By David Langbart
By Executive Order 9981 (NAID 300009), dated July 26, 1948, President Harry S Truman ordered the integration of the armed forces of the United States. Given the stationing of large numbers of American forces overseas after World War II, that move potentially had ramifications for U.S. relations with host countries. With that in mind, on September 14, 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
Johnson noted that Department of Defense (DOD) policy called for “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” He explained that in order to implement the policy in some areas, his Department needed “a formal expression of [Department of State] views” on segregation polices for troops stationed in a number of countries. Specifically, the Department of Defense needed to know if the Department of State saw “political objections to the stationing of individual Negroes or non-segregated units in”:
- France and French-controlled territories
- Latin American Republics
- Libya (Tripolitania)
- Republic of the Philippines
- Saudi Arabia
- United Kingdom and British-controlled territories, including the British Zone of Germany
The Department of State responded with the following letter:
Letter from Under Secretary of State James Webb to Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, 10/17/1949
The Department of State’s suggestion for inter-governmental consultation before sending individual African Americans or integrated units to Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda, and British territories in the Caribbean raised concerns in the Department of Defense and the military services. In order to clarify the situation, Maj. Gen. James Burns, Secretary Johnson’s assistant for foreign military affairs wrote to Deputy Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk on February 13, 1950. Rusk was known to be in favor of assignment without regard to race. Burns’s letter noted that “Negro personnel have in fact [already] been stationed in some of those areas [noted in the Department of State’s earlier letter].” Furthermore, the Department of Defense wanted to follow its normal practice and continue transferring military personnel to the excepted areas “without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Rusk, on behalf of the Department of State, responded as follows:
Letter from Deputy Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Maj. Gen. J. H. Burns, 3/1/1950
Subsequently, Secretary of Defense Johnson issued a policy statement to the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. He explained that the Department of State “endorses the policy of freely assigning Negro personnel or Negro or non-segregated units to any part of the world to which U.S. forces are sent” and was prepared to support DOD. It went on to state that since some governments had indicated an unwillingness to accept African American servicemen, before sending such personnel to countries “where no U.S. Negro personnel are now in fact stationed” Johnson directed the services to inform him before beforehand so that the host country could be consulted through the Department of State.
- Letter from Secretary of Defense to Secretary of State, September 14, 1949, and Letter from Under Secretary of State James Webb to Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, October 17, 1949, file 811.22/9-1449, 1945-49 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59
- Letter from Maj. Gen. J.H. Burns to Deputy Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk, February 13, 1950, and Letter from Deputy Under Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Maj. Gen. J.H. Burns, March 1, 1950, file 711.551/2-1350, 1950-54 Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), RG 59
- Also see Morris J. MacGregor, Jr.’ Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965, Washington, USGPO, 1981, especially chapter 15.