That latter point, though, the “disruption” that integration of transgender troops would spur? That is an argument we’ve heard before. When gay Americans sought the right to serve in the military, that was a central argument against the change. When women sought combat roles, a central argument. When blacks were integrated into the military? Warnings about disruption.
In 1948, President Harry Truman moved toward fully integrating black Americans into the military. At the time, members of his own party spoke out against the plan. The Washington Post reported on the objections in June of that year.
Former Tennessee U.S. senator Tom Stewart proposed “allowing men in the services to choose whether or not they would serve in mixed units” to avoid offending the sensibilities of those determined to maintain segregation. U.S. Sen. Lister Hill of Alabama argued that integration would “seriously impair the morale of the Army at a time when our armed forces should be at their strongest and most efficient.” He called Truman’s move “unfortunate.”
When the Democrats adopted an end-military-segregation platform, a contingent of Southern Democrats splintered off into a pro-segregation party known as the Dixiecrats. Strom Thurmond, running as a States Rights Democratic Party candidate while still nominally a Democrat, carried four Southern states in that year’s presidential election.
Gen. Omar Bradley, the Army chief of staff in 1948, argued that the Army should follow the American people on rejecting segregation, not lead it. For that, he was praised, including by New York Times columnist Hanson Baldwin.
“Most important of all,” Baldwin wrote of Bradley’s comments, “is the efficiency of the Army, of which morale is a part. This is General Bradley’s particular responsibility. He knows, as nearly every Army officer knows, after long experience with the problem, that a hard, flat and inflexible rule that white and Negro manpower be completely intermingled immediately in all tactical units would be one of the surest ways to break down the morale of the Army and to destroy its efficiency.”
For what it’s worth, there were about 62,000 black soldiers in the Army in 1948, about a tenth of the total. Rand estimates that there are between 1,000 and 7,000 transgender service members on active duty today, of 1.3 million in total. (A transgender organization puts the number at 15,000.)
In the 1990s, the argument shifted to the role of women in the military. That year, Lou Marano wrote a piece for this paper arguing against allowing women to serve in combat roles.
“It is also said that sexual distraction in military life is an issue only for relics like me, and that today’s more enlightened generation of young men develop nothing but brotherly affection for their female ‘buddies,'” he wrote. “Not only does this go against all experience and common sense, but I found it to be false when reporting on U.S. forces deployed to the mountains of Honduras in 1988. … Human nature doesn’t change, and we are asking for trouble by pretending it has.”
The physiology of female soldiers also played a prominent role in the debate. Newt Gingrich, splitting time between serving as Speaker of the House and teaching a history course at Reinhardt College in 1995, told his students that women wouldn’t be able to handle certain combat realities.
“Females,” he said, “have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections, and they don’t have upper body strength.” Men, on the other hand, like to roll around in filth, he said.
A 1997 bill aimed at segregating men and women in basic training was championed by members of Congress like Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.).
“During the brief period of time when they’re being socialized into the ethos of the military, it’s counterproductive to have men and women train together,” he told the Times that year. ”The attraction and distraction of sexuality is detracting from the effectiveness of basic training.” Others pointed out that teaching men and women how to serve together at the outset would alleviate problems later on.
This point comes up over and over, even today: Men will simply be too distracted by women for them to serve alongside one another. A Google search for “women in military distraction” yields 857,000 results.
The 1997 bill barring boot-camp integration prompted an unusual flip side to the argument from Col. Vincent J. Inghilterra, a chaplain at Fort Leonard Wood.
“Because of the rigors of [basic training] and the physiological limitations of female recruits to meet the fitness demands,” he wrote in a letter to lawmakers, “some may be tempted to use their sexuality to garner special favors.”
The boot-camp bill also had the support of then-U. S. senator Daniel Coats, now serving as Trump’s director of national intelligence. When Coats was put forward as a possible nominee to serve as George W. Bush’s defense secretary, that history of opposition to integrating women more fully into the armed forces was raised by activists opposing his nomination. (The job eventually went to Donald H. Rumsfeld.)
Coats’s nomination was similarly opposed by those advocating for an expanded role of gays in the military, also a subject that was debated in the 1990s. Again, a similar argument emerged.
“The problem of having homosexuals serve openly,” a retired Army colonel said during a hearing on the issue in 1993, “is the extent to which it becomes a divisive cleavage point in small units.”
Another expert testified that the “introduction of sexual attraction,” in the words of Coats, “destroys” military cohesion. “I think we have seen this happen on a heterosexual basis in units in which erotic love between a leader and a soldier has been introduced,” said David Marlowe, the chief of military psychology at Walter Reed.
As recently as 2010, when don’t-ask-don’t-tell was being repealed, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, echoed a variation of the same line: Gay soldiers could lead to combat deaths.
“When your life hangs on the line,” he said, “you don’t want anything distracting. … Mistakes and inattention or distractions cost Marines’ lives.”
When the bill was passed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lamented the decision, echoing Amos. “Today’s a very sad day,” he said. “The commandant of the United States Marine Corps says when your life hangs on the line, you don’t want anything distracting. … I don’t want to permit that opportunity to happen and I’ll tell you why. You go up to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Marines are up there with no legs, none. You’ve got Marines at Walter Reed with no limbs.”
Despite all of these warnings, President Trump himself has regularly weighed in on how the military has emerged from these integrations: the best. “Having the best technology and equipment is only one part of the American military dominance,” he said this weekend in Norfolk.
He continued. “Our true strength is our people. Our greatest weapon is all of you. Our nation endures because we have citizens who love America and who are willing to fight for America.”
On Wednesday — the 69th anniversary of Truman’s executive order on integrating the military — Trump took a distinctly different position.