Hamre Says There's No Place for Hatemongers
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
BIRMINGHAM, Ala., Jul. 29, 1998 "At a time when we should be opening more doors to minorities, too many places are closing them," Deputy Defense Secretary John H. Hamre told more 1,100 attendees at the third biennial DoD Worldwide Equal Opportunity Conference here July 26.
With the theme "Building Cohesion From Our Growing Diversity -- Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century," DoD kicked off the conference the same date President Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that integrated the armed forces.
Participants included representatives from all the services, including the Coast Guard, reserve components, and civilian employees, as well as representatives from other government agencies. Also attending were representatives from Jordan, South Africa, Australia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Canada.
Hamre said the four-day conference was a chance to review the history of the armed forces and to highlight the sacrifices and contributions of all Americans.
"For too long, men and women of color served our nation without the recognition they deserve," he said. Lauding the contributions of minorities and women to the nation's defense, Hamre said their proud legacies stand in stark contrast to the low and often cruel treatment they received when they returned from winning America's wars.
As an example, Hamre said, President Harry S. Truman was shaken at the end of World War II when he saw black soldiers being pulled out of Army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. He quoted Truman as saying:
"My very stomach turned. 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."
That experience prompted Truman to sign Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948: "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." He also signed Executive Order 9980 on that date, creating regulations governing fair employment practices within the federal establishment.
The commissioning of America's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, on July 25, "is a fitting tribute to the president who, 50 years ago today, signed the executive order that eliminated racial segregation in the U.S. armed forces," Hamre said.
The military reflects tensions in civilian society, but with a key difference, he noted.
"In the heat of a battle, suddenly the color of skin doesn't matter that much -- survival matters," Hamre said. "Death by bullet, bomb or a biological weapon has never been known to discriminate. It's the great equalizer. When we face it together and prevail, we find that our victory is one of solidarity. Wars are not won by white, black, yellow or brown soldiers, they're won by strong, good and brave soldiers -- soldiers who have earned their honor and their colleagues' respect."
He said 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. African- American soldiers made the famous crossing of the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington and helped him capture the Hessians at Trenton, N.J.
"All told, some 5,000 African Americans served for the cause of independence, and their sacrifices must never be forgotten," Hamre said. "In fact, every American war -- whether in time of slavery or freedom, segregation or integration -- has witnessed the service of minorities who responded to the call of duty."
Hero Street in Silvis, Ill., is an example of the contributions of Hispanic Americans. Fewer than 25 homes line the street, but more than 100 Hispanic Americans from them answered the call of patriotism in World War II and Korea. The street name was changed in 1967 in their honor.
"For Asian Americans there can be no better example than the 442nd Regiment," he said. "Composed almost entirely of Japanese Americans, it defeated both discrimination and the defenses of Italy's notorious Gothic Line." The Army infantry unit is the most decorated in U.S. military history for its size and time in combat.
"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," he said. Neither the Germans nor Japanese ever broke the "code" -- the Navajos' oral language.
Hamre said women have borne the brunt of senseless chauvinism for decades, but they have never forsaken the call of duty. He traced women's contributions from taking care of wounded troops during the Civil War to breaking the glass ceiling as military pilots today.
With respect to racism and sexism, there are certain freedoms that should be guaranteed for all who serve in our armed forces, Hamre said. DoD should commit itself, he said, to guaranteeing four new guiding freedoms for every man and woman in the next 50 years:
The first is freedom from prejudice. "We must make sure that every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine knows that bias is a four-letter word, and it will not be tolerated," he said. "With every day that passes, our services are more and more diverse, and drawing false distinctions of race or sex denies our oaths and our obligations."
Hamre said there is progress to celebrate because the armed forces are more diverse than ever. The proportion of African Americans entering the services is higher than their proportion in the general population. And despite the drawdown, the services are recruiting and retaining versatile, educated men and women.
There are four-star African-American officers in three of the services, but DoD still has serious problems to address, Hamre said. He noted the proportion of Hispanics in the services has grown, but they're still underrepresented. Minorities in general are still underrepresented in the officer corps -- one in 10 -- while they represent one in five enlisted men and women.
"African Americans and women are still more heavily represented in areas such as support and administration, and have not gained equal standing in combat arms," Hamre said. "Promotion rates are still lagging. Minorities do not get the opportunities they need to compete well for promotions later."
Hamre said the second guiding freedom is from indifference or apathy. "The battle against discrimination is harder now," he said. "Overtly racist laws and institutional barriers have been removed, but we still have to change attitudes and perceptions, and they change very slowly."
He said President Clinton has pledged to have a government that "looks like America," and "DoD wants to meet that goal and go one better. Our goal is to have an all-volunteer force that has all the 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, talent and leaders available."
The third is freedom from the ideologies of hate. Hate groups in the military are small, but they do exist, Hamre acknowledged. For example, he said, the Army inspector general recently found that the viruses of racial supremacy, extremism, fascism and ethnic hatred can occasionally find a welcome host in the lives of the frustrated.
During a visit to San Antonio, Hamre said he was briefed about two instances where military personnel dressed up in white hoods, imitated the Ku Klux Klan and drove through bases. He said such incidences are infrequent, but "we cannot afford to ignore them. The cost is too high. Even if there were no racism and sexism in America today, we would have to guard against its return tomorrow."
The deputy secretary said people who must resort to secrecy and anonymous acts of terror do not belong in a military that defends democracy and free speech. The audience applauded loudly when he said, "There is no place in the Department of Defense for hate mongers."
Last, Hamre said, is freedom from intimidation. He said women in the military shouldn't have to contend with harassment or intimidation to serve their country. They should not have to sacrifice their dignity through direct attacks or a predatory environment.
"To those who want to wave this off by saying, 'Boys will be boys,' we need to send a clear and consistent message," he said. "We do not want boys whose goal is simply to learn the rules. We want men whose goal is to honor them.
"This is a country worth fighting for, but it is also a country that continually must live up to its own promises. You're the key to helping America's military live up to our own promises," Hamre told the audience. "It's you who will lead in our efforts to ensure a military free from prejudice, free from indifference, free from hate and free from intimidation."