A Truman Legacy
February 4, 2008
War has been the impetus behind many advances African-Americans have made in the U.S. military.
The Civil War was the first American conflict in which blacks served in large numbers. In 1861, when the war started, the war was for "Union" and blacks were excepted from service. But as the war dragged on, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all territory still at war with the Union. Those slaves flocked to incoming Union armies. Military leaders saw the "contrabands" - as they were called - as a ready pool of manpower.
Lincoln authorized blacks' enlistment and they served in segregated units under white officers. Ultimately, 186,000 freemen and former slaves fought for the Union during the Civil War.
Black Soldiers continued to distinguish themselves in conflicts following the Civil War - during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II. Yet somehow, against all evidence to the contrary, grew the myth that blacks couldn't handle combat.
Black troops served in "colored" units, mostly answering to white officers. In the Navy, blacks were relegated to positions as mess stewards. The Marine Corps did not allow any blacks to join. In World War II, the United States took advantage of all available manpower. The Army formed two black infantry regiments. One fought in Italy, the other in the Pacific. The Army Air Forces formed several all-black squadrons. The Navy commissioned black officers and manned ships with all-black crews. The Marine Corps finally allowed blacks to join its ranks.
The official policy of segregation ultimately broke down under the strain of combat. The Nazis launched what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, and some black Soldiers fought with previously all-white units when the Army needed quick replacements.
In 1948, change hovered over the military. The experiences of the war led many officials to believe that segregated units were wrong. They felt segregation blunted black units' combat edge. Further, the allies had just won a war over the greatest tyranny the world had ever seen. Was it right for the U.S. military to treat blacks as second-class citizens'
President Harry S. Truman certainly didn't think so.
Truman had not always been a champion of racial equality. But he learned all his life, historians said, and he changed his opinion on civil rights.
He also related to stories in a personal way. Soon after World War II ended, he started hearing stories about black veterans being harassed, tortured and lynched throughout the South. He was particularly distressed by the story of a black officer whose eyes were gouged out by a Southern sheriff.
Segregation was wrong and Truman - a man who grew up in a segregated state and society - knew it. On July 26, 1948, he signed Executive Order 9981, establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment in the Armed Forces. It recommended to the president that segregation end in the military.
The military studied the problem and was and was moving toward integration when the Korean War broke out in 1950. The war forced the Army to integrate faster than planned, with the other services following the Army's lead.
Integration was painful for the military, but it moved ahead. Today,, most Americans view the military as a meritocracy - a place where you rise on what you know and how well you do, not on the color of your skin, your sex or your religion.