Conrad Crane: Historian Charts Six Decades of Racial Integration in U.S. Military

Historians in the News

July 26 marks the 60th anniversary of President Harry S. Truman’s executive order that integrated the U.S. armed forces.
Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., said the order recognized a basic tenet of warfare.

“When your life depends on your buddy, the color of their skin tends to become less important; it’s how good they are,” he said.

The order came five years before the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that struck down the idea of “separate, but equal” and ushered in integration of American schools.

Looking back on the order after 60 years, one might think it was a slam-dunk decision, but it was not. In fact, Truman and Defense Secretary James Forrestal were about the only two U.S. leaders who favored the proposal.

“Everyone expected Truman to lose the 1948 election,” Crane said in a telephone interview from his office. “The Navy and Air Force already had plans to integrate, but the Army maintained a rigid policy of segregation.”

The executive order didn’t really change much at first, Crane said. It took a war for integration to become a reality.

“Both the Army and Marine Corps integrated because of the Korean War,” Crane said. “That’s because in combat they became desperate for troops, and they found that black soldiers fight better in integrated units. The pressures of combat and the need to find people to fight is what really pushed the Army and Marine Corps into it.”

The Army integrated in Korea before it did in noncombat areas. Fort Benning, Ga., and other posts in the United States still were segregated, as were units in Europe and areas of the Pacific, Crane said.

But the war changed that, and by 1953, 95 percent of African-American servicemembers were serving as members of integrated units.

But while the posts were integrated, going off post meant going back to a segregated world. In the 1950s, blacks and whites used separate drinking fountains and bathrooms. Schools, transportation systems, theaters and sporting events all were segregated.

The education system worked against African-Americans when they were drafted or enlisted in the military. The Army classification system sent soldiers with the highest scores to service units and those with lower scores to combat units.

“African-Americans did not have the educational opportunities in the civilian world,” Crane said. “We know now that the tests themselves were culturally unfair, and these educational inequalities continued through Vietnam.”

African-Americans took a slightly higher rate of casualties during the Vietnam War than their percentage of the U.S. population – 13.5 percent of casualties, 11 percent of the population – and this became a bone of contention.

From the 1960s through the early 1970s, race relations in the military mirrored those of society in general. Race riots occurred in the streets of America and on military bases around the world.

But the advent of the all-volunteer force in 1973 helped break the cycle, as all members of the military wanted to be in the service. The military offered many African-Americans a way out of poverty, Crane said.

“In the 1970s, there were all kinds of racial problems,” he said. “But as society settled down, the situation in the military improved. You can’t break the link between the Army and the society it serves.

“Having said that, the military should get credit for its integration policies,” he continued.

The military instituted orders forbidding discrimination. All servicemembers went to classes, and as a new generation of African-American commissioned and noncommissioned officers rose to positions of responsibility, it became commonplace for white servicemembers to serve under black leaders.

“When the military puts out orders for racial awareness programs, everybody does it,” Crane said. “And there is immediate and nasty retribution for anyone who breaks the tenets, as well. The military maintains discipline.”

By the 1980s, the public viewed the U.S. military as a true meritocracy, where integration actually worked, Crane noted.

“And that perception reinforced the reality,” he said. “And when [Army Gen.] Colin Powell becomes chairman of the Joint Chiefs, it’s a pretty amazing statement to the world at large and the military specifically.” Today, it is accepted in the military that “you will work for black officers or NCOs,” Crane said.

African-Americans make up roughly 17 percent of today’s military. In addition to serving their country, black servicemembers see the military as a place to gain an education and learn skills.

The military is not perfect, and there are ugly racial incidents occasionally, but the problem is not systemic, Crane said. The military simply does not tolerate discrimination.

“The military is quick to respond to problems,” he said. “Prejudice is far more prevalent outside [the military] than in.”

Today, platoons patrolling in Mosul or Kandahar show Iraqis and Afghans the benefits of diversity and the ability of many different people to work together.

The lesson of the history of integration in the military really comes down to individuals of all races making moral decisions, Crane said.

“If you force people together, they figure out how to get along,” he said. “It’s as true on the streets of Baghdad or the mountains of Afghanistan as it was on the frontlines of Korea.”

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