James E Westheider. Vietnam War Era: People and Perspectives. Editor: Mitchell K Hall. ABC-CLIO, 2009.
Wayne Smith was 18 and just out of high school when he enlisted in the Army in 1968. Smith hoped to go to medical school some day, and became a medic so he could do good things for people. In 1963, Albert French also enlisted straight out of high school; in his case it was the Marines, and his reasons were markedly different from Smith’s. “It wasn’t to go save America,” French recalled. He was 19 and “I was not college material at the time.” Largely, it was to get away from home, “Something you are supposed to do to become a man” (French 2007). Dennis Hughes did not have a choice. He was 19 when he was drafted into the Army in 1966. Neither did Quinton Johnson, who was drafted in 1969. Despite their different routes into military service, Hughes, Smith, French, and Johnson would share a common fate; they would be four of the roughly 300,000 African Americans to serve in the Vietnam War.
African Americans had long sought military service as a way to earn their just civil rights and prove to whites that they were equally as brave, patriotic, and capable, but they had to contend with officially sanctioned segregation, racism, and second-class status in the armed forces. Conditions changed after President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 ordering fair treatment and equal opportunity in the armed forces regardless of race. After initially resisting the order, the armed forces found that mixing the races did not hamper efficiency or lead to violence. Quite the contrary. An integrated military was more cost efficient and excellent propaganda at home and abroad. By the time French, Smith, Hughes, and Johnson were inducted into the armed forces in the 1960s, the military was probably the most racially egalitarian institution in America. The Department of Defense was proud of its achievement, and boasted in its annual report for 1968 that institutional racism had been eliminated from the armed forces.
American media and politicians often held the military up as a model in race relations for civilian society to emulate. “The U.S. Army has achieved a revolution in integration,” remarked the New York Times in 1969 (Sulzberger 1969, 46). Writing in Ebony, David Llorens characterized the armed forces as the “most productive, rewarding, and racially congenial experience that [African Americans] can have” (Llorens 1968, 87). Most African Americans in the services also commended the military as a model for civilian society to imitate. Stating a widely held belief, Captain Sylvian Wailes remarked, “Basically, the Army affords you as good an opportunity as you can find … there is at least a better, or more of an equal opportunity” (Grove 1966, 7).
It also paid better than most of the civilian alternatives open to young black men in the 1960s and 1970s. Charles Cato hoped to return to his old career of jeweler’s apprentice after his three years in the Army and a tour in Vietnam. He liked the work and it paid a decent $55 a week, but there were no jobs available to him, and he ended up on $33 a week unemployment pay. In contrast, in the mid-1960s, an enlistee could hope to make corporal or E-4 after three years of service and earn $60 a week after taxes as well as free room and board. Married military personnel received even higher allotments. Serving with an elite unit brought additional rewards; men in airborne units received $55 a month in jump pay, for example. Service in a combat zone such as Vietnam meant yet an additional $65 a month. The military was also eager to keep trained personnel and paid relatively lavish reenlistment bonuses. Depending on rank and one’s military occupational specialty (MOS), first-time reenlistees could earn as much as $1,400 for “re-upping.” African Americans showed their appreciation by enlisting, and reenlisting, in large numbers. In 1966, for example, only about 12 percent of eligible whites chose to remain in the armed forces after their enlistments were up, but for African Americans it was more than two-thirds (Foner 1974).
Not all blacks believed in the racial fairness of the armed forces. Before Dennis Hughes joined the Army he “had some uncles in WWI, WWII and Korea. They had parades for the WWI and WWII veterans, but treated the Korean veterans the way they would later treat Vietnam veterans.” He saw “at an early age that they did not care for their troops” (Hughes 2007). Hughes’s skepticism was justified. The military had made great strides in combating racism and proving equal opportunity, but conditions were still very far from ideal. Despite the Pentagon’s claims that it had eradicated institutional racism, African Americans encountered both personal and systemic racism in virtually every aspect of their service careers.
Unequal treatment for many African Americans started with their induction into the armed forces. One of the most contentious aspects of the Vietnam War was the use of the draft to supply much of the manpower needed for the conflict. Because of inequities in the draft, eligible men from the middle and upper classes could normally find ways of avoiding service, or at least service in Vietnam, meaning the burden of the draft fell on working-class whites and minorities. Consequently, African Americans were drafted in disproportionately higher numbers than were whites. African Americans of draft age made up about 11 percent of the general population, but from 1965 to 1970, approximately 14 percent of all draftees were black. To illustrate the problem another way, in 1967 nearly one-third of eligible whites were drafted, but for African Americans it was nearly 64 percent (Murray 1971).
There were several major reasons for this. The Selective Service Act under which the Vietnam era draft operated allowed for educational deferments, so someone in college or a trade school was usually exempted from the draft. Though this applied equally to men of all races, black families were on average poorer than whites and could not normally afford a college education. In 1967, the median income was $8,274 a year for the average white family, but only $5,141 a year for a black family. Only about 5 percent of draft-age black men were enrolled in college at the height of the war, for example. Second, although the draft itself was legally color-blind, the men that sat on the 4,080 local draft boards were not. The local draft boards had tremendous power in deciding whether a young man deserved an exemption or would be drafted, and some of them, such as Jack Helms, a Ku Klux Klan grand dragon in New Orleans, were avowed racists. Even those members who would not have considered themselves racist often harbored racial stereotypes, and few were black, as the average board member was white, male, conservative, over 40, and a veteran of either World War II or Korea. Early in the war in 1966 there were only 230 African Americans on local draft boards, or 1.3 percent of the total. The demographics improved slightly, but not greatly, and by the end of the war there were 1,265 African Americans, or 6.6 percent of the total, on local boards. Finally, it was also easier for many whites to avoid active service by getting into the Reserves or the National Guard, both of which were heavily white and had long waiting lists to get in.
Many African Americans resisted induction. In 1967, for example, 15 members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including its chairman, Stokely Carmichael, and its national program director, Cleveland Sellers, refused induction into the armed forces. Probably the most famous black draft resister of the war was the boxer Muhammad Ali, who refused to be inducted in April 1967. In June, Ali was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for draft evasion, but in 1971 the Supreme Court overturned his conviction on a technicality. Carmichael and Sellers also avoided service when their New York draft boards ruled them physically unfit for service. Few black draft resisters, however, had the resources of an Ali or a Carmichael or a Sellers to fight the system. Fellow SNCC member David Bell received two years in a federal prison, and Walter Collins received a 25-year sentence for draft evasion.
Ironically, despite the huge disparities in the Selective Service System, at least early in the war a higher percentage of African Americans than whites supported the draft. A Harris poll in late 1966 found that only 48 percent of whites but 63 percent of blacks believed the system was fair. A Gallup poll in Newsweek that same year found an even higher percentage of blacks—75 percent—thought the draft was racially fair. As the war progressed, however, and the racial and class inequities inherent in the selective service system became apparent, black Americans turned against the draft.
Many African Americans encountered racism during basic training or boot camp. “It was pretty damn racist,” recalled Wayne Smith of boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey. “The sergeants talked about the ‘gooks.’ And they would call brothers ‘niggers’” (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Forum 1992). “I would say yes, they were all racists … there was a racial tinge to all the basic training—less so in AIT [Advanced Individual Training]” (Smith 2007). Many African Americans were shocked to discover that the black drill instructors could be harder on them than the white ones. “The black DIs [drill instructors] were just as tough on African Americans,” recalled Wayne Smith. “There was one African American from Newark that the black sergeants focused on to provoke. There was no sense of solidarity between black NCOs [noncommissioned officers] and enlisted” (Smith 2007).
The drill instructors were rough and often cruel to the trainees to prepare them for the rigors of combat, and sometimes this included, or was misinterpreted to include, racism. Wayne Smith believed a lot of the abuse involved “power and intimidation. They would use anything, even against the whites. They were pretty bad. I had joined with a white, a white Irish friend. One of the basic training sergeants picked on him a lot. I thought it was atrocious. They tried to bully us; it was almost insulting.” Smith was disappointed with his basic training; it did not prepare him for Vietnam nor did it foster any cohesion and camaraderie among the men. “You know,” Smith recalled, “there’s a lot of racial stuff being mixed up and that blew my mind, first of all, because, you know, I thought we’d kind of be all in this together” (Smith 2007). Others resented the treatment given them during basic training but felt it paid dividends later on. Quinton Johnson thought his DIs at boot camp were “mean and a little hard on you,” until he was sent to Vietnam, and “then I think the training really done some good” (Carper, Martinez, and Johnson 1999).
The Vietnam Experience
Many African Americans did not think much about being sent to Vietnam. Albert French, one of the first Marines to go ashore at Da Nang in 1965, was typical of some of the early combat soldiers, white or black. “At that time I had no idea of what this war would become, and how history would show it,” he remembered. “I don’t think I did think about it; been in the Marines for two years already so it was no big deal. We just went. Not a lot of talk about whether we should be there or not. No flag waving but no dissent. Just salt of the earth kids without a political agenda. I never believed I was saving the United States of America in Vietnam” (French 2007).
At least early in the war, however, Vietnam was generally viewed as another favorable opportunity for African Americans to prove themselves. In 1968, New York Times correspondent Thomas Johnson wrote that “the Negro fighting man has attained a sudden visibility—a visibility his forefathers never realized while fighting in past American wars” (Johnson 1968, 1). Cpl. Lawrence E. Waggoner believed “the Negro warrior has distinguished himself in Vietnam. This is to be looked on with pride and committed to memory as he presses on to distinguish himself in his own country” (Waggoner 1968, 77). Army major Beauregard Brown considered that service in Vietnam represented the best prospect for advancement for a black career officer.
Patriotism was a motivating factor for many African Americans. Women were not required to serve in Vietnam, but 17-year Army veteran Doris “Lucki” Allen volunteered for duty in Vietnam in 1967, considering it her patriotic duty. Dennis Hughes “thought we were doing the right thing” when he was sent to Vietnam in February 1967. “I didn’t really want to go but did not have a choice,” Hughes recalled. “Me and the rest of the guys thought we were doing something for our country. We thought people would respect that, but they didn’t” (Hughes 2007). Some were idealistic, such as Wayne Smith. Smith went to Vietnam to save lives and not take them: “I was naive. I thought I could make a difference” (Smith 2007).
Smith the idealist, like many, became disillusioned with the war after experiencing its realities. “I rejected the war after 18 months in Vietnam,” he remembered. “I could no longer go along with the game…. You see the massive waste of life, people I knew. Their lives squandered for what? Lies cut me to the bone. It was a devastating sense of betrayal” (Smith 2007). Dennis Hughes was “disappointed in the politics of the war” after serving in Vietnam, but most particularly he was upset with the waste of the “58,000 lives on the wall in DC” (Hughes 2007). Jerry Brown went to Vietnam “believing strongly in the war,” but he “came out believing it to be immoral and futile” (Dalglish 1970, 11). For some, the impact of the war sunk in later. “Years later I thought differently about it when I became more politically aware,” explained Albert French. “I became against the war, not to the extent of protesting it. After awhile I believed we were fighting on the wrong side” (French 2007).
French, like many of his countrymen, had little regard for America’s South Vietnamese allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). He recalled that “on one patrol once ARVN brought bright colored umbrellas with them because it was raining…. We just stayed back because that’s a damn target and a half. Most were local militia” and lacked decent training, motivation, or leadership (French 2007).
French may not have thought much of “Marvin the ARVN,” as Americans derisively labeled their erstwhile allies, but like many he liked the people. Children would hang out near his machine gun emplacement; one day it was “a four or five year old kid smoking a cigarette, and I didn’t want him around the machine gun, so I told him ‘didi’ [go, go].” The kid stunned and amused the Marine by replying, “I live here.” French got to “know the local kids and they came around a lot … there was no reason not to trust them. I treated the Vietnamese like humans and they treated me like a human.” Unlike many Americans, French “didn’t use the word gook—to me it was too much like nigger. It was too ugly, too racist” (French 2007). Wayne Smith also got to know and like the Vietnamese people and refused to demean them with racial pejoratives. “I was part of a civic action team working with the Vietnamese, and I saw their humanity,” he reminisced. “I knew them as human beings. Some were good and some were not. I was very fond of some of the people” (Smith 2007).
Albert French was not under any illusions and understood the ambiguous nature of most Vietnamese in the war. Sometimes the same children that played around the American encampment would stick a “Y shaped stick in the ground during the day—that night the sniper can find it easily in the dark, and be right on target” (French 2007). Some Americans despised all Vietnamese as duplicitous and cowardly. African American Sp/4 (Specialist 4) Ray Ambrose believed that “with all due respect … I don’t think that a young man … should come over here and die for a country that is so worthless and unconcerned” (Ambrose 1968, 71).
Initially, many Americans also had little respect for their enemies, the Vietcong (VC) and the North Vietnamese Army, also known as the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Wayne Smith said that “in military training, before I knew them, the military trained us to think of them as gooks and slants,” but Smith was sensitive to the racist implications and “I resisted all that. Had we been sent to the Congo it would have been niggers. That’s how they in fact trained us—the Vietnamese were less than human so you could kill them easier” (Smith 2007). Albert French would watch the Vietnamese fishing in their sampans and ask, “How could they attack the U.S. in those things.” Time and experience convinced him otherwise and he developed a grudging admiration for both the VC and the North Vietnamese. “South Vietnam had a puppet government,” French declared. “The VC and PAVN were very good, and we respected them. They believed in their cause, whereas the South Vietnamese did not believe in it that much” (French 2007). Wayne Smith also grew to admire the men trying to kill him. “We called them Charlie. As you fought against them you saw these average people with less experience than we had, they were very brave taking on the American army. Ultimately we called them Sir Charles” (Smith 2007). Mutual respect did not translate into kindness or restraint, and Vietnamese and American did their best to kill each other, often without mercy.
Though African Americans made up only around 10 to 11 percent of the American military establishment in Vietnam from 1965 to 1973, a disproportionate number were concentrated in combat units. Marine Albert French, who was stationed at Chu Lai, described a somewhat typical day-to-day existence. “Chu Lai was a hole. We had tents and ate C rations. There was a cafeteria, usually got a hot meal each day, but the food was terrible. We were either in a foxhole, tent or on patrol. On the average day it would be at least three patrols or ambushes. If you did not go out you were on the line. I looked forward to going out to the outpost—Scalawag—to get some sleep. Spend a week or so there. About five men manned the outpost. We never got hit at Scalawag. Fortunately they were not good shots” (French 2007).
Many of the enemy, however, proved to be decent enough shots. Four months into his tour in Vietnam in 1965, French was shot and wounded in his throat. As more Americans poured into Vietnam, casualties mounted, and black casualties early in the war were unusually high. The same year French was wounded, one out of every four American deaths in Vietnam was black. By late July 1966, African Americans were 15 percent of American forces in Vietnam but represented 22 percent of the total casualties. The alarmingly high death rate for blacks in Vietnam declined after 1967, and by the end of U.S. involvement in 1973, the 7,257 African Americans killed in Vietnam constituted 12.6 percent of all U.S. deaths in the war (Department of Defense 1985).
As the war progressed, blacks in the armed forces questioned why African Americans were fighting and dying to preserve the freedom of the South Vietnamese when the civil rights movement was still struggling hard to win equal rights back at home. Albert French had met a girl from Los Angeles, and they wrote back and forth. He recalled watching a major Marine operation known as Operation Starlite, “and she was writing to me about Watts. What am I doing here,” he thought to himself, “when I can’t go on one side of Jackson, South Carolina” (French 2007).
The fight for equality was very important to African Americans in Vietnam, but some were torn between their desire to be good soldiers and their obligations to the black community back home. Wayne Smith explained that “while many of us thought, I believe, that it was necessary to show our ability to be effective and responsible and, indeed, heroic and doing our duty, there were other brothers who had the feeling that it was a white man’s war, it was not our war. Our war was back home in the United States, struggling to advance our people and to eliminate the crime, the drugs, and other related problems that were assaulting the black community. So, it was a subject of constant discussion among us” (Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Forum 1992).
Increasingly the war and the movement were linked. “American Negro soldiers in Vietnam used to consider the war and the civil rights movement as separate things but the past three years have had an exacerbating effect,” wrote C. L. Sulzberger in the New York Times in 1969. “Now, a small minority wonders if black troops should fight for their country at all” (Sulzberger 1969, 46). It was becoming more than a small minority. Discontent was spreading among black troops to the point that just one year later, journalist Wallace Terry could assert that “a majority of black GI’s … feel they have no business fighting in Southeast Asia” (Terry 1970, 7). Vietnam veteran Jerry Brown was typical. “Why fight a war for freedom in a country far away,” he asked, “when at home the civil rights war is not yet won” (Dalglish 1970, 11)?
Black military personnel were not only dissatisfied with the war, but with the treatment accorded them in the armed forces. Many blacks were convinced that far from being a model for civilian society, the military was just as racist as the rest of America. The military may have superficially eliminated institutional racism, but vestiges of it still plagued African Americans in many areas, particularly in testing and assignments. For example, the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), the exam given to all incoming recruits, contained a European cultural bias that in the words of one black sergeant was “a bonus for growing up white” (NAACP 1971, 3). A recruit’s performance on these exams largely determined his or her career options; a high score meant a recruit could choose one of the more lucrative and rewarding “hard core” military occupational specialties such as military intelligence or one of the technical programs, whereas a low score relegated one to a “soft core” area such as service and supply or combat infantry. In 1965 and 1966, 40 percent of all African Americans tested into the lowest acceptable category on the AFQT. As late as 1970, the Department of Defense was alarmed over the high number of minority enlistees that tested poorly on the exams. Consequently, as late as 1972, blacks made up 16.3 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to combat specialties and nearly 20 percent of the service and supply troops. Interestingly, that same year the Defense Department replaced the AFQT with a new test, the Army Classification Battery, which eliminated much of the cultural bias suspected in the older exam. Whites’ scores remained the same but the number of African Americans now testing into the higher classifications rose considerably.
Probably no single area of military life elicited more complaints from black service personnel than did the administration of military justice. In the armed forces, justice is dispensed on two discreet levels. Minor infractions such as a uniform code violation or tardiness were handled through nonjudicial punishment, known more commonly as a Captain’s Mast in the Navy and Marines and an Article 15 in the Army and Air Force. The accused was given a hearing presided over by his or her commanding officer. The accused could speak and bring a personal representative, but the commanding officer made the final determination, and most enlisted personnel believed guilt was predetermined anyway. Punishment could range from a written reprimand in your service file to 30 days in the stockade, loss of pay, and demotion in rank. More serious transgressions, such as rape, murder, or cowardice in the face of the enemy, were adjudicated through courts-martial. A court-martial is similar in most respects to a civilian trial, but the jury is usually composed of commissioned officers and not the defendant’s peers, and the rights of the accused, particularly the right to appeal, is far more limited. Punishment, if convicted, can include years at hard labor or even execution.
The problems plaguing military justice were partially institutional; the judge advocate general’s (JAG) office was overwhelmingly white, meaning a black defendant would likely face prosecution by a white officer in a trial presided over by white judges and heard by an all-white jury; his defense counsel would almost assuredly be white as well. In 1972, for example, Captain Curtiss Smothers was the only African American judge advocate out of 123 captains assigned to the JAG offices in West Germany.
The real problem with military justice was not institutional as much as it was personal; the system gave officers and NCOs a lot of discretion, and many bigots abused the system. Dennis Hughes found that “some white officers were fair, but then you had others that still had a southern mentality” (Hughes 2007). A double standard existed under which African Americans were charged and punished for infractions for which whites were not. One white captain in Vietnam noticed that an inordinate number of black soldiers in his unit were being given Article 15s for being late to their duty stations. He discovered that his white sergeant was waking up the whites in the barracks but not the African Americans. Another problem in Vietnam had to do with uniform code violations and hair length. Out in the field many commanding officers often relaxed what were called “Mickey Mouse” or “chickenshit” regulations, allowing their men a little latitude to adorn their uniforms with such things as peace symbols or personal mementos. In many cases infractions by whites were ignored but black soldiers were written up.
Racism also affected an African American’s chances at promotion. “Black people are the last to be promoted as far as rank goes,” concluded a dejected Lionel Anderson in a letter from Vietnam to the Black Panther in September 1969 (Anderson 1969, 10). Dennis Hughes went to Vietnam as a spec four and returned “still a spec four.” He was denied promotion because a captain yelled “hey” at him, and he did not respond. The captain yelled it again. Hughes finally replied, “Hay is for horses.” He was then berated by a colonel for insubordination and held back from making sergeant. “I knew my job and I did it well, and I knew others that it happened to” (Hughes 2007). Wayne Smith also believed there was racism in most aspects of military life, including promotion. “The military is a microcosm of our larger American society,” he reflected, but Smith also believed that for black careerists to some extent it “was largely based on merit promotion. It was not like affirmative action—the military was desperately in need of people. The lifers, the ones willing to eat a lot of shit got promoted” (Smith 2007).
Racist sergeants in charge of duty assignments often picked on African Americans. “For whatever reason,” recalled Dennis Hughes, “for specific duties, KP [kitchen police], guard duty, it seemed that your name kept coming up, too often” (Hughes 2007). This personal bigotry was often subtle, “the northern gentility of race,” explained Wayne Smith, “No overt racism but it was skin deep” (Smith 2007). Many blacks believed they were not only given the worst jobs but the most dangerous ones as well. Blacks in Vietnam called active combat zones “Soulville” because there were so many brothers there. Steven Carper, who was in the same unit with Quinton Johnson, recalled that the unit’s senior NCO, a sergeant named Ard, “did not like black or Mexican people,” and “he would make them walk point just so he could get them eliminated” (Carper, Martinez, and Johnson 1999, 25).
African Americans reacted to racism, real and perceived, to an unpopular war, and to feelings of isolation in a white-dominated military by finding strength and comfort in racial solidarity. “It was one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences that still give me enormous strength and character,” recalled Wayne Smith about the racial solidarity that prevailed in his unit in Vietnam. “We are a brotherhood. We were all connected.” They called one another “brother” or “blood” or “soul” and greeted each other with a clenched fist “black power salute” or, more commonly, by dapping. A dap was a ritualized handshake, with numerous variations and permutations, in which each of its many and often intricate moves had a meaning. “It was purely improvisational, imaginative and creative,” explained Wayne Smith. “Some used it for pride and others showing off, and others, a sincere symbol of respect” (Smith 2007). Many African Americans wove “slave bracelets” out of their boot laces and wore them as a sign of cultural pride, while others carried ebony black power canes. Wayne Smith, for example, wore a slave bracelet and a braided necklace but did not carry a cane.
When one served in Vietnam was very important because the outward manifestations of black solidarity and black power did not appear until later in the conflict. “We didn’t dap in 1965,” remembered Albert French. “There were no slave bracelets or black power flags. Just talk; references were usually about what was going on in the states, especially events down south” (French 2007). Dennis Hughes, who was in Vietnam in 1967-1968, did not wear a slave bracelet or carry a cane, but he remembers others in his unit who did. When Wayne Smith served in Vietnam from May 1969 to November 1970 “there were signs of solidarity. We dapped all of the time—longest time many times to the song “Black Magic Woman.” It was getting into this whole mentality of not just shaking hands but telling a story” (Smith 2007).
Smith also discovered that not all African Americans believed in racial solidarity. Smith hitched a ride in a truck to Tan Son Nhut Air Base to pick up supplies, but when he arrived with “mud on my shoes and carrying an M-16” he had forgotten his pass to get on base. Unconcerned he “threw up the black power sign to two MPs guarding the gates,” only to be told, “We’re not your brothers—where is your pass?” (Smith 2007).
Black officers in particular were suspect. There were not many; during the Vietnam War only about 5 percent of the officer corps was black. Dennis Hughes had a cousin who was in Vietnam as a first lieutenant, William Webb, but he personally had “never seen that many black officers.” When Webb visited him at his company “it was the first time I had seen a black officer” in Vietnam (Hughes 2007). Albert French could recall seeing “only one black officer in Vietnam, and very few back in the states” (French 2007). Wayne Smith encountered “a handful, maybe … I remember an African American major, maybe a lieutenant colonel, some Hispanic officers. They were not nice at all, the career officers. African American careerists—we thought of them as Uncle Toms. There was not a lot of respect for them. They tried to get promotion at the expense of their own men” (Smith 2007).
The Impact of the Civil Rights Movement
Like many young black men entering the armed forces at that time, Smith had come out of a more radical civilian world; and like many, he had lost faith in the civil rights movement. Although he “admired Dr. King’s vision,” he “did not see it as practical, and did not believe that America would move to equality peacefully” (Smith 2007). Some, such as Dennis Hughes, failed to see any tangible results. “Civil rights” for African Americans, he observed, were “still not accepted by many white southerners” when he was stationed at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. “The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act passed, but people were not ready to openly accept that.” Hughes believed that to deny African Americans their just civil rights “stunk and it still stinks today. Even to this day I think a lot has been taken away” (Hughes 2007).
Many African Americans gravitated toward more aggressive, militant heroes. Like scores of his contemporaries, Wayne Smith idolized “first and foremost Malcolm X. I admired his ferocity, his truth speaking and his warrior spirit” (Smith 2007). Malcolm X’s message of black pride, separatism, and self-defense appealed to a younger generation of African Americans brought up in the promise of the civil rights movement but discouraged by its results. More than 70 percent of the black troops interviewed in Vietnam by journalist Wallace Terry in 1970 expressed admiration for Malcolm X, and he inspired at least two radical organizations that developed in the armed forces, the Malcolm X Society and GIs United against the War.
Another group held in high esteem by African Americans in the military was the Black Panthers. More than a third of the men interviewed by Terry claimed they would join the Panthers or a similar black nationalist organization when they left the military. Some did not wait to leave and formed Panther-inspired self-defense organizations within the armed forces, such as the Movement for a Democratic Military, the Blackstone Rangers, the Ju Ju, or the Black Mau Mau. Actual membership in any of these organizations was relatively small. Neither Albert French nor anyone he knew of in his company belonged to one. Dennis Hughes “did not join any organizations, I didn’t even join the Army,” but there were a few members of the Mau Mau in his unit (Hughes 2007). Wayne Smith “never encountered any organizations; but people talked about it, the ideology” (Smith 2007).
The ideology was often very infectious, and many African Americans adopted one major tenet of black nationalism in particular—separation from whites. As the war progressed, racial separation became increasingly common within the armed forces. One sign of growing racial polarization in Vietnam was the rising number of all-white or all-black living quarters. When Albert French served in 1965 his “hooch” was integrated, but as early as 1967 white helicopter pilot Dan Furman said they were allowed to stay “in whatever hootch we wanted to,” resulting in largely racially exclusive quarters. “It was almost like we segregated ourselves” (McMichael 1998, A4).
Not all African Americans embraced self-segregation. Like most blacks, Wayne Smith was not a separatist, but he respected the black nationalists. “I saw it as a step towards self-pride, self-actualization,” he remembered. “I was not a segregationist, I did not think that African Americans should be separate, but I respected people who had this black power. It was nothing I really embraced as my own” (Smith 2007). “[I] always felt that people had their beliefs and their rights,” agreed Dennis Hughes, “even if they weren’t mine, I could not knock them” (Hughes 2007).
Many African Americans found it easy to shift back and forth between a black and an integrated world. Albert French admitted that “if you get with a bunch of black kids you could get back to home a bit. For a moment you could go home. Back in tent time, we would hang out together more so,” French explained, but “we also accepted whites. We played a lot of whist—if a white could play and wanted to, he was in. I looked at the individual—if they were cool fine” (French 2007). “No, our hooch was not segregated,” remembered Wayne Smith, although it was self-selective in another way; “it was nonlifers. Those were the dividing lines. We had some isolation from white people but it was not wholesale, and we hung out with people who shared some kind of values; those who were stuck in the war but saw the folly in it” (Smith 2007). It was the same for black officers. Lt. Col. Maurice L. Adams was glad that the military was integrated, “and we can mix, though we often sit apart just to look at each other in our pride” (Dalglish 1970, 11). For Colin Powell, his days at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth “represented integration in the best sense of the word…. We had our own parties, put on soul food nights, and played Aretha Franklin records,” he recalled, but “we had the ability to shift back into the white-dominated world on Monday morning” (Powell 1995, 124).
Not all African Americans could transition smoothly from one world to another, however. Many chose not to, going beyond racial separation into the realm of racial hatred and violence. In 1972, for example, the Department of Defense’s Task Force on the Administration of Military Justice saw “evidence of blacks separating themselves from their nonblack comrades in hostile ways, going beyond affirming their racial and cultural solidarity” (Department of Defense 1972, I, 61-62). Many used the outward symbols of racial pride to provoke or antagonize whites. Dapping in particular was the cause of a lot of racial friction in the ranks. What was a sincere and meaningful experience for its participants would often cause racial animosity, especially when it occurred in, and held up chow lines. Wayne Smith admitted that lengthy daps could “stall the chow line,” and cause resentment.
For most African Americans, black pride and black power did not necessarily translate into hatred of, or separation from whites. Wayne Smith did not experience overt racism growing up in Rhode Island, where African Americans made up only 3 percent of the state’s population. “I had to get along early with different people,” recalled Smith. “Few people ever called me nigger.” He knew from experience “some whites who were decent and some not, and some blacks that were decent and some that were not” (Smith 2007). But many African Americans brought their resentment of whites and white society with them into the military from the civilian world. “Some brothers from the south … had not dealt with whites much and they had some resentment. Their attitude was that no one is going to disrespect me,” observed Wayne Smith (Smith 2007). James Daley’s friend in Vietnam, Willie Watkins from South Carolina, for example, “had a lot of hatred in him, and I knew he didn’t trust whites much” (Daly and Bergman 2000, 121).
Racist whites naturally brought their particular prejudices with them into the military as well. “Some of these guys a few months earlier were throwing stones at freedom riders,” explained Wayne Smith. “Now they have to take orders from a senior black sergeant from Detroit who was not going to take any shit” (Smith 2007). Vietnam veteran Donnel Jones found many officers and NCOs from the Deep South “who think the Afro-Americans should still be in slavery, and treat us soul brothers as such” (Jones 1968, 6). Many whites commonly referred to their black brothers in arms as niggers, spearchuckers, coons, or boy; often they brought the trappings of white supremacy into the military with them as well. Confederate flags—always a source of extreme antagonism for African Americans—flew defiantly over American bases in Vietnam, and the Ku Klux Klan operated openly on many installations. Many African Americans reported finding Klan or white supremacist literature in barracks and guard houses. Even the traditional cross burning found its way to Vietnam. In 1969, white sailors burned a 12-foot-high cross in front of a predominantly black barracks at Cam Ranh Bay, and the following year whites burned a cross in front of Army sergeant Clide Brown’s tent after he appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
Despite the growing tension, racial violence was not a problem early in the war. Albert French “had more problems in the states than in Vietnam. There were one or two incidents—a miniature race riot needing the MPs [military police]. This was largely due to some white kids from the South. In Vietnam, and I can say this with ease, there weren’t any problems. It never came up. All of the racial unrest back in U.S., we were vaguely aware of it. It didn’t matter when you were on a night patrol” (French 2007).
In 1968, however, racial tension exploded into racial violence after the Tet Offensive and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The communist offensive known as Tet ’68 and President Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent decision to seek a negotiated peace undercut the self-confidence and the fighting efficiency of American forces in Vietnam, contributing to a breakdown of morale and unit cohesion. The assassination of Dr. King in April devastated and shocked the black community. “We have to remember up till 1967 when Dr. King broke with it, the war was popular,” reminded Wayne Smith. “We were dying in Vietnam and serving our country” (Smith 2007). “Most were hurt by it, including myself,” remembered Dennis Hughes. “I thought that with his nonviolence, it was healthy [King’s nonviolence] going to change some things around in the world. It just took all that away. We were hurt.” Hughes was saddened and resented the reaction of many whites to the killing. “We heard the ones celebrating and felt anger. I wouldn’t wish that death on anybody—especially in a combat zone. Vietnam was [a] whole different picture, especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. White guys in the unit worried that riots would break out” (Hughes 2007). “It was the major thing,” explained Albert French. “Civilians and riots—they get drafted and bring that mindset to Vietnam. White kids come in seeing the same thing and they have their agenda, and they clash” (French 2007).
And they did clash. That summer riots with racial overtones erupted at both the Navy brig at Da Nang and the sprawling Long Binh Stockade outside Saigon. Sporadic racial violence continued throughout the military establishment that year, and more than 160 racial assaults were recorded at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina alone. On July 20, 1969, the sporadic violence plaguing that installation erupted into a major racial gang fight, leaving one white dead, dozens of Marines injured, and 44 blacks and Puerto Ricans arrested and charged with complicity in the riot. The “rumble at Camp Lejeune” marked the beginning of one of the worst periods of racial violence in the history of the armed forces. Ten days later a large racial gang fight occurred at Millington Naval Air Station near Memphis, Tennessee, followed by fights at the naval installation at Cam Ranh Bay and Kaneohe Marine Corps Air Station in Hawaii. Over the next three years major racial confrontations took place throughout the military establishment from Fort McClellan, Alabama, to Machinato, Okinawa, and on board naval vessels, including the aircraft carriers Constellation and Kitty Hawk.
In an attempt to exploit the racial problems and violence plaguing the armed forces in the later stages of the Vietnam War, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese often claimed that African Americans were not their enemies, and would receive “special treatment” if they refused to fight, or even surrendered. Few blacks believed it. One Vietcong propaganda flyer claimed—incorrectly—that African Americans made up 40 percent of all U.S. deaths in Vietnam and that they should go home before they were killed. Wayne Smith saw one of their propaganda flyers—“No Vietnamese ever called you nigger. We are not your enemy” it read. But as Smith explained, “it was an us versus them attitude,” and he “did not give a lot of thought to these people who were trying to kill me. I did question on some levels if I could kill; I wrestled with it. I had friends killed and wounded. I was a medic but I carried a M-16 and a .45” (Smith 2007). Many black GIs were not even aware of the communist propaganda overtures. Albert French “never heard about alleged special treatment. It didn’t stop them from shooting me through the throat” (French 2007).
The racial violence plaguing the armed forces was widespread but it was far from universal. Most of it occurred on or near large military installations and usually involved individuals from noncombat units. Much of it occurred in service clubs or bars, and alcohol, women, choice of music, and racial slurs were usually the triggers. There was actually very little racial violence in the combat formations, where unit cohesion was crucial to survival, and members bonded together regardless of race. Albert French could not “think of one racial incident, despite the number of southerners—they were not Boston liberals” in his company. “My white lieutenant was from Mississippi. I think it speaks well of us” (French 2007). Dennis Hughes said that “to a certain degree” there was racism, “but it was only kinda—it wasn’t blatantly out there. You hear some guys talking, but camaraderie between blacks and between African Americans and whites were both strong” in his company at Pleiku and Nha Trang. They had to depend on one another in order to survive (Hughes 2007). Quinton Johnson’s unit in the 101st Airborne did not have racial problems. “I never met anyone, to me, that was really racist. We were really together …” (Carper, Martinez, and Johnson 1999, 27). In Wayne Smith’s combat unit in the Mekong Delta, solidarity and brotherhood “transcended African Americans and included white and Asian Americans. [We] went out on platoon size search and destroy missions. [We] all worked together with courage and sensitivity for each other. We truly loved each other. I walked away with an overall positive experience with people of all races in Vietnam. It happened sadly, in war.” Smith also identified another reason there was little racial violence in the combat units. “In combat that BULLSHIT was not tolerated. We all had M-16s. We didn’t have to put up with the bullshit in a combat unit” (Smith 2007).
French, Hughes, Johnson, and Smith all survived their tours of duty in Vietnam, but others were not as fortunate. More than 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam; 7,257 of them were black. But like a great many veterans, the returnees faced serious readjustment issues after coming home. “The real trouble was when I got back home,” recalled Quinton Johnson. He began drinking heavily his last month in Vietnam. “I probably drank everyday if I could have got my hands on it, not knowing that I had that problem.” When he returned home he got his old job back and married his girlfriend but still continued to drink a lot, “it’s party time I thought, but it wasn’t partying time I don’t guess.” He wrecked a car and ended up in a fight with six or seven others. Johnson, however, realized he had a problem and straightened up; went back to school to study industrial maintenance. He and his wife separated; she could not understand that his “behavior was nothing less than the results of … Vietnam.” In Vietnam you are a “trained killer, and this stuff just don’t leave you…. It just brings the violence out of you” (Carper, Martinez, and Johnson 1999, 27).
Vietnam had changed Johnson, and French, Hughes, Smith and countless other African Americans who served in that war. In return, however, these men also changed the military. Military authorities reacted to the racial violence and dissension plaguing the ranks by initiating programs designed to expel radicals and other perceived troublemakers from the armed forces; but they also attempted to address the legitimate grievances of black service personnel. More black-oriented products were available at the post exchanges, and the Pentagon made a concerted effort to recruit more minority officers. Most important, testing, promotion policies, and the military justice system were reformed to help eliminate systemic or personal racism. Their war is over, but the legacy of African Americans endures and can be seen in the ongoing transformation of the American military.