The demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” last December was only the most recent iteration of an old pattern: Over the last century, America’s wars abroad have had the salutary side effect of advancing minority rights at home, says Robert P. Saldin, a Robert Wood Johnson Scholar at Harvard University.
Before World War I, suffragists had pushed without success for women’s voting rights. President Woodrow Wilson was a staunch opponent of gender equality, telling his staff that 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,” as an aide later recalled.
But the war changed Wilson’s mind. About 25,000 women served in Europe in various capacities, including on the front lines, and some 350 were killed. At home, more than one million women took jobs outside the household to aid the war effort. In a 1917 speech before the Senate, Wilson reversed himself, saying, “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?” The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified just three years later, and women soon went to the polls. Another war, in Vietnam, led to a further expansion of the franchise, when in 1971 Congress lowered the voting age from 21 to 18.
World War II and the Korean War pushed the country down a path toward greater racial equality. At the outset of World War II, African Americans were kept from the battlefield because white officers believed they were not trustworthy and would flee. “But the luxury of holding such prejudices collapsed amidst manpower shortages,” Saldin says, and over the course of the war more than one million African Americans served in combat, though units were still segregated. President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces after the war, but it wasn’t fully implemented until 1952, during the Korean War.
In the civilian world, too, discriminatory policies fell during World War II. The Soldier Voting Act of 1942 abolished the poll tax, the first expansion of African-American voting rights since Reconstruction, and a 1944 Supreme Court decision ended all-white primaries. A New York Times reporter wrote at the time that “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.”
Saldin sees two explanations for wartime liberalization. Discrimination against women, African Americans, or gay men and women deprives the country of their contributions at a time of great need. And discrimination against blacks became increasingly untenable when the nation was rallying against fascism and communism in the name of freedom. Second, war tends to engender a stronger sense of national cohesion. Deep divisions in society take on a different cast when we feel “we’re all in this together.”