You might have heard that the military recently surveyed 400,000 troops to ascertain their opinions on gay servicemen and women. As Igor Volsky at ThinkProgress points out, this is not the first time the armed forces have solicited the opinions of the rank-and-file on personnel issues.
This story piqued my interest because I myself read through many of these documents in the course of researching my undergraduate thesis, on Executive Order 9981. It was by that order, a presidential fiat by Truman in 1948, that the United States armed forces were desegregated. It was an important decision, and a monumental achievement. Think of it this way: by the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Ed SCOTUS decision that began forcibly desegregating the public school system, there was already a huge and hugely diverse chunk of the American public living in a desegregated environment.
But for us, today, the important point of the military desegregation story is this: even though the military conducted a number of surveys about white and black and Jewish troops between 1944 and the Korean War, none of them really mattered in terms of policy. The military brass of the post-WWII era was reticent to risk desegregation then; the current crop of generals is reticent to risk an open-door policy for gay men and women today. But Truman penned Executive Order 9981 for shockingly personal reasons. He was a strict constitutional literalist, and he believed that a segregated military was unfair. (Truman’s understanding of race relations was in some ways complex–he made the military an exemplar of racial equality, at least in mid-twentieth century terms, but peppered his speech with racial epithets well into his last years. But his understanding of fairness was blunt and without nuance.) Moreover, he was personally fond of the military, having commanded an artillery unit in WWI. And, perhaps most important, he was deeply moved by stories of racially-tinged violence visited by whites on black servicemen returning from service after 1945. These stories, most of them told to Truman by NAACP leader Walter White in the Oval Office, hardened Truman against the anti-integration stance of his military men and his more vocal constituents.
But there’s one last piece of the puzzle. The historical evidence suggests that Truman didn’t much care what his generals thought. (For further proof of this, see Truman’s firing of MacArthur, a move that cost Truman dearly in approval polls.) Truman desegregated the armed forces because he thought it was the right thing to do, goddammit, and he did it without Congressional approval, and against the whining and blustering of his brass.
Truman made a good many mistakes–early membership in the KKK, his unrepentant connections to the corrupt Pendergast political machine, and even, perhaps, his willingness to wield the atom against the Japanese in August 1945. But in this one thing, he was right enough to serve as a moral compass for decision making today. Obama flexed executive muscle when he forced Stanley McChrystal out; more than anything else, that decision was about reasserting that the military serves at the pleasure of its civilian overseers, and not the other way around. And even though Obama has midterm elections to consider this fall, and a possible second term on the horizon, he should seek to emulate Truman in his approach to Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, because it’s the right thing to do.