President Harry S. Truman changed military policy and upended social orthodoxy on July 26, 1948 by ordering the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces. The Pentagon, Congress, and the American people vehemently opposed the change, but Truman eventually won out. The result was an integrated and highly capable force that has been a tireless guardian of our national security and an example for the rest of society.
Now, on the 61st anniversary of that decision, nobody disputes that Americans from all racial and ethnic backgrounds have the right to serve their country in uniform. Yet we still have not achieved full equality for our service members. The discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” forbids gay, lesbian, and bisexual Americans from serving openly in the armed forces, and mandates that they be dismissed if their sexual orientation is discovered. The military has discharged some 13,000 men and women since DADT was enacted 16 years ago, an estimated 1,000 of which worked in critical occupations such as interpreters and engineers. An estimated 30,000 more men and women have left the service voluntarily because of the policy.
President Barack Obama pledged during his campaign for the presidency to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but the issue has gathered little momentum since his inauguration. Obama should follow through on his campaign policy by taking some lessons from Harry Truman. The path to desegregating the military was not easy, but Truman’s resolve in the face of opposition ultimately made our country more secure.
Obama will find, like his presidential forerunner, that he cannot sit back. He must exert executive leadership to overturn this discriminatory policy. The Pentagon leadership and the Congress pushed back when Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which guaranteed equality of treatment and opportunity regardless of race or color. General Omar Bradley, the Army Chief of Staff, told Truman that he would not integrate because he thought that desegregation would ruin the Army. But Truman refused to back down, and segregation was eventually phased out.
Obama is likely to encounter similar objections from some of the highest levels of the military. Supporters of DADT claim that allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the armed forces will undermine morale and unit cohesion. Yet as far back as the Navy’s 1957 Crittenden report, which the service commissioned to evaluate its policies on homosexuals, the DOD’s own studies have found that sexual orientation has no bearing on a service member’s security risk or ability to serve. Repealing DADT will improve our military readiness by retaining well-trained men and women at a time when our military is already overstretched. Obama must confront the specious claims of DADT proponents by leading the effort to repeal this policy.
Truman’s effort to desegregate the armed forces also faced strong opposition from members of both parties in Congress. Sen. Richard Russell (D-GA), the then-ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, claimed that desegregation would lead to a weaker force because it would be “sure to increase the number of men who [would] be disabled through communicable diseases and the crime rate among servicemen [would] soar.” Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft (R-OH) called Truman’s executive order a cheap political ploy. Some of Obama’s opponents in Congress will likely employ similar arguments against DADT, and the president must be prepared to display the same strong leadership Truman exhibited.
President Truman also faced significant opposition from the country. Only 13 percent of Americans supported “having negro and white troops throughout the U.S. armed services live and work together” when he issued his executive order to end segregation in the armed forces. Obama’s potential support is much greater. A 2009 Washington Post-ABC News poll from July 2008 showed that 75 percent of Americans now believe that gay people should be allowed to serve openly.
The U.S. military has only become more unified and more capable during the more than six decades since Truman took the first steps to end segregation in our armed forces. Our closest allies around the world, including Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom allow gay men and women to serve openly and have transitioned their forces without incident. Obama will create a stronger and more cohesive force if he follows Truman’s example and takes the lead despite the opposition from some members of Congress and the military, and some portion of the American people, and overturns this long-outdated and discriminatory policy.
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