Some whites have supported African-American progress in the military. Other whites have tried to prevent progress - while most whites have not cared one way or the other. White officers who commanded African-American troops have tended to be the most supportive of African-Americans within the military. These officers have frequently commended African-American soldiers, sailors, and airmen for their bravery and heroism. There have been other officers whose racist beliefs prevented them from giving African-Americans in the military a fair chance. Fortunately, over time racism within the military has decreased - just as it has decreased in other American institutions.
There have been a few whites who have done more than just praise those under their commands. They have stood up for racial progress. One of these whites was Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., Commander of Naval Operations during the Nixon administration. When Zumwalt was appointed commander in 1970 ( for reasons that had nothing to do with race relations), the Navy’s track record in race relations was not good. Zumwalt, along with high level officers Horace Robertson, “Chick” Rauch, and Bill Norman was determined to change things. (Astor 446) He started an ambitious race relations sensitization program to help African-American members of the Navy feel more at home. Hair, food, handshakes, and other behavior were now open for discussion. Not surprisingly, many whites resisted Zumwalt’s efforts. (Astor 452)
When racial tensions flared up on the USS Constellation and other vessels, Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Adviser, became furious at Zumwalt and so did President Nixon himself. (Astor 460) But Zumwalt stood firm, eventually introducing more than two hundred programs aimed at promoting racial harmony within the Navy. Zumwalt was criticized for not converting senior Naval officials first. Although Bill Norman was black, Zumwalt never consulted on racial matters with Samuel Gravely, the Navy’s first African-American rear admiral. (Astor 460) But today Zumwalt is admired for his courage in confronting the issue of race relations head-on.
Most U.S. Presidents have been extremely cautious regarding African-Americans and the military. Most were quite willing to call on African-Americans to help in conflicts that were either unpopular like Vietnam or difficult to win like the Civil War. But most Presidents made careful political calculations before taking actions which could result in their reelection defeats. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and FDR’s reluctance to use black combat troops during World War Two are the most powerful examples. The most racially progressive person to occupy the White House was not a President, but rather a First Lady. Eleanor Roosevelt responded to individual African-American soldiers wanting equal treatment (Astor 193), promoted equal opportunity both within the military and the larger society during her husband’s Presidency (Astor 225), and suggested that Secretary of War Stimson organize “a little education among our Southern white men and officers.” (Astor 245) Michael Lanning even credits her for insisting that African-Americans be given the chance to become pilots. (189)
Questions for Discussion:
Why would it be difficult for whites to advocate racial progress in the military?
Why were U.S. Presidents slow to advocate racial progress in the military?