The Policy: History

A black-and-white photo of the Tuskegee Airmen, a row of men in military uniforms standing at attention
Tuskeegee Airmen

A black-and-white photo of a soldier, a member of the 442nd Combat Team, holding a rifle in the woods
A member of the 442nd Combat Team on the front lines in France, 1944. Photo: U.S. Army

WAC Pvt. Mary Delession, Philadelphia, Pa., mechanic 1943

First all-female crew to fly combat mission, 2005

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy legally permits discrimination against gays and lesbians in the U.S. military; it remains the only U.S. law that permits the firing of citizens just for being gay. Historically, the military has also enforced policies authorizing discriminatory practices based on race and gender—in many cases, affecting American citizens on multiple levels.

Military Policies and Race

The U.S. military’s ban on service members of color dates back to before the country’s inception. Most American colonies had laws in place that prohibited African Americans from serving. In 1775, George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army, issued an order that banned black recruits, legislation that was later enacted by the federal government. The Congressional act that established the Marines in 1798 specifically barred it from enlisting black service members.

Despite these laws, both men and women of color still served. Hundreds of thousands of African Americans and Mexican Americans fought in the Civil War, mainly in racially segregated troops. In 1866, Congress authorized the enrollment of African Americans in the Army—but only in segregated regiments. “Buffalo soldier” units, or all-black troops, served in World Wars I and II and in the Spanish-American War, housed in segregated areas and often using rations and equipment inferior to those of white troops.

The attitudes of white military leaders towards allowing people of color to serve in the military shifted with the need for more troops. In 1942, with World War II raging, the Marines allowed black recruits to enroll. More than one million African Americans were in the military service in WWII, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black U.S. military pilots. Native Americans and Hispanic Americans were integrated into white units, although Puerto Rican service members were segregated into separate units. Filipino and Filipino American soldiers also fought in World War II in specially designated units, though many veterans were denied benefits until 2009. Japanese American men of draft age were classified “enemy aliens” in 1942; those already serving in the military were either discharged or forced to work in labor units. The military administered “loyalty tests” among Japanese Americans forcefully imprisoned in internment camps and in 1943 formed the segregated, all-Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. history.

Executive Order 9981, signed by President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948, officially desegregated the armed forces and equated integration of the military as a civil rights issue. The order declared equal treatment in the military “without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Still, change was slow to come: The military did not officially put an end to racially segregated units until 1954, and the policy was not amended to include a ban on off-base discrimination until 1963.

Military Policies and Gender

Although both white women and women of color have served in noncombatant roles in the military since the Revolutionary War, they are still officially barred from combat. Women were first allowed to serve in the U.S. military in an official capacity in World War I, working in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. In 1920, the Army Reorganization Act awarded military nurses officer status—but a lesser status than that of male officers. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act later awarded women permanent status in the armed forces, as long as their total numbers remained at less than two percent. Prior to 1950, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was racially segregated, with African American women living, eating and training in separate facilities from white women.

The military allowed service academies to admit women beginning in 1976, with female army recruits training alongside male recruits. In 1994, the Department of Defense reversed the “risk rule” that had limited the scope of women’s participation in the military, opening up thousands of formerly banned combat-related positions to servicewomen. Women can now serve aboard combat aircraft and combat ships, but are still prohibited from participating in direct combat.


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