Executive Order 9981 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African Americans have served their country with distinction in every major national conflict, and World War II was no exception. During the war, African Americans were represented in every branch of the military except the Marine Corps, but they served in segregated divisions and, most often, in support positions. The treatment of African Americans in the military mirrored the discrimination and segregation that still existed in the United States, particularly in the South. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered equal treatment in the United States military without regard to race, religion, or national background. The order also established the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, a distinguished advisory board responsible for advising military leadership on the implementation of the order. Reaction to the order was mixed, with the Army initially refusing to implement it. However, the last segregated units of the Army were eliminated in September 1954.

Summary Overview

African Americans have served their country with distinction in every major national conflict, and World War II was no exception. During the war, African Americans were represented in every branch of the military except the Marine Corps, but they served in segregated divisions and, most often, in support positions. The treatment of African Americans in the military mirrored the discrimination and segregation that still existed in the United States, particularly in the South. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which ordered equal treatment in the United States military without regard to race, religion, or national background. The order also established the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, a distinguished advisory board responsible for advising military leadership on the implementation of the order. Reaction to the order was mixed, with the Army initially refusing to implement it. However, the last segregated units of the Army were eliminated in September 1954.

Defining Moment

African Americans made up about 10 percent of the population when the United States went to war in 1941, but the United States military had fewer than four thousand African Americans in its ranks, and only twelve of these were officers. By the end of the war, over a million African Americans had served in uniform, including thousands of women. Many thousands more worked in industries that supported the war effort. While serving with distinction in uniform, African Americans struggled for basic civil rights at home and fought segregation and discriminatory treatment in the military.

Many African Americans had volunteered for duty in World War I, hoping that their patriotic service would be rewarded with improved conditions when they returned home. Instead, veterans found racial discrimination and segregation in the Jim Crow South unchanged, and racially motivated killings rose precipitously, as returning veterans were seen as a threat. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the draft in 1940, many African American men were still resentful about having to serve in the army of a country that preached freedom and democracy, but treated them like second-class citizens. Other black draftees and volunteers had deep patriotic feeling and a desire to serve their country and believed, as had the veterans of the previous war, that their service could result in change at home. Activists took on the segregated draft process, arguing that many too many draftees were being rejected by all-white draft boards. After a pledge from Roosevelt that enough African American men would be drafted to make up the same percentage of the military as they occupied in the rest of society, numbers in all branches of service rose (although the stated goal was never reached).

African Americans also made significant headway in desegregating defense industries. In June 1941, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which required that African Americans be given job training at defense plants, forbade racial discrimination by defense contractors, and established the Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC). In the military, however, African Americans continued to serve in segregated, mostly noncombat units, providing transportation and supplies to the front. As the war continued and casualties rose, however, more African Americans were sent into combat. Still, in the American South, African American soldiers sometimes stood outside while German prisoners were served in segregated restaurants.

At the end of the war, the Fair Employment Practices Commission was ended. As racial tensions escalated and violence increased, as it had at the end of the previous war, President Truman formed the President's Commission on Civil Rights, which published a report, “To Secure These Rights,” in October 1947. Its chief recommendations were laws to end lynching (then on the rise in the South), measures to secure voting rights, and increased authority for the Department of Justice to enforce civil rights. When senators from the South blocked the passage of civil rights legislation, Truman chose to use executive power to act on civil rights issues. On July 26, 1948, Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which effectively abolished segregation in the armed forces. This order also established an advisory committee, the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces, to implement desegregation in the military. There was significant resistance to desegregation from top military leadership, with the Army and the Marines proving particularly intransigent, but growing casualties during the Korean War in the early 1950s, along with steady pressure from the White House, ensured that the military was desegregated completely by 1954.

Author Biography

Harry S. Truman was born in Lamar, Missouri, in 1884. His parents declined to give him a middle name, using only the initial “S” to honor several relatives. He was the oldest of three children and did not attend school until he was eight. His father was a farmer and livestock dealer and was well connected to the local Democratic Party, and Truman served as a page boy in the 1900 Democratic convention. After graduating from high school, Truman worked several clerical jobs and worked as a railroad timekeeper. Truman served in the Missouri National Guard during World War I, despite very poor eyesight, and was elected captain by his men. After the war, Truman returned to Independence, Missouri, and opened a haberdasher shop. The shop failed, but Truman was elected as a county court judge in 1922 and served in a variety of public offices until he was elected to the United States Senate in 1934. While in the Senate, Truman became known for investigating claims of graft and corruption in military industries. He was elected to the vice presidency in 1944 and became president of the United States on April 12, 1945, upon the death of President Roosevelt. Truman found out about the development of the atomic bomb after he became president, and he made the decision to drop them on two cities in Japan in August 1945. Truman oversaw the end of the war, the establishment of the United Nations, and the implementation of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. He supported a policy of containment to control the spread of Communism. Truman won a narrow victory in 1948 for a full term as president, but did not seek reelection in 1952. Truman retired to Missouri to write his autobiography and died in 1972. He is buried in Independence.

Historical Document

WHEREAS it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense:

NOW THEREFORE, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States, and as Commander in Chief of the armed services, it is hereby ordered as follows:

1. 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.

2. There shall be created in the National Military Establishment an advisory committee to be known as the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, which shall be composed of seven members to be designated by the President.

3. The Committee is authorized on behalf of the President to examine into the rules, procedures and practices of the armed services in order to determine in what respect such rules, procedures and practices may be altered or improved with a view to carrying out the policy of this order. The Committee shall confer and advise with the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of the Army, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Secretary of the Air Force, and shall make such recommendations to the President and to said Secretaries as in the judgment of the Committee will effectuate the policy hereof.

4. All executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government are authorized and directed to cooperate with the Committee in its work, and to furnish the Committee such information or the services of such persons as the Committee may require in the performance of its duties.

5. When requested by the Committee to do so, persons in the armed services or in any of the executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall testify before the Committee and shall make available for use of the Committee such documents and other information as the Committee may require.

6. The Committee shall continue to exist until such time as the President shall terminate its existence by Executive order.

Harry Truman

The White House

July 26, 1948

Document Analysis

Executive Order 9981 begins by announcing the establishment of the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, the key element in the enforcement of the rest of the order. Truman begins his order with two powerful statements. First of all, the armed services should exemplify the “highest standards of democracy,” with “equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve.” Then, citing the president's authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, Truman declares 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” and calls on this policy to be implemented as quickly as reasonably possible. The establishment of the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services was key to achieving desegregation and ending discrimination, and Truman uses the remainder of the order to describe the committee and to direct all agencies of the federal government and the military to cooperate fully with it.

The committee is given an advisory role within the “National Military Establishment” and expected to make recommendations to the president, the secretary of defense, and the civilian heads of the three branches of the armed forces. The committee is to expect full cooperation from the military, according to this order, and should have access to records. If members of the military are called to testify, they are expected to do so immediately.

Though this order was clear in its mission to eliminate discrimination, it met with resistance from some in the military establishment, who argued that it did not specifically prohibit segregation. Truman replied in a later statement that it was the intent of the order to end segregation in the military, and this was eventually accomplished.

Essential Themes

This document was a watershed moment in US civil rights history. After centuries of segregation, the military was commanded to end its discriminatory practices. The United States was a two-sided nation, seen by the world as the defender of freedom and democracy, while many of its citizens struggled to achieve basic civil rights. In the American South, segregation and Jim Crow laws allowed African Americans to hold subservient positions and use substandard facilities. The military followed this model, in part to placate Southern service members and in part because discrimination was standard throughout the country. Executive Order 9981 was the beginning of the end of formal segregation in the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Desegregation of the Armed Forces.” Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Harry S. Truman Lib. and Museum, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2015.
  • Lanning, Michael Lee. The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. New York: Kensington, 2003. Print.
  • Taylor, Jon E. Freedom to Serve: Truman, Civil Rights, and Executive Order 9981. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
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