Elena Kagan and the Military: A Historical Perspective

Jun 29, 2010 6:18pm

ABC News' Terry Moran reports: Conservatives are pointing to a bit of WWII history in their efforts to paint Elena Kagan as "anti-military" for her actions as dean of Harvard Law School, when she banned recruiters from the campus career office because of the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy. During World War II, the U.S. military had a perfectly vicious policy of racial segregation. Nevertheless, the NAACP and many black leaders actively joined and supported recruiting efforts in black neighborhoods around the country. But they kept up the fight for racial justice. A. Philip Randolph led a march on Washington in 1941 demanding equal war-mobilization employment opportunities for African-Americans — which FDR ensured with an executive order. And the NAACP continued to pressure Congress and the military over the segregation policy. In 1948, President Truman desegregated America’s armed forces. The idea among black leaders was that the enemy abroad was worse than the enemy at home, and that the spirit of solidarity and patriotism shared by nearly all Americans after Pearl Harbor offered opportunities to advance the cause of equal rights. Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, put the case most succinctly when he was asked why he was helping to recruit black Americans into a segregated armed forces. "There’s a lot wrong with America," Louis said, "but there’s nothing that Hitler can fix." Why, some conservatives ask, when facing a radical Islamist enemy after 9/11 that was far more threatening to the human rights of lesbians and gays than any American social conservative, were Kagan and others at the nation’s leading law schools unable to summon the same kind of instinctual patriotism and sense of proportion around the issue of "don’t ask, don’t tell"? Why could she and others not rise above domestic disagreement in the face of the enemy and "put country first"? Liberals might answer that the highest form of patriotism is to remain true to one's understanding of bedrock American ideals, and that's what Kagan was seeking to do — all the while recognizing the nobility of the sacrifices of American men and women in uniform. What does patriotism require? That's the question. Perhaps the real answer has a lot to do with how different America was in 2003 than in 1941. But the history may cast the dispute in the hearing room in a different light. — Terry Moran

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