Nearly fifty years ago, during his reelection campaign, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ordering the "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services."
In the years since, the military has gone from being viciously segregated to being widely regarded as the best integrated institution in the United States. As a result, Truman's decision to integrate the army has become, arguably, one of the most important decisions of his presidency.
And yet why he made the decision is not entirely clear. His opponent, Republican Thomas Dewey, had not made civil rights a particularly key issue in his campaign. Socialist Party candidate Norman Thomas and Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace had, but they could be dismissed as fringe candidates.
In his 1994 book Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South, John Egerton analyzed the situation as follows:
"[Truman] was accused of playing politics on the military desegregation order - and as far as his timing was concerned, there can be little doubt that he acted with an eye on the campaign. But who saw any political advantage in taking the initiative on such a controversial issue? A 1946 national opinion survey had found that two-thirds of all [W]hite Americans believed [B]lacks were already being treated fairly in the society at large. Congress passed a new Selective Service Act in June 1948 that left segregation in place, and Truman signed it into law. Southerners in both houses were fighting tooth and nail against any modification in the racial rules of the armed forces, and most of the military top brass were also dragging their feet on the issue. Just about the only person pressing Truman to take action was A. Philip Randolph - a forceful and persuasive man, to be sure, but not one who wielded great power. Some of the President's advisers did see political capital to be made from a liberal stance on race, but prudence might have led them to suggest waiting until after the election to take Jim Crow out of uniform."
Egerton goes on to say that Truman agreed entirely with the substance of desegregating the military, but for "a man who was looking like a double-digit loser in the polls, it was a bold decision."
Egerton dismisses the efforts of Randolph. Nevertheless, a case can be made that Randolph's efforts played a significant role in Truman's decision - particularly after considering Randolph's influence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had been instrumental in convincing Roosevelt to integrate the federal workforce in 1941. To bring political pressure on Roosevelt, Randolph began organizing a March on Washington Movement and threatened to bring 100,000 African Americans to the nation's capital.
Frightened by the thought of such an unprecedented demonstration, Roosevelt ordered Joseph L. Rauh, then a young assistant in the Office of Emergency Management, to draft an executive order which would satisfy Randolph. After writing several drafts which Randolph rejected as not being strong enough, Rauh questioned his superiors, "What the hell has he got over the President of the United States?"
Finally, Rauh submitted a version which pleased Randolph and six days before the march was to take place, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which permitted African Americans to fill the lucrative jobs that were opening up in preparation for World War II.
That executive order did not change segregation in the armed forces, however. Given the political situation of the time - preparing for World War II - Randolph had decided not to push for military desegregation and called off the march. He would later revisit the concept of peaceful mass demonstration in 1963 when he led the March on Washington which featured Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. …