Surveys Didn’t Guide Truman
Windy City Times
Pentagon has polled about integration before
By Chuck Colbert
In spite of initial claims made to the contrary by repeal-the-ban advocates, Pentagon officials did, in fact, survey servicemen about racial integrations and serving with Blacks prior to President Harry S. Truman's July 26, 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces. The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld reported the news early last week, quoting a Department of Defense ( DoD ) spokeswoman, Cynthia Smith, who told her, "Prior to President Truman's 1948 executive order integrating the armed forces, our preliminary research shows that branches of the armed forces undertook a number of modestly sized surveys of the attitudes of enlisted and non-enlisted troops concerning racial issues, integration, and morale."
DoD historians said that the Pentagon undertook at least eight surveys, according to Smith. But as she told the Advocate, Smith could not say how large the sample sizes were or whether they influenced Truman's decision.
With Igor Volsky's short trek to the National Archives, moreover, the Wonk Room posted some of the surveys on line http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2010/07/20/old-surveys/. The surveys queried troops between 1942 and 1946, with sample sizes ranging from 1,710 to 2,360 to 5,872—all much smaller than the 400,000 surveys recently distributed to service members asking their attitudes about serving with openly gay men and lesbians among the ranks.
During the 1940s a vast majority in the military and of Americans opposed racial integration in the armed forces, favoring instead a "separate but equal" approach, requiring separate recreational spaces, as well as separate training and duty assignments.
A month before Truman's executive order, moreover, Gallup polling showed that 63 percent of U.S. citizens endorsed the idea of segregating blacks and whites in the military, with only 26 percent supporting integration.
The same attitudes prevailed among the troops. For example, a 1947 survey of enlisted soldiers found that "an overwhelming majority of the men feel that Negro and white soldiers should be separated both during and after training."
In another finding, the survey showed that "four out of five white enlisted men are opposed to the idea of having Negro and white soldiers in the same units even if they do not eat in the same mess or sleep in the same barracks."
Only 7 percent of thought the military should be fully integrated.
The survey even asked for a response to this statement: "There is nothing good about Jews." Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed.
Albeit smaller in sample size, the DoD survey about the black minority and the DADT polling share similarities. So much the same are they, that simply substituting the word Negro for gay yields some of the same questions in the current Pentagon survey. Both polls, for example, ask if service members object to working alongside minorities, how troops feel about serving with them, and how effective minorities are in combat. One interesting finding in the racial questioning, moreover, 77 percent of respondents said they held a more favorable view of "Negroes" after serving with them.
In light of recent news that the Pentagon surveyed the troops about racial integration, repeal-the-ban advocates maintain the polling is nonetheless unprecedented and unhelpful.
"President Truman did not rely on surveys to guide his decision to desegregate the armed forces, and he wasn't afraid of the political fallout from doing what was right," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Furthermore, he said, "The 400,000 troops currently being polled by DoD is both unprecedented and stands in striking contrast to the comparatively smaller historical surveys the military has conducted. At the end of the day, repeal of DADT will be about leadership, not the outcome of opinion polls. As Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, '"The military is not a democracy.'"
History seems to suggest that Truman desegregated the armed forces not for political gain, nor due to overwhelming pressure. Neither did the commander-in-chief rely on surveys to guide his decision-making. Apparently, he was not afraid to suffer political harm if the cause was right.
Accordingly, as Truman Library, archivist Randy Sowell notes, "I cannot recall seeing any evidence that Truman was influenced by surveys of opinion in the military regarding racial integration," according to an SLDN Frontlines blog entry.
"I should [also say] that Truman had little regard for public opinion polls and surveys, an attitude that was reinforced by his experiences in the 1948 election campaign, when every major poll predicted his defeat."
"'I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt?'" Sowell recalled Truman writing in later years.
Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, the nation's largest organization of gay veterans, also took issue with the sample size of the troop survey. "It's like apples and oranges to compare the 1940s troop survey on race to the current survey of active duty troops on gays and lesbians," he said. "The race survey went out to around 2,500 troops, which is an appropriate sample size and not one so large as to have the survey itself become a tool of influence," he added. "What the Pentagon did with the survey on gays and lesbians is simply unprecedented. A push poll to 400,000 troops was not needed to obtain a scientifically valid sample of attitudes and concerns, and the Pentagon simply cannot escape that fact."
Asked for his thoughts about why the big sample size, Nicholson said, for "political" and "engineering" purposes. " [ The Pentagon ] wanted to make a large number of people feel like that had substantive input," he said. "The problem is that it may end up backfiring. The survey was worded and designed so poorly that sending it out to that many people can have the effect of 'engineering' prejudice into that population."
Admiral Gary Roughead, the nation's highest ranking naval officer, voiced his own concerns earlier this year. After a Senate hearing on DADT, Roughead, who went on record in support of the Pentagon process laid out by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, told Nathaniel Frank, author of the book Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, "We've never done this; we've never assessed the force because it's not our practice to go within our military and poll the force to determine if they like the laws of the land or not."
Opponents of openly gay service also favor a more straightforward, if not decisive approach. The Marine Corps head, Gen. James Conway, put it this way back in February, testifying before DADT committee hearing. "Keep it simple," he said. "I would encourage you to either change the law or not, but in the process half measures would only be confusing in the end."
At the end of the day, Truman's adage on policy may well be as relevant in 2010 as it was 62 years ago: "It isn't polls or public opinion of the moment that counts. It's right and wrong and leadership."