Defense Department surveyed troops on de-segregation in the 1940′s

by on July 22, 2010  •  In Military

From the research done by my casebook co-author Bill Eskridge, I knew that the Pentagon had conducted surveys of troops in the 1940's seeking their opinions about de-segregation, but I didn't have the documents. Now Igor Volsky at Wonk Room has taken the trouble to unearth survey documents from the National Archives, and has published them. The documentation proves that lgbt rights advocates are wrong in saying that the opinion survey on ending DADT now being circulated is unprecedented, although it is unclear why DoD would want to follow this particular precedent.(Amazingly, the Pentagon also asked troops how they felt about Jews.)

My bet is that the Pentagon's DADT surveys will show lower rates of anti-gay prejudice than the racism uncovered in the 1940's. There are big differences in the servicemember population, though, that could cut in multiple directions: the race surveys were done during a war, with a massive number of draftees in the service, presumably more representative of the U.S. population as a whole than today's volunteer military; and the older surveys were only of men, and enlisted men at that. Another big difference: as far as I know, the surveys in the 1940's did not trigger a war of spin, which surely will follow the survey being circulated now, regardless of the results.

Following is the Wonk Room post:

Earlier this month, as part of the year-long Defense Department review of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, the Pentagon distributed surveys to some 400,000 servicemembers to gauge their reaction to repealing the policy. While LGBT groups have characterized the questionnaire — which asks the troops to speculate on the sexuality of fellow servicemembers — as “derogatory and insulting,” the Pentagon continues to insist that they need to know what the troops are thinking in order to properly repeal the ban. “How do we identify beforehand the problems, the issues, and the challenges that we’re going to face? The kind of training requirements we’re going to need, the kinds of changes in regulations, the impact on benefits — all of these things need to be addressed in advance…. That’s where we want to hear from you all,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates told troops stationed in South Korea.

Yesterday, the Advocate’s Kerry Eleveld reported that this is not the first time the military had surveyed the troops. “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 nonenlisted troops concerning racial issues, integration, and morale,” Eleveld quoted a Defense Department spokesperson as saying.

Today, I traveled to the National Archives and recovered some of the surveys the military conducted about the troops’ attitudes towards black people between 1942 and 1946. At the time, the military — along with the overwhelming majority of the country — opposed integrating black servicemembers into the forces and preferred a ’separate but equal’ approach that would have required the military to construct separate recreation spaces and facilities. One month before Truman’s order, a Gallup poll showed that 63% of American adults endorsed the separation of Blacks and Whites in the military; only 26% supported integration.

These surveys show that the same attitude pervaded the military: 3/4 Air Force men favored separate training schools, combat, and ground crews and 85% of white soldiers thought it was a good idea to have separate service clubs in army camps:

Final Race Wonk Room

While smaller, these racial polls share some common questions with the DADT survey. In fact, in some instances one can even replace “negro” for “gay” and end up with today’s questionnaire. Both polls ask servicemembers if they objected to working alongside minorities, how they felt serving with minorities, how effective minorities are in combat and if their feelings have changed about the minority after serving with them. (Interestingly, 77% of respondents said they had more favorable opinion).

Truman integrated the forces despite the objections of the troops and it remains to be seen if Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen and President Obama (who have to sign off on the DOD study) are willing to do the same for Don’t Ask, Don’ Tell. So far, the Pentagon insists that it will. “It is abundantly clear to this working group that their marching orders from the Secretary of Defense are to determine how to implement a repeal of DADT,” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon’s spokesperson insists. “Their job is not to determine whether or not the force wishes a repeal to take place or not to take place. Their job is to prepare for that inevitability.” (While the results of the DADT survey are obviously pending, past surveys of military veterans have found that an overwhelming majority say it’s “personally acceptable to them if gay and lesbian people were allowed to serve openly in the military.”)


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