Congressional repeal of the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy, which will allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the armed forces without having to hide their orientation, has set off waves of condemnation among anti-gay opponents who predict all measure of doom and disaster for the military and America. Yet it serves us well to recall a decision that put an end to another unjust policy steeped in fear and prejudice rather than fact and logic.
Harry Truman, who grew up in Missouri as the grandson of former slaveholders, was “conditioned to be a racist,” according to historian Michael Gardner. Yet by issuing presidential executive orders 9980 and 9981 on July 26, 1948, Truman staked his reputation on his conviction that racial integration of the military (and the federal workforce) was the right thing to do. It didn’t matter to him that a 1948 Gallup poll revealed that 82 percent of Americans disagreed with his civil rights program. He wasn’t deterred that an election was less than 100 days away – one that featured Strom Thurmond running on the overtly segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. And his resolve wasn’t shaken when five-star General Omar Bradley declared the Army “was no place for social experiments.”
Truman courageously challenged long-entrenched attitudes about race – held by people both inside and outside the military – that were so widely accepted as to be considered conventional wisdom. “The Army is not a sociological laboratory,” said Col. Eugene Householder of the Adjutant General’s Office, in a speech before the Conference of Negro Editors and Publishers during World War II. Experimenting with Army policy, especially in a time of war, would pose “a danger to efficiency, discipline and morale and would result in an ultimate defeat.”
Consider a statement issued by the Navy General Board in 1942. “Men on board ship live in particularly close association; in their messes, one man sits beside another; their hammocks or bunks are close together; in their common tasks they work side by side; and in particular tasks such as those of a gun's crew, they form a closely knit, highly coordinated team. How many white men would choose, of their own accord, that their closest associates in sleeping quarters, at mess, and in a gun’s crew should be of another race? How many would accept such conditions, if required to do so, without resentment and just as a matter of course? The General Board believes that the answer is ‘Few, if any,’ and further believes that if the issue were forced, there would be a lowering of contentment, teamwork and discipline in the service.”
Georgia Sen. Richard B. Russell delivered a bitter floor speech shortly before Truman’s announcement. “[T]he mandatory intermingling of the races throughout the services will be a terrific blow to the efficiency and fighting power of the armed services,” he said. “It is sure to increase the numbers of men who will be disabled through communicable diseases. It will increase the rate of crime committed by servicemen.”
Today, aware as we are of decades of noble service by African Americans alongside their white peers in the armed services, the fears expressed in 1948 seem incredibly, almost inconceivably, ignorant. It’s hard to believe our own parents or grandparents lived through such an unenlightened time – or perhaps even shared those fears.
But maybe it isn’t so inconceivable. Many of us today are just as capable of colossal ignorance fueled by childish, groundless fears. On Saturday, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, had this to say about the repeal of DADT: “Today is a tragic day for our armed forces. The American military exists for only one purpose – to fight and win wars. Yet it has now been hijacked and turned into a tool for imposing on the country a radical social agenda. This may advance the cause of reshaping social attitudes regarding human sexuality, but it will only do harm to the military’s ability to fulfill its mission.”
If there is a tragedy at work here today, it is the implicit lack of respect that Perkins and his brethren have for the maturity and professionalism of our nation’s armed forces – straight and gay service members alike. Just as racists did in 1948, Perkins presumes American troops are so small-minded and fretful that they would allow petty fears about the individual fighting alongside them to detract them from their primary mission: the safety and defense of the nation. Truman believed in the loyalty, patriotism and competence of all service members of all races – and that confidence has been borne out by the incontrovertible evidence that has accumulated since. The same will prove true of service members of all sexual orientations.
The military remains the purest meritocracy in America, so much so that the fears expressed by Truman’s critics seem pathetic 62 years later. I have no doubt that in a far shorter span of time, young Americans will be similarly amazed that comments like Perkins’ were ever taken seriously.