Truman’s Military Desegregation Order Reflects American Values, Gates Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 23, 2008 President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order that desegregated the U.S. military was a definitive statement of equality that declared all servicemembers must be judged by individual merit instead of their racial background, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today. Video
“No aspect of black Americans’ quest for justice and equality under the law has been nobler than what has been called, “the fight for the right to fight,” Gates said at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the integration of the armed forces held in the Capitol Rotunda.
“Our commemoration today of the racial integration of the armed forces makes us reflect on how far we have come toward living up to our founding ideals and yet how much remains to be done,” Gates said.
The Defense Department began breaking down the barriers of race at the conclusion of World War II in 1945, Gates said. As in past wars, African-American troops had served in World War II with honor and distinction, he noted. However, African-American troops had to fight and live separately from all-white units.
America’s sons and daughters fought in World War II to preserve freedom and human dignity for the world’s people, Gates said. Yet, African-Americans who’d served with distinction in that war, he noted, “returned to face segregation and harassment at home,” as so-called Jim Crow segregation laws in place across the South relegated African-Americans to second-class-citizen status.
Truman’s Executive Order 9981, signed July 26, 1948, was an important statement and an important step, Gates said. However, he said, Truman’s directive “had to overcome stiff institutional resistance, as deeply entrenched attitudes were hard to change.”
For example, “segregated units remained the norm and integrated units the exception,” Gates noted, for several years after the integration order was issued.
The start of the Korean War in June 1950 prompted the need to put hundreds of thousands of Americans into uniform after the U.S. military had demobilized following the end of World War II.
“With the sudden outbreak of war in Korea, the urgent demands of the battlefield trumped the old habit of Jim Crow,” Gates said.
Before the start of the Korean War, he said, 50 percent of African-Americans in the Marine Corps -- about 750 men -- served as stewards. At the end of the Korean War in 1953, Gates said, there were 17,000 African-American Marines, and only 3 percent served as stewards.
“By 1954, the Korean War was over, the last of the segregated units were dissolved, and the momentum for equality and civil rights was carrying over into American society as a whole,” Gates said.
In the ensuing decades after Truman’s directive took effect, “black and white Americans trained, served, and fought together with honor and distinction,” Gates said.
Today’s integrated U.S. military continues to “put merit and integrity above all,” Gates said, noting there’s still more to achieve.
“My hope and expectation is that, in the years ahead, more African-Americans will staff the armed forces at the highest levels,” Gates said. “We must make sure the American military continues to be a great engine of progress and equality -- all the better to defend our people and our values against adversaries around the globe.”