On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, abolishing discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” in the United States Armed Forces.
This bold and controversial order recognized that integration was a practical step toward efficiency within the armed forces. It also was moral recognition that the military culture cultivates loyalty, patriotism and mutual respect between service members.
Before the order, according to Wikipedia, Blacks soldiers in the military “worked under different rules that delayed their entry into combat. They had to wait four years before they could begin combat training while a white American would begin training within months of being qualified.”
Wiki cites a 1945 survey conducted among 250 white officers and sergeants who had a Black platoon assigned to their company. The survey showed that “77% of both officers and sergeants said they had become more favorable towards Black soldiers after having a Black platoon assigned to their company (no cases were found where someone said their attitude towards them had turned less favorable), 84% of officers and 81% of sergeants thought the Black soldiers had performed very well in combat.”
Flawed rationale for racial segregation in the armed forces was dismissed by the comportment and sacrifice of Black troops. Ironically, many who returned from the war in Europe, having earned equal status as soldiers, came home to demeaning Jim Crow laws.
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There are stories of white and Black soldiers stepping ashore in the states and wanting to celebrate their service together. Segregated restaurants and bars made that impossible. That left Black soldiers to suffer ultimate humiliation and whites to suffer shame and embarrassment for their brothers in arms. Equality earned by service overseas did not exist in the nation they had fought for.
The military establishment went a step further 15 years after Truman’s order when, on July 26, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued an order that, according to Wiki, “encouraged military commanders to lever financial resources against facilities used by soldiers or their families that discriminated based upon sex or race.”
Today, city streets in the U.S. have become battlegrounds for the rights bestowed 75 years ago by an order of the president to integrate the U.S. military. Integration meant removing social barriers, guaranteeing equal opportunity and honoring the unity of soldiers who depend upon each other in the line of duty.
“In the Marine Corps today, there is only one color, Marine Corps GREEN,” wrote retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Dick Merritt of Basalt when I emailed him about racial integration in the military. “In my 22 years in the Corps, I was a leader of many races and colors, all desiring to serve our nation and the Marine Corps — all willing to give their lives for their fellow Marines and country.”
Merritt, who serves with me on the board of Huts for Vets and advocates for veterans with every minute of his life, likes to quote from a field sermon during the Battle of Bataan in 1942, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”
There also is no separation among soldiers when mission comes first, as Merritt explains from personal experience, having recruited minorities in Detroit during the Vietnam War where “all joined to serve as a team.”
“When I assumed my first Battalion command (720 Marines),” Merritt reflects, “My sergeant major was an African American who I had served with in the Philippines 12 years prior. He was the best enlisted Marine I ever served with — he had dignity, physical stature and command presence, and he was willing to die for me, and I for him.”
Merritt recognizes Navajo code talkers, Pima Indian Ira Hayes, a hero of the Corps who was among the flag raisers on Iwo Jima, and of Japanese American internment camp detainees who went on to serve with distinction in WWII — among them U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), who lost an arm in combat.
Today, our national challenge with race requires what the military teaches — loyalty, respect for peers and mutual dependency for the good of the whole. With the right leadership, it’s all possible. With the wrong leadership, impossible.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.