Harry Truman's Executive Order 9981: Definition, Summary & Significance

Instructor: Patricia Jankowski

Patricia has a BSChE. She's an experienced registered nurse who has worked in various acute care areas as well as in legal nurse consulting.

Since the American Revolution, there has been racial segregation in the U.S. military. This lesson is about President Harry Truman's Executive Order 9981, which was the beginning of the end of this segregation.

The Law in Action

''They didn't mix the white and black in the (second world) war. But now it gives you a kind of independence because they felt that we gone off and fought, we should be equal. Everything started openin' up for us. We got a chance to go places we had never been able to go before.'' - Sarah Killingsworth, a black property manager in Los Angeles, originally from Tennessee

''Nobody needs to explain to a Negro the difference between the law in books and the law in action.'' - President Dwight Eisenhower to White House aide, 1954.

These quotes reflect the difficult journey that people of color endured in the military before, and even after, the writing of Executive Order 9981 by President Harry Truman on July 26, 1948.

Executive Order 9981 Defined

Executive Order 9981, as it was written, called for ''equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense.'' In the post-war period of 1948, this equality and opportunity did not exist, even though African American soldiers had fought alongside white ones since the American Revolution. The attitudes of many military commanders toward these soldiers was one of racist condescension. For example, when talking about his tour of duty during World War I, Colonel James A. Moss, commander of the 367th Infantry Regiment, is quoted in an article in World War II Magazine to have said, ''As fighting troops, the Negro must be rated as second-class material, this primarily to his inferior intelligence and lack of mental and moral qualities.'' Time, however, certainly proved this sad statement to be grossly in error. The 761st Tank Battalion, otherwise known as the ''Black Panthers'', was the first tank battalion consisting of black soldiers to see combat in WWII. Before the war was over, they earned 246 Purple Hearts, seven Silver Stars for Valor, and one Congressional Medal of Honor. Many of them also died for their country.

761st tank battalion
761st tank battalion

Summary of the Order

Executive Order 9981 was written as a ''policy to be put into effect as rapidly as possible.'' It also stated that an advisory committee would be formed, which would be called the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. President Truman gave this Committee the authority to investigate the procedures and rules that were being used in military life, and to improve and change these as needed to be in alignment with the goals of the order. He designated seven individuals to serve as the Committee members.

President Truman also directed all of the other executive federal government agencies to cooperate with the Committee, and to produce any documents or witness testimony that it might request. The Committee was to remain in operation until President Truman closed it down with another executive order.

Historical Significance of Executive Order 9981

An executive order is an order made by the President without the participation of the judicial or legislative branches of government. This kind of order is usually written during a time of crisis or duress, or to accomplish something in a hurry. As it happened, 1948, the year in which Executive Order 9811 was written, was a Presidential election year. Harry Truman, a Senator from Missouri who became President after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, was running again as a Democrat and he needed the votes of urban African Americans. This, at least in part, probably had something to do with the writing of the order.

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