Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Harry S. Truman desegregated the U.S. armed forces, he continued an ongoing process of slowly establishing equal civil rights in American life. His order also acted as an important impetus for the desegregation of public facilities.

Summary of Event

At the beginning of World War II, the American armed forces, reflecting larger patterns in American society, were almost completely segregated. Although African Americans had participated in every U.S. war, their numbers had been small, their roles had been limited, and their units had almost always been segregated. Few African American units engaged in combat in the Spanish-American War or in World War I. Their uneven levels of performance allowed many white Army officers to retain their prejudices, thus limiting African American troop deployment and obstructing the services’ willingness to desegregate. American successes in both those wars allowed for the maintenance of a racial status quo in the military. Segregation;U.S. armed forces Executive Order 9981[Executive Order 09981] Armed forces, U.S. African Americans;segregation [kw]Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces (July 26, 1948) [kw]Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces, Truman Orders (July 26, 1948) [kw]U.S. Armed Forces, Truman Orders Desegregation of (July 26, 1948) [kw]Armed Forces, Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. (July 26, 1948) Segregation;U.S. armed forces Executive Order 9981[Executive Order 09981] Armed forces, U.S. African Americans;segregation [g]North America;July 26, 1948: Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces[02590] [g]United States;July 26, 1948: Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces[02590] [c]Social issues and reform;July 26, 1948: Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces[02590] [c]Civil rights and liberties;July 26, 1948: Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces[02590] [c]Military history;July 26, 1948: Truman Orders Desegregation of U.S. Armed Forces[02590] Randolph, A. Philip Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;civil rights White, Walter

A 1937 photograph of A. Philip Randolf, leader of the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service.

(Schomburg Center, The New York Public Library)

Change effected by World War I and the industrialization of the United States created conditions allowing for movement toward a more egalitarian civilian life. Many African Americans moved from the rural South to the industrialized North, where their incomes and education levels rose dramatically. Racial relations began to change. World War II provided the spark to ignite the Civil Rights movement Civil Rights movement;postwar beginnings .

In addition to the underlying internal demographic changes, the war provided specific conditions enabling progress in civil rights. First, the United States went to war with the avowed intention of defeating the racism and aggression of both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The raison d’être for American involvement was to defend human rights. Second, the large African American emigration to the North created a new voting bloc, historically Republican but newly Democratic because of the economic and political policies of the New Deal. Moreover, African Americans were concentrated in industrial states with large electoral college delegations, which were especially important for presidential elections.

Third, World War II was a protracted war in which American human resources were taxed. At the end of the war, replacement personnel became harder to come by. Any policy of underenlisting or undertraining any sizable segment of the population, including a policy segregating African Americans, led to problems of inefficiency and shortages. The armed forces remained largely segregated throughout the war, although some desegregation occurred toward its end. Units from the Army’s four black regiments—overstaffed with draftees—were merged with larger white units suffering manpower shortages. In some cases, the same training facilities were made available to black and white units.

Immediately after the war, a contradiction developed: Internal developments in the armed forces hindered significant change in the racial balance, while external social developments encouraged more rapid desegregation. Internally, as occurred after each previous war, pressures on the armed forces to desegregate abated. The numbers of African Americans in military service declined so drastically that African American soldiers could easily be accommodated in segregated units. Externally, the African American emigration from the rural South accelerated during and after World War II. African American voters increased in number. Civil rights organizations also grew in number and in political power: Over a period of six years, membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;membership (NAACP) exploded ninefold to 450,000. Moreover, non-Southern whites grew more sympathetic to the demands for greater equality, although there were periodic race riots in the North revolving especially around the issue of jobs and the fear that African Americans would dispossess whites.

During the war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;civil rights took a few small steps to address the question of segregation. He recommended that African Americans be given more options in the Navy; he revived a 1937 War Department program to increase the numbers of African American soldiers to their proportion in the society; and, most important, in 1941, via Executive Order 8802, he established the Fair Employment Practices Committee Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC). Roosevelt, much less committed to civil rights than his wife, Eleanor, was concerned primarily with winning the war and pleasing the Southern component of his political coalition. Little was known about the civil rights orientation of Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman.

As a senator from Missouri, Truman had been able to win essential African American votes by supporting the few extant pieces of civil rights legislation and by supporting New Deal economics. Truman, a centrist with humanitarian leanings and a respect for the Constitution, was a sharp politician but also a man moved by personal experiences. One national incident that shocked him and touched the hearts of many Americans involved a returning African American veteran. While still in uniform, literally on his return from abroad, Sergeant Isaac Woodard was removed from a bus by a local South Carolina sheriff and beaten with a nightstick by two lawmen so badly that he was blinded.

A series of such vicious attacks against and murders of African Americans in the South in 1946 led to public protests. Truman was quoted by Walter White as responding, “My God! I had no idea that it was as terrible as that. We have to do something.” Reacting to these incidents, to the changing demography, to a changing world environment, and to a new world of domestic politics, Truman set out on a course that would dramatically change human rights. Immediately after the war, Truman spoke out periodically about human rights, including statements in his State of the Union addresses in 1946 and 1948. He helped commission several internal studies of the armed forces that looked specifically at the status of African Americans.

The most comprehensive such study was made by the Gillem Board Gillem Board . In April, 1946, the board came up with a plan to expand the role of African Americans in the Army and to provide more equal facilities and opportunities. One key item was a quota of 10 percent African American soldiers in each large unit. The board did not, however, push for integration within the smaller units. Thus, the report, reflecting the military’s reluctance to change radically, was largely rejected by civil rights organizations, which favored desegregation of all facilities.

By 1947, two important conditions had changed. The Cold War was beginning in earnest, leading both the military and Truman to push for stronger, larger armed forces. Moreover, the United States began an ideological war of propaganda against the Soviet Union focusing in part on basic human rights. The international audience for this campaign was largely nonwhite. Second, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and Truman’s chances for a presidential victory in 1948 looked bleak. He knew that he could not win without a substantial proportion of the African American vote.

The nation’s African American leaders pushed for more desegregation. On October 23, 1947, W. E. B. Du Bois Du Bois, W. E. B. and other radical African Americans embarrassed the administration by bringing charges against the American government before the newly formed United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Six months later, in a more mainstream development, A. Philip Randolph’s Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service threatened an African American boycott of a new conscription law if it contained no antisegregation clause. In response to all these pressures and frustrated by Congress’ refusal to extend the FEPC, Truman took a major step when he commissioned the President’s Committee on Civil Rights President’s Committee on Civil Rights[Presidents Committee on Civil Rights] , a fifteen-member board composed of leading figures from the worlds of business, academia, government, and religion.

On October 29, 1947, this committee published its findings in To Secure These Rights, To Secure These Rights (government report) a monograph that received widespread public attention. The committee argued strongly on behalf of racial equality and prescribed significant societal changes, including specific recommendations for desegregating all branches of the armed services. Truman took the report seriously, although he chose to implement it according to his own political calendar. That calendar became crowded in 1948, a presidential year that promised what looked like a certain victory for the Republicans.

Frustrated with the Republican Congress, liberal Democrats pressured Truman to push for a liberal agenda. Some even joined a committee to draft Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;1948 presidential elections . Part of their frustration led to a third-party, strongly pro-civil rights Progressive candidacy of Henry A. Wallace Wallace, Henry A. , Roosevelt’s former vice president. To make election matters even more complicated for Truman, some of the southern wing of the party bolted and nominated Strom Thurmond Thurmond, Strom for president on a pro-segregation ticket.

Truman obliged the liberals, knowing that he needed the industrial states for victory. A Republican convention that made a strong statement on race—specifically, the desegregation of the armed services—and the surprising success of the liberal forces led by Hubert Humphrey Humphrey, Hubert H. [p]Humphrey, Hubert H.;civil rights on the Democratic Convention floor prompted Truman to release two key executive orders on July 26, 1948. Order 9980 Executive Order 9980[Executive Order 09980] called for a Fair Employment Board Fair Employment Board to provide redress for racial discrimination in federal employment. Executive Order 9981 announced the policy of “equality of treatment for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” A second provision called for an advisory committee to oversee that policy of equality. The committee was constituted in September, 1948, as the Fahy Committee Fahy Committee .

Significance

The armed services, as could be expected, did not desegregate immediately. Rather, there was uneven compliance with Truman’s order, in terms both of time and of depth. Entrenched forces in the services resisted their orders and put up barriers to their implementation. Nevertheless, desegregation progressed, supervised by the Fahy Committee and with the prodding of African American defense organizations. Wartime Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson Stimson, Henry L. , who opposed the idea, had been replaced by the first secretary of defense, James Vincent Forrestal Forrestal, James Vincent , who was committed to desegregation but unwilling to force it upon the service leadership. His successor, Louis Johnson Johnson, Louis A. , was more willing to go along with Truman in imposing it from the top.

In part, decisions in implementing military desegregation were hindered or expedited by individuals along the chain of command. The most resistant force was Kenneth Royall Royall, Kenneth , secretary of the army, the service that had previously been the most open to African Americans. Eventually, Truman intervened personally with Royall’s successor, Gordon Gray Gray, Gordon . In the Far East, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur MacArthur, Douglas [p]MacArthur, Douglas;and Harry S. Truman[Truman] managed to delay the policy, but it was accelerated when Truman replaced MacArthur with the more cooperative Matthew Ridgway Ridgway, Matthew . Change was more forthcoming from the Air Force, largely because of the strong support of Stuart Symington, later a Democratic senator from Missouri. The Marines, which had long been entirely white, also fell into place in short time. The Navy earlier had been more accommodating to African Americans in terms of numbers, but the overwhelming percentage of black sailors were in the food service. Slowly, the Navy began to give more equal training to African Americans in other jobs and upgraded the ranks of some of the stewards.

The war in Korea provided the final thrust for desegregation, again supported by the need for more troops to engage in combat. The remaining pockets of segregation were systematically eliminated, even under President Eisenhower, who was less committed to civil rights than was Truman. By the end of the Korean War, virtually all of the armed services were desegregated at the most basic level. Segregation practices, however, still faced African American soldiers and their dependents, especially in the Southern towns where many were stationed. Because local policy involved states’ rights, it took longer to overcome that discrimination. These practices were not legally resolved until the Supreme Court decisions that grew out of Executive Order 9981.

The desegregation of the armed forces served as a reference point for the further desegregation of the rest of the society. Under Truman, the Justice Department argued a number of cases before the Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation which systematically eroded segregation as a legal policy. The Court issued decisions making restrictive housing covenants illegal (Shelley v. Kraemer, 1948); banning segregation in interstate busing (Henderson v. the U.S., 1950); establishing the right to education (Sweatt v. Painter and McLaurin v. Oklahoma, 1950); and eventually, a year after the Korean War ended, banning segregation in public schools (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954).

Beyond the legal cases, an important human dynamic arose from the consequences of Executive Order 9981. Those African Americans who were integrated in the armed forces found it difficult to return to a segregated civilian lifestyle. Their experiences in the military acted as an impetus for them to reject the segregation of civilian life. For whites who served with African Americans on the front lines, it also became more difficult to return to a completely segregated life. Moreover, especially after World War II and then Korea, it became increasingly difficult to accept the war contributions made by African American soldiers but then to deny them basic civilian rights afterward. Desegregating the armed services allowed for much greater contact between whites and blacks, as well as among whites and significant numbers of Puerto Ricans and Filipinos, many of the latter also formerly in segregated units.

In retrospect, the conditions allowing for successful interracial contact as a means of breaking down prejudice were more propitious in the military than they were in the school systems. Not only was there more regimentation in the military, but the soldiers also had both a common goal and a common enemy, conditions supporting the effectiveness of contact in dissolving differences. Although contact often has surprisingly little effect in diminishing prejudice, a study on soldiers conducted at Johns Hopkins University found that contact in the armed forces did contribute to a lessening of prejudice and discrimination. President Truman, as was his hyperbolic wont, remarked later of Executive Order 9981, “It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to America.” A less effusive but similar evaluation was proffered by eminent legal and political historian Milton Konvitz: “[I]n the history of civil rights in the United States, this order ranks among the most important steps to end racial discrimination.” Segregation;U.S. armed forces Executive Order 9981[Executive Order 09981] Armed forces, U.S. African Americans;segregation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anderson, Carol. Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights, 1944-1955. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Study of petitions to the nascent United Nations by African American leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois seeking human rights intervention in the United States by that body.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, William C. The Politics of Civil Rights in the Truman Administration. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970. A focused, insightful, balanced account of the interplay between political pressures and civil rights policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dalfiume, Richard M. Desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1969. One of the first scholarly treatises on the topic; still a good place to start.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foner, Jack D. Blacks and the Military in American History. New York: Praeger, 1974. A popular, easy-to-read, surprisingly comprehensive history, though lacking in specific citations and somewhat biased.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibson, Truman K., Jr., with Steve Huntley. Knocking down Barriers: My Fight for Black America. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2005. Autobiography of an African American leader who was a civilian aide to the secretary of war during World War II and instrumental in the desegregation of the military, among other civil rights accomplishments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCoy, Donald R., and Richard T. Ruetten. Quest and Response: Minority Rights and the Truman Administration. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1973. Solid, comprehensive research. The best single concise discussion (see Chapter 11) on this particular issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986. A solid, extensively researched, thorough history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Lee. Breakthrough on the Color Front. New York: Random House, 1954. The first major work on this topic. Partly anecdotal and based on interviews; it was reportedly read by the judges before deciding Brown v. Board of Education.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">President’s Committee on Civil Rights. To Secure These Rights. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1947. This original report shows a sincere concern with racial problems. Some statistics and general recommendations. Written from the perspective of mainstream America.

Roosevelt Bans Discrimination in Defense-Industry Employment

Congress of Racial Equality Forms

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Supreme Court Ends Public School Segregation

United Nations Condemns Racial Discrimination

Supreme Court Prohibits Racial Discrimination in Public Accommodations

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