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Equality: Obama vs Truman

July 26, 2009 marks the 60th anniversary of President Harry S. Truman signing Executive Order #9981 ending racial segregation of the United States military. 2009 also marks the 16th anniversary of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the law passed by Congress mandating the discharge of openly gay, lesbian or bisexual military servicemembers. According to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an advocacy group helping personnel discharged under the policy, at least one individual per day is fired because they are gay or lesbian. (Based on SLDN calculations of Pentagon data, 1993-2007.)


Remarkably, Truman delivered the Order while dealing with a “full plate” of national and international challenges. This is important because “full plate” is emerging as an excuse why Obama hasn’t yet followed through on his June 1, 2009 Gay Pride proclamation which reads, “I continue to support measures...ending the existing ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell’ policy...I call upon the LGBT community, the Congress, and the American people to work together to promote equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

According to Aaron Belkin, an Associate Professor of Political Science at University of California, Santa Barbara, “An executive order would not get rid of the ‘don't ask, don't tell’ law, but would take the critical step of suspending its implementation, hence rendering it effectively dead.”

Many references have been made to historic parallels between the 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the 2008 election of Barack Obama. As we know, the bold, strong leadership of FDR has been the touchstone of Democratic Progressive politics for almost eight decades. However, when it comes to dealing with a “full-plate” and still taking action to secure full equality for all Americans, Obama could try to parallel another Democratic President.

Consider President Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States.

Truman became President upon the death of FDR in April, 1945. World War II was grinding to a halt. Nazi Germany would be surrendering within a month. In August, after being in office three months, Truman made the decision to atom bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This forced Japan to surrender and, on August 14, the Pacific theater of WWII ended.

Truman immediately moved forward with the 1945 founding of the United Nations, working through complicated problems with the Soviet Union. He turned America’s economy from war to peacetime accommodating the return of millions of WWII servicemembers. The 1947 Marshall Plan began the reconstruction of Europe from the ravages of WWII. A year later, The Jewish Agency sent Truman a letter announcing the establishment of the State of Israel. Within minutes, Truman recognized the new State. In 1950, Truman had to stop the North Korean invasion of South Korea and in 1951 fire General Douglas MacArthur, Commander of the United Nations forces fighting the war, for insubordination. History may yet show that Truman’s reasoning for firing MacArthur was that he regarded MacArthur as a loose cannon in terms of using nuclear weapons.

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Talk about a full plate!

Truman’s clear and decisive actions have been without precedent in terms of challenges faced, decisions made, policies constructed and actions required.

However, unlike FDR or Obama, Truman did not have a personal political base. In fact, he was seen as little more than a failed haberdasher turned politician. He had labored for more than three years in the shadow of FDR when the 1948 presidential convention in Philadelphia loomed. Few believed Truman could lead the party to victory. On July 13, the Convention’s platform committee rejected a recommendation calling for the abolition of segregation in the armed forces. The next day, the full convention voted to overrule the platform committee demanding desegregation of the armed forces. Truman knew he faced defection by conservative Southern democrats usually vital to Democrats in presidential elections. Accepting defection, Truman directed his staff to draft Executive Order #9981 and to include the establishment of a presidential committee to implement the order.

Two weeks later, President Truman signed the Order mandating equal opportunity in the armed forces. Livid conservative segregationists bolted the Party forming the States' Rights Party and eventually winning five Southern states. (Party’s slogan? “Segregation Forever”) Despite this, stunningly, Truman was re-elected!

We will never know what might have happened if Truman had caved into conservative segregationists. Perhaps President Lyndon Johnson would not have been able to bring forward the 1965 Civil Rights Act or Obama himself would never have been nominated as the 2008 Democratic standard bearer.

carl matthes

In 2009, Obama, personally, has the full backing of the Democratic Party. What is he afraid of? Why can’t he issue an Executive Order to suspend “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?” Does he think some would bolt the Democratic Party over equality? And, if they did, what party would they form? The Straight Party? Slogan: “Inequality Forever?”

So, Mr. Obama, here in Northeast Los Angeles, home of Occidental College where you spent your early college years, we know hope has arrived for those at the back of the bus. Now, however, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are being thrown off the bus due to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The lgbt community has been among your most ardent supporters as well as stalwarts of the Democratic Party. Why not, Mr. President, just issue the Executive Order?

Carl Matthes