Discuss as:

Writer recalls Truman's risky order to integrate military

By Scott Foster, NBC News Pentagon Producer

At the Pentagon this week, officials held a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of President Truman's then controversial executive order to integrate the U.S. armed forces.

The 93-year-old Truman speech writer and long time West Virginia politician Ken Hechler was on hand and recalled just how courageous that order was - given the prevailing attitude in the late 1940's held by many senior officers as well as a majority of Americans that Blacks shouldn't be treated as equals.

One historian described Truman's executive orders 9980 and 9981 of July 26,1948 as "revolutionary and politically reckless."

Hechler, who proudly displayed his blue and gold West Virginia mountaineer tie, declared, "Harry Truman, although he was brought up as a racist, became such a great champion of civil rights."

Missouri native Harry Truman had grandparents who owned slaves and as historian Michael Gardner describes, "was conditioned to be a racist."

Despite that background, Hechler noted his bosses' mantra, borrowed from Thomas Jefferson: "equal rights for all, special privileges for none."

The assembled audience of Pentagon senior officials, members of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen, several from the Montford Point Marines, and troops currently serving in the military listened intently to the words from one of the few remaining members of Truman's administration.

Even though true racial integration of the military proved to be a difficult and painful process for many African-Americans years after his order, Truman is credited with taking that first critical step in achieving equality for all in the armed services. It wasn't until 1954 when the last all African-American unit integrated.

Hechler recalled how as commander-in-chief Truman fought that pervasive racism in the senior ranks and took his generals to task for not initially falling in line with his civil rights initiative.

He noted one instance when five star Army General Omar Bradley, the so-called "GI's general" given his popularity amongst the rank and file, remarked that the Army "was no place for social experiments."

Truman's reaction to the Army Chief of Staff, Hechler recalled, was blunt.

"Believe me, he was called onto the carpet - Harry Truman talked to him in good old Missouri english and Omar Bradley changed his position pretty quickly," he said.

With Gallup polls in 1948 finding that 82 percent of Americans disagreed with his civil rights program, President Truman faced an uphill battle integrating the military. Coming just 100 days before the national election, the order sparked a revolt amongst Southern Democrats led by Dixicrat Strom Thurmond. Hechler noted that during this time Truman penned a diary entry showing his resolve, writing "how far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?"

Although Truman's order was merely a first step along a long road to racial equality in the U.S. military, Hechler's first-hand account reveals Truman in many respects was a decisive leader who sought meaningful improvement in race relations.

Hechler, who interestingly was the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, summed it up, saying "it takes forthrightness for people in positions of leadership and that was Harry Truman's moral compass - his moral compass showed up in those two fantastic executive orders."