EXCLUSIVE: New Docs Show Truman Integrated Forces, Despite Military Objections (See DOCUMENTS)
Earlier this month, as part of the year-long Defense Department review of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, the Pentagon distributed surveys to some 400,000 servicemembers to gauge their reaction to repealing the policy. While LGBT groups have characterized the questionnaire — which asks the troops to speculate on the sexuality of fellow servicemembers — as “derogatory and insulting,” the Pentagon continues to insist that they need to know what the troops are thinking in order to properly repeal the ban. “How do we identify beforehand the problems, the issues, and the challenges that we’re going to face? The kind of training requirements we’re going to need, the kinds of changes in regulations, the impact on benefits — all of these things need to be addressed in advance…. That’s where we want to hear from you all,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops stationed in South Korea.
Earlier this week, the Advocate’s Kerry Eleveld reported, contrary to prior reports, that this is not the first time the military had surveyed the troops. “Prior to President Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces…our preliminary research shows that branches of the armed forces undertook a number of modestly sized surveys of the attitudes of enlisted and nonenlisted troops concerning racial issues, integration, and morale,” Eleveld quoted a Defense Department spokesperson as saying.
Following this lead, the Wonk Room traveled to the National Archives and recovered some of the surveys the military conducted about the troops’ attitudes towards black and Jewish people between 1942 and 1946. At the time, the military — along with the overwhelming majority of the country — opposed integrating black servicemembers into the forces and preferred a ’separate but equal’ approach that would have required the military to construct separate recreation spaces and facilities. The survey about Jews was no more promising, with 86% of the soldiers agreeing that “there is nothing good about Jews“:
While “no official Army action was being considered with respect to Jewish soldiers,” Truman integrated the forces despite the objections of the troops. He allowed them to voice their opinions but did not let them dictate the policy.
It remains to be seen if Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and President Obama (who have to sign off on the DOD study) are willing to do the same for Don’t Ask, Don’ Tell. So far, the Pentagon insists that it will. “It is abundantly clear to this working group that their marching orders from the Secretary of Defense are to determine how to implement a repeal of DADT,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s spokesperson insists. “Their job is not to determine whether or not the force wishes a repeal to take place or not to take place. Their job is to prepare for that inevitability.” (While the results of the DADT survey are obviously pending, past surveys of military veterans have found that an overwhelming majority say it’s “personally acceptable to them if gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military.”)
Writer recalls Truman's risky order to integrate military
At the Pentagon this week, officials held a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of President Truman's then controversial executive order to integrate the U.S. armed forces.
The 93-year-old Truman speech writer and long time West Virginia politician Ken Hechler was on hand and recalled just how courageous that order was - given the prevailing attitude in the late 1940's held by many senior officers as well as a majority of Americans that Blacks shouldn't be treated as equals.
One historian described Truman's executive orders 9980 and 9981 of July 26,1948 as "revolutionary and politically reckless."
Hechler, who proudly displayed his blue and gold West Virginia mountaineer tie, declared, "Harry Truman, although he was brought up as a racist, became such a great champion of civil rights."
Missouri native Harry Truman had grandparents who owned slaves and as historian Michael Gardner describes, "was conditioned to be a racist."
Despite that background, Hechler noted his bosses' mantra, borrowed from Thomas Jefferson: "equal rights for all, special privileges for none."
The assembled audience of Pentagon senior officials, members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, several from the Montford Point Marines, and troops currently serving in the military listened intently to the words from one of the few remaining members of Truman's administration.
Even though true racial integration of the military proved to be a difficult and painful process for many African-Americans years after his order, Truman is credited with taking that first critical step in achieving equality for all in the armed services. It wasn't until 1954 when the last all African-American unit integrated.
Hechler recalled how as commander-in-chief Truman fought that pervasive racism in the senior ranks and took his generals to task for not initially falling in line with his civil rights initiative.
He noted one instance when five star Army General Omar Bradley, the so-called "GI's general" given his popularity amongst the rank and file, remarked that the Army "was no place for social experiments."
Truman's reaction to the Army Chief of Staff, Hechler recalled, was blunt.
"Believe me, he was called onto the carpet - Harry Truman talked to him in good old Missouri english and Omar Bradley changed his position pretty quickly," he said.
With Gallup polls in 1948 finding that 82 percent of Americans disagreed with his civil rights program, President Truman faced an uphill battle integrating the military. Coming just 100 days before the national election, the order sparked a revolt amongst Southern Democrats led by Dixicrat Strom Thurmond. Hechler noted that during this time Truman penned a diary entry showing his resolve, writing "how far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?"
Although Truman's order was merely a first step along a long road to racial equality in the U.S. military, Hechler's first-hand account reveals Truman in many respects was a decisive leader who sought meaningful improvement in race relations.
Hechler, who interestingly was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, summed it up, saying "it takes forthrightness for people in positions of leadership and that was Harry Truman's moral compass - his moral compass showed up in those two fantastic executive orders."