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Truman's Order Begins Long Process of Desegregation

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 17, 1998 – When President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, he began a process that ultimately would create a racially integrated armed forces.

Truman was motivated by the convergence of a number of events, according to Joint Chiefs of Staff historian Mickey Schubert.

"America had just fought a war against militarism and racism overseas, making it hard to sustain a segregationist policy back home," Schubert said. Growing instability on the Korean Peninsula and the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union also convinced the president and his advisers of the need for a large standing army.

In South Carolina, a sheriff went unpunished after he intentionally blinded Isaac Woodard, a black former Army sergeant. "This really touched President Truman," Schubert said.

Moved by tragedy and practicality, backed by political and military advisers, Truman issued his historic document, ordering equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces and establishing a committee to oversee military desegregation.

"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 forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin," the order proclaimed. The document set in motion a process that over the next two decades would create the kind of military Schubert found when he was commissioned in the Army in 1965.

"I was a lieutenant. I worked for majors and lieutenant colonels who were black. There were specialists who were black and worked for me," said Schubert, who is white. "By 1965, the period [of integration] was completed."

Integration restored the armed forces to its pre-Civil War condition, Schubert said. "There were black people serving in the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and at other times, and they just served alongside whites," he said. Segregated, all- black units would come decades later.

Although thousands of blacks served with valor and distinction in the Civil War, they were assigned to segregated units of the Union Army. After the war, most blacks who served did so as stewards and mess men or in a number of other service and labor jobs. Those who were smart and talented and wanted to get ahead couldn't, Schubert said.

"After the Spanish-American War expanded the Army, there were 1,400 men commissioned from enlisted ranks and civil life. Two were black," he said. "Good, talented black enlisted men who should have had commissions weren't getting them, and couldn't get them no matter how hard they tried."

In the 20th century, blacks would again distinguish themselves in battle. All-black units like the 93rd Infantry Division of World War I, the 92nd and 93rd divisions and 99th Fighter Squadron of World War II, and the 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea proved their mettle and patriotism under fire.

Back in rear areas and stateside garrisons, however, black service members felt the brunt of racial prejudice in the inadequate housing and shabby treatment they endured because of the color of their skin and a national "separate but equal" policy that had been the law of the land since the last century.

"When World War II ended, it was pretty plain something had to be done," Schubert said. Integrating the armed forces "was morally right and politically necessary."

Army Air Forces officers like Col. Benjamin O. Davis, leader of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, and Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, who had recently returned to civilian life, were proponents for separate reasons. Davis wanted his fellow blacks to receive equal treatment and opportunity. Doolittle and other senior officers foresaw the long-term need for large standing forces for a protracted Cold War.

Not all military leaders agreed, but with the Air Force leading the way and under the mandate of Truman's executive order, the armed forces began tearing down racial barriers.

Truman's policy came on the heels of another important milestone in America's struggle toward racial equality: Jackie Robinson's introduction to major league baseball. Both events were of extreme importance to the country, Schubert said, because they laid the groundwork for the desegregation of society as a whole.

"The military didn't exist in a tennis camp, but side-by-side with racist communities throughout the country," he said. "Ultimately, [the armed forces] had the effect of dragging those communities into the modern era. Because of its fairly early changes, the military was a very important agent for change nationally."

Could racial integration of the military have occurred faster? Schubert thinks so and gives the military a B-minus for its slow start following the desegregation order.

"Because it took so long for the processes to work," he added. "For the last generation, I think the grade is very good. Today, I'd say the military is one of the fairest of American institutions."

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