Presidents Truman and Obama’s Cauldrons of Change

After I saw that Texas Senator Ted Cruz has said that the president is turning the armed forces into a cauldron of social change and that he doesn’t think LGBT people should necessarily be allowed to serve in our military, I headed over to The Truman Library to see how a former president used our armed forces as a cauldron of social change. I encourage you to take a look-see at the timeline which runs from September 1945 to October 1953, when integration was basically complete and Truman was no longer our president.

Perhaps the most relevant elements of the timeline to our present day are these:

January 1948: President Truman decides to end segregation in the armed forces and the civil service through administrative action (executive order) rather than through legislation.

July 26, 1948: President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which states, “It is hereby declared 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 establishes the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services.

It should be noted that President Truman took his time. It was almost three years after the army first began studying integration that he finally issued his executive order. In the meantime, Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in Major League Baseball. It should also be noted that he simply could not have accomplished integration legislatively. To get an idea for how difficult that would have been, all you have to do is look at what happened at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1948.

July 13, 1948: The platform committee at the Democratic National Convention rejects a recommendation put forward by Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey of Minneapolis calling for abolition of segregation in the armed forces. President Truman and his advisors support and the platform committee approves a moderate platform plank on civil rights intended to placate the South.

July 14, 1948: Delegates to the Democratic National Convention vote to overrule the platform committee and the Truman administration in favor of a liberal civil rights plank, one that called for, among other things, the desegregation of the armed forces.

Let’s look at how things went down at the convention and in the aftermath of the convention:

African-Americans were an important Democratic constituency, but so were white Southerners. Previous party platforms had never gotten beyond bland generalizations about equal rights for all. Truman was prepared to accept another such document, but liberals, led by the ADA (Americans for Democratic Action), wanted to commit the party to four specific points in the president’s own civil rights program: abolition of state poll taxes in federal elections, an anti-lynching law, a permanent fair employment practices committee and desegregation of the armed forces.

Hubert Humphrey, mayor of Minneapolis and a candidate for Senate, delivered the liberal argument in an intensely emotional speech: “The time is now arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” On July 14, the last day of the convention, the liberals won a close vote. The entire Mississippi delegation and half the Alabama contingent walked out of the convention. The rest of the South would back Senator Richard B. Russell of Georgia as a protest candidate against Truman for the presidential nomination.

Nearly two weeks after the convention, the president issued executive orders mandating equal opportunity in the armed forces and in the federal civil service. Outraged segregationists moved ahead with the formation of a States’ Rights (“Dixiecrat”) Party with Gov. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as its presidential candidate. The States’ Rights Party avoided outright race baiting, but everyone understood that it was motivated by more than abstract constitutional principles.

Truman was slated to deliver his acceptance speech at 10 p.m. on July 14 but arrived to find the gathering hopelessly behind schedule. As he waited, nominating speeches and roll calls droned on and on. Finally, at 2 a.m. he stepped up to the podium. Most of America was sound asleep.

He wore a white linen suit and dark tie, ideal for the stifling hall and the rudimentary capabilities of 1948 television. His speech sounded almost spit into the ether at the opposition. “Senator Barkley and I will win this election and make these Republicans like it—don’t you forget that!” He announced he would call Congress back into session on July 26—Turnip Day to Missouri farmers—and dare it to pass all the liberal-sounding legislation endorsed in the Republican platform. “The battle lines of 1948 are the same as they were in 1932,” he declared, “when the nation lay prostrate and helpless as a result of Republican misrule and inaction.” New York Times radio and TV critic Jack Gould judged it perhaps the best performance of Truman’s presidency: “He was relaxed and supremely confident, swaying on the balls of his feet with almost a methodical rhythm.”

The delegates loved it. Truman’s tireless campaigning that fall culminated in a feel-good victory of a little guy over an organization man. It especially seemed to revitalize the liberals, for whom the platform fight in Philadelphia became a legendary turning point. “We tied civil rights to the masthead of the Democratic Party forever,” remarked ADA activist Joseph Rauh 40 years later.

In truth, the ramifications of that victory would require two decades to play out. In the meantime, Thurmond, winning four states and 39 electoral votes, had fired a telling shot across the Democrats’ bow. Dixiecrat insurgents in Congress returned to their seats in 1949 with no penalty from their Democratic colleagues. Party leaders, North and South, understood the danger of a spreading revolt. Truman would not backtrack on his commitment to civil rights, but neither would Congress give him the civil rights legislation he requested.

Strom Thurmond would eventually flip over to the Republican Party and he was followed by the rest of the segregationists and their political descendants.

It would take the assassination of a Democratic president, the persistent organizing of black Americans, and the courage of Lyndon Johnson to create actual legislation to assure civil rights and equality before the law for black Americans. But the cauldron of change had begun in the armed forces, at the instruction of President Truman.

Are we supposed to look back at that executive order and see in it some great injustice? Some great constitutional overreach?

Or are we supposed to look back admiringly on a president who did the right and courageous thing when everyone around him seemed to be consumed with prejudice and hate?

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