View From Washington: Integration



Much has been made of the notion that when President Harry Truman prepared to integrate the troops racially in 1948, nobody polled service members to gauge their support or concerns. Rather, in the heat of an election year, Truman simply issued an executive order against a headwind of 82% opposition from Americans nationwide.

But the Pentagon disputed that claim Monday, relaying to The Advocate brand new information from Department of Defense historians suggesting some sort of polling of the troops was, in fact, done.

“Prior to President Truman’s 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces," said DOD spokeswoman Cynthia Smith, "our preliminary research shows that branches of the armed forces undertook a number of modestly sized surveys of the attitudes of enlisted and nonenlisted troops concerning racial issues, integration, and morale."

Smith said that according to DOD historians at least eight surveys were completed, but she could not yet say how large the sampling sizes were or whether they influenced Truman’s decision in any way. Smith added that the Pentagon's working group cochairs -- Gen. Carter Ham and DOD general counsel Jeh Johnson -- had requested the historical information well before the survey was released.

The question of why the military would poll the troops on this occasion if they hadn't done so for personnel policy changes in the past has been a repeated sore spot for Pentagon officials, who have struggled to answer it in a satisfactory way.

Twice during a press call two weeks ago DOD spokesman Geoff Morrell flatly dismissed inquiries into why the military would engage such an extensive effort when, reporters asserted, nothing of the sort was done when Truman racially integrated the troops in 1948 or women were first admitted into military academies in the '70s.

“I frankly don't know if the premise of the question is correct — that we didn't poll previously,” Morrell said before adding that polling has come a long way and is a “generally accepted” and a “wise practice” used to ascertain attitudes.

Not exactly sated by that answer, another reporter dared repeat the question later on in the call and Morrell responded curtly, “Yeah, question's been asked and answered. Next question.”

Morrell’s answer seemed especially wanting in light of the fact that the chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, foreshadowed the potential dangers of such an undertaking back in February. After a Senate hearing on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he told Nathaniel Frank, author of the book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, that he believed polling the troops to be both anomalous and risky.

“We've never done this; we've never assessed the force because it's not our practice to go within our military and poll the force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not,” said Roughead. “That gets you into a very difficult regime.”

Nonetheless, Roughead went on record during the hearing that day saying that he supported the process laid out by Defense secretary Robert Gates.

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