Truman fight akin to ‘Don’t ask’ debate

This month, my family and I mark the 126th anniversary of the birth of my grandfather, President Harry Truman. We celebrate his life and his many contributions to our nation, but we are particularly proud of his decision to desegregate the U.S. Armed Forces in July 1948.

It wasn’t easy. He faced fierce opposition from inside and outside the military. Many military leaders, including Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley, argued that mixing black and white soldiers would destroy the Army. General George Marshall said “experiments within the Army in the solution of social problems are fraught with danger to efficiency, discipline, and morale.” Others said the military should not adopt a policy contrary to the views of a majority of the people. At that time, Gallup polls found that 82 percent of Americans disagreed with my grandfather’s civil rights initiatives.

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My grandfather was appalled that African-American service members had been beaten and lynched upon their return from World War II. They had risked their lives to defend our nation, but were denied the full rights of American citizenship. For him, it was an issue of fairness — an issue of human rights. He listened to the arguments made by his senior military advisors, men he respected, who had served this country honorably. But he knew what was right and was determined to get it done.

There are parallels between the opposition to the desegregation of the military and the debate on “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law that requires the firing of a service member based solely on his or her sexual orientation.  Like the opponents of desegregation, supporters of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” argue that allowing openly gay and lesbian service members to serve alongside their heterosexual comrades is a “social experiment” and will endanger discipline and morale.

The majority of Americans, however, support open service. An estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen serve honorably alongside heterosexual comrades who, in many cases, already know and do not care. Senior military leaders support ending the ban on open service. Admiral Michel Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a February 2, 2010 Senate hearing that “allowing homosexuals to serve openly would be the right thing to do.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at the same hearing that he supports President Obama’s decision to repeal the law. Now, they must decide how to move forward.

All agree this change must be done wisely and in a way that will minimize any adverse impact on our military. In fact, an assessment is already underway at the Pentagon. But the order to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell” must come from Congress and there are questions as to when this should occur.

When agreement exceeds disagreement, there is no reason to delay doing the right thing.  When the executive order to end segregation was drafted, my grandfather decided to include the establishment of a presidential committee to implement the order. As he told the members of that committee, “I want the job done and I want it done in a way so that everyone will be happy to cooperate to get it done.”

Congressional action on repeal can — and should — be taken this year. It can and should be respectful of the Pentagon’s timeline and implementation recommendations. This can be accomplished by delaying the effective date of repeal until after the study is concluded, which is expected to be December 1, 2010.

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While I have no idea where my grandfather would stand on “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” I would hope he would want his gay great-granddaughter and others like her to have the opportunity to serve the country they love with dignity and integrity. He so appreciated service and sacrifice that ensuring the “equality of treatment and opportunity” for all, regardless of race, could not wait — even in an election year.

Extending equal treatment and opportunity to all in our nation’s service, regardless of sexual orientation, is the right thing to do. I hope the example of my grandfather, President Harry Truman, will help our president, Congress, and our military leaders to act with the same courage and conviction to get the job done this year.

Clifton Truman Daniel is the director of public relations for Harry S Truman College and is President Harry S. Truman’s grandson.