like a jerk at best when he talked about blacks in private.
But Truman, no starry-eyed progressive, made a crucial decision that rocked the military and the nation. The story of his decision, and the decades of humiliation, heroism, and violence that preceded it, unfolds in the smart and insightful new book The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military.
In our own era, just a few weeks ago, a gun-rights advocate was roundly mocked for declaring that slaves wouldn't have been slaves if they had been armed. In fact, there was plenty of debate in the early days of the republic (and before) about whether blacks – including slaves – should carry guns. If they did, they could help win wars and protect communities. But what if they turned on their masters?
The Slaves' Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, a new book by historian Gene Allen Smith, tracks the host of messy dilemmas involved in the question of arming slaves as he delves into a conflict which saw slaves actively recruited by both US and British forces. Many slaves viewed fighting as path to freedom – a gamble that paid off for some but certainly not for all.
While "The Slave's Gamble" is impressively researched, it intensely focuses on a short period of time and is written in a dry academic style. By contrast, "Double V" is an immensely readable book with plenty of modern relevance as today's American military considers who should be able to fight and how.