Washington — Forty years ago this month President Harry S. Truman ordered the United States armed services into battle with itself. Executive Order 9981 called for ``equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.''
The step was revolutionary. America was still a segregated society. In the South, lynchings were common and black disenfranchisement was the norm. The military reflected that society. Blacks served their country as cooks, stewards, and laborers.
Things have improved since then. Today blacks - roughly 12 percent of the US population - make up 19.6 percent of the active-duty force, including 21.7 percent of enlisted personnel and 6.6 percent in the officer ranks.
Nonetheless, in the military's ``white collar'' classifications blacks tend to fill clerical rather than technical jobs, and in its ``blue collar'' classifications whites are more likely to be trained as craftsmen while minorities are clustered in service, supply, or ``general military skills,'' which includes combat roles.
According to Charles Moskos, a sociologist at Northwestern University and an expert in military manpower, today's all-volunteer force relies more heavily on blacks and poor whites than did the draft-era military. He says that if the United States were involved in a major conventional conflict, the burden of battle - and of casualties - in the early stages would fall on minorities.
An analysis prepared for the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington by Army Lt. Col. Felix Peterson attributes heavy black casualties in Vietnam in 1965-66 to the disproportionate numbers of blacks in the infantry and artillery.
In 1965 blacks comprised 12.8 percent of the overall Army personnel but 14.9 percent of these combat troops. In 1966 blacks were 11.3 percent of the Army but 17.2 percent of these units. Black casualties jumped from 7.6 percent of all casualties in 1964 to 20.7 in 1965. (For the entire war, however, black battle deaths were a more equitable 13 percent of total deaths.)
Today black men comprise 28.2 percent of the total enlisted Army force, while black women number 44.3 percent of enlisted women.
``Blacks are attracted to the military because of what I call the push-pull factor,'' says Mark J. Eitelberg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. ``The push of unemployment and the pull of benefits. And the military offers a lot, job training they couldn't get anywhere else.''
Blacks served - and died - in every conflict since the revolution. But when peace was restored, so was blacks' status quo of second-class citizenship. This was true, despite blacks' contribution to the war effort during World War II, when Mr. Truman issued his executive order.
By changing the status quo in the military, Truman had set in motion the force that would help reform society as a whole.
``There is irony in the fact that the military, generally perceived as a highly conservative institution, led the nation in adopting and implementing the principle of equal opportunity,'' says Edwin Dorn of the Joint Center for Political Studies.
At the beginning of World War II, the Army had a 10 percent ceiling on black enlistments, the Navy admitted blacks only as mess stewards, and the Marine Corps was exclusively white.
``The Army had five black officers, and three of them were chaplains,'' Dr. Dorn says.
Minor changes took place because of pressure from civil rights leaders such as William Hastie, the race-relations adviser to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Yet Mr. Hastie resigned when blacks in the Army Air Corps were sent to segregated training at Tuskegee Institute.
The Truman order was a long-awaited spark, but it kindled no overnight results. Blacks continued to be placed in low-level jobs and segregated units. Black officers and noncoms could not command whites.
The executive order was ``purposely vague,'' Dorn says. It was strong enough to garner the black vote and weak enough to fend off negative reaction from the segregationists in Congress known as ``Dixiecrats.'' Though mandating ``equality of treatment and opportunity,'' it did not specifically order integration or the lifting of quotas on enlistments, he says.
``Truman was balancing two things. He was worried about the Dixiecrats and threats from A. Philip Randolph [a black union leader] that he would encourage blacks not to register for the draft unless promised fairer treatment,'' says Dorn.
The cold war also figured prominently into Truman's decision. Containment required a large peacetime military force for the first time in American history.
But implementing Truman's order was another matter.
Without a clear mandate each branch interpreted the order in its own way. The Army argued that segregation was both the most efficient and the fairest way to use blacks: efficient, because it avoided social disruption, and fair, because it allowed blacks to compete for promotions among themselves rather than against better educated whites.
Truman established a committee to make recommendations for implementing his order.
The panel shot holes in the efficiency argument, and Army officials ultimately conceded that assigning duties based on race was poor management.
After some more political tug of war, racial quotas were replaced by standardized achievement tests. Scholars, including Dorn and Mr. Eitelberg, say that then-Army Secretary Gordon Gray knew that black test scores were lower on average, and that by raising the score requirements the Army could limit black enlistments without seeming out of step with the order.
The Korean conflict (1950-53) accelerated integration as field commanders began assigning blacks to white units.
Eitelberg, who with Martin Binkin of the Brookings Institution cowrote ``Blacks in the Military,'' says 50 percent of qualified black youths born between 1957 and 1962 served in the armed forces.
But this avenue is being progressively cut off, says Mr. Binkin.
``The service is high-tech now and they are looking for bright kids,'' he says.
The services are taking recruits with higher test scores. For ``whatever reason'' blacks tend to score lower on the exams, Binkin says.
``High school drop-outs can forget it, it's much tougher to get in.'' He predicts a fall off in black recruits in coming years.