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

[ Posted Monday, July 28th, 2008 – 15:58 UTC ]

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.]


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


9 Comments on “Sixty Years After Desegregation, Ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"”

  1. [1] 
    randyjet wrote:

    Gen. Powell and many other black Americans took great offense at comparing the treatment of gays to that of segregation in the military for blacks. They were right because gays can and DO serve in the military with no problems as long as they keep their sex life PRIVATE. That was NOT true for blacks who could not serve in any off all the jobs and branches. The fact is that gays know BEFORE joining what the deal is. They have the option of choosing service to their country or flaunting their sexual preference. It is THEIR choice, blacks had NO such choices. Gays can get out of the service at any time of THEIR choosing with our current policy. Blacks had no such choice.

    The underlying assumption is that the military should accomodate ALL Americans no matter what. That is not only wrong, but absurd. The ideal candidate is somebody who looks like Gov. Arnold in build, and Einstein's intelligence. Then the military starts down looking at what is available, and needed, and filling the slots accordingly. The only criterion that should be demanded is what is best for making the service better meet military needs? It is NOT that gays should have a right to cross dress and advertise their sexual preference on post.

    I am also upset that my posts were not allowed on Hufpost because I disagreed with your stand. It is not liberal to silence opposing points of view. Leave that to the Republicans.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    randyjet -

    You raise some good points. I left out of the article (for length) some of the quotes from military brass back in 1948 on their reasons for keeping the military segregated. I also left out an interesting fact -- black civil organizations were getting ready to boycott the military (including refusing to be drafted) unless it was desegregated. And after Truman's order, the brass wanted a quota for blacks, although it's the exact opposite of what "quota" normally means in these situations -- they wanted an upper limit (around 10% if I remember right) of how many blacks could join. I doubt that would be an issue today. None of this addresses Powell's point, which I tend to disagree with.

    What would happen if Jewish people were allowed to serve in the military, as long as they didn't "practice" their Judiasm? You think a few Jews might get upset by this second-class treatment? I'm not drawing a parallel between Judaism and being gay, I'm just tossing it out there for the sake of discussion.

    And I apologize for HuffPost. I don't have full control over what they do (as I do here, where your comments are welcome as long as they don't get abusive or threatening... ask Michale... I almost NEVER disallow comments here). Their comment server was down for service last night, I do know that, and I usually get a lot more tha 3 comments, so I suspect there may have been technical problems. But if they did outright delete you, then I apologize.


  3. [3] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    Don't give up when it comes to commenting over at HP - sometimes you just have to try and try again. I've had a few posts deleted lately, too. In fact, it seems I've had a lot of posts deleted there over the last few years. Sometimes there is just no accounting for taste! :-)

    Anyway, you should post more here - Chris is long as the privilege is not abused, all comments get posted here and good conversation and debate abounds. And, the best part is that there is no silly word limit like the 250 word maximum nonsense we have to suffer over at HP.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    You should consider posting about the VP selection - this is the critical week, after all...I hope That'll catch more than a few comments, deletions notwithstanding!

    And then, if all goes well, we can concentrate on other subjects.

  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    Just let me chime in here for a moment.

    As CW said, he doesn't have much control over what HuffPo mods will and will not approve..

    I can speak from personal experience that CW is the most even-keeled liberal beatnik you could ever hope to come across...

    He is definitely NOT afraid of opposing viewpoints and actually embraces them with a gusto not really seen in the left-wing liberal circles..

    Anyone that can put up with me on a (literally) 2 year ongoing basis has to have SOMETHING going for him. :D


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:


    Tht 250 word limit really KILLS me sometimes..



  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    The word limit used to be 350 but then HP is no bastion of great conversation or debate - that's why we come here, after all, right?

    But, unless I am experiencing a brief moment of weakness when I just forget about it, I post in two or more parts, if necessary and basically obliterate the 250 limit.

    Hopefully, our friend Senator Obama will put his good experience and sound judgement to work and make the big decision this week and, mercifully, put me out my way or the other 'cause waiting for his VP selection is what's killing ME! :-)

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:

    I am surprised this didn't get the "play" over at HuffPo that it's getting here..

    Well, considering the problems over there, I guess it's not too surprising..

    Anyways, here's my 2cents..

    As a veteran of two branches of the US Armed forces and a combat veteran, I also really don't give a rat's patootie if the "guy" who's got my back is straight, gay, female, black, white, green, purple or even human.. All I care is if the "guy" is competent to cover my back..

    To me, "sexual preference" means if a guy (or girl) likes blonde guys (or girls) or skinny guys (or girls) or what have you...

    It was never really an issue in the military until Clinton MADE it an issue in the military... Good call. :^(


  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    To all -

    Sorry for the delay in answering these, been working on a new feature for the site. Stay tuned!

    Nobody has anything to say about "Harry S Truman"?? I have to say, I'm disappointed... just where the heck are the Grammar Police when you expect them?!?

    In general, I have to say that here at "we don't need no steenking word limits!!"

    I, too, have been frustrated by HuffPost's word limits on comments. But I have to be careful here, as I don't want to turn this site into griping about HuffPost, as they graciously allow me to post three times a week there, which I'd like to continue doing. [Ahem.]

    Many comment deletions are inadvertent, as HuffPost has been doing a major overhaul on their commenting code (and filtering code) for months now. So just because your comment doesn't appear, don't necessarily take it personally, it may be an innocent glitch in their code.

    Elizabeth -

    As I noted, "due to popular demand" I did subsequently comment on the VP selection, although it was probably not exactly what you wanted to hear. It took me a while to come up with an original take on the situation, that's all. But just to show you some love, you were the "popular demand" noted in that column!


    And hey, be happy -- Biden has (if rumors are true) made it into the top three! Think of all the seriously annoyed Hillary fans out there who didn't get this accolade.

    But I bet all the speculation is wrong -- I bet Obama's going to wait to announce his VP until just before the convention. And I further bet that Tim Kaine is a red herring, dragged in front of the media to throw them off.

    But I do wish he'd name one earlier, since the VP candidate's traditional role is "attack dog" and -- seeing that McCain has taken the gloves off -- this could be a handy thing to have in the next few weeks.

    Michale -

    "Liberal beatnick," huh? I'm still trying to figure out whether I'm pleased or insulted by that. Maybe "Liberal-leaning crypto-Libertarian post-hippie" would be better? I dunno... we report, you decide (as they say, heh heh). But I did like the "even-keeled" part, I must admit.


    Anyway, more comments to answer, gotta go...

    Thanks to everyone, as always, for commenting. All are indeed welcome here.


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