Trump’s announcement was met with surprise and outrage by many. A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 58 percent of Americans support allowing transgender soldiers to serve in the military, while 27 percent actively oppose it. While the extent to which this policy declaration will actually be implemented remains in question, LGBT rights organizations are preparing to challenge it in court if necessary.
It is especially striking that Trump’s announcement came on the anniversary of President Harry S. Truman’s landmark July 26, 1948, executive order that led to the desegregation of the armed forces. While the outcomes could not be more different, the Truman era effort to integrate the military still has important lessons for the military’s connection to the inclusion of marginalized groups today.
During World War II, civil rights activists frequently linked the fight against Nazi Germany to the fight against Jim Crow racism. For labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, the fight against segregation in the armed forces became a special priority. Because of the issue’s emotional resonance, he argued that it was a fight that could serve “as a means to eradicate Jim Crow widely.” Despite pressure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was never convinced to integrate the military during the war itself. Truman, however, finally moved to integrate the armed forces in 1948.
Military integration was opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans at the time. A 1948 poll found that only 26 percent of Americans favored “having Negro and white troops throughout the U.S. Armed Services live and work together.” Not even white veterans supported the move, despite having recently returned from fighting against Nazism. This widespread opposition led activists to work around Congress by focusing on the possibility of unilateral executive action.
The debate surrounding Truman’s order previews arguments made by opponents of greater inclusiveness in the military today. Three months before its release, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and National Urban League leader Lester Granger organized a “National Defense Conference on Negro Affairs” in response to the pressure of Randolph and other activists. Army Secretary Kenneth Royall told those in attendance that the Army could not “experiment” nor could it be used to “promote or oppose any cause.” He went on to say that while he “fully recognize[d] not only the propriety but the necessity for the Negro race to insist on the abolition of segregation,” military integration was ultimately “a question of timing.”
When Royall later spoke before a hearing held by Truman’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, he told them that the Army was not meant to be “an instrument for social evolution,” by which he meant it did not want racial integration. He justified segregation by raising concerns about the morale of white troops, especially Southern ones. Many Army volunteers are white Southerners, he said, and “it is a well-known fact that close personal association with Negroes is distasteful to a large percentage of Southern whites.”
Similar arguments have been made for decades by opponents of LGBT rights in the military. “The U.S. armed forces aren’t some social experiment,” then-Sen. Chuck Hagel said in 1999 when asked about repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy. Just before DADT repeal legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in 2010, former Marine Corps Lt. Col. Oliver North argued that soldiers “deserve better than to be treated like lab rats in Mr. Obama’s radical social experiment.”
Although DADT repeal was a major step for LGBT rights, the extent to which it would include transgender rights remained in question for several years. It was not until June 2016 that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that transgender soldiers would be allowed to serve openly in the military. Last month, current Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delayed the Obama administration’s plan, arguing that the Pentagon needed more time to study the issue. Within a month, however, Trump seemingly overruled Mattis. Although Trump’s tweet stated that he had consulted with “[his] Generals and military experts,” reporting indicates that the president did not consult with Mattis, who was only informed of his decision after the announcement.
As Trump’s announcement demonstrates, the military remains at the center of debates about the inclusion of marginalized groups in American society. Both Truman and Trump were going against majority opinion when they declared a change in military policy that pertained to a marginalized group.
The difference, however, is that Truman sought greater inclusion. Trump seeks the opposite.
Steven White will be an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University starting this fall. He is working on a manuscript about World War II and American racial politics. Follow him on Twitter @notstevenwhite.