‘African Americans and the Pacific War’: A New Book on Race and Nationality

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. African Americans and the Pacific War: Race, Nationality, and the Fight for Freedom was recently published by Cambridge University Press. 


The author of African Americans and the Pacific War is Chris Dixon, Professor of History at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. After completing his BA (Hons) and MA at the University of Western Australia, Chris Dixon completed his PhD at the University of New South Wales, under the supervision of Professor Ian Tyrrell. A revised version of his PhD thesis, Perfecting the Family: Antislavery Marriages in Nineteenth-Century America, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press. His next book, African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century, was published in 2000. Subsequently, Chris’s research has focused on the social and cultural dimensions of war; his publications in that field include co-authored textbooks examining the Vietnam and Pacific wars, Hollywood’s South Seas and the Pacific War, and The South Seas: A Reception History from Daniel Defoe to Dorothy Lamour (both co-authored with Professor Sean Brawley). Prior to arriving at Macquarie University in 2016, Chris held appointments at the University of Sydney, Massey University, the University of Newcastle, and the University of Queensland. Chris has twice served as President of the Australian and New Zealand American Studies Association, as well as President of the International Society for Cultural History. He has been the recipient of grants from the Australian Learning and Teaching Council Grant and the Australian Research Council. In 2016 he held the Fulbright Scholarship in Australian-U.S. Alliance Studies.

In the patriotic aftermath of Pearl Harbor, African Americans demanded the right to play their part in the war against Japan. As they soon learned, however, the freedom for which the United States and its allies was fighting did not extend to African Americans. Focusing on African Americans’ experiences across the Asia-Pacific theater during World War Two, this book examines the interplay between national identity, the racially segregated US military culture, and the possibilities of transnational racial advancement, as African Americans contemplated not just their own oppression but that of the colonized peoples of the Pacific region. In illuminating neglected aspects of African American history and of World War Two, this book deepens our understanding of the connections between the United States’ role as an international power and the racial ideologies and practices that characterized American life during the mid-twentieth century.

Chris Dixon shines a brilliant new light on how the experience of African American soldiers in the Pacific during World War Two significantly differed from that in Europe. Probing the complexity of how blacks related to other peoples of color in the Pacific, he illuminates the distinctive character of American racism – and its persistence – not only with white American soldiers, but also in interaction with non-whites from other nations. – William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin Professor of History, Emeritus, Duke University

Keisha N. Blain: What are the principal findings or arguments of your book? What do you hope readers take away from reading it?

Chris Dixon: African Americans and the Pacific War: Race, Nationality, and the Fight for Freedom emerges from two of my earlier books. Nearly twenty years ago, in African America and Haiti: Emigration and Black Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century, I argued that while the struggle against white supremacy must be considered from a transnational perspective, that struggle was characterized by hierarchies and differences that owed much to cultural and national imperatives. More recently, in writing Hollywood’s South Seas and the Pacific War: Searching for Dorothy Lamour (co-authored with Sean Brawley) I realized that amid the thousands of books, articles, and films about the Pacific War, Black Americans remain largely invisibleFocusing on the tension between race and nationality that had been a major theme of my work on the nineteenth-century African American-Haitian relationship, and seeking to contribute to the growing scholarship situating Black American history within an international context, African Americans and the Pacific War sets out to correct the historical and historiographical omission of Black Americans from the Pacific War.

African Americans and the Pacific War gives due consideration to the “military” aspects of Blacks’ wartime service: the experience of combat, and the political implications of African American service on the frontlines, were of immense significance during the war, and during the subsequent fight for civil rights. But it also raises wider questions relating to Black service in the Pacific War. African Americans experienced, reflected upon, and sought to overcome the contradiction between America’s self-declared mission as the agent of international liberty and freedom, and the ongoing realities of American racism and inequality. Those inequalities were clearly evident in the United States’ armed forces, which were ostensibly agents of freedom for those oppressed by the totalitarian regimes of Germany and Japan, but which themselves continued to be sharply segregated along racial lines. For African Americans, the paradox was stark: they were expected to fight for a nation that presented itself as an exemplar of freedom, but which continued to deny basic civil liberties to its Black citizens. For African Americans serving in the Pacific Theater, these issues were especially urgent, not just because questions of “race” were fundamental to the causes and conduct of the conflict that raged across the Pacific, but also because the areas and peoples being fought over were sites of continuing colonial injustices and racial inequalities. I hope readers of my book come away not only with an appreciation of the part played by African Americans in the war against Japan, but also with an understanding of the complexities and contradictions of the African American contribution to the global campaign against colonialism and racism.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain

Keisha N. Blain, a Guggenheim and Carnegie Fellow, is Professor of Africana Studies and History at Brown University. She is the author of several books—most recently of the National Book Critics Circle Award finalist Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America (Beacon Press, 2021) and Wake Up America: Black Women on the Future of Democracy (W.W. Norton, 2024). Follow her on Twitter @KeishaBlain.