Executive Order 9981

Executive Order 9981 was an executive order issued on July 26, 1948, by President Harry S. Truman. It abolished discrimination "on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin" in the United States Armed Forces. The Order led to the re-integration of the services during the Korean War (1950–1953).[1] It was a crucial event in the post-World War II civil rights movement and a major achievement of Truman's presidency.[2][3] Executive Order 9981 was inspired, in part, by an attack on Isaac Woodard who was an American soldier and African-American World War II veteran. On February 12, 1946, hours after being honorably discharged from the United States Army, he was attacked while still in uniform by South Carolina police as he was taking a bus home. The attack left Woodard completely and permanently blind. President Harry S. Truman ordered a federal investigation.

Truman subsequently established a national interracial commission, made a historic speech to the NAACP and the nation in June 1947 in which he described civil rights as a moral imperative, submitted a comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress in February 1948, and issued Executive Orders 9980 and 9981 on June 26, 1948, desegregating the armed forces and promoting anti-discrimination in the federal government.

Before Executive Order 9981

The Chicago Defender announcing Executive Order 9981

Black Americans in the military worked under different rules that delayed their entry into combat. They had to wait four years before they could begin combat training while a white American would begin training within months of being qualified. The Air Corps was deliberately delaying the training of African Americans even though it needed more manpower (Survey and Recommendations[4]). The Women's Army Corps (WAC) reenlistment program was open to black women, but overseas assignments were not.[5]

Black soldiers who were stationed in Britain during World War II learned that the US military attempted to impose Jim Crow segregation on them even though Britain did not practice the racism which was practiced in the US. According to author Anthony Burgess, when pub owners in Bamber Bridge were told to segregate their facilities by the US military, they installed signs that read "Black Troops Only". One soldier commented: "One thing I noticed here and which I don't like is the fact that the English don't draw any color line. The English must be pretty ignorant. I can't see how a white girl could associate with a negro."[6]

In a 1945 survey which was conducted among 250 white officers and sergeants who had a black platoon assigned to their company, the following results were collected: 77% of both officers and sergeants said that they had become more favorable towards black soldiers after a black platoon was assigned to their company (no cases were found in which someone said that their attitude towards blacks had turned less favorable), 84% of officers and 81% of sergeants thought that the black soldiers had performed very well in combat, only 5% of officers and only 4% of sergeants thought that black infantry soldiers were not as good as white infantry soldiers, and 73% of officers and 60% of sergeants thought that black soldiers and white soldiers got along very well when they were together.[7] According to this particular survey, there were no reasonable grounds for racial segregation in the armed forces.

Attempts to end discrimination

World War II veteran Spencer Moore addresses the audience in the Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C., at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces (July 23, 2008).
World War II veterans talk with audience members in the Capitol Rotunda at an event marking the 60th anniversary of Executive Order 9981 (July 23, 2008).

In 1947, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, along with colleague Grant Reynolds, renewed efforts to end discrimination in the military, forming the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, later renamed the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation.[8] Truman's Order expanded on Executive Order 8802 by establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the military for people of all races, religions, or national origins.

The order:

It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.

The order also established a committee to investigate and make recommendations to the civilian leadership of the military to implement the policy.

The order eliminated Montford Point as a segregated Marine boot camp. It became a satellite facility of Camp Lejeune.[9]

Most of the actual enforcement of the order was accomplished by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration (1953–1961), including the desegregation of military schools, hospitals, and bases. The last of the all-black units in the United States military was abolished in September 1954.[10]

Kenneth Claiborne Royall, Secretary of the Army since 1947, was forced into retirement in April 1949 for continuing to refuse to desegregate the army nearly a year after President Truman's Order.[11]

Fifteen years after Truman's order, on July 26, 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued Directive 5120.36 encouraging military commanders to employ their financial resources against facilities used by soldiers or their families that discriminated based upon sex or race.[12]

In contravention to Truman's executive order, the United States complied with a non-public request from the Icelandic government not to station black soldiers on the US base in Keflavík, Iceland. The United States complied with the Icelandic request until the 1970s and 1980s when black soldiers began to be stationed in Iceland.[13]


  1. ^ "Executive Order 9981". Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. Archived from the original on January 22, 2019. Retrieved December 24, 2011.
  2. ^ Evans, Farrell (November 5, 2020). "Why Harry Truman Ended Segregation in the US Military in 1948". history.com. A&E Television Networks. Archived from the original on January 9, 2021. Retrieved January 24, 2021.
  3. ^ "How Harry S. Truman went from being a racist to desegregating the military". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved April 20, 2022.
  4. ^ "Survey and Recommendations Concerning the Integration of the Negro Soldier into the Army". Harry S. Truman Library. September 22, 1941.[permanent dead link]
  5. ^ Morden, Bettie J. (1990). "The Women's Army Corps, 1945–1978". history.army.mil. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History. pp. 85–87. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  6. ^ Rice, Alan (June 22, 2018). "Black troops were welcome in Britain, but Jim Crow wasn't: the race riot of one night in June 1943". The Conversation. Retrieved May 30, 2021.
  7. ^ "Opinions About Negro Infantry Platoons in White Companies of 7 Divisions". Harry S. Truman Library. July 3, 1945. Archived from the original on October 10, 2017.
  8. ^ Susan M. Glisson, The Human Tradition in the Civil Rights Movement (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 91
  9. ^ "Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune – History". Official Website of the United States Marine Corps. Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  10. ^ Nichols, David A. (2007). A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 42–50. ISBN 978-1-4165-4554-5.
  11. ^ Robert B. Edgerton, Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars, Barnes & Noble, 2009, p. 165
  12. ^ MacGregor, Morris J. Jr. (2001). "Integration of the Armed Forces". history.army.mil. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History. pp. 548–549. Retrieved October 23, 2019.
  13. ^ Ingimundarson, Valur (October 1, 2004). "Immunizing against the American Other: Racism, Nationalism, and Gender in U.S.-Icelandic Military Relations during the Cold War". Journal of Cold War Studies. 6 (4): 65–88. doi:10.1162/1520397042350892. ISSN 1520-3972. S2CID 57559468.

Further reading