After Donald Trump announced his intention to reinstate the previously-reversed ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military, many, many people responded the exact same way: By pointing out that on this day in history, President Truman desegregated the military. The awful irony underlines exactly how regressive Trump and his administration are; on the anniversary of a day that marked the long-overdue end to a policy rooted in prejudice, he chose to… reinstate a policy, which just last year finally enjoyed a long-overdue end, rooted in prejudice.
The executive order that desegregated the U.S. military was Executive Order 9981, which Harry Truman signed on July 26, 1948. Prior to the signing of this order, people of color who served were routinely assigned to different units than white soldiers, sailors, and pilots were; what’s more, as the National Museum of the United States Army notes, these units were rarely sent into combat, instead being tasked with menial activities and errands as a matter of course. There were a few exceptions — the Harlem Hellfighters, for example, who were essential to numerous victories in battle during the First World War — but segregation in the military was generally the same way it was in civilian life: Separate, but not equal.
The signing of Executive Order 9981, however, put the wheels in motion to end discrimination against people of color in the military. The order noted that “it is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense” — and to that end, declared it to be “the policy of the President 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 order also established the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, a seven-member advisory committee in the National Military Establishment authorized to examine the practices of the military and make policy recommendations to the President and the Secretaries of Defense, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force. The terms of Executive Order 9981 were intended to be “put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”
It was big news; here's what the New York Times front page looked like the day after the order was signed:
As The Grio notes, Executive Order 9981 didn’t solve the problem of racial discrimination in the military overnight; indeed, even the signing of it was a long time coming. In October of 1945 — just after World War II — a review of the U.S. Army’s racial policies was begun, with Truman only becoming involved in 1946. Executive Order 9981 was finally signed in 1948, nearly three years after the racial policy review began. And even then, it still took a number of years for the order to be fully realized — as the Truman Library notes, there was plenty of resistance to the new policy within the military. Full integration didn’t arrive until the Korean War, which was fought from 1950 to 1953 — and only because “heavy casualties forced segregated units to merge for survival.”
Interestingly, Truman wasn’t always the progressive president he’s remembered as today. He had fought in World War I, but prior to that, he was known for having racist and anti-Semitic views. It’s thought that his experience in the war helped change his point of view; these days, he’s considered to have been one of the best presidents for civil rights, and according to The Grio the signing of Executive Order 9981 laid the ground work for much of what would later come in the 1950s and ‘60s.
And now we have Trump, choosing not to ensure that the military maintains “the highest standards of democracy,” but doing to the exact opposite of that. Trump chose to make his announcement on Twitter, writing, "After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military.” He followed this tweet up with one that read, “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you."
The ban had previously been reversed by the Obama administration in June of 2016, with Ash Carter, who was then Defense Secretary, saying in a press conference, “We don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine who can best accomplish the mission. We have to have access to 100 percent of the American population.”
It’s true that Trump tweeting something does not make it so; he’s not the one who ultimately gets to make that call. (That would be Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis.) However, as Bustle’s Jenny Hollander noted, it’s likely that if he is tweeting it, then he’s probably fairly certain that Mattis will move forward with the ban, undoing a major step forward that was previously already long, long overdue.
It’s official: The Trump administration is literally trying to return us to the ‘50s. And in this case, it’s trying to return us to a time even earlier.
But the good news is that we are not, in fact, in the ‘50s anymore — which means that we’re not just going to keep our mouths shut for fear of rocking the boat. We’re planning on rocking that boat as much as possible.