President Truman’s order to desegregate the military did not make it so. It took years for his words to become reality.

Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the director of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Mo., said the Air Force, which came into existence as a separate service in 1949, soon embraced the order’s intent. The Navy did, too, but more slowly.

The Army, however, resisted full compliance. It maintained segregated units, and limited enlistment of blacks to 10 percent, roughly the level of the American population that was black.

“But the number of African-Americans waiting to enlist was larger than 10 percent,” Geselbracht said.

Under pressure, the Army agreed to give up the quota, but maintained the separate units for black soldiers.

The final barrier fell because of the bloodletting in the Korean War, Geselbracht said. The casualty figures were great among the all-white units fighting the war to stop communist aggression on the Korean Peninsula.

“There weren’t enough white troops to replace them,” he said.

To field commanders, desperate for bodies to fight a war, the color of the replacements didn’t matter. Just send them, they said.

So black soldiers were sent to Korea to replace fallen white troops.

“It was the pressure of the battlefield that ultimately desegregated the Army,” Geselbracht said.

By July 1953, when an armistice ended the fighting, 98 percent of the Army’s units were integrated, he said.

“The whole thing was a very risky thing for a president to undertake at that time,” Geselbracht said. “Franklin Roosevelt did essentially nothing for civil rights. And [President] Eisenhower did essentially nothing on civil rights.”

Had Truman not issued Executive Order 9981, he said, the military might have remained segregated into the 1960s.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now