Race and the Military

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In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the American armed services to end the practice of segregation and to require equal treatment of African Americans. By the early 1950s the military became integrated at the unit level. In the twenty-first century the armed forces may well be the most integrated institution in American society. It is one situation where African Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Europeans routinely boss each other around, with full expectation that orders will be carried out regardless of any prejudices. Furthermore, by the twenty-first century, African-American and Hispanic culture had become part of the institutional culture of the military.

That integration, moreover, is found not only on the parade ground but also in everyday life. There is true socializing in every aspect of military life from the dining hall to residential accommodations. Barbershops, beer halls, and the workplace are integrated by choice. As a measure of the success of military integration, it is no-table that not one racial incident was serious enough in either Gulf war to come to the attention of the military police.

Furthermore, the military has sought to integrate through basing promotion to officer rank on merit instead of on race and ethnicity. Action rather than rhetoric has been its goal. The result has been that a substantial number of blacks, Hispanics and other minorities are now in top leadership positions.

This racial harmony and opportunity did not always exist in the American military. In 1917 at the onset of the First World War, there were calls in Congress to restrict blacks from becoming commissioned or noncommissioned officers. The army was segregated and denied blacks substantive participation. Similar practices were followed in World War II; integration was considered disruptive to unit cohesion and fighting ability. Moreover, the generals strongly resisted using the military for social reforms that were not widely adopted at home. There were exceptions, such as the 2,500 blacks who volunteered for combat during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944–45. Nevertheless, these men served in all-black platoons within white companies. Contrary to military expectations, there was a lack of serious friction combined with above-average combat performance. Black combat performance in all theaters of the war undermined the racist belief that blacks were inferior soldiers. The Tuskegee Airmen, led by Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the first African-American general and the first black graduate of West Point, did not lose a single bomber they protected.

The Korean War was the first in the twentieth century in which Americans fought in integrated units. Integrated units performed better than those separated by race in multiracial companies. Integration had passed its first major test. The second phase of leadership training took another twenty-five years.

The Vietnam War marked a new phase of integration, one that finally promoted more African Americans into the officer corps. However, after a decade of peaceful race relations, the Vietnam War saw rising tensions between the races. It was also a time of demands for immediate civil rights. There were violent racial clashes in Vietnam and elsewhere in the military. Unpopular officers and sergeants risked "fragging" (a grenade under the tent) if they pushed too hard on discipline.

After the war the military began to address its serious breakdown in discipline and race relations. Leadership integration ended the severe under representation of minority officers. By the time of Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1990–91, racial integration of the military was complete. During Operation Restore Hope in 1992–93, American troops were the only multiracial ones the United Nations sent to Somalia. By 2004 all branches had minority officers of the highest rank. The American military was the most racially integrated in the world, and stood as a model for the home front.


Edgerton, Robert B. Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001.

Gropman, Alan L. "Blacks in the Military." The National Interest 40 (1997): 777–88.

Latty, Yvonne and Tarver, Ron. We Were There : Voices of African American Veterans, from World War II to the War in Iraq. Framingham, MA: Amistad, 2004.

Mariscal, George. Aztlan and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War. Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999.

Moskos, Charles C. and Butler, John Sibley. All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way. NY: Basic Books, 1996.

Moskos, Charles C. et al. The Postmodern Military: Armed Forces After the Cold War. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Frank A. Salamone

See also:Powell, Colin.

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Race and the Military

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