Sixty-nine years ago this week, President Harry Truman signed a pair of executive orders barring discrimination on the basis of race in federal employment and in the military. Our editorial board reacted to Truman’s bold action a few days later.
And we got it flat wrong.
We shrugged off the significance of Truman’s orders. We denied discrimination was much of an issue in either the federal government or our military branches. Sure, there is segregation in some commands, we conceded, but, remarkably, regrettably, we insisted segregation was not necessarily discrimination.
“The army merely seeks to weld together the best fighting force possible. Sometimes it is a better fighting force if men of one color or national origin are together in units,” we wrote on July 30, 1948.
We now know how wrong those arguments were. Discrimination doesn’t make for more cohesive military units. Instead, it treats patriots who step up to serve their country like second-class warriors. It denies opportunity to scores of willing and able Americans who wish to defend their country but are turned away by archaic rules. It flies in the face of the core American principles our military fights to defend.
We now get it. President Donald Trump clearly does not.
“After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow ... Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military,” Trump tweeted on the anniversary of Truman’s orders. “Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming ... victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.”
On the contrary, Pentagon officials, who were working on policies in preparation for open transgender service, were blindsided by Trump’s stunning announcement. Among the voices opposing his misguided edict was Iowa’s own Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, a combat veteran.
“She believes what is most important is making sure service members can meet the physical training standards, and the willingness to defend our freedoms and way of life,” Ernst’s spokesperson said in a statement. “Americans who are qualified and can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.”
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Transgender Americans already are serving and have served their country in our armed forces. Portraying their service as a burden is insulting and misinformed. A RAND Corporation study requested by the Pentagon found allowing transgender people to serve openly would have little effect on health costs and “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness or readiness.” Trump’s “tremendous” cost is a fallacy.
Trump’s order appears to be less about military concerns and more about appealing to his social conservative base at a politically challenging moment. Among them are some of the same people who insisted same-sex marriage and other LGBT civil rights victories would spawn dire consequences and societal harms.
They were wrong then, and are wrong now.
Instead, Trump should listen to Ernst, Sen. John McCain and other leaders with military experience who condemned his ill-conceived order. He should rescind it as swiftly as he tweeted it. His order’s appeal to divisive politics, its embrace of discrimination and its denial of civil rights are not a victory. They’re a defeat of our values.
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