On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an Executive Order that ended official discrimination in the United States military.
It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.
Coming in an election year, it was a daring move by Truman, who still needed the support of southern segregationists. It was also a controversial decision that led to the forced retirement of the Secretary of the Army when he refused to desegregate the Army.
As historical documents and pronouncements go, “Executive Order 9981″ doesn’t have quite the same ring as “Emancipation Proclamation” or “New Deal.” But when President Harry S. Truman issued this Executive Order, he helped transform the country. This order began the gradual official process of desegregating America’s armed forces, which was a groundbreaking step for the American civil rights movement. (It is worth noting that many of the arguments made at the time against integration of the armed services –unit cohesion, morale of the troops, discipline in the ranks– were also made about the question of homosexuals serving in the military, a policy effectively ended when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was overturned in 2011.)
In a Defense Department history of the integration of the Armed Forces, Brigadier General James Collins Jr. wrote in 1980:
The integration of the armed forces was a momentous event in our military and national history…. The experiences in World War II and the postwar pressures generated by the civil rights movement compelled all the services –Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps — to reexamine their traditional practices of segregation. While there were differences in the ways that the services moved toward integration, all were subject to the same demands, fears, and prejudices and had the same need to use their resources in a more rational and economical way. All of them reached the same conclusion: traditional attitudes toward minorities must give way to democratic concepts of civil rights.
Integration of the Armed Forces: 1940-1965
Here is the text of the Executive Order 9981 (dated July 26, 1948)
A Chronology of events leading to the Order and more information can be found at the the Truman Library.
You can learn more about Truman in my forthcoming book Don’t Know Much About the American Presidents