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Doing What's Right, Even If Politically The Timing Is Wrong

Harry S. Truman's Courageous Leadership

July 26, 2014 - Speech written for Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders addressing the Military Officers Association of America.

“Come up with something” was the full extent of the guidance given me in writing this speech on behalf of Mr. Sanders. I am proud that, even with so little direction, I was able to write a strong speech that so fully embodied the occasion—the theme for the MOAA luncheon was “Great Leadership Qualities”—while also calling greater attention to an act of political courage that has too often gone underappreciated.

I’m honored to be with you today—and proud to be able to say I, too, was an officer. Go Army!

How many of you are aware that we are gathering here today on what is a historical date—an especially historical date for the United States Military? But not just for our armed services, but also for the entire nation.

Sixty-six years ago today, the cause of Civil Rights, true equality for all, took a giant step forward—thanks to a bespectacled old Army captain. You may have heard of him. He was a man who knew a thing or two about leadership.

On July 26, 1948, President Truman—“Captain Harry” to the men who served under him during World War I—issued Executive Order No. 9981 creating the “Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.”

Simply put: President Truman desegregated America’s military. His order cleared the way for blacks and whites to serve in uniform while standing shoulder to shoulder for the first time since the American Revolutionary War.

So many courageous African-American men and women had served our nation in World War II. They fought to end the fascist repression of Europe and in the Far East. Many then returned to parts of our country where “Whites Only” was still a common sign.

Truman did not have the power, not even as president, to end Jim Crow Laws across the nation. That would have required legislative action and that wasn’t going to happen in 1948—not with what Truman famously called “a do-nothing Congress.”

But as Commander-in-Chief, Truman seized this opportunity to take action, writing in his Executive Order, “It is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country’s defense.”

Now take a moment to consider the timing of this executive order—in July of 1948.

Rather than be a product of his times, Harry S. Truman changed the times in which he lived. And he helped shape the world we live in today.  He led the way forward—boldly and courageously. The buck stopped with him, and he was also not afraid to buck the tide

Gallup polls at the time showed that 82 percent of Americans opposed President Truman’s overall Civil Rights program. Taking this dramatic step to end segregation in the military was not going to be very popular. Yet Truman did it anyway—just 100 days before the 1948 presidential election.

Think about it. Today, we live in an era  when—mark my words—within six months we’ll be hearing the pundits—all those talking heads on cable news—describe how the politicians won’t be getting anything meaningful done for a good two years because everything will be put on hold until after the  next presidential election in November of 2016.

Imagine what they would have said back on this day 66 years ago.

Truman knew he already had an up-hill struggle ahead of him during the 1948 campaign. No one thought he had much of a chance of winning the election that fall. And desegregating the military appeared certain to only make his odds worse.

The Democratic Party was already splitting apart that year. Henry Wallace was running as the progressive party candidate, and he was expected to cost Truman liberal votes in several key states.

And now this. Southern Democrats revolted after Truman took his executive action. They formed the so-called Dixicrats and ran South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president on a segregationist platform.

Was Truman insane or just a fool? His reaction to the widely accepted notion that he had committed political suicide, just three months before the election, was vintage Truman. In his diary he wrote, “How far would Moses have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt?”

Politically, Truman’s timing was all wrong. But he would not wait to issue his order until he had “political cover”—until after the election or, at least, his approval ratings improved.

Leaders do not delay and evade. They do not delay taking a stand when a stand must be taken. They do not evade their duty to assure America is true to its creed—“with liberty and justice for all.”

Even though too little had been done about institutionalized racial discrimination in America, many accused President Truman of going too far on July 26, 1948. Some of the highest ranking officers in the military openly opposed the president’s decision. The Army Chief of Staff, General Omar Bradley, told the press—we didn’t call it “the media” back then—the Army was, quote, “no place for social experiments.”

How did Truman respond—how did he lead in the face of this opposition from within the ranks? We know exactly how he took the lead. His former speech writer Ken Hechler talked about this very issue in an interview eight years ago.

When President Truman heard what General Bradley had said, he promptly reminded the five-star general who was the Command-In-Chief. As Mr. Hechler put it, Truman didn’t mince words with the wildly popular general and war hero. In fact, Truman chose words that he knew would get a fellow Missourian’s attention.


This is how Mr. Hechler described the scene: “Believe me, [General Bradley] was called onto the carpet. Harry Truman talked to him in good old Missouri English, and Omar Bradley changed his position pretty quickly.”

That’s how you take command. That’s how you lead—from out front, even if you are behind in the polls. Truman didn’t wait for public opinion to be swayed. Instead, he led the way.

He desegregated the military eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared segregation unconstitutional—and 18 years before Congress finally did something, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that ended racial discrimination in employment, voting and the use of public facilities. For the record, President Truman appointed four of the justices who were part of the 9-0 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Ultimately, I think for Truman his decision in the summer of 1948 came down to simply doing the right thing. We all know about “The Buck Stops Here!” and how those four words will forever be associated with President Truman. Less well now is the Mark Twain quote Truman kept on his desk as a U.S. Senator: “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”

Imagine the racial tensions—the out-and-out prejudices of the late 19th Century that endured through much—far too much—of the 20th Century. These were the times into which Harry Truman was born and through which he lived much of his life.

But rather than be a product of his times, Harry S. Truman changed the times in which he lived. And he helped shape the world we live in today.

He led the way forward—boldly and courageously. The buck stopped with him, and he was also not afraid to buck the tide. And when others said “it can’t be done” or “not right now,” Truman would persuade them, using, if necessary, that language he was so fluent in— “good old Missouri English.”

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