This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Cornelius Bynum, associate professor of history at Purdue University and author of “A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” spoke to Yahoo News about Truman’s defining moment of presidential leadership: desegregating the U.S. military in 1948, an act that went against public opinion and the advice of many of his top military leaders.
In 1944, Truman finds himself on the ticket with Roosevelt. Eighty-two days after Truman is sworn into the office of vice president, the president dies and Truman now finds himself taking the oath of office for the presidency — and comes into the position almost completely unprepared.
[His first order of business is to lead the country through the end of World War II, but] after the war is over, Truman finds himself in a hot and cold relationship with civil rights leaders. The way in which nonwhite soldiers were treated during the Second World War is one of the most shameful episodes in American history. African-Americans in particular found themselves relegated to the back bench. Truman finds himself pushed into addressing this by the determination of black civil rights leaders.
It’s the NAACP leader, Walter White, who will encourage Truman to really consider what it meant to claim the mantle of the leader of the free world at the same time that Jim Crow was such a prevalent force in American society. The Cold War is at the very earliest stages. Truman understood that a segregated military, and Jim Crow in general, put the United States on the defensive that American-style democracy was something to be emulated.
Any kind of public policy would be futile, so Truman decided to act in a unilateral way, through executive order. It’s the one thing he actually can do without the need of court action. It’s the one thing he can do without the need of Southern Democrats and legislation that can be blocked in Congress. It’s the one thing that he can even do against public opinion. And he can do it because it’s what he thinks is right.
So Truman takes this step just before the 1948 election. Everyone expected that his desegregation order would doom his candidacy. It’s why a headline says Thomas Dewey, the Republican, beats Truman in ’48, when in fact he doesn’t, because no one expected Truman to win.
But that’s what makes it such a courageous decision. Leadership requires there to be some resistance. You can’t really show leadership if everybody’s already moving in the direction you want people to go. That’s not leadership. That’s going with the flow. That’s following the trends. Truman truly did lead in pursuing desegregation of the military because he did so without a clear sense that it was going to in fact work. Understanding what you believe to be the right thing and pursuing it doggedly even in the face of strong opposition is leadership.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Harry S. Truman issues an Executive Order banning segregation in the armed forces in 1948. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)