From Segregation to Integration in the Armed Forces

November 10, 2010

This year’s Veterans Day program at the Government Printing Office features a speaker who served in the U.S. Army from 1947 to 1951, including 9 months on the front line in Korea. He’s a member of the Buffalo Soldiers organization, which preserves the memory of the six all African-American Army units formed after the Civil War for service in the American West. Their service, also commemorated at the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, is a proud chapter in American history but also a reminder of the days when the armed forces were segregated by race.

Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 tells the story of how this not so creditable period in our history was brought to an end. This definitive administrative history provides a capsule history of African-Americans in the armed forces and how both the professed war aims of the U.S. and civil rights activists combined to bring this issue to the fore. Interestingly, the book also points out that the post-war attempt to maintain segregated military units through the use of quotas while expanding the pool of African-American servicemen by conscription caused even very traditional military men to reassess the need for integration for the sake of military efficiency, if nothing else. After President Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981, calling on the armed forces to provide equal treatment and opportunity for black servicemen, the barriers began to fall, although other issues, particularly housing, made the process of integration extend well into the 1960’s.

Even civilian employees in the defense establishment endured the pains of segregation and the slow evolutionary path of its demise. The Invisible Cryptologists: African-Americans, WW II to 1956 is a sort of microhistory of one small Government agency’s journey from racial injustice.  World War II saw what was then the Signals Intelligence Service (SIS) hire African-Americans, up until then employed mainly as messengers, to decipher commercial telegraph codes that might contain valuable information emanating from companies Tokyo, Berlin, and other international locations. After the war, the machine section (or “the plantation,” one of its numerous unflattering nicknames) used African Americans to transfer Russian intercepts from radio tapes to punch cards – a tedious job in hot and dirty conditions without any realistic possibility of promotion up and out.

Slowly, things began to change, as Executive Order 9981 and other developments ushered in an era when jobs as polygraph operators and, by the 1950’s, linguists and analysts, began to open up. The Invisible Cryptologists is at its best when it not only tells the story of segregation and integration, but lets some of the characters in that story speak for themselves. As one former employee said, “I was so involved in what the Agency stood for, and I wanted it to be better. I had a feeling things were going to get better. Everybody in there was not evil. I felt that one day African Americans would be able to break out of this box.”

Yes, it was a discreditable period, but these books show that our Government and our country, when confronted with injustice, were able to change. They’re both worth reading. You can find Integration of the Armed Forces here or buy a copy here. You can read The Invisible Cryptologists here or order a free copy here.

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