Guest Post: “Truman’s Executive Order Integrating the Military” (and some ideas for the future!)

Today’s guest writer is Kristen Casey, a rising Duke Law 3L who is one of our wonderful LENS research assistants, an author in the LENS Essay series, and a return Lawfire® blogger (see here).  She explores the integration of the armed forces from a historical perspective, and perhaps even more importantly, reflects on the military’s challenges in confronting racism today.  Following Kristen’s essay, I’ll offer some of my thoughts and observations.

This month in military history:

“Truman’s Executive Order Integrating the Military”

by Kristen Casey

Truman’s Executive Order

E.O. 9981

Seventy-two years ago this month, on July 26th, 1948, Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, declaring the President’s policy “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.”

The push towards integration came from within the military (the Air Force closed its last segregated officer training program in 1947), as well as from civil rights leaders including A. Philip Randolph.

Truman’s order led to the eventual end of segregation in the armed services, largely accomplished by President Eisenhower’s administration. The last all-Black military unit, the 94th Engineer Battalion, was deactivated in November 1954. Truman’s stated vision of an armed forces offering opportunity to all, however, has yet to be fully realized – at least in leadership.

Mission Accomplished?

Real progress in the decades following the implementation of Truman’s order, Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel argue, led to a premature notion held by military leaders “that racism within the forces was a problem that had been ‘solved,’” and the tightly-held belief of many that the military is fundamentally meritocratic.

Gen. Powell with then Lt Col and Mrs. Dunlap

In particular, the ascendance of Gen. Colin Powell, an African-American, to hisposition at the pinnacle of the U.S. military was seen by many as a vindication of the military’s resounding success in overcoming the last vestiges of racism in its ranks.”

Last July, prior to his confirmation as Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John E. Hyten applauded military leaders’ efforts to eliminate racial discrimination:

. . . when I came into the military, I came in from Alabama . . . and racism was a huge problem in the military — overt racism . . .  I watched commander after commander after commander take charge, own that, and anytime they saw it, eliminated it from the formation. When that happens, a huge improvement happens. Now when I am in uniform, I feel colorblind, which is amazing.

Lack of Diversity in Leadership

Despite people of color accounting for more than 40 percent of active duty military personnel, senior military leadership remains overwhelmingly white (and male, for that matter): only 5 of the 41 most senior military commanders are not white men.

The scarcity of non-white military leaders is attributed in part to the under-representation of military leaders of color in combat postings—the postings from which top military leaders tend to be chosen.

Speaking to New York Times’ Helene Cooper, Gen. Michael X. Garrett, who leads the Army’s Forces Command (one of two Black generals with four-star rank), cited the enduring tendency for Black officers to specialize in combat support positions:

“From the historically black colleges, what people do is what others who have been successful before them have done . . . [t]he students there see generals of logistics. . . [so] that’s what they want to do, too.”

Cooper outlines the historical roots of the phenomenon:

“Graduates from black colleges who had successful military careers typically specialized in logistics and transportation, like moving supplies or driving trucks, and not in combat arms specialties like infantry or artillery. Logistics and transportation are an outgrowth of the segregated military, when many black troops were quartermasters and truck drivers.”

Cooper says American historyhas largely excised the black and brown troops who fought alongside the white men,” reinforcing a contrast between the combat-centered concept of military service held by many white service members from military families, and a view of military servicenot as a career but as a way to help pay for education or to help compete later in the civilian job market” more typical in minority communities.

Barno and Bensahel suggest this dynamic was further entrenched in the 1980s, despite an increase in Black servicemembers in enlisted and officer ranks during the Vietnam War:

“The number of black personnel joining the Army started to decline in the early 1980s and those joining the combat arms declined further still. . . the fact that black unemployment rates spiked during the 1981-82 recession may have encouraged many African-Americans to join support branches in order to gain skills that could more easily transfer into civilian jobs . . . by the year 2000, the number of black soldiers in the company that was once 45 percent African-American had shrunk by half.”

The way to advance to positions in leadership, according to General Garrett, is to move away from support areas into combat postings.  As Barno and Bensahel point out, this process would take decades—”even if the military suddenly commissioned large numbers of black combat arms officers today, those who stay for a career will not reach the general officer ranks until the mid-2040s.”

36% of troops surveyed say they have “seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies”

However, as in society more broadly, the obstacles to racial equality remain personal and present, not simply historical and structural. Concerningly, a 2019 survey of active-duty Military Times subscribers “found that 36 percent of troops who responded have seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies in the military, a significant rise from the year before, when only 22 percent” reported the same.

It is easy to understand, therefore, why many observers, Barno, Bensahel, and Cooper among them, find assertions of colorblindness like General Hyten’s unsettling.  Minority servicemembers continue to feel a “sense of isolation” according Cooper.

General Charles Q. Brown Jr., recently confirmed as Air Force Chief of Staff, opened up about discrimination he endured as a Black aviator—just one of many instances in which Black military leaders have discussed experiencing the effects of racism.

Recognizing the Problem

Equating the rooting out of the most sinister “overt racism” with actual racial equality is harmful and unwise, and can lead to a failure among military leaders to appreciate the challenges of enduring racial discrimination in the armed forces. As Cooper summarizes, “[o]ne of the biggest problems, service members say, is that white men in the top ranks do not see the problem.”

The substantial strides made towards racial equality in the military since 1948, and the progress observed by today’s military leaders during the course of their careers, is not a reason to stop focusing on racial equality. Rather, it is the foundation on which to keep striving for the “equality of treatment and opportunity” promised 72 years ago. After all, President Truman said, “it is what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

(If you are interested in some additional observation, statistics, and ideas from me on this topic, please keep reading below, but first here’s some info about Kristen Casey):

Kristen Casey (J.D. 2021) will be a third-year law student at Duke University School of Law. She grew up in San Diego, CA, and graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in Government in 2015. Kristen was a business strategy consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers before coming to Duke Law and interned with Warner Bros. Entertainment in Los Angeles during her 1L summer. She is Co-Director of the Veterans Assistance Project and a Staff Editor for Duke’s Law and Contemporary Problems journal.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.


Some additional observations, statistics, and ideas from Charlie Dunlap:

Air Force Chief of Staff
Gen. Charles Q. “CQ” Brown, Jr.

Kristen grapples forthrightly with the challenge of increasing racial diversity in the upper ranks of the armed forces.  She correctly points out that notwithstanding the Trump administration’s appointment of the first African-American Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the military’s leadership remains overwhelming white.

Just to get our bearings, it is true, as the Helene Cooper article says, that “persons of color” comprise about 40% of the militarya percentage that approximates the U.S. population – but that includes all minorities, not just Black servicemembers.  In 2019 the Pew Research Center explained:

“In 2017, 57% of U.S. servicemembers were white, 16% were black and 16% were Hispanic. Some 4% of all active duty personnel were Asian and an additional 6% identified as “other” or unknown.”

Gen. Michael Garrett, USA
Photo: Rebecca Sell for AUSA

Kristen cites experts who speak about the consequences of the penchant, however understandable, of Black servicemembers to seek combat support positions as opposed to roles in the combat arms of infantry, armor, and artillery.  In the Helene Cooper article discussed above, General Garrett, a Black career infantryman, puts it plainly: “African-Americans must move away from support areas and into combat.”

Issues to think about

General Garrett’s observation raises issues worth pondering because, as the Supreme Court puts it, ‘the “primary business of armies and navies is to fight or be ready to fight wars should the occasion arise.”  Thus, isn’t there some logic to the notion that those who specialize in the combat arms (the part of the military “primarily” involved in warfighting) rise to the top?

This is one reason why there are so few very senior officers who do not come from one of the combat arms career fields.  For example, it would be virtually unthinkable for someone (like me) who served as a military lawyer in a combat support billet to ever have been a four-star officer like General Garrett or General Powell (both are infantry officers). 

Notably, however, the “combat-centered concept of military service held by many white service members” referenced above does come at a steep price.  As of this writing (July 29th) the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 3,645 of the 4,418 who died were white, and 441 were Black servicemembers.  In Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), 1,997 of the 2,349 U.S. military deaths were white servicemembers and 193 were Black troops.

Capitalizing on heritage of valor and courage

Some of the nearly 1,000 Tuskegee Airmen

The valor and courage of Black servicemembers is beyond question.  Like most people who served in the Air Force I am keenly aware of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen who defied racism during World War II to become one of the most storied combat units in Air Force history.

Here’s a snippet from about who these fighter pilots were:

“The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.”

Is there a way then today to capitalize on this combat heritage to overcome what General Garrett describes as an outgrowth of the segregated military” that encouraged Black servicemembers to choose branches where they could “gain skills that could more easily transfer into civilian jobs,” and instead have more Black officers, as General Garrett importunes, “move away from support areas and into combat” – something that could enhance their prospects for military jobs, and especially leadership at the senior-most level? 

Evolving concept of “combat”

Moreover, shouldn’t we also think about – and plan for – the evolving concept of “combat” in the 21st century?  The military today is a high-tech enterprise and will only become more so in the years to come.  Senior military leaders will, I predict, increasingly come from the high-tech battlespaces: space, cyber, and – in the aftermath of COVID-19 (with its implications for biowar) – the biological domain.

Revised promotion system

While Barno and Bensahel speak about an officer being commissioned today as a combat arms officer “will not reach the general officer ranks until the mid-2040s.”  Maybe so…for traditional “combat” arms.

However, I believe there will be an inexorable requirement for more rapid promotions in the 21st century because of the growing demands for military leadership conversant with the new, high-tech warfighting domains that many experts believe will be decisive in the years to come.

Exigencies have produced rapid military promotions before.  During the Civil War, for example,[e]ight Union soldiers and seven Confederates wore generals’ stars before they reached the age of 25.”

Most important for today, however, is that the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act created a promotion “system that recognizes performance and talent over time in gradein order to bringthe promotion system in line with many private-sector employment practices.”  Is it really unreasonable to think that the old timelines will be forced to yield to contemporary realities?

Educational Impact

Those are questions beyond the scope of this post, but I would suggest there is another issue, and one perhaps more readily subject to concrete action.  In a report released last summer (“Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity in the Armed Services: Background and Issues for Congress”), Kristy Karmack writing for the Congressional Research Service made this point:

“When considering the demographic makeup of the officer corps, it is important to note that certain requirements must be met to become a commissioned officer. For example, attaining a bachelor’s degree (or higher) is a requirement for the appointment and advancement of most officers.”

CRS then presents this insightful chart (red block added):This indicates that among those groups who meet the educational requirement to become a commissioned officer, the percentage of the U.S. population who have the necessary post-secondary degree and who are Black (8.6%), mirrors fairly closely the percentage of the total active duty officer corps that is Black (8.1%),  Nevertheless, this trails significantly the overall percentage of Blacks of all ranks in the armed forces (16%), as well as the percentage of the total U.S. population who are Black (13.4%).

Increase Educational Opportunities

It would seem then that if we are to increase the percentage of Blacks in the officer corps, we need to take steps to increase the pool of Black persons who have the qualifying post-secondary degrees.  While the military cannot solve all the challenges to access to education with which African-Americans struggle, the Air Force’s “Diversity and Inclusion Task Forcerecently announced:

“In conjunction with the Jeanne M. Holm Center for Officer Accessions and Citizen Development, the task force is working to increase and offer scholarships for nearly 300 current and future ROTC cadets attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities or Hispanic-Serving Institutions. The qualified recipients will receive a full-ride scholarship with full tuition and fees paid starting in the 2020-21 school year. The move is intended to increase minority representation in the officer ranks, something the Air Force has struggled with. Currently, racial and ethnic minorities make up 40% of the U.S. population but only 24% of the officer corps.”

STEM Focus Needed

The ROTC scholarship effort for minorities is obviously a necessary and welcome step forward, but I would hope the initiative focuses on increasing the number of ROTC students at Historically Black Colleges (HBC) who are studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). 

This is a somewhat different orientation than the one General Garrett suggests is extant at many HBCs today, that is, one that leads graduates into combat support fields instead of the combat arms where the prospects for promotion to senior leadership positions are better.

Getting more Black STEM graduates into the officer corps could, however, be a challenge.  According to a June 20th article in The Economist, “African-Americans account for 3% of workers at America’s five biggest technology firms… and probably less at smaller ones.”  Why is that?  The Pew Research Center said in 2018 that:

“Most blacks in STEM positions consider major underlying reasons for the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in science, technology, engineering and math occupations to be limited access to quality education, discrimination in recruitment and promotions and a lack of encouragement to pursue these jobs from an early age.”

In terms of education, experts saythere’s no shortage of minority students enrolling in STEM programs” and that “students of all races enter STEM majors at roughly equal rates.”  The problem arises in completing STEM programs as “black and Latino students leave the major at nearly twice the rate of white students.”  There are a variety of causes for this, but one reason researchers cite is this:

“It’s not uncommon for students to avoid or switch out of certain majors due to feelings of exclusion and discrimination—or even just anticipated feelings of exclusion and discrimination. According to a paper from University of Memphis economists Carmen Astorne-Figari and Jamin Speer, students tend to avoid or switch out of majors based on social factors. In other words, students tend to gravitate toward majors where the majority of students look like them, the authors explain.”

Pursue ROTC expansion/strengthening at HBCs and other schools with STEM programs

This could suggest that it may makes sense to give special attention to establishing ROTC programs (or strengthening them) at the HBCs who have top STEM programs (see here) where the “feelings of exclusion and discrimination” that cause minority students to swtich out of STEM majors would presumably be markedly lessened.  However, other schools can develop programs as well.

Dr. Freeman A. Hrabowski, III

In a fascinating article in Atlantic magazine, “How to Actually Promote Diversity in STEM”, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the President of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, explained  “what it would take for a school that was predominantly white to get its black students to thrive in STEM field.”  He built a program based on four pillars, one of which is this:

[A] strong sense of community lies at the heart of the program, because people persist and thrive when they feel as though they belong to something bigger than themselves. Students enter as a cohort of about 60 students. They live together on campus. We strongly encourage group work, so that students learn from one another and thrive together.”

Most importantly, his program has worked.  In the 2019-2020 academic year, the “program [had] 245 students, three-quarters of whom are from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.”  And, yes, there is a Duke connection.  Freeman adds this:

In March 2018, the unimaginable happened when UMBC upset the University of Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Something else, once almost as unimaginable, could be observed at the tournament. With us in the crowd that weekend were four Duke University School of Medicine faculty members—all black men who are UMBC alumni. They all engage in cutting-edge research.

Does UMBC have ROTC detachments to take advantage of the diverse talent pool it is developing?  Not exactly.  According to its website: “UMBC students may participate in the Army University ROTC program through Johns Hopkins or the Air Force ROTC program through the University of Maryland, College Park.”

Sorry, but to my way of thinking, that’s not good enough.  Dr. Freeman says “community” is a central pillar of UMBC’s success.  That being the case, the physical presence of ROTC on the campus would seem to be essential.

The military needs to lead society

I mostly share the perspective of retired Admiral Jim Stavridis who said recently:

“I think we have got plenty of work to do, but we’ve come a long way in the military. And if you go back to our period of time in the Second World War, we still had a very much segregated military, utterly segregated. We turned that corner I think a little before the rest of the country. By the ‘60s, we are a desegregated organization. Today, we have four-star African Americans. We have four-star Latinos. Within the uniformed military, we’ve made a lot of progress.”

“A lot of progress” is good, but as the institution in U.S. society in which Americans have the most confidence, the military can and should continue to lead the fight to ensure that all have opportunities to serve and to lead.  We need to continue build, as Kristen said in her essay, on “the foundation” of the past, and “keep striving for the ‘equality of treatment and opportunity’ promised 72 years ago.”

Make improvements personally, professionally and institutionally

Shortly before his confirmation, General Brown talked about his thoughts as he prepared to embark upon his historic tenure as the first Black officer to lead not just the Air Force, but any U.S. military service:

“I’m thinking about how my nomination provides some hope but also comes with a heavy burden.  I can’t fix centuries of racism in our country nor can I fix decades of discrimination that may have impacted members of our Air Force.  I’m thinking about how I can make improvements personally, professionally and institutionally so that all airmen, both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential.”

We all ought to emulate General Brown and think about how we all “can make improvements personally, professionally and institutionally” so that all Americans “both today and tomorrow, appreciate the value of diversity and can serve in an environment where they can reach their full potential.”

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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