Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell debate mirrors Desegregation of Armed Forces

In reviewing the debate over the repreal of the ban on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans serving openly in the armed forces in the context of the debate more than 60 years ago I found some striking similarities. The Harry S Truman Library website has a chronology of the debate from 60 years ago here. This history lesson makeds it clear, that change does not come easily for our armed forces.

September 1945: Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson appoints a board of three general officers to investigate the Army’s policy with respect to African-Americans and to prepare a new policy that would provide for the efficient use of African-Americans in the Army. This board is called the Gillem Board, after its chairman, General Alvan C. Gillem, Jr.

April 1946: The report of the Gillem Board, “Utilization of Negro Manpower in the Postwar Army Policy,” is issued. The report concludes that the Army’s future policy should be to “eliminate, at the earliest practicable moment, any special consideration based on race.” The report, however, does not question that segregation would continue to underlie the Army’s policy toward African-Americans. Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall later characterized the policy recommended by the Gillem Board as “equality of opportunity on the basis of segregation.”

May 1947: The President’s Advisory Commission on Universal Training gives a report to the President in which it concludes that “nothing could be more tragic for the future attitude of our people, and for the unity of our Nation, than a program [referring to the Truman administration's proposed Universal Military Training program] in which our Federal Government forced our young manhood to live for a period of time in an atmosphere which emphasized or bred class or racial difference.”

October 29, 1947: The President’s Committee on Civil Rights issues its landmark report, To Secure These Rights. The report condemns segregation wherever it exists and criticizes specifically segregation in the armed forces. The report recommends legislation and administrative action “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed or national origin in…all branches of the Armed Services.”

February 2, 1948: President Truman announces in a special message to Congress on civil rights issues that he has “instructed the Secretary of Defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible.”

July 26, 1948: President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, “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.” The order also establishes the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services.

July 26, 1948: Army staff officers state anonymously to the press that Executive Order 9981 does not specifically forbid segregation in the Army.

July 27, 1948: Army Chief of Staff General Omar N. Bradley states that desegregation will come to the Army only when it becomes a fact in the rest of American society.

July 29, 1948: President Truman states in a press conference that the intent of Executive Order 9981 is to end segregation in the armed forces.

August 14, 1948: Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall is reported in the press to have admitted that “segregation in the Army must go,” but not immediately.

September 18, 1948: The White House announces the names of the members of the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services (called the Fahy Committee, after its chairman, Charles Fahy). The committee’s five active members include two African-Americans.

January 13, 1949: The Fahy Committee holds its first hearings. Representatives of the Army defend segregation of African-Americans. The Marine Corps also defends its segregation policy and admits that only one of its 8,200 officers is African-American. The Navy and Air Force both indicate they will integrate their units. The Navy admits that only five of its 45,000 officers are African-American.

March 28, 1949: The three service secretaries testify before the Fahy Committee. Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington and Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan both testify that they are opposed to segregation and are pursuing policies to integrate their services. Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall argues in favor of maintaining segregation, saying that the Army “was not an instrument for social evolution.”

There is more on the Truman Library website, but I think the above chronology paints the picture of resistance based upon irrational fear, followed by gradual acceptance of the inevitable.

At today’s hearins the Senate Armed Services Committee heard from the military service chiefs Gen. James E. Cartwright, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey; Adm. Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations; Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz; and Adm. Robert Papp, Commandant of the Coast Guard.

Gen. James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps recently said regarding repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy:

There’s risk involved; I’m trying to determine how to measure that risk,” Gen. James Amos said. “This is not a social thing. This is combat effectiveness. That’s what the country pays its Marines to do.”

“There is nothing more intimate than young men and young women — and when you talk of infantry, we’re talking our young men — laying out, sleeping alongside of one another and sharing death, fear and loss of brothers,” he said. “I don’t know what the effect of that will be on cohesion. I mean, that’s what we’re looking at. It’s unit cohesion, it’s combat effectiveness.”

His statement reflects the same reservations of his counterpart, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall, who in 1948 admitted that “segregation in the Army must go,” but not immediately. In 1949 the General argued in favor of maintaining segregation, saying that the Army “was not an instrument for social evolution.”

In responding to questions from Senator Jack Reed, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey points out that there’s a difference between “thinking someone is gay or lesbian and knowing it.” Says that distinction is worth considering when viewing survey results.

Senator Inhofe brought up the opinion — voiced most strongly by McCain — that the survey should have included a more direct question about whether or not the policy should be repealed. Both General Casey and General Amos side with Secretary of Defense Gates, that a “referendum” would not have made sense.

Casey: “I believe the way the survey was executed gave us sufficient information to make our judgment.’

Amos: “I don’t think we needed a referendum-type question on it.”

MSNBC has a live blog of the back and forth at the committee hearing today and yesterday. That summary is the source for the comments highlighted above.