Strange Bedfellows: War and Minority Rights

W ar: What is it good for? Well, minority rights for one thing. Regardless of what you think of America’s overseas military adventures during the last century, they’ve all had positive domestic outcomes: Minority groups that have contributed to war efforts have been rewarded with expanded rights. The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—the policy prohibiting gays from serving openly in the US armed forces—is only the latest discriminatory policy to be discarded in the crucible of war.

On the surface, a connection between wars and progress on civil rights and civil liberties may seem counterintuitive. In fact, we tend to connect wars with miscarriages of justice like Japanese internment during World War II or, more recently, prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. But without minimizing these (and many other) notable travesties, it’s worth recognizing that there is also a long history of wars offering new and compelling rationales for expanding minority rights in the United States and beyond.

Although frequently overlooked in the recent debate over “Don’t Ask,” the wartime context was crucial because it introduced a new element of practical and moral urgency. Practical, because “Don’t Ask” deprived our military of needed personnel. Moral, because serving and possibly dying for one’s country calls rationales for less than full citizenship into question. As former Marine Eric Alva, America’s first casualty in Iraq and a man who later came out as gay, told me, the wartime context “allowed an opening” for making new arguments against “Don’t Ask” that wouldn’t have carried the same moral imperative in peacetime. It was also right in line with an overlooked American tradition.

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N obody recognized it in May 1915, but when German submarines sank the Lusitania , thereby drawing the United States into World War I, the days of gender-restricted voting went down with the ship. While feminists had been pushing for suffrage rights for some time, three attempts to get a constitutional amendment through Congress had failed to achieve bare majorities, let alone the requisite two-thirds margin.

The traditional argument against expanded suffrage held that women weren’t worthy because, unlike men, they weren’t subject to paying the ultimate price for citizenship—sacrificing their lives for God and country. Though World War I didn’t see many women take up arms, it did see twenty-five thousand of them go to Europe to serve in various capacities, including extensive work on the front lines. And in fact 350 servicewomen died in combat.

Back home, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) played a key and highly visible organizing role in the push for full rights. On an individual level, women heeded a massive propaganda campaign urging them to join the depleted American workforce. Captions on posters openly acknowledged the relationship between war and gender equity by proclaiming women to be “Our Second Line of Defense” and offering slogans such as “The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun” and “Our Boys Need Sox, Knit Your Bit” alongside images of women at work. Over a million women answered the call by taking jobs outside the home, many in positions directly aiding industrial war mobilization.

This wartime service tipped the scales in the fight for women’s suffrage. President Woodrow Wilson’s own evolution on this question was symbolic. Though now remembered as a man of good standing in the Progressive movement, Wilson had in fact been a longtime opponent of gender equality. Before the war, he told his staff that he thought a “woman’s place was in the home, and the type of woman who took an active part in the suffrage agitation was totally abhorrent.”

The war flipped him. He came to see women’s suffrage not only as “an act of right and justice” but also more pragmatically as “a vitally necessary war measure.” In an impassioned 1917 speech before the Senate, Wilson urged Congress to support women’s suffrage: “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought . . . if it had not been for the services of women.” Shortly after his speech, the Nineteenth Amendment eclipsed the two-thirds requirement in both chambers of Congress and was quickly ratified.

E arly in World War II, African American soldiers were kept away from combat situations because they were regarded as likely to flee during battle. But the luxury of holding such prejudices collapsed amidst manpower shortages. Black platoons were hastily formed, and the men in them came to fight side by side with white units. More than a million blacks served—albeit in segregated units—and for the first time, a substantial number were placed in combat roles. These changes weren’t undertaken out of enlightened, progressive sentiment. General George Patton, never known as a man of subtle nuance or progressive thinking, articulated the real reason: “I don’t care what color you are, so long as you go up there and kill those Kraut sonsabitches.”

But practical motivations aside, African American wartime service, like that of women earlier, altered opinions. In a survey of white military personnel, sixty-four percent initially reported having unfavorable feelings about serving with African American units. Yet as a result of African Americans’ combat performance, seventy-seven percent reported more favorable feelings in a later poll. A South Carolina soldier’s experience summarized the survey results: “When I heard about it I said I’d be damned if I’d wear the same patch they did. After that first day when we saw how they fought I changed my mind. They’re just like any of the other boys.”

World War II also undermined racial supremacism in America. In the intellectual battle between the West and fascism, the US had a weakness in that its denunciations of Hitler’s racist ideology were blatantly hypocritical in the face of Jim Crow. This awkward fact led to increased attention on “the color line,” which W. E. B. Du Bois had correctly predicted would be a defining problem of the twentieth century. In the aftermath of the war, Life proclaimed race to be the country’s biggest social challenge. Progressive intellectuals took up the cause of oppressed groups. Novels and films drew new attention to race with depictions of heroic black soldiers.

These new practical and moral considerations sparked policy changes that were unthinkable before the war. The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 federalized soldiers’ right to vote absentee and, more importantly, abolished the poll tax, a stratagem of Southern Democrats to prevent blacks from voting for decades. The bill’s passage marked the first expansion of African American voting rights since Reconstruction.

In another major change, the Supreme Court abolished the all-white primary by reversing its own ruling from nine years before. The 8–1 decision in 1944’s Smith v. Allwright found that the Texas Democratic Party’s primary was unconstitutional because it kept blacks from participating. All-white primaries were gone for good. As Arthur Krock of the New York Times wrote: “The real reason for the overturn is that the common sacrifices of wartime have turned public opinion and the court against previously sustained devices to exclude minorities from any privilege of citizenship the majority enjoys.”

Following the limited integration of the US military during World War II, President Harry Truman issued an executive order mandating an end to segregation throughout the armed forces. The Army slow-walked the order. As General Omar Bradley said: “The Army is not out to make any social reforms. The Army will put men of different races in different companies. It will change that policy when the Nation as a whole changes it.”

The outbreak of the Korean War sped up Bradley’s timeline. On the homefront, the nail in the coffin of Army segregation came when basic training camps found it inefficient to racially sort scores of incoming soldiers. As a result, officers at Fort Jackson decided to forgo segregation. The experiment was deemed a success and all basic training camps were formally integrated early in 1951.

A similar process occurred on the Korean peninsula. Because of the persistence of assumptions about African Americans’ lack of combat worthiness, they were kept away from the front lines in segregated units. Consequently, white soldiers did most of the fighting and dying early in the war. But when heavy casualties created a manpower shortage, the solution was obvious. As an officer reported, “forces of circumstance” compelled the Army to integrate. “We had no replacements. . . . We would have been doing ourselves a disservice to permit [black] soldiers to lie around in rear areas at the expense of still further weakening of our rifle companies.” Many officers in the field took it upon themselves to unofficially integrate their units. Once it was recognized that these integrated units performed well, the Army’s top leadership, besieged by continued personnel shortages, tacitly endorsed the de facto integration.

Once African Americans were fighting and dying alongside whites, a new and powerful moral argument for ending segregation emerged: If blacks were paying the ultimate price for their country while serving in the Army, weren’t they entitled to be treated as equals within it? Meanwhile, embarrassing Soviet propaganda highlighted the hypocrisy of the supposedly freedom-loving Americans who violently suppressed blacks at home and shamelessly segregated those serving their nation abroad. The combination of efficiency-based and moral considerations pushed the Army to fully and formally integrate early in 1952.


D uring Vietnam, another group was granted new rights. As “old enough to die, old enough to vote” became a mantra, proponents of allowing Americans ages eighteen to twenty the franchise found new ammunition for their cause.

In February 1970, Senator Birch Bayh chaired hearings in the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments. In his appearance before the panel, President John Kennedy’s former aide, Ted Sorensen, echoing arguments made during previous episodes of war-induced rights expansions, spoke of the voting age as a “moral issue,” stating, “Those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one have no voice whatsoever in the process which determines whether they live or die. If taxation without representation was tyranny, then conscription without representation is slavery.”

Others testified about the proposed amendment’s practical benefits. One expert’s study found that suffrage would offset the frustrations and violent tendencies of youth. Voting would permit the option of “a direct, constructive, and democratic channel for making their views felt and for giving them a responsible stake in the future of the nation.” In 1971, the amendment sailed through Congress with a 94–0 vote in the Senate and a 401–19 margin in the House. In a matter of months, thirty-eight state legislatures endorsed the amendment, making it the law of the land. The “youth vote” became a significant factor in American political life, in large part as a result of a war that American young people loathed.

Two factors explain the surprisingly frequent expansions of democratic rights associated with wars. First, wars place a tremendous strain on the government. They are expensive and require widespread sacrifice. Usually there aren’t enough people to meet the challenge. As a result, the government is forced to reach out to underutilized segments of the population. Such requests in times of need fundamentally alter the relationship between citizen and government by inserting a new moral factor in the social equation. Causes such as women’s suffrage and racial equality had a clear moral primacy before the wars; but such cases take on a life-and-death urgency when people without full rights are fighting and dying. When people accept grave challenges with bravery and honor, they simultaneously gain the unassailable moral high ground and the supreme claim to full citizenship.

A second factor at work is the national unity and cohesion that foreign wars frequently engender. Unity, of course, isn’t a given, as the divisions caused by Vietnam aptly demonstrate. But more often than not, even controversial wars promote cohesion at least in non-political realms, such as support for the troops. The team effort of wartime national service frequently undercuts stereotypes justifying discrimination. The relative unity that tends to accompany wars furthers the demand for new rights for marginalized groups that contribute to a shared national project.

In each of the cases outlined here, of course, efforts to secure the greater rights for minority groups were already well under way before conflicts broke out. It’s nearly certain that—with the possible exception of allowing younger people to vote—these rights expansions would have eventually come about even if war hadn’t provided a tipping point. But major wars introduced compelling new reasons to extend democratic rights whose implementation might otherwise have been blocked for many peacetime years. And it’s not clear how delays in enacting these policies would have impacted their ultimate implementation or subsequent rights extensions.


“D on’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is the latest casualty of war. As former Marine Eric Alva, who lost a leg after stepping on a land mine during a patrol in Basra, says: “You have to wonder, what if we’d never engaged in these wars [in Afghanistan and Iraq]. Would the issue be so up-front? That gave it the umpf it needed. What people started noticing is that these men and women are getting injured and losing arms and legs. And then the idea of discharging people because of sexual orientation seems ridiculous.”

In keeping with the cases outlined above, the issue of gays in the military was not new. The recent debate dated back to the Clinton administration. Immediately after his 1993 inauguration, President Clinton set about to reverse the prohibition on gays serving in the armed forces. The initiative failed when Congress preempted him by passing the Military Personnel Eligibility Act, which maintained the ban. “Don’t Ask” became the law of the land when Clinton—unwilling to spend any more political capital on what he saw as a losing battle in the era’s culture wars—signed the bill and then added a directive that military personnel and future applicants weren’t to be asked about their sexual orientation.

But in the years since the “Don’t Ask” policy was established, sentiments shifted. In 1993, the top military brass may have been staunchly opposed to gays serving openly, but by 2010 it was clear that at least some important figures supported a change. Early last year in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, for instance, Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, “It is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do.”

For gay rights activists, the gradual change in attitudes provided an opening, and the spotlight provided by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars created a sense of urgency to strike while the window of opportunity was open. As Daniel Choi, an Iraq veteran and Arabic linguist dismissed for being gay, noted at a March 2010 rally: “If we don’t seize this moment, [the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask’] may not happen for a very long time.”

Five years after his leg was amputated, Eric Alva decided to come out publicly and join the increasingly organized movement seeking the repeal of “Don’t Ask.” He was initially worried about how some of his fellow Marines would react. But a call from a long-serving, straitlaced, by-the-books Marine officer demonstrated the transformation amidst the new wartime context. “When I came out, I was on Capitol Hill and it broke in the national media. I got a call from one of my commanders, and he’s like, ‘I just wanted to tell you I’m proud of you.’ I think listening to something like that was, for me, really heartwarming.”

Alva wasn’t the only closeted soldier. Regardless of official policy, prior to repeal, the armed forces contained more than sixty-five thousand gay servicemembers—about two percent of all personnel—according to research at UCLA’s Williams Institute. And, as Alva can testify, improvised explosive devices don’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

But beyond the moral considerations, there was also a practical concern. Despite the drawdown in Iraq, adequate staffing remained a pressing issue. Furthermore, given the Obama administration’s equivocations regarding a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and with a military chronically stretched thin to the point of extending deployments, sending troops on multiple tours, and reaching out to felons as potential recruits, there was little margin for error. In such a context, the roughly fourteen thousand military members dismissed on the basis of sexual orientation seemed a grand folly. Added to that figure were the thousands of gays who never volunteered in the first place because of fears of having to serve under false pretenses. (Estimates indicate that allowing gays to serve openly will yield nearly forty thousand new troops.) The ban’s ramifications appeared even more preposterous because among those discharged were dozens of desperately needed Arabic translators and hundreds of servicemembers possessing the kinds of critical abilities that require years of training on the federal government’s dime.

These factors made some commanders who might have enforced “Don’t Ask” without much thought in the pre-9/11 military reconsider as the War on Terror dragged on. One retired Marine infantry officer who preferred not to be named told me shortly before the repeal, “If the rule exists that makes it a violation of the uniform code of military justice to come out, then for me as an officer, the policy has to be enforced. But personally, from the perspective that we’re at war, this is ridiculous because you’re now denying yourself the critical personnel and skills that we need. Forget about how many millions of dollars have been spent on a guy’s training, he’s fulfilling a critical need. For a military person, it’s a crying shame that talented linguists, for instance, are getting kicked out.”

That sentiment helped explain reports that commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq—like those in Korea who quietly and unofficially began integrating their units during manpower shortages—had begun looking the other way when “Don’t Ask” came up. As David Hall, a former Air Force staff sergeant who was discharged under “Don’t Ask” and now works for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told me last summer: “We’ve seen it happen where a trooper is over there and they come out [as gay]. But they don’t get kicked out right then. They let you finish the tour and kick you out when you get back home.” In these critical war zones, “commanders are less willing to enforce the policy. You’re seeing that more and more often. They say, ‘That’s my go-to person, I need you.’ They have the experience you need, they’re well trained, and they’re the only expert in their particular field.” Under these intense and strenuous conditions, enforcing rules concerning sexual norms simply wasn’t a priority. In some cases, Hall said, servicemembers had “even gone to their commanders and said, ‘I’m gay,’ and the commander [said], ‘Go back to work. We don’t have time to deal with this.’”

These practical and moral considerations all pointed to the same conclusion: that the time was right to end the discriminatory policy that prohibited gays from serving openly in the American military. Clearly, the gay rights movement has been gaining momentum for years. But absent the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s far from clear if or when the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy—which still has strong supporters, particularly in the Marine Corps—would have been changed.

Beyond military policy, the repeal of “Don’t Ask” is important for the larger gay rights agenda, just as African American service in World War II and Korea helped shape the evolving civil rights movement. For blacks in the 1950s, Army integration was only one area of interest. Similarly, military service is just one of many rights-based concerns for today’s gay community, which probably places equal marriage rights higher on its agenda. But history indicates that progress in one area can spur broader advances in others. In this way, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” proves once again that even though war is hell, it also has the unintended consequence of expanding minority rights.


Robert P. Saldin is a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar at Harvard University and the author of War, the American State, and Politics since 1898.

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