Geoffrey Stone Reflects on "Don't Ask Don't Tell"
The most ringing phrase in all of American history is Thomas Jefferson's bold statement in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Translating that aspiration into law has been a challenge. At the time the Constitution was adopted, most Americans did not have equal rights under the law. But over the course of 220 years, we have struggled, in fits and starts, to make that aspiration a reality.
America's most profound achievement in this quest was of course the abolition of African slavery, which was attained only after a bitter and bloody Civil War that cost the lives of more than 600,000 Americans. Another fundamental milestone was the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which for the first time guaranteed women the right to vote.
But despite these and other achievements, at the end of World War II the United States was still basically a white, male, Protestant society. Every president in American history had been a white male Protestant. Every justice of the Supreme Court had been a white male. The United States Senate in 1945 was made up of 98 white males. Only one woman (Frances Perkins) and no African-American, Hispanic-American or Asian-American had ever served in a president's cabinet.
In 1945, racial segregation was rampant, women were once again (after the War) relegated to the kitchen, Jews often felt the need to change their names (an early version of don't ask, don't tell) in an effort to avoid religious discrimination, Japanese-Americans were struggling to put their devastated lives back together after finally being released from American internment camps, and gays were buried so deep in the closet that most people were certain they had never met one.