The members of Congress, and the media who are criticizing General Mark Milley for his positions on antiracism and anti-white extremism in the military and why he thinks it is important for military people to learn about critical race theory, display an appalling ignorance about how the US military itself has handled racial (and other social issues) over the course of its history.
Despite the fact that nearly 2 million African Americans served with distinction in World Wars I and II, (for example, the Tuskegee Airmen and Black soldiers in the Battle of the Bulge) the U.S. military did not even really start integrating the forces until July, 1948, when President Harry Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in our armed forces.
When it was issued, Truman’s executive order met with great public resistance from the uniformed and civilian leadership of all of the services, except the Air Force. Army Chief of Staff General Omar Bradley argued that the military should not be used as an instrument of social change and that complete integration would affect morale and battle efficiency. While Bradley did endorse expanded opportunities for African Americans, he wanted to keep the units segregated. According to Bradley, this would have several advantages for African Americans because they would be competing for promotion with other African Americans, and not with the, theoretically, more capable white soldiers.
His civilian boss, Kenneth Royal, himself a retired general, claimed that integrating the force would affect enlistments and reenlistments, not only in the South, but in other parts of the country and would adversely impact the morale of the white soldiers.
In fact, the Army did not really begin integrating its forces until the Korean War, when it was forced to do so, because it did not have enough white soldiers to replace those killed or wounded in the all-white units that it deployed to Korea. Moreover, the Army did not desegregate its last Black unit until September 1954.
Even after the Army abolished its all-Black units and integrated African Americans into the force, it took some time for them to achieve their share of promotions. For example, in 1978, Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, was given a list by promotion board for colonels who should be promoted to general. However, since there was not a single African American on the list, Alexander, who himself is an African American, held up the list and asked for one that included Blacks. The board then added several African American colonels to the list, one of whom was then Colonel Colin Powell, who went on to become chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the only African American to attain that rank.
The Marines were even more hostile to integration than the Army. They did not even allow African Americans to enlist until 1942 when they established separate training facilities and separate units for them. In 1947, right after the war in which many Black Marines fought bravely in the Pacific campaigns, the Marines forced African Americans to choose between leaving the service or becoming stewards. The Marines did not begin unified training until 1949 nor allow full integration until 1960.
The Navy ignored Truman’s executive order for more than 20 years. Until President Nixon appointed Admiral Elmo (Bud) Zumwalt as Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in 1970, racism was an integral part of the Navy’s tradition. As a result, the Navy never had a Black Admiral and Black officers had few prospects for advancement. For the most part, Black sailors were confined to cooking and cleaning tasks. Moreover Zumwalt’s efforts to allow African American sailors to enter all the Navy specialties met with great resistance from many active and retired admirals.
Zumwalt correctly believed that the antipathy to his changes reflected racial prejudice and in 1972 , he summoned senior officers to the Pentagon and accused them of ignoring his directives on race relations. Despite this resistance, during his four years as CNO, the number of Black personnel increased as did reenlistments and the first Black admiral was appointed.
On the other hand, after Truman’s Executive Order, when some Air Force officers raised many of the same objections that the army leadership did, these objections were met firmly by the Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington. In 1947, Symington argued that Blacks should be able to enter the Air Force on the basis of their merits rather than race. After Truman’s executive order, he told his generals that didn’t agree with it to resign. Under Symington’s guidance, the Air Force became the first service to completely integrate.
The military displayed many of these same prejudices against gays and women. From 1980 until 1993, DOD policy was that homosexuality was incompatible with military service. Over the opposition of most military leaders, the policy was modified in the Clinton administration to allow gays, who kept their sexual orientation secret, to serve. The policy was called, don’t ask don’t tell, and was not fully repealed until the Obama administration
The military and its leaders also displayed similar prejudices against women, refusing to drop all the combat restrictions until 2018. In fact until 1969, women were not allowed to even comprise more than 2 percent of the military.
For currently serving troops to be aware of this history, as General Milley suggests, is good for them and the country and something that those who criticize and threaten them should be aware of. It is not going woke but will help them work more effectively with each other regardless of their race, sexual orientation or gender. As Winston Churchill pointed out in a speech in 1948, the same year as Truman issued the executive order, “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Lawrence Korb a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress served as an assistant secretary of defense in the Regan administration. He served four years on active duty as a naval flight officer and retired from the Navy Reserve with the rank of captain.
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