Eighty years ago, on September 27, 1940, two of the most influential civil-rights leaders in the country sat across the desk from President Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Asa Philip Randolph was the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Walter White was the secretary of the NAACP. Eleven days earlier, Roosevelt had signed the Selective Service Act, the first peacetime draft in the country’s history. Randolph and White seized the opportunity to come talk to him about desegregating the military. Which was about the last issue Franklin Roosevelt wanted to address in September 1940.

Getting the American people and their representatives in Washington to accept conscription had been hard enough. The appalling and apparently futile slaughter of World War I had turned the great majority of Americans into anti-war, anti-military isolationists. At the start of 1940 the country had virtually no munitions industry, and the U.S. Army was the 16th largest in the world, down near Bulgaria’s. The startling ease with which Hitler’s army devoured western Europe in the spring of 1940 had given Roosevelt an opening to ask Congress for a massive arms build-up — not to go to war in Europe, he carefully explained, but for defense should Hitler keep expanding his reach.

All that new hardware would be pointless without trained men and officers to use it. Through the summer Roosevelt had let others — including Republican World War I veterans “Wild Bill” Donovan and Harold Stimson — make the conscription case for him. Again, it was to be for defense only, not for sending American boys to be killed in another European squabble. There was still fierce opposition around the country, from all sides: Communists as well as conservatives, the labor movement and pacifists. In the halls of Congress the debate over the bipartisan Burke–Wadsworth bill quickly descended to shouts, name-calling, and one fistfight. The legislation barely squeaked through on September 16 for FDR’s signature.

Roosevelt had good reason to move carefully. He was running for reelection for an unprecedented third term. (His opponents derided his supporters as “third termites.”) The Republican candidate Wendell Willkie, a businessman who’d never held public office before, was proving a surprisingly credible adversary.

Any talk of desegregating the military was inviting controversy Roosevelt felt he didn’t need. The Marine Corps and Army Air Corps were all white. There were only two black officers in the entire military. Blacks who were in the military were almost all in bottom-rung service positions — working in the mess hall, cleaning toilets, polishing brass. Roosevelt did not want to stir up Southern voters or the Southern Democrat bloc in Congress, who a few years earlier had demonstrated how much they cared about civil rights by killing an anti-lynching bill that Walter White had lobbied hard for. He also didn’t want to antagonize military officers, many of whom were Southerners.

Both Henry Stimson, who’d become Roosevelt’s secretary of war that summer, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox were against integrating. Stimson believed that black men “lacked the moral and mental qualifications” for combat and were ill-equipped for handling “weapons of modern war.” He liked to point out that his family had been abolitionists and fought for the Union in the Civil War, so he did not consider himself a racist, just a realist.

Born and raised in princely isolation, Franklin Roosevelt could often express the WASP patrician’s unthinking condescension towards blacks, Jews, the Irish, Italians. To him, blacks were “coloreds” and “boys,” New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia was “the little wop,” and so on. Still, in 1935 he had pushed through an executive order forbidding discrimination in New Deal hiring. With prompting from the progressive Eleanor and from Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, he had also seeded his administration with some of the most accomplished black professionals in America, including several Harvard-trained lawyers. They took high-level posts at Interior and other departments. The press called them his Black Brain Trust or Black Cabinet.

It was at Eleanor’s insistence that Roosevelt agreed to this meeting. He made sure that Knox and Robert Patterson, an assistant to Stimson (who refused to attend), were there to help him explain why now was not the time to bring the issue of integration before the people or Congress.

It’s known exactly what was said at the meeting, because that August the White House had for the first time begun secretly recording Oval Office press conferences and meetings. In his book Inside the Oval Office, William Doyle explains that White House staff hoped that keeping audio records might dispel some of the confusion Roosevelt’s affable vagueness often caused. (Stimson complained in his diary that a meeting with FDR was like “chasing a vagrant beam of sunshine around a vacant room.” The journalist John Gunther marveled at the president’s ability to remain noncommittal while appearing to agree with everyone in the room.) The recordings, created on an RCA experimental rig, were not made public until a researcher stumbled on them in the FDR Library in 1978. They are now online.

Despite the poor audio quality, it’s clear that FDR was at his worst in his meeting with the black leaders. White and Randolph are dignified and direct. Randolph says that black Americans “feel they have earned their right to participate.” He points to formerly all-white labor unions that successfully integrated. White suggests that surely it’s the right moment for at least some small steps forward.

Roosevelt interrupts them, talks over them, tells pointless jokes and stories to divert them. He even lies outright at one point, claiming that the new draft law stipulated that black conscripts would be placed in ground-combat units, which in fact it did not; that would not happen until 1944. He refers to black men in the Navy as “colored boys.” Frank Knox flatly declares that having white and black sailors on the same ship “won’t do,” and ruefully suggests that the only way to “integrate” the Navy would be to have all-white and all-black ships. FDR suggests, “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a colored band on some of these ships, because they’re darn good at it.”

Randolph and White endured the humiliation, and it’s a testament to FDR’s ability to charm that they left the Oval Office actually believing they had won him over. They were stunned a couple of weeks later when the White House issued a press release saying that the tradition of keeping whites and blacks separated in the military was to continue. White’s NAACP issued a statement denouncing the “trickery.” Randolph wrote the president an enraged letter. FDR backtracked a few paces and issued a new statement making vague promises that blacks would get “fair treatment” in the military.

More than 2.5 million black men registered for the draft; roughly a million black draftees and volunteers would serve during World War II, in all branches. More than 800,000 of them served in the Army — in segregated units. The majority of the black men in the Army never left the States. Only a handful who went overseas ever got near the front lines, and only one ground division, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Division, saw extensive combat. Another 145,000 blacks served in the Army Air Corps. Even the resistant Navy and Marine Corps admitted some black men, though the numbers were far lower.

For most blacks in uniform, life tended to be at least as demoralizing and degrading as it was as civilians. They were penned up in de facto ghetto bases around the country, routinely insulted and harassed by white officers and soldiers, relegated to the same sorts of “service” jobs available to them in the civilian world. They received little combat training; one black soldier who was issued only one bullet for his carbine later joked, “I guess that was to kill yourself.” They were far less likely to be injured in battle than in violent clashes with whites, both soldiers and civilians, on the home front. One soldier described Camp Stewart in Georgia as a “concentration camp.” In June 1943, black soldiers there would rise up in revolt, killing one MP and wounding four others.

The war was over and Roosevelt had passed away when the desegregation of the military began under President Truman, in 1948.

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