Gays and the Military: The Debate Continues How Truman Integrated Blacks

February 07, 1993|By CHARLES W. CORDDRY

Washington. -- On July 27, 1948, President Harry S Truman issued his historic Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the armed forces -- not by some specified date but "as rapidly as possible."

"It was a milestone in American history, similar to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball the previous year," Clark M. Clifford wrote in his 1991 memoir, "Counsel to the President."

By persuading Truman to leave out a deadline, Mr. Clifford had placated Defense Secretary James Forrestal and a potential disaster in the services was averted. The matter of a deadline may prove to be one of the major tactical differences between the Truman order on desegregation and President Clinton's eventual order ending the ban on homosexuals in the military.

Full integration of blacks into the forces was still to take years. There were all-black units in the Korean War, which started two years after the Truman order. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had commanded segregated forces in World War II, faced some of the same military resistance and obstacles in the 1950s that Truman had before him.

The U.S. military over time was nonetheless in the forefront of American institutions in taking down color barriers.

Mr. Clifford, a World War II naval officer, wrote that the Navy then "resembled a Southern plantation that had somehow escaped the Civil War. Blacks swabbed the decks, shined shoes, did the cooking, washed the dishes and served the food." The Army trained black soldiers with whites but segregated them in units, in barracks, stores and trains.

Today, the Defense Department regards itself as a formidable equal opportunity employer. Blacks comprise 20.1 percent of the forces, about 45 percent more than their representation in the total population. The officer corps still has a way to go, with blacks but 7.3 percent of the total, while the enlisted ranks are 22.3 percent black.

The furor and false alarms generated by the Truman order 45 years ago have been cited frequently of late as a new president tries to take down the barriers to homosexuals in the military.

For many, President Clinton's trials are, as Yogi Berra would say, "deja vu all over again."

There are certainly similarities. In 1948, the military feared that integration would lead to racial violence and a breakdown in order and discipline. Similar arguments are heard against lifting the homosexual ban.

Then, too, there is the familiar sight of 90-year old Sen. Strom Thurmond demanding retention of the gay ban just as he fought military desegregation as South Carolina's governor in 1948, splintering the Democratic Party in the process.

But there are great differences as well. For Gen. Colin L. Powell, a black soldier who rose to the highest uniformed position in the land, the differences are fundamental.

He knew all about the tribulations of African-Americans in defending the country because he was "a part of that history," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told Rep. Patricia Schroeder in a letter last May. The Colorado Democrat had told him that arguments for the gay ban sounded like those for segregation.

"Skin color is a benign, non-behavioral characteristic," the general wrote. "Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument."

However furious the controversy over lifting the ban, many would count it almost mild in comparison with the uproar set off by Truman's civil rights proposals in 1948.

With an eye to what he thought was morally right and politically wise in a presidential election year, Truman in February sent the Republican Congress a special message on civil rights that had no precedent. He submitted 10 legislative proposals (including civil and voting rights enacted only in the mid-1960s) and a commitment to take two actions that did not require new law.

He said he would end discrimination in the civil service and segregation in the military.

These were times of war scares in Europe and of armed forces on a tight budget and needing to be rebuilt after post-World War II demobilization.

Truman had earlier that year proposed revival of the draft. Here was a wide opening for black leaders to push desegregation.

The president's February pledge had brought scant results. Now, on July 27, Truman acted.

"Without warning," biographer David McCullough recalled in "Truman," the president "announced executive orders to end discrimination in the armed forces and to guarantee fair employment in the civil service."

When Truman went to the Capitol the next day to speak to a special session, some members did not even rise from their seats when he entered.

With his civil rights package, Truman ensured that the nation would grapple with historic problems. He almost ensured an electoral defeat. Integration and civil rights were seen by big city bosses, eyeing the black vote, as politically astute. The South was another matter; Republican successes there can be traced to that time.

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