July 26 marks the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9981, President Harry Truman’s order desegregating America’s armed forces.
That directive helped shape the U.S. military into what it is today, the world’s premier fighting force, one based firmly on meritocracy and which has advanced opportunity and prosperity for millions while keeping the United States safe.
Although blacks had served in the military since the Revolutionary War, the military was segregated into black and white units before the order.
The first all-black military unit was the 1st Rhode Island regiment, which fought the British in 1778 at the battle of Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island.
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment gained tremendous fame during the Civil War at the storming of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. After the Civil War, blacks served with distinction across the Army, including in the legendary “Buffalo Soldier” units, where blacks earned 18 Congressional Medals of Honor between 1870 and 1890.
In World War I, the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine River. As famed as they became, they were simply one group out of 300,000 blacks who served in the Army during World War I.
In World War II, more than 1 million blacks served in the military. Those included distinguished combat units such as the Tuskegee Airmen. Other ethnic or racial minority groups served in combat units, including the all-volunteer Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated units in the history of the American military.
Despite outstanding performance in service and in combat, when black, Japanese, or other minority service members left the military and returned to society, they often faced a rude return to a more discriminatory environment.
In particular, black Americans faced harsh discrimination, especially in Southern states. This discrimination took the form of Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, and other odious measures designed to maintain a segregated society.
Shortly after World War II, Truman sought to expand civil rights. To that end, in December 1946, he established the President’s Commission on Civil Rights, which had the explicit mandate to explore “more adequate means and procedures for the protection of the civil rights of the people of the United States.”
In October 1947, the commission recommended that Congress promote equality by passing laws aimed at advancing civil rights, to include anti-lynching and anti-poll tax laws, and strengthening the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.
The commission specifically called for the government “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed, or national origin, in the organization and activities of all branches of the Armed Services.”
It also highlighted “the injustice of calling men to fight for freedom while subjecting them to humiliating discrimination within the fighting forces.”
The commission said that the military should become a “rigorous meritocracy that would be completely colorblind.” Indeed, the language explicitly clarified that “promotions should be awarded on considerations of merit only.”
While Truman called upon Congress to enact many of the recommendations of the commission, southern Democratic senators blocked the associated bills that he introduced. Truman responded by issuing a series of executive orders aimed at expanding protections for and civil rights of black Americans within the executive branch.
Executive Order 9981, which ordered the newly formed Department of Defense to desegregate the military and end racially based military units, was the most famous of those orders.
By end of the Korean War, most of the military was integrated, with those of all races and creeds serving shoulder to shoulder in combat units across the force.
Over the following years, the United States armed forces became a “rigorous meritocracy,” as well as the most diverse institution and employer in the world. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, by 2017, racial and ethnic minorities made up 43% of the active-duty military.
In addition, the military became an avenue to opportunity for minorities, especially black Americans. For many impoverished families, the military became a means by which their families could climb the socioeconomic ladder and increase their access to higher education.
Today, black veterans experience improved economic stability compared with those who never served. This improved economic stability translates into higher income levels, better medical care, higher rates of homeownership, and decreased reliance on food assistance programs.
Since the desegregation executive order, the U.S. military became a place where minorities assumed high-profile leadership positions across the Department of Defense at all levels, from service secretaries and combatant commanders to chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense.
All those advances are due to the individual hard work of those men and women who have served in the armed forces—but also to Truman, who desegregated the military three-quarters of a century ago.
It’s hard to overlook the fact that Truman’s executive order?—?a radical success that has created a highly diverse, rigorously meritocratic workforce that has expanded opportunity for millions of Americans from all backgrounds — contrasts with President Joe Biden’s Executive Order 13985, which promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion within the federal workforce.
Indeed, applying a DEI framework — which calls for the government to “identify strategies to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, and eliminate, where applicable, barriers to equity, in federal workforce functions” — to what is already the most diverse and most successful institution in the world smacks of a solution in search of a problem.
The military’s desegregation under Truman’s order remains a seminal event in American history, highlighting the role the military has played in society in promoting opportunity for all Americans, men and women of all races and creeds.
Some 75 years later, the importance of Truman’s order remains undiminished.
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