Back in July, I reported that prior to President Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces, the various military branches conducted a number of surveys of the attitudes of enlisted and nonenlisted troops towards black people and racial issues. At the time, the military — along with the overwhelming majority of the country — opposed integrating black servicemembers into the forces and preferred a ‘separate but equal’ approach that would have required the military to construct separate recreation spaces and facilities. According to the surveys, 3/4 Air Force men favored separate training schools, combat, and ground crews and 85% of white soldiers supported building separate service clubs in army camps.
Truman’s decision to desegregate the forces — despite the opposition of the troops — may hold important lessons for President Obama and Congress as they prepare to review the Pentagon’s year-long review of the policy, which includes separate surveys about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And, interestingly, so do the stories of black veterans “who served among the military’s first desegregated units during the Korean.” As the AP explained on Saturday, “Though the military may now seem to lag behind America’s acceptance of gays in civilian life, the armed forces led the charge in ending racial segregation in the 1940s and ’50s”:
“Many people used that same argument against African-Americans serving in the same units as whites,” said Cox, who teaches black military history to Citadel cadets. “Many people said it’s the end of the military. But the result was there were very few problems, the military ran very efficiently.”
The integration of blacks into all-white units in Korea was so uneventful that white soldiers like Phil McCraney hardly noticed. McCraney, 78, says his Army company of 150 troops had only four or five blacks by the time he returned home in 1951.
“It wasn’t that big a deal I don’t think,” said McCraney of Bartow, Fla. “We didn’t mistreat them by any chance. But we just didn’t associate with them that much.”
It was the battlefield pressures of war that ultimately pushed the armed forces into full-scale desegregation.
While the Navy had begun integrating crews aboard its warships in 1946, the Army and Marines resisted even after Truman’s 1948 order. They came around only after suffering heavy combat losses in Korea in 1950. [...]
“Our commander made a very simple statement: When a rifleman comes in with a certain skill, put him where he’s needed,” recalled retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr. “We became an integrated regiment.”
Becton, 84, of Springfield, Va., deployed to Korea in the summer of 1950 as a platoon leader in the all-black 3rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment. Then a lieutenant who had served in World War II, it wasn’t long before he was commanding white soldiers.
If there was resentment among the white soldiers taking orders from him, Becton insists he never heard it. “I suspect there may have been some of that, but you don’t have much choice when you’re being shot at,” he said. “I don’t think that white guy from Mississippi or that black guy from New York is going to care too much about who’s giving orders.”
Significantly, the early leaks from the Pentagon’s DADT survey suggest that today’s military is far more receptive to serving alongside openly gay and lesbian servicemembers than white soldiers were of black troops. According to military sources who have seen the report — which is scheduled for release on December 1 — a majority of American troops would either not object to serving alongside openly gay troops or would raise any concerns directly with their gay peers. On Thursday, NBC’s Richard Engel reported that for most soldiers, “it wasn’t that big of a deal.” “The majority — the number one answer, first answer was ‘I don’t care,’” he said, adding “That’s significant.”