Lessons from 1948

Listening to the Senate Armed Forces Committee hearings Tuesday on President Obama’s decision to try and end “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” was sort of disheartening. Of course the arguments for and against repealing President Clinton’s 1993 compromise followed party lines. Democrats support the repeal, the Republicans don’t. Most of the Democrats took a “live and let live” attitude while the Republicans reminded Secretary Gates and the Admiral that any decision about repealing the law would be Congress’ decision, which means it will probably not be repealed despite the fact that the President, The Defense Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs want it repealed. While I was listening to this hearing I thought about Truman’s decision after WWII to desegregate the military and the pushback he received from a military that largely was not ready for it, a country that was opposed to it, and a Congress who fought it, and the leadership he showed in forging ahead with what was one of the most important civil rights decisions in the 20th century.

In 1948, after the Gillen Board’s report which stated the Army’s future policy should be to “eliminate, at the earliest practicable moment, any special consideration based on race” and a presidential advisory board report that stated, “nothing could be more tragic for the future attitude of our people, and for the unity of our Nation, than a program [referring to the Truman administration’s proposed Universal Military Training program] in which our Federal Government forced our young manhood to live for a period of time in an atmosphere which emphasized or bred class or racial difference” President Truman decides to end segregation in the military through executive order. President Truman at one point said, “I want the job done and I want it done in a way so that everyone will be happy to cooperate and get it done.” By the end of 1951 the military was desegregated, almost 20 years before American society as a whole could say the same thing.

There are lessons for President Obama and the Democrats in the comparison between desegregation of the military and repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell and opening the military to openly gay people. Some of the same arguments against desegregation were used Tuesday, that the military is not an instrument for social evolution, or that allowing gay and lesbians in the military will ruin unit cohesiveness. That these arguments were made Tuesday in Southern drawls by the Republicans was probably what made me think of desegregation in the first place. It took two years and the Korean War to finally get the military integrated. But President Truman showed real leadership on this issue, and in this instance was out in front of the rest of the country. He knew what was right and was willing to push and use his bully pulpit for the greater good of the country. Had the rest of the country integrated at the same time the military did our country would be in a much better place than it is today.

Repealing Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell will be difficult; the Republicans are not about to let this issue go in an election year, despite the fact that many in the military favor repeal. This issue is a test of Obama’s leadership. Let’s hope he leads more like Truman and less like Clinton.

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