The Tale of the Tail that Wagged the Dog: #Reviewing Integrating the U.S. Military

Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II. Douglas W. Bristol Jr. & Heather M. Stur (eds). Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2017.

Throughout American military history, the armed forces established bulwarks of exclusion designed to prevent, limit, or prohibit outright the service of select minority groups. The military establishment did this for a host of reasons—racial, sexual, and gender based bigotry, for example—but they also believed the inclusion of minority groups would weaken the military efficiency of a squad, platoon, unit, army, or the entirety of the armed forces. Additionally, the leadership of the armed forces maintained concerns over interjecting the military into larger social issues and often sought to avoid becoming a sociological laboratory in any shape, form, or fashion. Lastly, they fostered an earnest desire not to bite the conservative hands—in this case, conservative members of Congress who occupied seats on some of the most prevalent military committees—that controlled its pursue strings. This does not mean there were not those within the ranks who recognized the talents, say, of African American soldiers. More often than not, however, they were in the minority. Their opinions on the matter only reached the vanguard when the necessity of the moment demanded it. As with all change, it did not happen all at once. Nor did it happen rapidly or as progressively as desired. But, change did happen.

Integrating the U.S. Military, edited by Douglas Bristol, Jr., and Heather Stur, brings ten military historians together to grapple with the larger historical narrative of minority service in the American Armed Forces. It is, though, not a cover-all volume. The backbone of this work is firmly situated in the mid-to-late twentieth century, beginning with the so-called Good War, World War II, and moving forward. The modern focus of the volume fits with something I will call the societal integration of the armed forces. I say societal, because this vein of historical inquiry, nested within the larger school of war and society history, is no longer just an analysis of race or gender or sexuality and how their acceptance into the military changed it and their status in society—though this is important. It is, instead, the story of all Americans, those members of the majority who rejected—but also those members who accepted—and those who were themselves rejected from serving their nation because they were seen as outcasts, unfit, undesirable, and unworthy of the honor.

From the start, Beth Bailey’s introduction reminds us the integration of the armed forces was carried out, as change often is, under pressure. Pressure came from outsiders seeking for their voices to be heard and internally from President Harry S. Truman, most notably through his issuing of Executive Order 9981, which set the country on a path towards a racially integrated armed forces. Additionally, the ending of the draft, Bailey notes, aided in the long term transformation of the military. The ending of this form of conscription meant the armed forces would have to become more inclusive, a dynamic that led to increased African American involvement, but also a dramatic growth in the number of women of all races donning the uniform of the republic. As noted in Jennifer Mittelstadt’s The Rise of the Military Welfare State, that change was not always welcome. Lastly, Congress became more active as well. The legislative body was behind the acceptance of women in America’s military academies and responsible for ending the Clinton-era policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

Co-editor, Douglas Bristol, Jr., takes us on a journey through the African American experience during World War II. His study strikes a familiar tone for those who have studied the racial aspect of integration. It was need that drove the military to accept around one million black men and women into the ranks. Necessity also drove black men and women to serve a country that had forgotten, willfully ignored, or remained ignorant of their past service. They still signed up for a chance at social equality, just as their racial predecessors had—there was, after all, some evidence for this sort of racial uplift in the freeing of the slaves during the Civil War, followed by the concoction of the Reconstruction amendments that protected freedoms for black Americans. But there was also backlash. Despite the heroism of their service during the war, they were treated off-base in a fashion that did not match the weight of their sacrifice for the country. This, among other rationales, aided in encouraging black soldiers returning from the front to pursue change.

While black soldiers fought for change, Nisei Japanese Americans found themselves not only marginalized but incarcerated in internment camps at the beginning of the war—a product of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. James McCaffery, borrowing from his larger treatment of the subject, Going for Broke: Japanese American Soldiers in the War against Nazi Germany, discusses the role of the now-famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team. From training, where some members came face-to-face with Jim Crow segregation and the prohibition of their children entering public schools outside of bases, the men and the families of the 442nd faced it all. But that was just stateside. Once in the war, they still faced persecution. Despite this prejudicial environment, the Nisei fighters performed brilliantly.

James Westheider and Isaac Hampton II’s chapters continue the early theme of race in the military. Westheider weaves a narrative that intertwines the war with the Civil rights movement and demonstrates how growing tensions both outside and within the military led commanders to make inroads towards racial reforms, specifically in their endeavor to root out systemic racism in the armed forces. Marrying well with this analysis is Hampton’s work, which focuses on the creation of the Defense Race Relations Institute. Though the problem of racial strife was an old one, the Defense Race Relations Institute was born out of racial turmoil and conflict within the ranks during the Vietnam War. It used an approach that bridged the uncomfortable gap between the races by introducing them—white, black, and Hispanic—to one another and to civilian members of their racial groups. This meant going into racially segregated neighborhoods and learning what black, Hispanic, and white culture was all-about. By 1979, the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute replaced the Defense Race Relations Institute; yet, it maintained the important mission of racially integrating the ranks. In 2003, with America’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, its role adjusted to also include the growing number of women in uniform.

At this point, the book makes a pivot away from race and sets a trajectory toward gender. Gender history is not solely about women or the struggles they faced in American society and its military. Indeed, gender history contends with issues of femininity, masculinity, the conflicts that arise between men and women about place in society, and even the conflict within a gender group over its proper role within society. Charissa Threat, Tanya Roth, Kara Dixon Vuic, and Heather Marie Stur, the last a co-editor of the volume, all discuss topics through the lens of gender.

In Charissa Threat’s chapter, she discovers a role-reversal of sorts as female nursing officers feared the introduction of male nurses into the traditionally female dominated nursing ranks. To allow such a thing to occur might challenge, female nurses believed, their role within the military. And as such, they agreed with those conservative and traditional elements—the very same forces that kept them locked within the nursing ranks—within the Armed Forces that believed that men belonged on the battlefield, while women belonged in the rear. In what amounts to be a move of self-preservation, women nurses even embraced the notion that men trying to become nurses were unmanly, cowardly, or possibly gay.

While Threat discusses efforts to find a place for men in the nursing corps, Tanya Roth examines the evolving role of women in the military during the Cold War. During the infancy of the struggle against global communism, Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. Again, necessity played a part as the leadership of the military and its Commander-in-Chief recognized women would have a role to play in the military during the nation’s struggle with Russia. That role, however, would be defined by those who had sought, during World War II, to keep women in their place, including a sizeable portion of the American public who fretted over the disruption of established gender roles, the tainting of women by serving in the largely male-dominated profession of combat soldier, and even base concerns about this type of activity enticing lesbians to infiltrate the ranks.

Roth notes that those female personnel who clamored for change, or at the very least greater opportunities beyond the roles they had largely been limited to—typically, as nurses or clerks—were forced to wait.. Opportunities did come, notably during the can-do era of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, but women were still prevented from participating with their male counterparts in the combat arms. Long after the conclusion of the Cold War, however, they finally earned the right to do so. Problems still exist, though. An ideological undercurrent remains, Roth contends, that seeks to discredit women’s potential as soldiers, combat or otherwise, and that, at its base, desires to restore them to their traditional roles as dutiful supporters of male personnel. This, of course, sometimes manifests itself in the issue of sexual assault, which according to Roth affects “between 20 and 25” percent of all female personnel.

The Second World War was an all-hands-on-deck affair for the armed forces. That meant women, too. With an increasing number of women entering its ranks, the military sought to control the sexuality of its female soldiers to protect its image, their image, and conservative American beliefs about women, motherhood, and family. Kara Dixon Vuic observes, that this included attempts to control their sexual activity. Operating under the guise of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, a female soldier could be dishonorably discharged for promiscuous behavior, while male soldiers, who might even engage in sexual activity with a female soldier, would not be punished. To be fair, part of that was the military, but part of it was based on the wishes of the stringent commanding officer of the Women’s Army Corps, Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby. It was Hobby’s desire to maintain a level of respectability about the inclusion of women in the armed forces. And as such, she worried about the creation of any outside criticism that would force the military to end female involvement.

Marines at the Battle of Hue. (H.D.S. Greenway/New York Times)

“Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there,” remarked Michael Herr in Dispatches. Co-editor Heather Marie Stur’s chapter is not solely about America’s most controversial war, but it does invoke in the reader’s mind Herr’s prophetic statement about its effect on the military and society after the guns fell silent. Stur’s chapter is about the clashing of cultural norms with the grim realities of human existence. Throughout the Vietnam War, for example American society and its military maintained men were to be strong, John Wayne-types. The Duke, who had never served, but fought in all of America’s wars on the big screen, had become an emblematic symbol of American masculinity. If John Wayne was the ideal for the American soldier, female personnel were to be the passive, protected, and thus weaker, lady at his side. Both gender stereotypes permeated the military and could lead to the use of language designed to motivate, through the belittling of one’s manhood. An example of this occurred during basic training when male drill instructors referred to male recruits that were struggling as a cunt or a pussy. Interchangeable with this was the use of homosexual slurs, such as faggot or queer. All of this was designed to motivate male troops through the reaffirmation of gender-based beliefs that men were superior to women. While various groups in and outside of the military, including male soldiers, railed against this, and though improvements have been made, Stur observes that in the decades that followed the Vietnam War many of the connotations of yesteryear lived on.[1]

A camaraderie or, as Steve Estes puts it, a shared history, based in discriminatory treatment of all minority groups—particularly, blacks—failed to achieve the desired effect of compelling the armed forces or Congress to change its position on gays and lesbians. If this is the case, why did gays and lesbians continue to serve and push the issue? Besides the ideas of opportunity and love of country, they had watched the prior attempts of African Americans and women who had successfully compelled the military to reject its discriminatory practices of the past and accept their service. Thus, they reasoned, why should it not be the same for gays and lesbians? The comparison to blacks and women did not always ring true with military leadership, however. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, it did not resonate with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, specifically General Colin Powell. When queried on the matter, Powell did not feel discrimination based on race and sexual orientation were the same. Essentially, he believed the color of one’s skin was beyond control and thus, “a benign, non-behavioral characteristic,” while “sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics.” He also worried ending the policy would disrupt the military efficiency of the armed forces. His critics were quick to note that the latter rationale was eerily similar to the one used to keep African Americans and women out of, or at the very least marginalized within, the ranks.[2]

To be fair to Powell, he was not unique in his stance, as many African Americans and others struggled with the notion of supporting gay and lesbian civil rights during the era, let alone service in the armed forces. Nor was he the sole arbiter on the matter; congress also struggled with this justification for change. Indeed, the fortunes of gay and lesbian members of the armed forces only improved when they stopped linking their struggles with that of African Americans, and instead attacked the notion that their prohibition from the military impacted its ability to perform at is maximum—simply, banning them was not efficient.

Integrating the U.S. Military is not a state-of-the-field type of book. It is, rather, a challenge to those of us who ply our trade in this profession to make the connections necessary to the larger issue of the role the American armed forces play as a reluctant social reform apparatus. In their insightful conclusion, the editors of the volume recognize the traditionally conservative organization has always been at the forefront of change—whether racial, gender, or sexual. Of course, critics would counter that American society demanded these changes. What the critics often forget, however, is when these changes occurred and the attitude of the majority Americans in those times to them. Racial integration of the military in the late 1940s? Gender reform throughout the Cold War? Gay and lesbian service and recognition throughout?

Lance Cpl. April Whitham as one of the Marines patrolling through the village of Soorkano, in Helmand Province. (Lynsey Addario/Getty Images)

Furthermore, there were external and internal pressures coupled with the greater need for personnel that forced the military to evolve ahead of society. So, in a sense, the tail wagged the dog, and did so in a necessary fashion, for its own well-being, and not necessarily because all Americans demanded it. The way the armed forces evolved meant that many of the vestiges of bigotry, despite the work of those in and outside of the ranks to combat it, survived on. More than anything else, the story this excellent and recommended volume tells is not always a rosy or pretty one. It is, though, an American one.[3]

Geoffrey W. Jensen is an Associate Professor of History in the College of Security and Intelligence Studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ. He is the editor and author of two books on military affairs.

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Header Image: Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, a New York National Guard unit based in Manhattan and known as the Harlem Hell-fighters. (U.S. Army)


[1] Integrating the US Military, 142-162.

[2] Ibid., 198-99, 205-06.

[3] Within this excellent volume, we can see the connections not only with the past, but the military’s present-day challenges: the remnants of racial discrimination within the ranks at venerable places such as the Air Force Academy, but also, equally, we see those who stand opposed to such behavior from within the branch itself; the polarizing issue of foreign-born immigrants who have served in America’s armies, and her wars against terrorism, that have paid the price of battle all doing so with the earnest hope of becoming a citizen, only to be deported; and, of course, President Donald Trump’s controversial reversal of the inclusion of transgender personnel within the military. For more information on the recent woes, and response, of the Air Force Academy, see; On the issue of immigrant service, I provide a few examples: and; President Donald Trump’s decision to bar transgender personnel: