On Feb. 12, 1946, Tech. Sgt. Isaac Woodard Jr. boarded a bus in Georgia to return home to his wife in South Carolina after completing service in New Guinea and the Philippines. During the ride, Woodard, who was black, asked the bus driver if he would have time to “take a piss” at the next stop.
The driver, objecting to Woodard’s language, said, “Boy, go on back and sit down and keep quiet and don’t be talking out so loud.” Fresh from serving his country in wartime, the soldier shot back: “Goddamn it, talk to me like I’m talking to you. I’m a man just like you.” An hour later during a scheduled stop in Batesburg, S.C., the incensed bus driver called over local law-enforcement officers, telling them that the soldier’s foul mouth offended a white female passenger.
The police confronted Woodard and dragged him out of sight of the other passengers to unleash a barrage of baton strikes and punches to the face that ruptured his eyeballs. Still in uniform, he was taken to jail and held overnight. The next morning, his eyesight now permanently gone, the police gave him a hot towel and some eye drops and left him at the nearest veterans’ hospital. Woodard survived war overseas only to be blinded by the war at home.
Civil rights leaders met with President Harry Truman seven months later to encourage him to end lynch-mob violence against black Americans. After hearing stories of a black veteran and his wife who were executed in a hail of bullets in Georgia, another mutilated with a meat cleaver and blowtorch in Louisiana and the violent blinding of Woodard, Truman’s face fell pale. He rose from his chair and exclaimed: “My God! I had no idea it was as terrible as that! We’ve got to do something!” The next day Truman informed his attorney general that policy was needed to prevent lynchings and, in December, Truman created the President’s Committee on Civil Rights to look into racial violence and civil rights. A year later, the committee published its report proposing a number of reforms, including the abolishment of poll taxes, anti-lynching legislation and exempting members of the armed forces from segregation within the military and in society at-large. Though anti-lynching legislation died in Congress and the poll tax was deemed a constitutional issue, Truman could act on the desegregation of the armed forces on his own.
July 26 marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9981, Truman’s landmark directive to desegregate the United States military — and the signature achievement of his nascent civil rights program. He declared it was his administration’s policy that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” Truman took this action despite significant resistance from defense leadership. Kenneth Royall, then secretary of the Army, argued that the Army shouldn’t be used as an “instrument of social evolution.” The Marine Corps commandant, Clifton Cates, complained that “the problem of segregation is not the responsibility of the Armed Forces but is a problem of the nation,” and that it was dangerous to use the military to change the nation’s racial politics. Overruling the Pentagon, Truman employed the military in a racial-desegregation social experiment in hopes of improving the American one. His use of executive powers signaled a commitment to a more inclusive version of the United States.
Fast forward to today, and President Donald Trump is also using the military to practice his version of racial politics. The last several months have seen the Trump administration come under fire for its policies allowing the deportation of undocumented veterans under certain circumstances, undocumented family members of active-duty military personnel and the discharge of immigrants serving in the military hoping to earn citizenship. Trump has deployed the National Guard to the nation’s southern border in response to crossings by asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants, proclaiming, “Until we can have a wall and proper security, we’re going to be guarding our border with the military.” He has even proposed using the military’s budget to pay for the wall. And after facing significant backlash for his zero-tolerance immigration policy that separated migrant children from their parents, he signed an executive order to stop the practice and directed immigrant families be interned on military bases instead. Though some of these actions are not unique to Trump, they cannot be divorced from his rhetoric on immigrants of color throughout his campaign and presidency.
The approaches by Truman and Trump are representative of a larger truth: If you want to know what a president believes, examine his use of the military. This is not just a question of national security and international relations; it’s reflected in domestic issues like race relations, gender equality and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Often to the chagrin of defense leaders, presidents have used the military to test-run preferred social policies because congressional approval isn’t required, making implementation easier. The decision to use the military to advocate for social policy never occurs in a vacuum and is rarely the result of personal politics alone. The military is an effective vehicle within the commander in chief’s direct authority that can help make the case to the country and demonstrate responsiveness to specific constituencies.
There is, however, a method to using the military in this way. Though Truman and Trump chose different policy paths on the race question, their perceptions of the military’s role in advancing their respective views of racial politics were informed by electoral strategies and leveraged contemporary national-security concerns. When Truman ascended to the presidency following Franklin Roosevelt’s death, he was a product of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party. Raised in Missouri’s Ku Klux Klan country, the son of parents who subscribed to white supremacy and whose mother despised Abraham Lincoln so much she refused to sleep in the White House’s Lincoln bedroom, Truman was no racial progressive — he once described the White House waiters as an “army of coons.” But upon taking the party reins, he was left with what the special counsel, Clark Clifford, and the New Deal lawyer, James Rowe Jr., called Roosevelt’s “unhappy alliance of Southern conservatives, Western progressives and Big City labor.”
If Truman had any hope of winning the 1948 election, he would need to hold off challenges from the party’s progressive wing. This meant taking a more liberal position on civil rights, and Truman looked to his executive powers to make a bold statement to progressives and black citizens. Clifford advised Truman in a memo that “Unless there are new and real efforts (as distinguished from mere political gestures which are today thoroughly understood and strongly resented by Negro leaders), the Negro bloc, which certainly in Illinois and probably in New York and Ohio does hold the balance of power [for the presidential election], will go Republican.” The order desegregating the military, just a few months before the election, was the gesture Truman needed. That fall, in his election victory, he won 77 percent of the black vote, a nine-point increase from Roosevelt’s tally four years earlier.
When Trump descended the escalator in Trump Tower to announce his bid for the presidency, he wasted little time in establishing the core message of his campaign. He cast Mexican immigrants as drug-dealers and rapists, promising to “build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” He went on to say that the immigration problem was coming from South America, Latin America and the Middle East — nations filled with people who he believes will negatively impact American culture. A few months into his campaign, he released an ad calling for “a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on.”
Analysis since the election shows that these hard-line immigration policies were a key factor in why voters chose to support Trump. The 2016 American National Election Study showed Trump greatly improved his share of the vote from Mitt Romney’s in 2012 among those with the most intolerable views on immigration. Half of Trump voters, including Trump’s former National Security Council spokesman Michael Anton, want to change the Constitution so that American-born children of undocumented immigrants won’t have citizenship. His voters also register higher levels of racial resentment, generally defined as a feeling that people of color are somewhat incompatible with what it means to be American. And this sentiment among Trump voters is often mixed with outward displays of patriotism, like zealous support of the military and flying the flag, and conceptions of prototypical Americans as white Christians. Stoking racial tensions was a winning tactic for the Trump campaign, just as placating white progressives and black civil rights leaders was a successful electoral strategy for Truman.
Truman was governing just as the Cold War began in earnest and the Soviet Union began its expansion. The Truman Doctrine was not only a policy to contain Soviet influence and the spread of communism but also a declaration that the United States “must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way,” as Truman told a joint session of Congress in March 1947. The problem, of course, was that the United States was denying this very thing to its own black citizens. Truman soon recognized that America’s racial politics were a significant ideological vulnerability that harmed its Cold War standing and threatened the nation’s political capital on the world stage. Whenever the United States would chastise the Soviet Union for its inhumane practices, Soviet leaders would simply respond, “And you are lynching Negroes.” A white couple in a St. Louis suburb wrote Truman, asking him to abolish segregation in the armed forces, adding: “We feel that one of the most effective, firm and noticeable ways in which we can show the rest of the world we believe in Democracy is to practice such a virtue in all possible places at home. We believe that this will still Russian propaganda against us for this gross injustice in our country.”
Trump, for different ends, has also seen the advantage of citing security threats for his racial politics. He told a crowd in North Carolina two months before the election that “immigration security is national security.” This past February, the White House released an official statement stating, “Our current immigration system jeopardizes our national security and puts American communities at risk.” He has played up the menace of MS-13, which 85 percent of Trump voters now believe is a serious threat to the United States. His travel ban targeting Muslim Arabs from specific nations is born of the same impulse, casting immigration as an existential threat to the United States. When this is coupled with his birtherism claims about Barack Obama, comments about undesirable immigrants from nations like Haiti and parts of Africa and even his response to the Gold Star Khan and Johnson families, it’s clear that racial politics are deeply embedded in his conception of national security.
Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again” aches for an idealized version of post-World War II America in which the nation emerged victorious from conflicts, manufacturing jobs could support a family and relatively low crime rates prevailed — the violent enforcement of racial hierarchy is conveniently not referenced. This was Truman’s America, and it marked the beginning of significant civil rights reforms. On this 70th anniversary of the military’s desegregation, Truman and Trump serve as fitting bookends to several decades of racial progress, from Truman’s leading-edge civil rights agenda to the racial backlash in our politics today.
By Theodore R. Johnson. This story was first posted on NYTimes