Deconstructing Harry: Harry Truman and the Cold War

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Deconstructing Harry: Harry Truman and the Cold War

Exploring the Impact of Cold War Politics on Executive Order 9981 When President Truman and his adminstartion desegregated the military by Executive Order 9981 in 1948, he was seizing the unique opportunity presented by the changing nature of race and its influence on politics at the close of WWII to elevate the nation above the crippling racism that had permeated its history since Liconln’s failed reconstruction. The authors of Foxholes and Color Lines: also noted that “a new, more liberal perspective on racial issues gained enough strength within the white general public to become an important element in national culture and political debate during the war years.” The changing attitudes about race in Armed Services after their exposure to European culture after WWII, the changing role of race in foreign policy and the increasingly powerful influence of race on international affairs during the Truman Adminstation compelled Truman to follow the advice of his The report entitled, “To Secure These Rights” was issued on 29 October 1947 and detailed the deplorable status of race relations in America at the time.

It admitted the failure of ‘separate but equal” tolerated Northern states stood out in prominence and federal intervention was judged the only solution. They recommended federal measures to protect the civil rights of African-Americans in the Post WWII society. Federal intervention in the form of would protect African-Americans from continued disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow south and curtail the renewed lynching activities of the KKK. Truman is also credited with also credited with in iating the legacy of Plessy V Fergusson in public education and federal employment. President Truman’s legislative actions in desegregating the military and federal service set the precedent of active federal protection of civil rights and replacing the memory of the failed Reconstruction Era and is credited with intervention action on the reports legislation n active and mandatory federal When President Truman federally mandated the integration of the Armed Services in 1948 he many characterized it as the ‘Second Reconstruction’ for this country, but with a reluctant Congress and his blunt, Midwestern persona, the ‘Accidental President’ merely delayed the inevitable zenith of racial tension that erupted in the 1960s.

This paper will explore the origins of President Truman’s strong policies on civil rights from the initial report of the Gillem Board in 1945, to his revulsion of the racial violence aimed at returning WWII African-American Service members and the eventual decision to desegregate the Armed Services in 1948. President Truman’s legislative actions ignited a firestorm of social and political backlash led by Southern Democrats. And although he did win his reelection, the stagnate nature of civil rights legislation after Truman left office attests to the fact the he had set a benchmark of laissez-faire commitment concerning civil rights that gave his predecessors political motivation to continue the legacy of Plessy v Ferguson ruling; a ruling in which Congress had made state sponsored racism the law de jour of the land. The moral roots of the man who would come to represent the quintessential ‘Midwestern Democrat’ were planted in Jackson County Missouri. Born on May 8, 1884 in Lamar, Missouri, he enjoyed the ‘happiest childhood imaginable’ with brother, John Vivian, simply called Vivian, and sister, Mary Jane.

The first of three children resulting from the union of John and Martha Ellen Truman, the President was quoted as saying about his father, “…his code was honesty and integrity. His word was good…he raised me and my brother to put honor above profit.” And of his mother he says, she “taught us the moral code”, a lesson that the bespectacled, serious student took to heart. Truman was often “praised for his ‘excellent character’ during his early school life. In 1917, at the age of thirty-three, Truman was commissioned into the Missouri National Guard’s 129th Field Artillery Regiment, Battery D. There he established a reputation as an exemplary leader with integrity and strong moral character. These traits established the basis of his political and personal supporters throughout his lifetime. President Truman’s liberal views on labor relations in Missouri led to him being ticketed as the ‘Tom and Joe endorsed candidate’ in 1922 Jackson County Court elections.

This blatant message, a sign from the KKK, was an attempt to brand the candidate and warn off potential voters. Michael Gardener made especial mention of Truman’s political tussle with the KKK in his book, Harry S. Truman and Civil Rights: Moral Courage and Political Risks, “The Klan’s opposition to Truman’s candidacy for the county judgeship was later confirmed by the Independence Examiner of November 6, 1922, which reported that ‘men stood Sunday morning at the doors of several protestant Churches in Independence as the people were leaving after the service and passed out pink “Sample Ballots.”… It was the Ku Klux Klan ballot.” Klansmen from as far away as Kansas City used scare tactics and violence to intimidate black voters; and although Truman narrowly defeated his opponent against horrible opposition and violent Klan activity, these acts forever soured Truman’s appetite for organized racism in the political process and the violence that hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan represented.

Leaving Independence in 1934 as a candidate for the Senate, Truman announced, “If the Almighty God decides that I go there I am going to pray as King Solomon did, for wisdom to do the job.” The country was already wedged tight between the rock of the Depression and the looming hard place of War World II, when Senator Truman arrived in Washington, but things were starting to look up for civil rights legislation. President Roosevelt had issued The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, a major new development in race relations in regards to military service for African-Americans. This new act specifically banned “discrimination against any person on account of race or color.” Truman also witnessed Executive Order 8802, The Fair Employment Act, legislative action aimed at obtaining civil rights for minorities and women in a federal workplace. The Fair Employment Act banned racial discrimination in hiring for any industry that received a government contract related to defense.

This allowed African-Americans and women were hired at the start of the war as the result. But while all these acts called for legislative nulling of Plessy V Ferguson, the consensus of white America was still firmly attached to the idea of ‘separate but equal’. In 1944 Truman was ‘flabbergasted’ at the idea of being nominated for Vice-President and initially denied the nomination, preferring to stay in the Senate. In Truman’s words, obtained from an oral history recorded by Hillman, Roosevelt’s response was, “Well if he wants to let the Democratic Party and the country down in the midst of a war that is his responsibility.” Unbeknownst to anyone, Truman would be in the unhappy position of Vice-President for less than 90 days with the sudden death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from a stroke on April 12, 1946. The ‘accidental’ President Truman told reporters, “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”

As President Truman abruptly ended the war, America was enjoying the ‘boom’ portion of the boom-bust cycle of the American economy. But wartime gains lead to peacetime reversals of fortunes and the threat of rising inflation, labor shortages, and an Anti-New Deal Congress made President Truman’s job of balancing the economic concerns of rural America and industrial America extremely difficult. The War Mobilization and Reconversion Act of 1944 was passed with provisions for keeping the country on stable economic footing, but Truman was not satisfied, “I feel it my duty to draw attention to the fact that the bill does not adequately deal with the human side of reconversion.” And it hadn’t, as many returning African-American soldiers that had joined through the Selective Service where now considered obsolete in their military service.

The Ku Klux Klan also experienced a revival of support in Jim Crow South as enlightened Black soldiers returned from life in Europe unencumbered by the crippling racism of the United States. In faraway places like Germany and France, they were considered equals fighting for the cause of right and they were unwilling to give those liberties back after their service was finished. But the Klan would have none of that and racial violence increased in an effort to terrorize Southern blacks back into pre-War submission. The slayings of US soldiers on the heels of the allied victory over communism disturbed Truman greatly and despite his personal feelings toward race, he would always favor equality for all men. It must be made clear that although Truman wanted, “fairness, equality before the law” for all citizens, social equality for African-Americans was not addressed at this time.

He viewed the victory in WWII as a victory of freedom over oppression yet we still had oppressed people in our own backyard. The hypocrisy wasn’t missed by Truman, his administration or the American public. But even with that said, without the support of Congress he had no choice but to force sensitive legislation on a war weary nation. Truman first tried to address civil rights by balancing the needs of the military with the rights of African American soldiers. His strategy was to use a series of committees convened to specifically locate problems of racial inequality within the military itself. Truman’s goal was to initiate positive steps toward equality within the captive audience of a significant portion of the population i.e. the Armed Services. The Gillem Board, created in 1946 and headed by then Secretary of War, Robert P. Patterson was charged with finding’ “a definite and workable policy for the utilization of Negro troops in the postwar military establishment.”

The Armed Services had been woefully unprepared for the sheer volume of black soldiers that enlisted in WWII and keeping units racially segregated during peacetime was an inefficient undertaking. The recommendations from the Gillem Board were delivered on 16 Jan 1946, with the “…ultimate objective the effective use of all manpower made available to the military establishment…without regard to antecedent or race.” With the executive order and the establishing of the Fahy Committee, which had oversight of military desegregation, the process of integration began and then all hell broke loose. In February of the same year, Isaac Woodard had his sight taken by a South Carolina Sherriff in one of the most unspeakable acts of racial violence ever witnessed. Isaac Woodard was traveling home after his discharge from the Army on 12 February 1946 when he was taken off a Greyhound bus in Batesburg South Carolina and beaten by police after being accused of talking back to the bus driver. Woodard was told, “Boy, go on back and sit down and keep quiet and don’t be talking out so loud.”

His reply “God damn it, talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you,” The sheriff charged with the crime was eventually acquitted by an all-white jury but President Truman and African-American soldiers had enough. Michael Gardner notes that, “Polls indicated that 85 percent of Americans saw need for Federal action…Congressional approval for new laws was impossible because of Southern Congressional influence. President Truman was given no choice but to act by executive order if he had any hopes of reversing this trend to toward apathetic acceptance of racial violence in the Deep South. On July 30, 1946, the Justice Department was instructed to “proceed with all its resources to investigate crimes of oppression so as to ascertain if any Federal statute can be applied.”

And President Truman preceded full bore to desegregate the military by forming President’s Committee on Civil Rights. “The legislative job of the President is especially important to the people who have no special representatives to plead their cause before Congress and that includes the great majority…The other twenty million are able to employ people to represent them and that’s all right, its the exercise of the right of petition but someone has to look after the interests of the one hundred and fifty million that are left.” The report ultimately decides “to end immediately all discrimination and segregation based on race, color, creed or national origin in…all branches of the Armed Services.” And by 1948 President Truman ordered the immediate desegregation of the armed Service. The political backlash was immediate and harsh. The Army would ultimately try and circumvent the ruling Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall is noted as saying “segregation in the Army must go,” but not immediately.

Southern Democrats or Dixiecrats, at the National convention were so offended by the idea that many walked out of the convention in support of Strom Thurmond. President Truman’s decision to integrate the services was not fully realized until well after his executive order. In fact two years after his decision, the Fahy committee was still arguing the merits of an integrated service and America’s political leaders were taking carful note of voters and polls in the wake of Executive Order 9981. Despite the political suicide these orders represented President Truman proceeded with his cause of equality. His legacy in the civil rights movement gave the NAACP and others the legal foothold o challenge the powers that be in the 1960s and he has subsequently been heralded as on the greatest Presidents in American history.

Praise for his courage and tenacity in pursuit of equal rights has been a longtime coming. Truman could never have imagined he would lead the nation out of WWII with the bombing of Hiroshima and into a new day of civil rights activism with the desegregation of the Armed Services before leaving office in 1952. President Truman had faced the centrifugal and centripetal forces surrounding his introduction of Civil Rights legislation with steely-eyed determination and caustic wit. His trademarked, “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” sums up his attitude toward dissenters quite nicely.

And although he did achieve the goal many African-Americans wanted at the end of WWII, much of Truman’s legislation is responsible for delaying the violence that he surely anticipated to erupt in the US. In of civil rights offences that culmination violence until the Freedom Summer of 1964 may have been able to stave of the later race riots of the 1960s d he stands as a model for a true man of the people president. But when it comes to changing a nation’s heart and consciences it is sometimes more than a mere mortal can do, even if he is the President, Hillman says, “He had achieved less in civil rights than he had hoped, but he had created the epoch-making Commission on Civil Rights, ordered the desegregation of the armed services and federal Civil Service, and done more than any President since Lincoln to awaken American conscience to the issues of Civil Rights.

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