Executive Order 9981: Integration of the Armed Forces

By Patrick Feng

The United States military of the present-day is comprised of servicemen and women of diverse social and racial backgrounds; all are dedicated to one common purpose: the defense of their country and its citizens. White, Black, Latin, Asian, and American Indian all serve side-by-side with dedication and distinction. However, the integration of the military is a more recent phenomenon than some may have originally thought. The date 26 July marks an important milestone in United States military history and race relations. On this date in 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which declared “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.” In short, it was an end to racial segregation in the military, a political act unmatched since the days of Reconstruction after the Civil War. This act has been described as the pinnacle of the Truman civil rights program and the climax of the struggle for racial equality in the armed forces. But in some ways, the order was simply a practical response to a presidential dilemma.

Since the beginning of the American military, it had been an uphill struggle for African Americans and other minorities to prove their patriotism and devotion to the defense of the nation. During the American Revolution, blacks and whites served together in several units throughout the duration of the war. After the war, however, integration in the military would not be seen until after 1945. Prior to the issuing of Executive Order 9981, blacks and some other minorities were often segregated into separate units from their white counterparts. In many instances, these units were assigned menial tasks in the rear and rarely saw combat. Those African Americans that did see combat displayed great courage and bravery under fire, such as the famed 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War, the 369th Infantry “Harlem Hellfighters” in World War I, and the 761st Tank Battalion in World War II.

Despite their proven mettle and patriotism of minorities in America’s defense, it took time and circumstance for a significant breakthrough to occur. Before the order was given, President Truman had mixed views on integration and racial relations. There is little evidence in his background to suggest his support for social changes in America. He was raised in the former border state of Missouri in a family dedicated to the Confederate cause and had little interest in the aspirations of black people. However, this all changed in the postwar era when the United States was quickly becoming embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Although integration of the armed forces seemed a miniscule issue within the larger international scene, the large number of African Americans in the military gave them a new importance in national defense. The black community represented ten percent of the country’s manpower, and this also influenced defense planning. Black threats to boycott the segregated armed forces could not be ignored, and civil rights demands had to be considered in developing laws relating to Selective Service and Universal Military Training.

In December 1946, Truman appointed a panel to serve as the President’s Commission on Civil Rights, which recommended “more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States.” When the commission issued its report, To Secure These Rights, in October 1947, among its proposals were anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission, and strengthening the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. President Truman removed the recommendations on civil rights in the services when he presented the committee’s recommendations to Congress in the form of a special message in February 1948. Truman argued that the services’ race practices were matters of executive interest and pointed to recent progress toward better race relations in the armed forces. He also told Congress that he had already instructed the Secretary of Defense to take steps to eliminate remaining instances of discrimination in the services as rapidly as possible. Truman also promised that the personnel policies and practices of all the services would be made uniform.

Although politics was only one of several factors that led to Executive Order 9981, the order came into fruition during a presidential election campaign and its content and timing reflect that fact. Having made what could be justified as a military decision in the interest of a more effective use of manpower in the armed forces, the President and his advisers sought to capitalize on the political benefits that might result from it, such as the crucial black vote in the urban centers of the South.

Nevertheless, Executive Order 9981 established an important breakthrough in race relations within the military. In addition to integration of the armed forces, the order also established an advisory committee to examine the rules, practices, and procedures of the armed services and recommend ways to make desegregation a reality. Despite the issuing of the order, there was considerable resistance from the military. The full effects would not be felt until the end of the Korean War. The Army’s last segregated units were finally disbanded in 1954.