A Military Bill of Rights

by Jean Begeman | August 8, 1949

The Truman Administration is now endeavoring to prove its liberalism through the armed services. The Congressional civil war on civil rights has made it impossible for the Administration to show its sincerity on this vital part of the Fair Deal program with legislation this year. Enforcement of fair racial policies in the Army, Navy and Air Force, however, is well within the Administration's power. Thorough reform of the backward and inefficient practices employed by all three of the services in this field would certainly be well received by the minority groups which did so much to elect President Truman last November.

 

One of the first actions of Truman's new Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson was to issue a stern demand that segregation throughout the armed forces be abolished, finally, definitely and promptly. Generals and admirals have heard this kind of talk from outsiders as long as we have had an Army and a Navy. This time, however, the West Point and Annapolis men are convinced that their civilian bosses really intend that sweeping changes shall be made, and they are reluctantly proceeding to make them.

The Fahy Committee, established one year ago under Executive Order 9981 to investigate the results of the armed-forces' use of Negro manpower during the last war, has concluded lengthy hearings and is finally preparing a detailed report for the President. Meanwhile, Secretary Johnson has speeded the movement toward reform by ordering the three services to report to him on present Negro participation in their individual branches.

"It is the National Military Establishment's policy," Secretary Johnson reminded the three chiefs, "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." Actually, since the end of the last war, the National Military Establishment has been studying its Bourbon attitude toward minority personnel. And no one has been under any illusions that the policy stated by Secretary Johnson has ever been practised either in wartime or peace.

The Army has openly maintained strict separation of Negro and white troops. The Navy has gone through the motions of carrying out a policy of non-segregation, Wt when confronted with the facts admits that until recently the number of Negro officers and the variety of openings for them have been severely limited. The Air Force—the youngest and today the most important branch of the armed services—is the first of the three to take this matter seriously.

Since the Civil War, when the Federal Army was reorganized to provide that "the enlisted men of two regiments of infantry and . . . the enlisted men of two regiments of cavalry shall be colored men," this branch has held Negro peacetime enlistment to these four organizations except for a small number of motor-transport companies organized at the close of the 1930's. The Army in the past has excused its policy of racial segregation as "practical military expediency." It stated in a War Department pamphlet (20-6, 1944):

There must be as little friction within the Army as possible. . . . A 1943 survey of attitudes of white and colored soldiers indicates that the odds are very much in favor of less interracial friction if colored and white enlisted men continue to be organized in separate racial units. After two World Wars, the Army has learned that segregation is costly and inefficient, that the "friction" turned into friendship when Negroes joined white troops in noteworthy front-line combat action in the European theatre.

 

The Army has gradually accepted many of the recommendations of the Gillem Board which was set up in 1945 to study the utilization of Negro manpower in the Army. While it condoned the segregation policy, the Board called for more Negro units trained in a wider variety of non-combat arms and services, for utilizing Negro personnel with special skills or qualifications, and for allowing Negro officers to replace white officers in Negro units.

The Gillem Board recommended that the Army hold Negro enlistments to 10 percent of the total force. Since the close of the war, Negroes have been enlisting so far beyond the 10-percent quota that the Army has temporarily restricted their signing up. Removal of this arbitrary quota is an obvious first step the National Military Establishment can take to equalize opportunity for Negroes.

Today, according to James C. Evans, civilian assistant to Secretary Johnson, there are Negro soldiers serving in more than 250 units in almost every branch of the Army. In 1939, the Army had five Negro officers and about 4,500 enlisted men. Today there are 1,173 officers and 71,189 enlisted men. But, the question of integration, rather than segregation, remains unsolved.

There is no middle ground of "partial" segregation for the Army to take. Segregation inevitably connotes discrimination. The "integrated" front-line action of Negro and white troops in the Battle of the Bulge gave the Army opportunity to note and test again the battle conduct of Negro infantrymen and to see what would happen when Negro and white soldiers fought side by side as members of the same companies—a thing that had not been tried since the Revolution.

Official reports on the battle conduct of Negro troops found an overwhelming majority of white officers agreeing that Negro soldiers were highly competent. To the question: "How well did the colored soldiers perform in combat?" 84 percent of the officers and 81 percent of the men said "very well"; 16 percent of the officers and 17 percent of the men said "fairly well." Only one percent of the noncoms said "not so well" and another one percent were undecided. No one, either officer or noncom, said "not well at all."

The Army, because of its size as well as its tradition, is having a tougher time adjusting to Secretary Johnson's order than either the Navy or the Air Force. On May 26, the Army turned in a comprehensive memorandum, noting the progress it has made in utilizing Negro manpower and proposing a few not-too-drastic changes. Secretary Johnson returned it promptly with a polite note:

I fully realize the grave problem presented by this question, and that it is of greater magnitude in the Army than in either the Navy or the Air Force. Nevertheless, I am forced to the conclusion that your proposals in reply to my second memorandum on this subject still fail to meet the basic intent of Executive Order 9981. ... Accordingly, I am asking you to restudy your position and your proposals. . . .

Secretary Johnson is aware of the problems confronting the Army, the tendency toward racial prejudice in the top echelon, the unwritten and arbitrary rules such as the one which prohibits Negro officers from commanding units of white soldiers, thus imposing a limitation upon the promotion and use of Negro officers. Until the hidden quotas, delayed ratings and special screenings are abolished, the Army cannot claim to be carrying out Secretary Johnson's order.

The Navy has gradually made progress on the discrimination issue. During the early part of the war, Negroes were excluded from all combat ratings and were assigned exclusively to the mess and commissary branches. However, by the end of the war, Negro and white seamen were working so well together that the Navy issued a new order in 1946: "Effective immediately all restrictions governing types of assignments for which Negro naval personnel are eligible are hereby lifted. Henceforth they shall be eligible for all types of assignments in all ratings in all activities and all ships of the service."

 

But implementation of the Navy order has been slow. There are still only eight Negro officers. Some specialists and technicians have been trained and advanced without regard to color. The first Negro officer was graduated last month from Annapolis, and the first Negro naval aviator has finished his training at Pensacola. But more than two-thirds of the Negroes in the Navy are employed in commissary service jobs. There are 17,460 Negro enlisted men, only 5.5 percent of total Navy personnel.

The Navy's report, approved by Secretary Johnson on June 7, indicates a marked change in the Navy's overcautious attitude in carrying out its earlier declaration against discrimination. Negro petty officers will be assigned to duty in the Navy Recruiting Service to augment efforts to obtain Negro enlistments. All members of the steward branch who are qualified have been assured an opportunity to change their assignments and chief stewards will become chief petty officers. The Navy's directive states:

In their attitude and day-to-day conduct of affairs, officers and enlisted personnel of the Navy and Marine Corps shill adhere rigidly and impartially to the Navy Regulations, in which no distinction is made between individuals wearing the uniform of these Services. In the utilization of housing, messing, berthing and other facilities, no special or unusual provisions will be made for the accommodation of any minority race.

The Air Force has been the leader in implementing Secretary Johnson's order. Much of die credit goes to Secretary for Air Stuart Symington, who has a deep personal concern about segregation. Gunnar Myrdal's famous study of the Negro in America, The American Dilemma, made a lasting impression on Symington, and he is constantly using it as a text from which to lecture to the brass hats in the Pentagon. Symington prides himself on having been the first executive of the Emerson Electric Company of St. Louis, which he headed before coming into the government, to introduce Negro workers into skilled jobs.

First to comply with Secretary Johnson's order, the Air Force has backed up words with action. Adopting a new racial policy to utilize Negroes on the basis of "individual capacity," the Air Force has already begun reassigning the all-Negro 332nd Fighter Wing. Other personnel are being screened by their commands and their capabilities reevaluated with a view to possible assignment changes or additional training.

The Air Force learned its lesson the hard way during the war. The 477th Bomb Group was moved from Selfridge Field, Michigan, to Godman Field, Kentucky, because some of the Negro officers had attempted to use the facilities of the Officers' Club at Selfridge. (Under Paragraph 19, Army Reg. 210-10, this was their privilege.) Immediately after the arrival of the group at Godman Field, the enlisted men were barred, under show of arms, from the main Fort Knox theatre. All positions of command were held by white officers, despite the fact that in flying hours, and in a few cases in actual combat experience, some of the Negro personnel had more experience than the white.

To avoid charges of outright discrimination, the Air Force listed all Negroes as "trainees"; ail white officers as "supervisory" personnel. So, without using race as a method of differentiation, only supervisory personnel held positions which called for ranks above captain, only white officers could be promoted to field grade. Mess halls and officers' club facilities were separately designated for trainee and supervisory personnel.

When the same group was transferred to Freeman Field, Indiana, the matter came to a head. Negro officers again attempted to use the officers' club. They were ordered out and the club was closed. The commanding officer, before reopening the club, ordered every Negro officer to sign a statement that he would not attempt to use the facilities reserved for white officers. The result: 104 officers refused to sign, were placed under arrest and held for almost a month, no charges having been submitted against them. Finally, all were released; three were courtmartialed and later acquitted. But the CO managed to place a statement on the personnel forms of all of the 104 officers to the effect that they had been uncooperative. Not one was permitted to remain in the service when the war was over, regardless of his ability.

Thus the Air Force had practised segregation in its worst form. The facilities were not equal and the positions of opportunity, of command and of policy-making were denied Negroes. The new policy will affect some 21,026 Negroes now serving in the Air Force—-seven percent of its total manpower. Of this number 316 are officers, five are warrant officers.

If the Army follows the Air Force and the Navy in carrying out Secretary Johnson's order, the Administration undoubtedly will point to this as tangible evidence of its good faith on the civil-rights question. It will deserve compliments, if not enthusiastic acclaim. A policy of integration in the National Military Establishment is not exactly a daring or a dangerous experiment at this stage in our history. However, there is always the chance that, looking at such a new bill of rights for the defenders of our democracy. Congress will get the idea that it is about time to have equality among civilians as well.

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