Symposium Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Exec. Order 9981 Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Dean Dorn, thank you. And thank you for the tremendous job you have done in putting together this conference. The caliber of the people who have come here is a tribute to the amount of thought and effort you have put in. I can see that you have already put your imprint on the work of this school, and you are off to a great start. I can tell you that back in Washington, Ed is missed, and we envy the LBJ school for having him on its team now. He is truly a leader on these issues, and in a national debate that is sometimes shrill and strident his voice has been one of the most eloquent and measured.
This conference marks an important milestone in the integration of our armed forces. It is an opportunity to highlight the problems that still need work. As I told Ed, I want to celebrate our achievements but honestly look at our continuing challenges. This is a chance to review the history of our armed forces and highlight the sacrifices and contributions of all Americans, especially those too long ignored by a system that struggled to see the greatness in people of color.
For too long, men and women of color have served our nation, in war and peace, without the recognition they deserve. Worse yet, they fought to defend our country and the ideals of the Constitution, only to return home to experience discrimination that belied the principles of the Constitution for which they fought.
Few people realize that even before there was a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution, African-Americans could be counted among our most fervent revolutionaries. In the fall of 1775, George Washington and his officers tried to appease large landholders by barring all slaves and most freemen from re-enlisting in the Continental Army. But by the end of the year the war took a turn for the worse, and he rescinded the order. So on Christmas night, 1776, African-American soldiers were there to make the famous crossing of the Delaware River with Washington and help him capture the Hessians at Trenton. All told, some 5,000 African-Americans served in uniform for the cause of independence, and their sacrifices must never be forgotten.
In fact, every American war -- regardless of whether it was a time of slavery or freedom, segregation or integration -- has witnessed the service of minorities who responded to the call of duty. And every time they have answered with great bravery and great valor.
African-American veterans have a long honor roll. Shaw's 54th Regiment proved its mettle in its famous assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina during the Civil War. In the years following the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers kept frontier settlers safe from attacks and the banditry of the outlaw areas. The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II overcame resentment, suspicion, and segregation to become the first African-American fighter pilots. Known as the "Black Birdmen," time and again they shielded Allied planes on bombing runs into Germany. Until the recruits of Montford Point broke the color barrier, the Marine Corps did not accept African-Americans. But they went on to serve with distinction on the front lines in Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American unit to go into combat, fought its way through France and into Germany and Austria, amassing a record of accomplishment that was eventually recognized with a Presidential citation.
To see the contributions of Hispanic-Americans, one need only walk down one block on Second Street in the small town of Silvis, Illinois. In the history of America's military, this one block is amazing. It has been the home of more than 100 Hispanic-Americans who have answered the call of patriotism and served our nation. So many Hispanic-Americans from this one small group of families had served in the armed forces that, in 1957, their section of the street was officially and aptly renamed Hero Street.
For Asian-Americans, there can be no better example than the 100th Battalion of the 442nd Regiment. Composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, it defeated both discrimination and the defenses of Italy's notorious Gothic Line, becoming the most decorated unit in our country's military history.
The heroism of Native Americans speaks loudly through the words of the Navajo Code Talkers, who worked with Marine combat units in World War II. Instead of succumbing to the anger of social injustice, they used their native language as a secret code that the Japanese found unbreakable. And they played a key role in making the offensive at Iwo Jima successful.
The women of America, of course, have borne the brunt of senseless chauvinism for decades. But they have never forsaken the call of duty. Last year we dedicated a monument in Arlington Cemetery, commemorating their history of service. It is a history that stretches from the women who made hospital beds during the Civil War to the women who are breaking the glass ceiling as military pilots today.
All of these proud legacies stand in stark contrast to the low and often cruel treatment that minorities have received over the history of our nation, often immediately as they returned from winning America's wars.
At each step of the way, the military has reflected the larger tensions in the civilian society. However, the military is different in one key respect. It has always had both the blessing and the curse of being forced to confront the painful issues of discrimination first. Circumstances demanded it. George Washington tried to do without African-Americans in the revolutionary wars, but changed his mind. Lincoln, too, was not eager to have blacks in the Union uniform. But time and again, our country's commanders were forced to confront what we were denying our nation. The combined weight of pragmatism and principles accomplished what neither could alone.
When we look to each other for help in the heat of a battle, suddenly the color of skin does not matter that much. Survival matters. Death, by a bullet, a bomb, or a biological weapon, has never been known to discriminate. It is the great equalizer. And when we face it together and prevail, we find that our victory is one of solidarity. Wars are not won by white soldiers or black soldiers or yellow soldiers or brown soldiers. They are won by strong soldiers, good soldiers, brave soldiers – soldiers who have earned their honor.
Harry Truman found that out. Truman, as you know, ranks as one of our greatest presidents, but he was not exactly the model of an enlightened civil rights pioneer. As early as 1940, he was arguing for equality under the law for all men. But in private he was still known to refer to African-Americans in derogatory terms and laugh at racist jokes. At the end of World War II, a few events had a marked impact on this thinking.
President Truman saw black soldiers, just back from overseas, being pulled out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. It left him shaken. "My very stomach turned," he said. "Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this." And so he did.
In 1948, with Executive Order 9981, President Truman single-handedly cleared a path for the largest and most effective affirmative action program in the history of this nation. With a stroke of the pen, he breathed new life into our basic constitutional principles. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all [people] are created equal! The order uses the plain, direct language of principle, declaring 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."
That may be the most telling moment in a presidency, the moment when one person, speaking from the greatest pulpit in the land, redefines our freedoms for the rest of the nation. Lincoln redefined the freedoms set forth by Jefferson. Roosevelt redefined the freedoms set forth by Lincoln. Truman redefined the freedoms set forth by Roosevelt.
Roosevelt, in his third inaugural address, appealed to Americans to rally to the aid of the European democracies as they tried to defend themselves. Roosevelt described a future where "Four Essential Human Freedoms," freedoms that were then under attack, would be guaranteed.
Here in 1998, we too can say – with respect to racism and sexism – that there are certain freedoms that should be guaranteed for all men and women who serve in our armed forces. I believe that we should commit ourselves to four new freedoms to guide us for the next 50 years.
First, every man and women should be guaranteed freedom from prejudice. We must make sure that every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine knows that, in today's military, bias is a four-letter word, and it will not be tolerated. With every day that passes our services are more and more diverse, and drawing false distinctions of race or sex is simply a disservice to one's oath and obligations.
Of course, what it takes to keep someone free from discrimination, to preserve their equality of opportunity, is not always easily defined in principle. Nor is it easily reached in practice. That is why I believe this conference has set just the right tone in addressing this anniversary.
Is there progress to celebrate? Absolutely. Today, the American armed forces are more diverse than ever. We can see progress at the bottom, where the proportion of African-Americans entering the services is higher than their proportion in the general population. Despite the drawdown, we are recruiting and retaining versatile men and women with above-average education. And I can point to 4-star officers in three of the services who are African-Americans. But while that is reason to celebrate, it is also an acknowledgment of how far we have to go if we find ourselves celebrating three examples of success.
At the same time, we have serious problems to address. The proportion of Hispanics in the services has grown, but they are still underrepresented. Minorities in general are still underrepresented in the officer corps. While they represent 1 in 5 of the enlisted men and women, they represent only 1 out of every 10 in the ranks of officers. African-Americans and women are still more heavily represented in areas such as functional support and administration in the service and supply areas, and have not gained equal standing in combat arms. Promotion rates are still lagging. This is a complex problem. Minorities do not get the opportunities they need in order to compete well for promotions later.
Truman's Executive Order did not create equal opportunity and end racism in the armed forces overnight. Nor can we expect the solutions that emerge from these discussions and the efforts of the Pentagon to work overnight. But creating a system free from prejudice is unfinished business – make no mistake about it.
The second freedom that every man and woman should be guaranteed is freedom from indifference or apathy. In many ways, the battle against discrimination is harder now. Overtly racist laws and institutional barriers have been removed, but we still have to change attitudes and perceptions, and they change very slowly. That is why President Clinton should be commended for initiating a national dialogue on race. We need to have this discussion now more than ever. At a time when we should be opening more doors to minorities, too many places are closing them.
The President has pledged to have a government that "looks like America." The Department of Defense wants to meet that goal and go one better. Our goal is to have an all-volunteer force that has all the ethnic diversity of America, but is uniform in its excellence. Whether someone is white, black, brown, yellow, male, or female is not the issue. We want to find and keep the best minds, the best talent, and the best leaders available. But seeking excellence will never be an excuse for indifference to diversity. It is possible to have a superb military and one that looks like America. We can do that with fairness and opportunity as our hallmarks. But it will not happen if discrimination and indifference are standing in the door. As Martin Luther King once said, it is harder to fight apathy than antagonism.
The third freedom -- every man and woman should be guaranteed freedom from the ideologies of hate. Many people find it baffling that -- in this day and age, after the lessons of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin – anyone would consider allegiance to the politics of repression and racial supremacy. But we must remember that intolerance, the compulsion to disparage or dominate another group, has plagued mankind since the dawn of civilization. Those who say that we have made enough progress, that there is no need for discussion, that there is no need to solve these problems, should consider that history.
The recent investigation of the Army's Inspector General found that the viruses of racial supremacy, extremism, fascism, and ethnic hatred can occasionally find a welcome host in the lives of the frustrated. When I was down in San Antonio, I read about two instances where military personnel dressed up in white hoods, imitating the KKK, and drove through our bases. Throughout the services, these hate groups are small. But the tragedy of Oklahoma City has proven that even small groups have the power to destroy lives and devastate communities. We cannot afford to ignore them: the cost is too high. Even if there were no racism and sexism in America today, we should have to guard against its return tomorrow. People who must resort to secrecy and anonymous acts of terror do not belong in a military that defends democracy and free speech.
The last freedom -- every man and woman in uniform should be guaranteed freedom from intimidation. Women in the military should not have to face an environment of harassment or intimidation as they serve on behalf of this nation. A woman should not have to sacrifice her dignity – through either direct attacks or a predatory environment – when she serves her country. To those who want to wave this off by saying "boys will be boys," we need to send a clear and consistent message. We do not want boys whose goal is simply to learn the rules, we want men whose goal is to honor them.
America's fighting force is the best in the world because we know we are fighting for the most revolutionary idea of all time – "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal." If we are prepared to fight for that goal, we need to embody that goal in our organization. The power of that principle, the promise that it holds, is one of the reasons why we have the best fighting force in the world today. This is a country worth fighting for. But it is also a country that continually must live up to its own promises.
Fifty years ago, Chaplain Roland Gittelsohn dedicated the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. Noting the valor of the men who died there, he said: "Here lie officers and men of all colors, rich men and poor men together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here, there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudice, no hatred -- theirs is the highest and purest democracy."
"Any man among us, the living, who failed to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in a minority, makes of their sacrifice an empty, hollow mockery. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into the soil for us to let it lie barren."
In leaving this conference today and looking at the difficulty of the problems before us, we would do well to bear in mind that legacy. Building a better future for all men and women, regardless of race, color, or creed is the only appropriate way to honor the sacrifices of these true American heroes. Thank you.