Sunday, January 06, 2008

Operation Arkansas and the Little Rock 9

I'm conflicted about Eisenhower's sending the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce racial integration at Little Rock Central High School. I'm hard-pressed to find a legal justification for sending the army into US cities, barring natural disaster, of course. Is "the ends justify the means" the only legitimate justification here?

I don't object to the outcome. Far from it--it would have been better for all concerned if this response had never, ever, been needed in the first place. But using the army to enforce the law? I'm going to paraphrase/steal the following from a tv show I watch:

The military is used to fight the enemies of the state. Police are used to protect the citizens of the state. When the military is used as a police force, it's very easy for citizens to become the enemies of the state. That leads to tyranny.

Was the army the only federal force big enough to take on the forces arrayed in Arkansas? Was this potential tyranny justified by the tyranny already in place, that which kept black students from attending the local high school?

What a mess.

To commemorate 50 years of integration, the army has a slideshow of what was called Operation Arkansas. It's fairly innocuous, and doesn't show the same pictures of hatred that we've all seen in history books and documentaries. What caught my eye, though, was the title of slide #11 (see update below--Darren), evidence of the potential for tyranny of which I spoke.

I'm glad this is America, where it's only potential.

Update, 1/8/08: I was directed to the Eisenhower Archives, and reading the documents there one gets a sense of what it must have been like in those turbulent days.

The legal justification can be found in the document called Press Release Proclamation 3204. Page 2 shows the relevant law citations. (Other sources indicate these laws were passed in 1861, another turbulent time in American history.)

The moral justification can be found in the document called Telegraph Mann To President 9 24 57.

Based only on reading Mayor Mann's telegraphs to President Eisenhower, I've come to the conclusion that the mayor was a brave and noble man. President Eisenhower's correspondence shows great poise and wisdom. We are lucky to have had such men in that time.

The communication between "the parents of nine Negro children enrolled at Little Rock Central High School" and the President should be enough to renew anyone's faith in our system of laws and governance.

Update, 1/19/09: It looks like the documents linked above can now be found here.

Update, 3/13/18:  Whether I got it wrong back then or if the slides have somehow been renumbered, I don't know, but slide #10 in the Army slideshow is the one that caused me worry.  It showed a battle plan for the Battle of Little Rock.  I'm thankful it didn't need to be implemented.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your concerns. I *hate* the idea of the U.S. military being using inside the U.S. borders for pretty much anything other than disaster relief ... for pretty much the reasons you give.

But ...

1) The Arkansas governor had already called out the Arkansas national guard to *prevent* the black students from attending the school. Because of this, I think we can probably take the national guard off the table as a "better" approach (I would prefer the national guard to the regular military because the national guard members are civilians as their day jobs).

2) A federal judge told the Arkansas governor to remove the national guard, and he ignored the judge. Several weeks later, a federal court issued the same order and this time it was obeyed.

3) Next round, the Little Rock mayor had the local police deployed to protect the black students. It sorta worked, but the students were sent home after a few hours because the school feared mob violence.

4) After this, the Little Rock mayor asked for federal troops.

At this point, I'm not sure what Eisenhower's best choice was:

a) Arkansas national guard is pretty much off the table.
b) Local officials don't think that the local police can handle it.

I guess the two choices here are:
1) Send in the FBI, and
2) Send in the Military

I don't know enough about the FBI back then, but Eisenhower may not have believed that they could do the job. Two possible concerns would be:

a) Mr. Hoover was in charge of the FBI. I have no idea how cooperative he would have been in this regard.
b) The FBI isn't really structured for this level of force deployment.

My/your/our concerns aside, it may be that Eisenhower's two choices boiled down to:
a) Deploy the military, or
b) Fail to desegregate following court rulings.

Both choices sucked.

-Mark Roulo

Donalbain said...

What other federal forces are there? FBI? CIA? They dont really come equipped to do that sort of work. And is using the National Guard really that different, when you look at how the National Guard is used as an adjunct to the military?
I think it was a case of the least bad option being used.

Darren said...

Didn't Eisenhower federalize the National Guard?

Still, I have to agree that this was probably a case of a"least worst" decision for Eisenhower.

Anonymous said...

"Didn't Eisenhower federalize the National Guard?"

Yes, he did.

But I don't know what that means ...

-Mark Roulo

Darren said...

It means he "called them up". That means they became federal troops and took orders from him, not the state governor.

I'm sure he did that so that the 101st wouldn't have to face NG troops. He obviously didn't trust them enough to have them integrate Central High.

Anonymous said...


Where did you get this work of fiction? We all know a Republican would not integrate public schools in a Democratically controlled city and state. They are racist, bigots, homophobes, and whatever other phobe you can list. We both know this is pure fantasy and you must have taken a few things while you were in Reno! :)