Chris Wallace Flummoxed: How Could 'Greatest Generation' Be Racist AF If They Also Beat The Nazis?
Former "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace has started doing his new longform interview show "Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace," on CNN+, the new streaming service from CNN. This week, Wallace spoke with New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones about her bestselling book adaptation of The 1619 Project, which argues quite persuasively that the story of American democracy is largely the story of African Americans and their exclusion from that very democracy. Slavery and segregation weren't a glitch or a sidebar; they were integral to the project of creating a nation where white people did very well by exploiting the labor and lives of Black people and other racial minorities.
Although you have to subscribe to see the full interview, Mediaite provides a nice seven-minute clip, in which Wallace pushes back on two of Hannah-Jones's assertions in her Pulitzer-winning introductory essay for the project (non-paywalled but legal PDF version here).
While Mediaite notes most of the interview was a "mutually warm and respectful discussion" of her work, Wallace took issue with Hannah-Jones's point that "Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different. It might not be a democracy at all," which she fairly effortlessly defended by noting that for much of US history, roughly half the states in the country denied the vote to vast portions of the adult population. Add to that the period up to 1920 when women were unable to vote, and America was even less of a democracy.
But what really bothered Wallace was Hannah-Jones's Greatest Generation libel, because after all, those young folks who grew up in the Great Depression and fought WWII were heroes who saved the world from fascism, weren't they? Wallace seemed unable to wrap his head around this bit from the essay where Hannah-Jones argues that during the "Good War,"
Many white Americans saw black men in the uniforms of America’s armed services not as patriotic but as exhibiting a dangerous pride. Hundreds of black veterans were beaten, maimed, shot and lynched. We like to call those who lived during World War II the Greatest Generation, but that allows us to ignore the fact that many of this generation fought for democracy abroad while brutally suppressing democracy for millions of American citizens.
Wallace doesn't dispute that Black GIs fought abroad for "democracy" but then returned to a nation that didn't recognize their humanity, but he had a problem with the notion that the same white people who fought in the war were also the ones behind the systematic oppression at home. Wasn't that mostly their parents?
Jones wasn't having it, as we can see in this Twitter video excerpt:
Chris Wallace Goes At Nikole Hannah-Jones for Claim Greatest Generation 'Violently Suppressed' Black Voters in Heated CNN+ Exchange https://mediaite.com/a/hszln\u00a0 via @mediaitepic.twitter.com/X95MhXtt7e— Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher (@Tommy moderna-vaX-Topher) 1649349849
Wallace agreed that Jim Crow and northern inequality were a horrible betrayal of American values, but he just didn't buy the idea that The Boys who fought in the Big One were themselves part of the problem. It's a weird thought, given that military segregation remained the rule until
1947 1948, and there were well-documented racist attacks on Black soldiers by white soldiers — all the same age! — in both the European and Pacific theaters during the war.
Wallace mulishly clung to his Tom Brokaw mythology all the same:
Wallace: I think Tom Brokaw when he originally wrote the book, The Greatest Generation, was talking about 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds who came out of the farm fields of the Midwest, who came out of ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and South Philly and storm the beaches of Normandy and and, you know, fought to defeat the most, the worst regime, I would argue in, in world history. And to say that they were 20, 30 year olds, the country was brutally suppressing Blacks, but the Greatest Generation wasn’t.
Hannah-Jones: Well, they were.
Wallace: No, they weren’t, you don’t be telling me that a farm, that a kid coming off a farm in Indiana or a kid who came from Brooklyn, is, was suppressing Black people.
Hannah-Jones: Indiana has the largest population of the Klan in the United States. The Klan was raised, was reached first in Indiana.
Basically, Wallace couldn't seem to understand that the white boys who grew up in unquestioned privilege could in any way be enforcing that privilege, as if no young white men ever participated in a lynching or belonged to the Klan — or as if, after the war, none ran for Congress or city council as both "war heroes" and diehard segregationists.
As a reminder of what ordinary Americans did to Black members of the Greatest Generation, remember the 1946 attack on Sgt. Isaac Woodard, who was pulled off a bus carrying him home, in uniform, and was beaten by police in Batesburg, South Carolina, for the offense of talking back to the white bus driver who called him "boy." Woodard told the driver, "I'm a man just like you," and the driver called police. One hit him with a blackjack in the eyes, blinding him immediately. In jail, police poured whiskey on him and claimed he'd been drunk. The attack was a central impetus for President Harry Truman's later order ending military segregation.
Hell, who does Wallace think carried on the Jim Crow laws following WWII and right up through the Civil Rights Movement? Strom Thurmond fought at Normandy. George Wallace was a crew member on B-29s that bombed Japan. Lester Maddox worked at Bell Aircraft during the war, helping to build the bombers that won it. Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama, the nemesis of young John Lewis, was in the Army Air Corps, stationed in the Aleutian Islands. Herman Talmadge, the segregationist governor of Georgia from 1948 to 1955, served in the Navy and was present in Tokyo Bay for the surrender of Imperial Japan. It only took him a few years to go from war heroing straight to preserving Jim Crow.
You get the idea.
After some fairly pointless back and forth over who was in the KKK and when (my own adoptive father, in the 1920s in Texas, I'd add, when he was in his 20s), Wallace tried again to separate the young WWII heroes from their bad old racist parents' generation (this next bit is only in the non-embeddable excerpt at Mediaite):
Wallace: [That's] a broad brush, that you’re willing to paint, the 20- and 30-year-olds who defended democracy, I’m not talking about the leaders. I’m not talking about the laws. I’m not talking about the country. I’m talking about the young people who risked their lives. For instance, on the beaches of Normandy, they were brutally suppressing African-Americans.
Hannah-Jones: I think it’s a it’s a strange point to parse to, I don’t want ... I don’t think a 30-year-old is not a young person. But 30-year-old is a fully grown person who can serve in Congress, who can be the mayor, who can act, enact laws and policies — these are not children. These are not babies. [...]
These were countrymen and they were fighting by the way in a Jim Crow military, they were fighting in an Army, in the Navy, where Black people were segregated, where Black people didn’t even have equal rights in the military. [...]
This trying to parse off who gets guilt or who does not for our collective history. We have to be more honest about piercing that mythology not to destroy our country, but to, if we can honestly face who we are, then we can actually become the country that we want to be.
But we can’t do that by suppressing the truth and to ask a Black person whose view of the Greatest Generation was "Black people are getting lynched." There were mass executions. I mean, right now they’re trying to pardon the [soldiers killed in a 1917] mass execution of Black soldiers that happened in Texas, right? This was our experience.
And we were feeling more free going to Europe. And actually there are stories of, of military officials telling the Europeans how to treat Black soldiers so that they don’t come back feeling they’re going to have those same freedoms at home, we have to confront that. And by having these gauzy narratives about the Greatest Generation doesn’t help us confront the facts.
Wallace: That was good.
Well yeah. That's why she wrote the essay and the book. And yes, credit to Chris Wallace for apparently being willing to set aside his simplistic ideas about the Greatest Generation.
And that's how we slowly dismantle white supremacy, Charlie Brown.
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