President Obama and Vice President Biden this week paid an unannounced visit to Arlington National Cemetery . They went there to offer the thanks of a grateful nation for the service of Frank Buckles, the last known survivor of the American “Doughboys” of World War I. Buckles was barely 16 when he fibbed about his age to get into uniform.
It is altogether fitting and proper that they should do this.
That Great War was America ’s baptism by fire on the world scene. Although France and Britain , Canada , Australia , and New Zealand had already been fighting in Flanders field and Northeast France for three long, bloody years when the U.S. came into the war against Germany, the Americans were welcomed most heartily, especially by the exhausted French.
President Woodrow Wilson said America wanted “to make the world safe for democracy.” It was a noble cause. But it was certainly an odd thing to ask America ’s black soldiers to fight for. After all, this was the era of KKK lynchings in many states of the Union . This was the time when Jim Crow laws forced black Americans into second class citizenship in the land of their birth. This was an age when the voting rights guaranteed by the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the Constitution were routinely denied in thousands of polling stations.
Wilson denied urgent appeals from French generals to have soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) fill in the gaps in their lines. As a commander-in-chief with no military experience or interests, he followed the wise counsel of our commanding general, John Pershing, that American soldiers should fight as a unit—and only under American officers. Pershing even rejected French army trainers. “An American army cannot be made by Frenchman,” he said.
Wilson did make one exception, however. He did allow units like New York ’s 369th Regiment—the all-black “Harlem Hellfighters”—to serve under the French. Although in doing this Wilson may have been treating his black soldiers not like sons, but like stepsons, the Harlem Hellfighters actually welcomed the chance to get into action early and prove their mettle.
And prove it they did. The Harlem Hellfighters enjoyed their reception into the French forces. Wilson ’s feckless administration had left the U.S. Army and Navy woefully unprepared for war, but the French shared with the Harlem Hellfighters their warm winter uniforms, boots, and even their distinctive, more protective steel helmets.