Segregation, Integration, and Battlefield Death in the Korean War

by Connor Huff and Robert Schub

During the latter half of July 1950, the all-white 3rd Battalion of the 29th Infantry Regiment suffered catastrophic personnel losses while attempting to halt the North Korean offensive. As part of the broader effort to avoid US forces being driven off the Korean peninsula, the 3rd Battalion lost over 30% of its soldiers in a single fortnight. By contrast, over the same two-week window the all-Black 1st Battalion of the 24th Infantry Regiment, which was positioned to the south, only lost 1% of its members. Four months later this pattern of racial discrepancies in battlefield casualties reversed. Facing an onslaught of Chinese forces north of the 38th parallel, that same all-Black Battalion suffered heavy losses with 11% of its soldiers perishing; nearby, only 1% of the all-white 3rd Battalion of the 27th Regiment died in the fighting. What do these divergences in battlefield casualties reveal about the distributional consequences of military segregation? Does unit integration negate the causes of these discrepant outcomes along racial lines?

Social science research documents how inequality within militaries can lead to worse battlefield outcomes, and that increasing the diversity of national troop contributions increases the efficacy of peacekeeping operations.  Prior research has also documented the costs and benefits of diversity within the US military for the rates of desertion, and survival. However, less is known about whether and how racially discriminatory military staffing policies shape who dies in combat.

In an article forthcoming at International Organization, we focus on the Korean War to understand how the design of militaries, in terms of whether soldiers fight in segregated or integrated units, affected the distribution of the costs of war across racial groups. We leverage the fact that integration occurred mid-conflict. While on July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981—which was widely understood to call for military integration—the military was still segregated in June 1950 when the Korean War began. Units remained segregated during the North Korean push south toward Pusan, the landing in Incheon and counteroffensive north of the 38th parallel, as well as the Chinese entry into the war and gradual stabilization of the front. Commanders finally took on the task of integration during an active war in the summer and fall of 1951.

Were Black Soldiers More Likely to Die in Segregated Units?

US military history provides countervailing reasons to expect that unit segregation increased or decreased the relative fatality rate of Black soldiers. On the one hand, historical research documents that many commanders perceived Black lives to be less valuable than white lives. These racist attitudes might cause Black soldiers to be deployed to riskier missions and effectively used as “cannon-fodder.” On the other hand, historical research also documents that commanders perceived Black soldiers to be less competent and trustworthy than white soldiers. This might make it such that Black soldiers are held back from combat and instead asked to undertake support roles. We expect Black soldiers’ rates of death in combat to vary depending on which of these racist sentiments prevails.

To assess these countervailing expectations, we compiled new micro-level data on the race, date of death, and military unit assignment of roughly 20,000 US soldiers who died during the Korean War. We gathered individual-level data from multiple sources and paired this with battalion-level military histories to produce an observation for each army infantry battalion deployed in Korea for each half-month period of the segregated portion of the war. An observation captures the battalion’s specified race and fatalities for that period divided by the battalion’s prescribed size.

The first analysis addresses whether Black infantry battalions deployed in Korea experienced higher fatalities than white units. The figure below plots the fatality rates for each battalion split by battalion race in Korea through the segregated portion of the war.

Fatality rates for each battalion in Korea through the segregated portion of the war. Solid lines represent mean battalion fatalities for a given period, split by battalion race.

Most saliently, the figure does not provide clear evidence of a racial fatality gap. Black and white battalion fatality averages largely track one another. However, sharp disjunctures punctuate the otherwise parallel pattern. Among these disjunctures, white units sometimes bore the heavier costs and other times Black units did, as the opening anecdotes illustrate. There is no immediate evidence supporting an aggregate racial fatality gap in either direction. That said, the presence of disjunctures between fatality averages is noteworthy and a point to which we return.

We dug into the qualitative evidence to better understand this counter-intuitive null finding. At war’s onset, the US military confronted a dire situation. Manpower was overstretched;  intense personnel demands limited commander discretion in determining unit assignment and positioning. One member of the 27th Regiment recalls being “attacked and overrun on an almost daily basis.”[1] Another account describes Major General Ned Almond planning an offensive counter-attack behind enemy lines that “was very quickly discarded, the troops too desperately needed for a much more immediate task—keeping the North Koreans from running American forces off the peninsula.”[2]

Source: US Army, https://www.army.mil/article/11187/army_commemorates_60th_anniversary_of_armed_forces_integration

Did Black and White Soldiers Die at Disparate Rates Once Fighting in Integrated Units?

The military finally executed the vision of President Truman’s order by steadily integrating military units through 1951. By fall, the all-Black 24th Regiment and its three constituent battalions were disbanded and its members reassigned to newly integrated units. How did integration affect the distribution of the costs of war by race? Soldiers of different races serving in close proximity negates many of the potential mechanisms that could generate a racial fatality gap. Commander discretion on unit positioning, at least at the battalion level, no longer carries immediate racial implications. Similarly, field assistance in the form of medical services or combat support becomes harder to target in discriminatory fashions.

We find no racial discrepancies in fatalities during the integrated portion of the Korean War. To prove this requires data on the racial makeup of battalions deployed to the peninsula. Absent a valid denominator for the number of service-members of each race within battalions, the number of fatalities of each race offers little insight. After all, 50 Black soldiers dying in a unit has different implications when that unit had only 50 Black soldiers to begin with versus when the unit had 400 such soldiers. Archival documents provided this crucial piece of data. Army units provided twice-monthly reports to the Adjutant General’s office noting their current personnel numbers. Critically, these reports distinguished between Black soldiers, noted as “Class II Personnel,” and white soldiers, as shown here.

Army reports in the archive distinguished between Black and white soldiers.

Similar archival information was available for 594 battalion-periods, from which we could infer the standard racial composition of integrated units (14% Black). Equipped with this data, it becomes possible to calculate the fatality rate for each race within each battalion. As shown below, racial fatality rates were equivalent in aggregate and closely tracked one another once soldiers fought side-by-side.

Probability of US combat fatalities by race for each battalion during the integrated portion of the Korean War.

The close tracking of fatality rates across racial lines in integrated units raises a third question: did the switch from segregation to integration affect variability of the racial fatality gap? While the evidence shows no aggregate fatality gaps under either segregation or integration, this aggregate results masks important differences. The periodic disjunctures in fatalities under segregation disappear under integration. As seen in the figure below, segregation enables disproportionate cost bearing, even if only in the short run.

Cost bearing under segregated and integrated conditions.

Implications

Military inequalities, such as those made possible by state-sanctioned segregation, can affect the demographic composition of those making the ultimate sacrifice for their country or political organization. Two elements of the findings from the US experience during the Korean War merit attention, particularly when considering other historical or contemporary militaries employing diverse combat personnel, whether that diversity relates to race, ethnicity, place of origin, class, sexual orientation, or gender. First, the Korean War experience makes clear that segregation inherently enables differences, even if only over brief time intervals. Elements of chance intrinsic to conflict mean some units will suffer heavy losses while others do not. Segregation makes such events more likely to produce differential burden sharing.

Second, the perhaps surprising result that cost sharing discrepancies across racial lines in segregated units washed out in the aggregate requires some contextual information before extrapolating to other cases. As noted, US forces faced dire circumstances in the early months of the war which minimized the space for commander discretion. Within the military, unlike many other domains with state-sanctioned segregation, the implementing entity (in this case, the US government) wishes to extract contributions from the less privileged group. This wish is especially pressing when confronting the real possibility of battlefield catastrophe. In cases where a military is better positioned for victory (e.g., the US in the Spanish American War) commander discretion could generate unequal outcomes — either due to prejudicial attitudes concerning the value of life or due to the prejudicial beliefs about the martial competency of different groups.

[1] Maxwell, Jeremy. Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korean and Vietnam. University of Oklahoma Press. Page 99.

[2] Halberstam, David. 2009. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. Pam MacMillan. Chapter 10.

Authors

  • Connor Huff is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rice University. He studies conflict and individual combatant behavior. He commonly uses micro-level historical records to understand why individuals choose to fight, and why they sometimes refuse to stop. He is currently working on a book about why individual rebels reject peace settlements. His work is published or forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science, American Political Science Review, Comparative Political Studies, International Organization, and International Studies Quarterly, among other venues. Huff received a PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2019.

  • Robert Schub is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His research addresses international security with a focus on (i) the people and processes behind decisions to use military force and (ii) the military personnel who bear the burdens of those decisions. He is currently working on several projects that use large quantities of archival documents to understand group dynamics before fateful US foreign policy choices. His work appears in International Organization, International Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Conflict Resolution among other outlets. Schub received a PhD in Government from Harvard University in 2016.

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