Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a “whites only” victory.
The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris. Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle’s division must not contain any black soldiers.
In January 1944 Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, “confidential”: “It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel. This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white.”
At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war.
Given the fact that Britain did not segregate its forces and had a large and valued Indian army, one might have expected London to object to such a racist policy. Yet this does not appear to have been the case…
Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts. So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.
When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead. In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.
I doubt if the average American soldier, today, knows much about his service’s racist past. It took the Marines to break the color barrier in the U.S. military. And a number of years for the other services to catch up.