For Truman, desegregation order was a political move

August 09, 1998|By Theo Lippman Jr.

PRESIDENT Clinton said last month on the 50th anniversary of Harry Truman's issuance of an executive order calling for equal treatment for blacks in the armed services that it was "one of the best decisions any commander in chief ever made."

Best political decision, certainly. It got him re-elected.

The postwar services were almost entirely segregated by unit and by job. Civil rights leaders demanded a change. A. Philip Randolph, head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was insistent in pressing for equal opportunity in enlistments, schooling, promotions, assignments and retention -- and especially in integrating units. In early 1948 he told the president that he would advise young blacks not to register for the draft if the Army remained segregated.

Other black leaders, pressing for civil rights advances in other areas of American life, issued veiled threats that the black vote might go Republican in 1948 if the president didn't act.

These threats and demands came on the heels of a confidential memo to the president written by his special counsel, Clark Clifford. Mr. Clifford said the Republicans would seek to regain the black voter loyalty that the party of Lincoln had lost to the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt. And he said black voters could be the margin of difference in several large states.

So in February 1948, Truman called on Congress for "modern, comprehensive civil rights laws." Congress more or less ignored that, so black leaders called for executive action.

Truman was reluctant to take on the military brass, which was largely opposed to equality and integration, until the Republicans in their 1948 convention endorsed this platform plank: "We are opposed to the idea of racial segregation in the armed services of the United States."

That was in late June. A month later, Truman took the Clifford memo seriously and issued Executive Order 9981. It was an ambiguous measure, but Truman later said in a news conference that he meant it "to end segregation."

That November Truman won the black vote by landslide proportions in some large cities. And those votes were the margin of victory in at least three states: Illinois, which Truman carried by 33,000 votes out of a total of 3.9 million cast; California, which he carried by 18,000 out of 3.8 million; and Ohio, which he carried by 7,000 out of 2.9 million.

Had the black vote been slightly less Democratic in those states, Thomas E. Dewey would have received a bare majority of the electoral vote.

For Truman and black Americans, then came the hard part. A commission and other official groups began in January 1949, to work out goals and timetables. The Navy and Air Force responded fairly well -- but had minuscule black populations, especially in higher ranks and prestige specialties. There were fewer than 20 black Navy officers; only 0.6 percent of the Air Force officer corps was black.

Army brass balked

But the real problem was the Army. After a full year of pressure from the secretary of defense and black and liberal leaders, Army brass would only agree to "gradual integration," which a three-star general said publicly could take two or 50 years. The only concrete step of note taken by the Army was to suspend for a test period its ceiling on black enlistments.

Then came the Korean War. Before long, even many white commanders who opposed integration and equal opportunity were forced to give up their prejudices. The need for manpower became too great. The suspension of the ceiling meant more black troops were available. Furthermore, combat losses, accidental assignments, the growing need for replacements, unit morale and other elements of what was called "force of circumstance" (including especially the success of integrated units in combat compared with the record of segregated ones) caused the Army to change its assumptions and policies.

It wasn't Today's Army yet. Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, found evidence of extreme discrepancies in the way military justice was being meted out in Korea. A large minority of combat companies remained segregated. Gen. Douglas MacArthur's command rebuked a respected Army historian for writing from the battlefield that integrated units fought better.

But it was a long way from what had gone before.

Truth in black and white

The 1948 election and the Korean War prove something. When whites are motivated by the belief that they "need" blacks, more gets done for blacks than when whites are motivated by the belief that they "owe" blacks.

Affirmative action in Today's Army is -- as Colin Powell and such military sociologists as Charles Moskos, have pointed out -- based on need not debt, and it works.

Theo Lippman Jr. is a former Sun editorial writer who writes often about recent political history.

Pub Date: 8/09/98

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