Why the Confederate Flag Flew During World War II

As white, southern troops raised the battle flag, they showed that they were fighting for change abroad—but the status quo at home.

An illustration of a Confederate flag with camouflage print.
The Atlantic

In July 1944, one month after the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy, the 79th Infantry Division drove Nazi troops out of the French town La Haye-du-Puits. A young officer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, reached into his rucksack and pulled out a flag that his grandfather had carried during the Civil War. He fashioned a makeshift flagpole and hoisted it up, so that the battle-worn Confederate flag could fly over the liberated village.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps recently decided to ban the Confederate flag from military installations, and the Army is considering renaming 10 bases named after Confederate generals. But if you want to understand how the U.S. military came to embrace the Confederate flag in the first place, the answers lie in World War II.

When white southern troops went overseas during the war, some of them carried Confederate flags with them. As American forces took over Pacific Islands or European towns, the troops would sometimes raise the Confederate flag alongside or instead of the U.S. flag to celebrate their victory. The Baltimore Evening Sun described this as a “recurring phenomenon which has been observed in areas as widely separated as the Southwest Pacific, Italy and France.”

A major from Richmond, Virginia, raised the Confederate flag over a house after the U.S. Fifth Army captured the Italian town of Rifreddo. He told Stars and Stripes, the official military newspaper, that he’d brought a cache of flags with him and that he had already hung the Confederate flag in Naples, Rome, and Leghorn. “This is one war we’re gonna win,” he said.

In the Pacific, Marine Colonel William O. Brice of South Carolina dubbed himself the “commander of Confederate forces” in the Solomon Islands and flew the Confederate flag on the islands’ base. The Charlotte Observer praised Brice and other white marines, soldiers, and sailors for being “descendants of men who wore the gray [who] have not forgotten in the turmoil of battle, their reverence for those heroes of the [1860s].”

When the Allies secured military victory over Germany, a tank officer carried the Confederate flag into Berlin. As the USS Mississippi steamed into Tokyo Bay after Japan’s surrender, it was flying the Confederate flag.

After the war, a white sergeant from Kentucky wrote home to ask his mother to send a Confederate flag to display in a French school. “I believe we will influence the teaching of the War Between the States,” he wrote. Two former Army pilots returned from overseas and formed a “Confederate Air Force” for white southern pilots in New Bern, North Carolina.

The white troops who raised the Confederate flag during World War II argued that they were honoring the military service of their forefathers. “In its day, this flag stood for much and waved over the heads of the same type of men that made America great,” the Charlotte Observer argued. “Deep in the hearts of all Americans, the Confederacy now is merely a part of ‘One nation indivisible.’”

Not all Americans agreed. When Army Lieutenant General Simon Buckner Jr., himself the son of a Confederate general, saw a Marine unit flying the flag at the battle of Okinawa, he ordered it removed. “Americans from all over are involved in this battle,” he said.

For black Americans especially, the Confederate flag was a symbol of decades of racism, hate, and white supremacy. They fought against it being displayed before, during, and after the war. Before Pearl Harbor, for example, the Baltimore Afro-American successfully protested a plan to use the flag as the insignia of Army quartermasters stationed in Virginia at the base named for Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

The embrace of the Confederate flag by white troops, politicians, and civilians made it clear to black Americans that many of their fellow citizens understood the goals of the Second World War in very different terms. As black Americans fought a Double Victory campaign over fascism abroad and racism at home, most white Americans understood the war only to be about defeating the Nazis and Japanese military, a “single V” abroad and the status quo at home. Edward Moe, a federal investigator who surveyed racial attitudes during the war, found that many white people believed that World War II was about preserving things “as they have been in America.” “White folks would rather lose the war than give up the luxury of race prejudice,” NAACP Secretary Roy Wilkins quipped.

While white officers and enlisted men had no difficulty displaying the Confederate flag at home or overseas, Senator Millard Tydings, a Maryland Democrat, wanted to ensure they could do so officially. In 1943, he introduced a bill to allow Army units to carry Confederate battle streamers. “The sons of those who fought on the southern side in the Civil War ... at least should have the right to carry these streamers as a matter of maintaining military morale,” he argued. The Chicago Defender, a leading black newspaper, struck back immediately, calling the bill a “master stroke of hypocrisy” that proposed to have “American troops carrying the banner under which bitter war was waged for the perpetuation of slavery, into a so-called fight for democracy.” Among Tydings’s opponents, the Defender reported, there was talk of amending the bill to call for German Americans “to enter battle under the swastika, right next to the old Confederacy’s Stars and Bars.”

Tydings’s bill was eventually signed by President Harry Truman in March 1948, which opened the door for the official display of Confederate symbols in the U.S. military. The policy was implemented just four months before southern segregationists formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party, the “Dixiecrats,” and nominated South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for the 1948 presidential election. “The Southerners want the State right to continue to deny Negro citizens the right to vote,” the black journalist P. L. Prattis remarked.

The Dixiecrats displayed the Confederate flag prominently at campaign events, which sent sales of Confederate flags skyrocketing nationally. “The Confederacy fought to destroy the United States … how in heaven’s name can those who profess loyalty to the United States of America be loyal to the Confederacy?” asked E. Washington Rhodes, publisher of Philadelphia’s largest black newspaper. “Thousands of men suffered and died to make the stars and stripes supreme in the U.S. There is but one American flag. We are either Americans or something else.”

As the Tydings bill and the Dixiecrats led a surge in the popularity of the Confederate flag, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, committing the government to desegregating the military. The committee Truman organized after the war to study civil rights concluded that discrimination in the military was unacceptable: “Any discrimination which, while imposing an obligation, prevents members of minority groups from rendering full military service in defense of their country is for them a peculiarly humiliating badge of inferiority.” While many white military officers and enlisted men resisted the order, by the end of the Korean War in 1953, the military was almost fully integrated. Black activists fought for this policy for more than a decade, and it was one of the first major victories of the modern civil-rights era.

In the decades after World War II, the U.S. military became one of the most racially diverse institutions in the country and offered social mobility to generations of black Americans. At the same time, the military allowed the display of the Confederate flag and related racist symbols, which have no place in our military.

More than seven decades after the Confederate flag became intertwined with the U.S. military, it is well past time that these ties are severed.