By Kerry Eleveld
Originally published on Advocate.com July 19 2010 1:50 PM ET
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.
But Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sees the same traps of such a survey.
“It would be really, really, really unacceptable for people in the military to believe it’s a democracy,” Levin said last week while briefing journalists about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Although Levin said such a poll might have some utility in terms of guiding implementation, he added, “I have my doubts about the content of the survey."
Despite the new revelation from DOD today, I am beginning to worry that the U.S. is quickly on its way to becoming a lesson in how not to integrate the military. Unlike some repeal advocates and LGBT activists, I don’t believe Defense Department leadership is being intrinsically mischievous, yet there’s not a shade of doubt in my mind that the premise of such an extensive survey sent to 400,000 troops to gauge their feelings about repeal is inherently homophobic even if it wasn’t intended to be.
First, it’s not clear the Pentagon has encountered enough concerns that would warrant the type of wide-scale inquiry that Morrell said during the briefing was “costing us an extraordinary sum of money” — about $4.5 million to be exact. (In a subsequent interview, Morrell said the cost of administering the survey alone was closer $850,000, but the fact remains that the DOD’s contract with the polling company, Westat, is about $4.5 million in total.)
During the forums that have been conducted by the working group at about 30 installations across the country, anonymous sources have told me that the first question asked is always, “Do you think you’ve ever served with anyone you believe to be gay or lesbian?” The sources report that about 90% or more of the approximately 250 to 300 service members present consistently raise their hands. Then soldiers are asked to keep their hands raised if serving with someone they believed to be gay bothered them, and sources said the vast majority of the hands usually drop.
Given this information, one wonders why the working group felt so compelled to assemble the survey and why Secretary Gates strongly recommended that they increase the sampling size from 200,000 to 400,000.
When I sat down with a DOD official for a background briefing shortly after the survey was first released, he was at pains to soothe pro-repeal advocates’ fears that any little hiccup in the results of the survey could be seized upon by the opposition to derail the policy change.
“Neither [Secretary Gates] nor [Chairman Mullen] are looking for input as to how to slow down the process or kill it,” said the official, “they’re looking for information as to how to most effectively implement repeal so that it is done as smoothly as possible.”
When asked what would happen if, for instance, 90% of respondents said
they had concerns about showering with gays and lesbians, the official
said, “The issue of whether or not you want to shower with a gay or
lesbian member is not going to be what frames this report.”
The official said the working group was on course to deliver their report by
early December and that they were also contemplating questions about
how the military could be more fair to gay soldiers — like whether one's partner might be notified if one was killed in the line of duty
or if partners might be given access to survivor benefits and other
Certainly, the Pentagon contains competing influences when it comes to
repeal. Those who want to implement a policy change on their watch
hope they will be able to get buy-in from people like the service chiefs
if the survey yields results demonstrating open service will have
little effect if any on military recruitment, retention, and readiness.
But as Nathaniel Frank noted last week, “Leadership is essential to a
policy change like this, and a leadership vacuum can make the change
harder than it has to be.”
Even Gen. James Conway, head of the Marines and one of the biggest
detractors of repeal, saw the value in being decisive and
straightforward. “Keep it simple,” he noted during a DADT committee
hearing in February. “I would encourage you to either change the law or not, but in
the process, half measures would only be confusing in the end.”
Unfortunately, time and again, pro-repeal forces inside the Pentagon seem to be making wishy-washy moves. The omission of one
simple question from the survey is most telling. As Chris Geidner of Metro
Weekly wondered during the call, why wasn’t a single query included about how soldiers
had been affected when one of their fellow troop members was discharged
from their unit under DADT? In other words, if you’re going to ask the shower
question and others like it, why not seek information about the
potential harm discharges have wreaked on unit cohesion?
During my background briefing at the Pentagon, I got the sense that Defense officials were aware of these concerns but emphatically did not share them. Unfortunately, it's increasingly difficult to see how the those who favor repeal at the Pentagon will win the war when they continue to lose the battles.