David S.C. Chu credits President Harry S. Truman’s 1948 executive order that integrated the military with laying crucial groundwork for success of the all-volunteer force.
Black soldiers had fought in every U.S. war, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II, Chu noted during an interview with American Forces Press Service and the Pentagon Channel. But in most cases, he noted, they served in all-black units with white commanders.
Truman’s Executive Order 9981 changed that officially, but, Chu conceded, it didn’t take root overnight. Segregated units had to be reconfigured. Tensions had to be overcome.
“It took the better part of a generation and a half to … really take it from an order from the president to a reality that meant that your race didn’t matter,” Chu said. But ultimately, Truman’s executive order “provided the foundation for the U.S. military to become one of the United States’ most racially integrated institutions,” he added.
“What Truman really did was use the armed forces to change American society,” Chu said. “The armed forces pride themselves in being leaders in this.”
As the military became a national model in integration, its members put the concept to its first combat test during the Korean War, then in every subsequent conflict leading up to today’s war on terror.
The integrated force provides equal opportunity, but also brings strengths that are particularly important in an all-volunteer force, Chu said.
“You’ve got a broader selection of talent if you recruit everybody or potentially have everyone wanting to join … your organization,” he said. “You have more talent than you would otherwise have.”
Today, black servicemembers make up 17 percent of the active-duty force, 9 percent of active-duty officers and just under 6 percent of general and flag officers, officials reported. In addition, black troops make up more than one-quarter of the top three enlisted ranks.
In addition to providing a broad talent base, diversity ensures that the military looks like the American population it defends, Chu said. That, in turn, helps build public confidence and trust in the institution.
“If the whole society is not part of [the military], then you don’t have the backing of that whole society,” Chu said. “You have a backing of a fraction of that society.”
The flip side, he said, is that the public recognizes its diverse military has a difficult job and unifies behind it. “That moral authority is crucially important to the military’s ability to operate,” he said.
Chu pointed to broad American support for its highly diverse military, as demonstrated in polls in which the public repeatedly ranks the military as its most trusted institution.
As the military looks to the future, it needs to remember the lessons learned as it integrated the force and continue to embrace diversity, Chu said.
“I think it is important to remember this history to be ready to deal with the new elements of diversity coming forward,” he said.