Posted by: Morgan Hubbard | November 9, 2010

Insert history lesson here

Adam Serwer over at The American Prospect is only the most recent commentator to bring up Harry Truman in the ongoing debate over Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Rarely are parallels so obvious in the history of policy making.

But one important factor seems missing from every account of this parallel I’ve read so far: the personalities of the policy makers in play. Truman moved to desegregate the armed forces by executive order because he thought it was the right thing to do, it’s true. This is well documented and the man, deeply flawed in other ways, deserves credit for his moral stature on this point.

But here’s the crucial back story. The historical record (according to my own research at the National Archives between 2004 and 2006) suggests that Truman felt desegregating the military was right not just out of some devotion to sky-high ideals. In fact, he was motivated much more strongly by anecdotes of racist violence visited on returning black servicemen after World War II. Walter White, then head of the NAACP, discusses this in his memoir. Truman’s sense of propriety was well-developed, and racist violence offended him, even wounded him, more deeply than any careful consideration of the wrongs of the military’s policy of segregation.

Add to this the fact that Truman was not one to deliberate on the subtleties of an issue. Case in point: as VP in 1945 he attended the Kansas City funeral of the corrupt machine politician Boss Pendergast, to the collected gasps of Washington commentators, because Pendergast had been his friend in the past. And, finally, add the fact that in 1948, a feisty Truman, facing the staunchly obstructionist 80th Congress, felt he had nothing to lose by ram-rodding desegregation into law.

Now, shake, strain, and pour. Boom goes the dynamite: Executive Order 9981.

Where does this leave us? The DADT equation is more complicated because, as I understand it, an executive order wouldn’t fix the problem. Congress has to be involved. But if the policy is repealed in the next two (or six!) years, it will be in part because the president puts his weight behind the repeal effort. But Obama is not Truman. In fact, Obama seems much more like Truman’s predecessor, the studied, contemplative, and infinitely political FDR.

I hope this is one case where personalities, in the end, don’t matter after all.



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