08/05/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sixty Years After Desegregation, Ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

Sixty years ago, on July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman singlehandedly desegregated the United States military.

While that statement is true, it does not tell the whole story, since nothing is quite that easy. The military resisted fiercely, and it took years to actually achieve full racial integration of the military. It wasn't until March 18, 1951 that the Defense Department announced that all basic training had been integrated, much less the entire armed forces (which took even longer). The Truman Library has a very nice timeline of desegregation in the military for those interested in all the details.

But although it was a long, hard struggle to get the military to accept equal treatment for African Americans, Truman's Executive Order 9981 was undoubtedly the start of the official process. Sixty years ago, Truman signed his name to the following:

WHEREAS it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:

NOW THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

The Executive Order went on to set up a committee to oversee the integration efforts of the military. Congress also got involved later on. But E.O. 9981 started the whole ball rolling.

The Chicago Defender, an influential newspaper owned and operated by African Americans, ran with the headline: "By Executive Order President Truman Wipes Out Segregation In Armed Forces." An image of their front page for July 31, 1948 also reveals contemporary news about a lynch mob, and a story titled "Klan Increases Members To Scare Negroes From Voting." This was, after all, 1948.

But what was truly amazing about the timing of President Truman's order is that he was in the midst of an extremely bitter campaign for re-election. In fact, he issued this order just after the Democratic Convention of 1948, where a large bloc of southerners left the floor of the convention to form their own "Dixiecrat" party (they ran Strom Thurmond) over the same issue -- whether the party platform would have a strong plank for civil rights, a weak plank, or (their choice) no plank at all. I will be writing more about the 1948 convention as we get closer to the 2008 convention, but what is astonishing is that a sitting president would enrage a huge part of his own party in the middle of a campaign.

Now, there aren't a whole lot of parallels to today's situation, since no sitting president is even on the ballot, but even so this is exactly the opposite of how campaigns are run now, where focus groups often dictate what the "safe" path is for a candidate. Actually, this was exactly the opposite of how you were supposed to run back then, too, and Truman won literally against all odds in 1948 (if you think you know nothing about this election, you are wrong -- because every American who made it through high school has at one point seen the photo of Truman and the caption "Dewey defeats Truman" from this election).

And he followed through on his Executive Order. By the time he left office the U.S. military was on an unstoppable path to full integration.

Last week, some in the Democratic Party with a good sense of historic timing held a committee hearing on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy of excluding gay people from the military. It's the first such hearing in 15 years. Democrats invited three witnesses, including a retired Navy Captain and a retired Marine Staff Sergeant, both of whom are gay (and one of whom lost a leg in Iraq). A black retired Army Major General also spoke about how the current policy resembled segregation in the military.

The Republicans invited retired Army Sergeant Major Brian Jones, and a woman, Elaine Donnelly, who has been fighting for years to keep women (straight and gay) out of the military's ranks. Dana Milbank at the Washington Post wrote an excellent article about how the proceedings went (to date I have been unable to locate a transcript of the hearing, but Milbank's article is well worth reading in full):

Donnelly treated the panel to an extraordinary exhibition of rage. She warned of "transgenders in the military." She warned that lesbians would take pictures of people in the shower. She spoke ominously of gays spreading "HIV positivity" through the ranks.

"We're talking about real consequences for real people," Donnelly proclaimed. Her written statement added warnings about "inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community," the prospects of "forcible sodomy" and "exotic forms of sexual expression," and the case of "a group of black lesbians who decided to gang-assault" a fellow soldier.

. . .

Then came Donnelly, severe in a black jacket with a flag pin on her lapel as she attacked the "San Francisco left who want to impose their agenda on the military." She spoke of the "devastating" effect gay soldiers would have on the military and said "people who do have religious convictions" would be driven out of the military by the "sexualized atmosphere."

"We are not talking about a Hollywood role here," Donnelly lectured the lawmakers.

Donnelly was followed by Jones, a tough-talking businessman who suggested that the military's tradition of "selfless service" would be undermined by gay men and lesbians. "In the military environment, team cohesion, morale and esprit de corps is a matter of life and death," he said. His written statement spelled it "esprit decor"; it also warned of "a band of lesbians that harassed new females," and noted his own military experience when "the only way to keep from freezing at night was to get as close as possible for body heat -- which means skin to skin."

Jones' arguments, it should be noted, are exactly the same arguments used sixty years ago to continue the segregation of blacks in the military. But recent polls show an unbelievably high percentage of Americans -- from 75% to 80% -- favor letting gays serve openly in the military. Back in 1948 that wouldn't have been true for allowing blacks to serve with whites. In some respects, we've come a long way... in others, not so much.

The irony to this situation may become apparent only after President Obama issues a similar Executive Order, this time with the words "sexual orientation" in it. Because at that time, Republicans will ignore all of the "but he's the Commander in Chief, he can do whatever he wants with the military" bushwah they've been screaming about for the past seven years, and will suddenly start arguing the exact opposite.

Perhaps "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was a compromise that President Clinton needed to make at the time (it's arguable). The opinion polls back in the early 90s were not nearly as accepting of the concept of gays in the military as they are now. But times do change.

And so should this policy. Being gay should be no more of a barrier to serving the United States military than being black now is. My guess is that sixty years from now, people will wonder what took us so long.


[Pre-emptive Note to the Grammar Police: "Harry S Truman" is correct. Presidential trivia -- Truman had no middle name, just the initial "S" instead. His mother reportedly wanted to name him "Harry Solomon" (after her father), and his father wanted "Harry Shippe" (after his father). They filled out the birth certificate with the only thing they could agree on -- "Harry S Truman" -- which is the proper spelling of his name, although many bend his name to fit convention and use "Harry S. Truman" instead. So there.]


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