From: The New Republic, February 22, 1993

Discrimination, 1948 and 1993.


By Gary J. Bass I'm well familiar with the black experience in the military," says Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "I need no lectures... I think [race] is different" from sexual orientation. For Powell, the anology between the military's discrimination against blacks and gays "is a convenient but invalid argument." Whatever the merits of Powell's point, there's one fact that even he will find hard to ignore: the arguments - even the words - used for the gay ban in 1993 are almost verbatim those used in 1948.

Harry Truman's 1948 executive order declaring "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" prompted a military furor. "The soldier on the battlefield deserves to have, and must have utmost confidence in his fellow soldiers," said an official U.S. Army report to the secretary of defense. "They must eat together, sleep together and all too frequently die together. There can be no friction in their everyday living that might bring on failure in battle." "Service members live together, shower together, sleep in cramped quarters together and - in an emergency - share blood with one another," echos Melissa Wells-Petry on the op-ed page of the February 1 Wall Street Journal, some forty-five years later.

The first major shot at Truman came from his own Army chief of staff, General Omar N. Bradley, who hadn't been notified of Truman's decision. "The Army is not out to make any social reforms," he said on a trip to Fort Knox, Kentucky. "It will change that policy when the Nation as a whole changes it." In 1992 then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney said, "The military is not a social welfare agency... We aren't there to run social experiments." In The New York Times in 1948, military analyst Hanson Baldwin groused that "it is extremely dangerous nonsense to try to make the Army other than one thing - a fighting maching." Similarly, in 1993 The Wall Street Journal warns that "danger looms when a country's politicians and intellectuals start talking about diverting the military from its primary purpose."

A few months before Truman's executive order, General Dwight Eisenhower told the Senate Armed Services Committee, "I do believe that if we attempt merely by passing a lot of laws to force someone to like someone else, we are just going to get into trouble." For Ike, racism was an "incontrolvertible fact," and ignoring it could lead to violence. Thus, "when you put in the same organization and make live together under the most intimate circumstances mem of different races, we sometimes have trouble." More than four decades later, on CBS's "Face the Nation," Senator Sam Nunn frets that "violence against homosexuals [is] one thing that has to be considered." In 1948 Representative Overton Brooks of Louisiana warned that "it is a serious mistake to bring politics into the armed services"; in 1993 Senator Dan Coats writes in The New York Times that Clinton "values political deals over military needs."

In a speech on the House floor a few days after Truman's order, Representative William Lewis, a Kentucky Republican, feverishly asked his colleagues to "imagine, if you please, a colored man sleeping in a lower berth in the same coach just opposite a while woman in easy arm's reach of each other. Does not such tend to encourage amalgamation of the races?" In 1992 Coats warned that "bunks are twelve inches apart on a ship." Testifying in 1992 before the House Budget Committee, Powell worried about placing homosexuals "in with heterosexuals who would prefer not to have somebody of the same sex find them sexually attractive, put them in close proximity, ask them to share the most private facilities together, the bedroom, the barracks..."

In 1948 blacks were accused of spreading tuberculosis; today gays are accused of spreading AIDS. Segragationist Richard B. Russell of Georgia, the most prominant Southern senator of the time, spoke at length about the thread of venereal disease from blacks, claiming that "the incidence of venereal diseases, gonorrhea and syphilis, was 252 per thousand among the Negro race, as compared to 17 per thousand with the white race." In 1993 Wells'Petry writes in the Journal that "homosexual adolscents... were 23 more times more likely to contract a sexually transmiitted disease than were heterosexual adolescents."

Opening up the military was then and now just the thin edge of the wedge. Russell feared something ar worse: a president who "advocated intermarriage of the races and absorption of the Negro by the white race through the process of miscegenation." Utah and Idaho Baptists critical of Clinton issued a statement opposing the "active integration of a homosexual 'lifestyle' into mainstream society."

Of couse, everyone in favor of the gay ban now may be right as all those opposing racial integration were wrong then. But the circumstantial evidence is, shall we say, damning. Those pundits and pols now echoing argument for argument and word for word their racist forebears might stop for a moment and worry about the future judgement of history. Nexis can be a merciless thing.