|ONE NATION, ONE ARMY|
July 31, 1998
Many praise the U.S. military for its success in handling race relations within its ranks. This month commemorates the event that helped pave the way: President Truman's executive order that formally integrated the armed forces in 1948. After a background report, the NewsHour historians and a military official discuss the anniversary.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fifty years ago President Harry Truman signed an executive order effectively integrating the United States armed forces. The order declared "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin," and it established a presidential committee to implement the policy. Black soldiers had fought for this country since the American Revolution, but, as in other aspects of society, black servicemen were segregated in the armed forces. They were assigned to all-black, mostly non-combat units. Blacks lived in separate barracks and ate in separate dining halls. Still, there remained one constant in every major U.S. conflict through World War II: When manpower shortages arose, blacks were enlisted.
|Blacks fought for the U.S. since the American Revolution -- but separately from whites.|
Early in World War II the Navy relegated blacks to service in the mess halls. The Army and the Air Force--then an Army subdivision-restricted black enlistment to 10 percent. But as the war continued, the Army faced a shortage of ground combat troops. So when black soldiers volunteered, they were permitted to fight alongside white soldiers for the first time in America's history. After the allied victory, three Army generals conducted a study aimed at forming the army's post-war policy on race. Their report concluded the army should "eliminate, at the earliest practical moment, any special consideration based on race." But the report did not specifically question segregation. Meanwhile, outside the military, civil rights leaders pushed for equality for black servicemen. In 1947, President Truman's Committee on Civil Rights issued a report titled "To Secure These Rights", which condemned segregation generally and specifically criticized segregation in the armed forces. Eight months later, in 1948, President Truman officially ended segregation in the armed forces with his executive order.
PRESIDENT TRUMAN: I realized that I could take the first step. It came to me that I was commander and chief of the armed forces, and that I could order them to integrate as their commander in chief, and they would have to do it.
KWAME HOLMAN: Truman's order set the stage for integration in the armed forces. But it was the need for soldiers to fight the Korean War five years later that hastened integration into a reality. By the end of the war in 1953, 90-percent of military units were integrated. By the Vietnam War, the army was 10.5 percent black and blacks were 13 percent of those killed and wounded. In the early 1990's, more than a quarter of the troops serving in the Gulf War were black. But despite the progress, the military still is making up for past mistakes. Last year, President Clinton drew attention to the role of black servicemen. He presented the military's
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (January 13, 1997) The men we honor here today, helped to make their historic progress possible. They were denied their nation's highest honor, but their deeds could not be denied, and they cleared the way to a better world.
PHIL PONCE: More now from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, and Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson. Joining them is Retired Lt. General Julius Becton. He served in the Army for more than 40 years before retiring in 1983. He's held several posts since then, most recently as the chief executive officer of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Welcome everybody.
General Becton, tell us what life was like for the-day-to-day life was like for the black serviceman or woman before this order was issued.
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.), U.S. Army: Well, it was, as most people might suspect, being segregated you had views that the grass was always greener on the other side. You get next to the second-hand in equipment and back in the 40's, we had white officers who were in the leadership position. But there is an interesting anomaly there. When I went to officer candidate school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1944, the school, itself, was integrated. Yet, when we walked outside of the camp area where we were, we were back in segregation area. And it was very strict in those days in Georgia.
PHIL PONCE: What did that mean to be in a segregated status like that, I mean, as far as accommodations, as far as equipment?
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON: You were given the responsibility to do what was expected of all soldiers. But, at the same time, you realized that you could not do what all the soldiers could do. You couldn't go into town with them, as an example. When we left the post at Fort Benning, Georgia, we got on separate buses. When we went downtown, we were treated a certain way by the local police, by the military police. Back in training-
PHIL PONCE: When you say a certain way, what do you mean?
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON: We were hustled around. We were asked for identification. You always had to wear a uniform in those days. We're talking about in World War II. You were-- interesting story. When I was at McDill Field, we had an all-black unit, and the shoe repair, the service areas, and the PX were run by Italian prisoners of war. We were given second class treatment to them. I could walk into a shoe repair place and I'd be the last person served, even though I may have been there first, because the fellow behind the counter, although he was a POW, he was white.
PHIL PONCE: And General Becton, the day the order was issued, tell us about it. I understand-you remember that day.
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): I certainly do. I was on reserve duty from college at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The commander had assembled all of the officers. He read the order, as directed, I presume, by Washington, and then he said something which I'll never forget-"As long I'm here, there'll be no change." Clearly, he meant that the officer club would be number one, number two; swimming pool: number one, number two; NCO club: number one, number two. Number two being black.
|Why did it take so long to implement the order to integrate?|
PHIL PONCE: Doris, we heard in Kwame's report that the order was issued in 1948, and, yet it wasn't completely implemented until five or six years later. Why the delay? If a President issues an executive order, why isn't it implemented?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: All of this takes time, and you've got people inside who are resisting against it. I mean, it's really interesting to look at the course and the journey that this whole situation took at the beginning of World War II. There was a real movement on the part of A. Philip Randolph and black leaders that the right to fight has to be one of the symbolic importances of the whole Civil Rights movement during the 40's. And as a result of that combination of leadership on the black side and the courage of individual soldiers, there were a group of mess men in the Navy in 1941, who could only be servants, essentially, the only job available to them was to do the laundry, clean the shoes of officers. They actually put out a statement to a black newspaper saying don't ever come in the Navy, young black soldiers, you'll think, young black sailors, you'll think it's a great thing, but it won't be. They were put in the brig. They were dishonorably discharged, but almost like a rock tumbling over a mountain, their courage encouraged others, and eventually A. Philip Randolph went to FDR and they started making changes even during World War II. As was just described, some of these camps, themselves, were integrated even when the society outside was segregated. Eventually by the end of World War II the buses had to accommodate equally blacks and whites alike if they were government buses, but still it was a Jim Crow army, and it took A. Philip Randolph again in 1948, when there was a draft about to come out to threaten civil disobedience on the part of blacks, and that helped to push Truman, I think, to do this. But even once the order came you still had southern commanders; you'll have people against it; you'll have prejudice in the North. So it took fighting side by side first in the World War II Battle of the Bulge, then in Korea to convince people that, of course, this can work. Reality in the situation made it work, but people's fears had to be overcome.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, how about that, do the fears that Doris is talking about and the pressure, is that what is-is that what prompted Truman? What motivated him to?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: You know, the thing that I look back in awe now, it's 50 years ago, think about 1948, what that time was. Harry Truman is regarded today as the icons of American History, this strong, courageous president, properly so. But in 1948, in the summer of 1948, his Democratic Party was falling apart, the Dixiecrat wing led by Strom Thurmond, the old solid South, which was the basis of the Democratic Party, which has elected Franklin Roosevelt for four times, had helped to put him in office, Harry Truman as vice president was gone. The progressive wing, or the left wing, on Henry Wallace was gone. Truman was left in the center an unpopular president. Tom Dewey was already anointed as president. The Civil Rights laws couldn't pass the Congress, not a one had passed the Congress, Southern-in Washington the Southerners block controlled this place lock, stock, and barrel. It wasn't just Fort Benning and down in the South. It was Washington, D.C., was a totally-as you remember, a totally segregated society-and here Harry Truman, by executive order, did something that couldn't have been popular. He knew you were going to have these segregationists and these people who found even in the military is not going to change, no matter what that president says, and I think that the country changed-and I think it was a great moment in our history.
PHIL PONCE: Michael, a lack of courage on the part of the president?
|Was Truman courageous for issuing the executive order?|
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think it wasn't so courageous. I'm tougher on Truman, I guess, than Haynes is, because here we thought this World War II, which was above all a war against racism and Fascism. We were full of that, and what we said to the world while fighting that war, then our armed forces came back to the United States and it was exactly the situation that existed before Pearl Harbor. Even Harry Truman said that he was sickened when he heard about black troops who had fought heroically in Europe, came back to Mississippi, they were dumped off an army truck, and then beaten. Truman said his stomach turned over when he heard that, but he didn't do very much. There were executive orders. There were mild things, but nothing that was really extreme in getting the armed forces desegregated pronto. And it took until this election year-1948-for Truman to begin to act. He said that this should be done in a speech to Congress. But even at the Democratic convention of 1948, as Haynes has described, there was a plank that was for a very fast desegregation of the armed forces proposed by Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis. Truman opposed it. Truman said we should do it more slowly. He said, I am for legal equality; I'm not for social equality. The plank was passed against his opposition, and it was only because, as Haynes has suggested in the fall of '48, Truman needed that black vote, that he finally came around to this achievement that belatedly he did, and we now remember him for.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, that's why--
PHIL PONCE: General Becton, you talked to-excuse me, Doris, I'll get right back to you.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Sure.
PHIL PONCE: Gen. Becton, you talked to President Truman about this. What did you ask him and what did he say?
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): I was in a group of students at the commanding general staff college at Ft. Leavenworth in 1960/61. He spoke to the students. And then a few of us had a chance to talk with him afterwards. And we asked him to talk a little bit more about what went through his mind, why did he do it, and he frankly said it was the right thing to do. Now, this is what? Twelve years after he did it, but the right thing to do, and when you think about that, the Army, as an example, published a publication-"Leadership and the Negro Soldier"-1944-a whole pamphlet on what it would take to lead Negro soldiers.
PHIL PONCE: You mean different standards for leading black soldiers, as opposed to white soldiers?
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): It points out what I knew as a black man, but it points out to white leaders what they must do to lead Negro soldiers.
PHIL PONCE: Give us an example of what the manual says.
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): It talks about tips on rumors, fact-it talks about health in the Negro soldier-vocational experience in a Negro soldier-educational background of the Negro soldier-community-life of the Negro soldier-and talks about the history of the Negro soldier. I'm reading what it says here. In 1944-that's-when you think about that and then what Truman did four years later and then where we are today, you're almost talking about day and night.
PHIL PONCE: Doris I wanted to get back to you.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, what I wanted to say was what I think is so relevant about in a certain sense celebrating this anniversary of the desegregation order is that it's the way change occurs in the most positive way when it comes about in our society. You had a lot of those obstacles, as we've all pointed out, to making that change happen. But you had courage and leadership on the part of the black community that cannot be overestimated. It seems to me had A. Philip Randolph not once again come out, as I said, and organize the blacks to a potential civil disobedience in 1948, Truman might not have had to worry about the blacks, but he had to worry about that response-had the blacks not gone-refused to go to the back of the bus time and again during World War II-some blacks were shot. There were people killed standing up for their right to be at the right part of a government-owned bus during the military service. All of those individual acts of courage came together, I think, to produce a momentum that Truman had to respond to. And what you see in America over and over again is when you've got that coming up from the citizens at large and leadership does open the door, that's when change takes place. And now it turns out that the military is so far ahead of most other institutions in the way blacks are used and leaders are able to be mobilized into action.
PHIL PONCE: Haynes, how do you assess what this led to?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, it's changed our country. I mean, the military took the lead in integration. Don't forget, this was before schools' desegregations, the situation in the 1950's, before public accommodations, before the right to vote-I mean, we had-as I say again-a totally segregated society. I want to say something about Michael's point. He's absolutely correct about all the things that you said. My point is that politics is often so timid and leadership, and that was what I was trying to say about Harry Truman. You remember when Jack Kennedy came in and he wouldn't sign an executive order on-
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): Two and a half years.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Two and a half years. That was 1960,61,62. So I think that the politics and the act of presidential leadership, that's why I credit Mr. Truman, because it did change the country, and he did the right thing.
PHIL PONCE: Michael, how would you assess how it changed the country?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, it changed the country, but, as Haynes was saying, the armed forces were the forcing house of change. And there's a difference of opinion about that even nowadays. There are many people who feel that the armed forces should mirror social changes within the society, others who feel that it should be the leading edge. After Truman put out this executive order in 1948, one of the amazing things to me is that his own Army chief of staff-the World War II hero-Omar Bradley-and his Army Secretary Kenneth Royal, rather loudly opposed the order and said, you know, the President has put this out, but we don't agree with it, and they were essentially suggesting that people should drag their heels, and that makes it all the more miraculous that within about four years the job was done.
PHIL PONCE: Gen. Becton, how would you assess where the military is now?
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): I think that we're leaders in many areas, but certainly we're leaders in the equal opportunity, we're leaders in giving all minorities an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do. A point that we oftentimes are prone to forget, the order of 9981 did not just help the blacks.
PHIL PONCE: That was an executive order-
LT. GEN. JULIUS BECTON (Ret.): That order of 9981 helped the entire Army, because it enhanced combat effectiveness. We don't have separate this, separate that, but when you are training together, you're going to be a better Army. We've proven that time and time again.
|A decision that is less known than Brown v. Board of Education, but no less important.|
PHIL PONCE: Why is it-and I'll ask any of you-why is it that this is a landmark-landmark event happen-50 years ago-and yet, it doesn't get the same kind of recognition say that Brown V. Board in 1954? Doris, your thoughts.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, obviously, I suppose the differences that Brown V. Board affected the school system where so many people in their daily lives were affected by whether or not their children would be integrated in schools, whereas the military still is a relatively small number, compared to the number who are affected by the school desegregation decision. But I think the overall point that it made, which is that when blacks and whites can fight side by side, it can work out more productively, more effectively, more efficiently, is one that should be used for any institution in our society at large.
PHIL PONCE: Well, thank you all. That's all the time we have. Thank you for being here.