The Blacks and the Vietnam War
No other time in the history of America had the blacks participated in large proportion in serving the army than they did in the Vietnam War. Although African Americans have been participating in all American wars, sometimes the hostility they received from their fellow Americans could be equated to that of their enemies. The US decision to invade Vietnam unraveled the domestic struggle that lead to the civil rights movements that gained their momentum in early 1960s to fight for racism and black man’s rights (Willbanks 5). The media presented the Vietnam War as a black man’s subject in the struggle for identity. Indeed, going to the Vietnam War was an eye-opener for the blacks, who politicized the situation because it was apparent that they were exploited to fight for democracy abroad whereas they continued to suffer from lack of it at home.
Defending Democracy Abroad
The Vietnam War was a struggle against the spread of communism in South East Asia, and the result was to promote liberal democracy, rather than compulsory dictatorship. The war lasted between 1959 and 1973, and involved Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but the combat troops began their operation in 1965 until the cease-fire in 1973 (Mazhar and Goraya 272). For black soldiers, going to Vietnam presented an opportunity to move away from pathetic economic and social circumstances at home after many years of discrimination. They perceive their contribution to the war as the best chance to prove their worth as American citizens. The black troops believed that their sacrifice in defending democracy outside the US would be rewarded by drafting laws on equality at home (Kirby n.p).
However, fighting for democracy away from home did not produce the results that the black troops had been envisioning. Tension grew in the course of the war, forcing the soldiers to turn on each other. The black power had invaded the battlefield, as Civil Rights movement highlighted the hypocrisy of blacks fighting to safeguard democracy in Vietnam while they are denied freedom at home (Fry 209). Although President Johnson was almost sure that the Vietnam War would generate a political divergence, he opted to overlook the possibility of racism within the armed forces.
African Americans have been deployed in every war that the US has participated as part of the military force. Despite their proportion in comparison to the majority in the US population, African Americans inclusion continued to raise doubts, bearing in mind that they have always experience racial discrimination in their home soil. In 1964, the proportion of Africa Americans in the US population was approximately 13%, but only around 9% of the US military were blacks (Willbanks 4). African Americans contributed immensely in the Vietnam War, as their number had transformed the nature of the US military force.
Even as the soldiers fought relentlessly in Vietnam, the legislation still isolated blacks in schools as well as in employment. Young black southerners were enrolled in the army with a notion that the US was out to stop North Vietnamese communist aggression, with an aim of maintaining free democratic society for South Vietnam (Fry 150). However, many African American soldiers believed that they could not fight and die in a war that has lost its popularity among Americans while some Americans were still fighting Civil War within their home soil. Since the first departure in Vietnam campaign in 1961 towards the withdrawal of all American soldiers in 1975, out of the 58,022 US fatalities, 12.6% were African Americans (Fry 208).
In the initial stages of Vietnam War, black and white soldiers were able to work together as they protected the pride of their country. However, circumstances began to take new shape, as black soldiers began to experience discrimination in terms of duty assignments, as well as promotions. Black resentment towards senior white officers grew rapidly, and the black soldiers engaged their fellow whites by demanding equal treatment. The relationship between white and black soldiers deteriorated in the late 1960s especially among the non-combatant units, who separated themselves from the rest of the units.
Drafting of Black Soldiers
The draft became a major concern for African Americans due to the tactics used to select the draftees. Most of the American soldiers who served in the battlefields were coerced to join the army through the draft. Drafting boards were exceedingly divisive and discriminatory in nature concerning the selection of African Americans in the military. African Americans were lowly represented in the local draft boards while most draftees were either poor or uneducated, who were ready to take any job due to their circumstances. In 1966, only 1.3% of African Americans were included in the draft boards nationally (Fry 154). The reasons for poor representation in the draft boards were mainly due to class and poverty. During the war, only 5% of African Americans managed to enroll in colleges nationally, making the rest of the black population suitable candidates for the army.
The US government tried all tricks to lure blacks in the army so that they undertake lower positions and carry out tough responsibilities in the battlefield. In 1966, the US government invented a new program of recruiting soldiers, which was named Project 100,000, to encourage poor, as well as uneducated blacks to enroll in the army through lowering the standards of admission and re-qualify them into military servicemen (Eldridge 49). After recruiting more than 340,000 soldiers, the budget for recruitment was slashed, thus, denying the recruits special training. The Project 100,000 staff experienced discrimination from their seniors in Vietnam, since the seniors considered the new recruits as mediocre. The recruits were allocated tedious tasks, or hazardous combat duties.
Black southerners came to realize that they were being exploited in the Vietnam War by carrying the burden of their fellow whites. Although the total national population of African-Americans was below 15% between 1965 and 1970, the percentage of blacks who were drafted rose from 13.4% to about 16% of all draftees in the same period (Fry 208). The level went up to 64% when the war became tough. Coming from a discriminated society, African Americans perceived military as an enticement of educational benefit and a display of patriotism (Kirby n.p). Blacks were drafted in large number, even though they were assigned dangerous combat responsibilities. This implied that in terms of fatality, more black soldiers lost their lives in the battlefield as compared to the whites. Lack of African Americans in the National Guard units and reserves explains how inequality in drafting favors only the middle-class whites.
Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War
The civil rights movement emerged almost the same period as the US was preparing to attack Vietnam. The two historic events seemed to support each other, as black soldiers sought solace from the Civil Rights leaders, who were pushing for black ideologies in the mainstream society. Civil Rights movement was established to integrate black people into American society. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became the first group to contest against the Vietnam War, and its claim was that Vietnam War was a distraction in the fight for domestic civil rights, as well as a burden to African Americans (Fry 194).
The most vocal civil rights leader was Martin Luther King Jr., who began his criticism on Vietnam War in 1966. King termed the US engagement in Vietnam War as a backward history that meant to perpetuate white colonialism (Fry 214). King believed that the war was an exploitation of black community, whose young men were sent to secure liberty in Southeast Asia. Civil Rights leaders accused the US government of coercing blacks to fight for democracy thousands miles away from home yet it cannot guarantee them freedom at home. According to King, losing black soldiers in the war was a calamity to the African American society; as such, soldiers had families to take care of. The black leaders who lead civil rights movement argued that the war in Vietnam was an attempt by the US government to control the people of color.
Despite numerous changes carried out by President Johnson, African Americans continued to face problems, as the black press joined civil rights leaders to call for more actions to eradicate problems that blacks were facing in the US. Vietnam War overshadowed the Second Reconstruction, faltering the efforts towards the Great Society (Eldridge 207). However, the black press took the chance to blame the war for denying African-Americans a last chance to attain moral as well as financial success. According to the black press, the war shifted Congress’s attention from transforming civil rights to securing funds to engage the Vietnamese.
The black press interpreted the Vietnam War through the black experience since the blacks were involved in both fronts: to fight against racial inequality and to resist exploitation in the guise of defending democracy. Although the black press did not oppose the war explicitly, it exhibited the war as an intimidation to the wellbeing of African Americans. According to the press, the war restrained the existence of a free society, which offered structural support for black society to transform American society by establishing equitable and prosperous community (Eldridge 211). The war eliminated lives of many young black Americans as well as wounding others both physically and emotionally, without transforming the internal issues in the US, where African Americans received no recognition.
The NAACP and Vietnam War
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) supported the US government in attacking Vietnam because the government had agreed to integrate a significant number of African American men in the army. The NAACP was satisfied that this was the first war that saw the Americans fighting in an integrated army (Ingram 57). In addition, NAACP perceived the inclusion of African Americans as an advancement of economic and social hope for the young African Americans. The association was not ready to let the president down since he seemed to support its major civil rights initiatives.
Many observers asserted that African-Americans contribution to Vietnam War was economically beneficial because some of the soldiers had not been promised such huge amount of money. Some African-American soldiers volunteered to join the risky elite group, as the more hazardous the assignment was, the greater the pay (Ingram 57). The payback also included GI Bill benefits for the soldiers who would manage to return home alive. However, the civil rights leaders lead by Martin Luther King Jr. did not approve the war since the US government was exploiting African American soldiers while still ignoring their plights at home. NAACP did not want to merge civil rights battles with the issue of war because the association was not a peace organization. According to Ingam, NAACP officers criticized the civil rights leaders by stating that “You cannot serve the civil rights struggle at home by involving it in a struggle abroad” (57).
The NAACP resolutions that it highlighted in 1967 contradicted the issue in Vietnam since the association was concerned about human rights both domestically and internationally. NAACP had pushed for several peace negotiations in the 1960s, but opted to ignore the situation in Vietnam, which also touched on human rights. The association’s relationship with President Johnson was strong and criticism on policies directed to war was seen as lack of respect. According to Ingram, NAACP was convinced that integration of armed forces would enhance African-Americans stature in the American society (59).
African Americans continued to volunteer in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s, but in 1968, they began to see the hidden agenda of the war through Black Power. The Tet Offensive, as well as the My Lai executions mad Americans minimize their hopes in Vietnam while African-Americans rapidly reduced their volunteer practice in Vietnam (Ingram 60). The difference in opinion between civil rights groups and NAACP continued to grow even after Johnson’s departure from office. The growing unpopularity of war and persistent racial tensions impelled NAACP to change its stand and call for deployment of more African-Americans to top command to eradicate army misdemeanors, which seemed to favor the white soldiers.
Religion and War
Religious values contributed in opposing the war, particularly from the southern African Americans. Both Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. offered religious opinion concerning their resistance to the war. According to King Jr.’s stand in 1967, all men, regardless of whether they are communists or capitalists, white or black, should learn to forgive each other, as killing one another is unacceptable in Christianity (Fry 207). Ali supported King’s argument that the war violated religious beliefs due to the killing of innocent people in the process.
The black church had already declared that going to war is wrong, as religion continued to influence black opinion concerning war. The war had destroyed American credibility abroad, and religious leaders were calling for withdrawal of the US military force in Vietnam (Fry 6). The anti war persuasions by religious leaders seemed to influence the southern African American community, which favored withdrawal from Vietnam. According to Fry, only 35% of blacks were against the war in 1966, but this number rose to 56% in 1969, as African Americans consistently argued that the US should withdraw its army from Vietnam (207).
Racial Tensions within the Troops
In the preparations to the war, relationships between American combat units were positive as the troop shared their experiences in approaching frightening situations. When called into action, both white and black soldiers faced their enemies together and tended to shield each other. However, race relations emerged among the non-combat units, as African American soldiers calculatedly isolated themselves from their units. Racial solidarity emerged while apathy developed among black ranks when domestic racial and anti-war pressure intensified (Kirby n.p). They became strong campaigners of black power. Black power was a faction meant to claim for racial pride among African American soldiers. The black soldiers argued that their isolation was not based on how the war was progressing, but rather, they wanted their voice to be heard in their homes.
Black soldiers alleged that some white soldiers within the units made racist comments, in addition to using some symbols that promoted racism. Both black and white armed forces exhibited higher points of racial sensitivity, which was interpreted into intentional social segregation (Hampton 116). The result was disillusionment, which subsequently led to inappropriate discipline among the US army in Vietnam. Whenever black soldiers gathered during mealtime or when listening to music, their seniors suspected them of plotting something. Black soldiers were unfairly scrutinized if they were found in groups during their service in Vietnam.
Empowered by transformation that was witnessed at home, black soldiers rebelled against their fellow whites, as they demanded equal treatment in the battlefield. They began to perceive themselves as their enemies and minimized their efforts in the campaign. Project 100,000 played a critical role in creating tension in Vietnam because soldiers who were recruited through the project were ignored during promotions, most of the recruits were allocated tough duties. Black soldiers also received more cruel punishments than white soldiers did even when they committed same crime during their practice. No, wonder the casualty rates that were reported among this project doubled the rates of other entry units (Willbanks 5). It was clear that the training that Project 100,000 received could neither assist them to rise in the military ranks nor enhance their opportunities for civilian life.
Destructive riots became widespread in the US during the 1960s as blacks rebelled against Vietnam War. The most widespread riot was reported in 1968 after the assignation of King, and its effect spread as far as Vietnam as a shared risk and responsibility (Willbanks 5). African American prisoners who were jailed for causing violence caused chaos at the US Army center in South Vietnam, as they protested against racism in the army. Some white soldiers also died in the riots. As the war progressed to the end, many African American soldiers had already developed negative attitude towards it, and many of them opted to leave even though they were eligible for re-drafting. They believed that their contribution in foreign affairs should match their lives in their home country.
Vietnam War exposed racial tension that had been disturbing blacks in the US, as soldiers support civil rights movement in fighting for black freedom. The war diverted the attention of attaining an integrated American society, as the US government directed its effort in eradicating communism in South East Asia. The unbalanced number of black combat casualties, the slow progress in rank, racism at home, unmerited military justice system and the killing of Martin Luther King Jr., pressed black service members to query their involvement in Vietnam War. The mode of selection to the army was questionable while the disproportionate number of blacks in Vietnam had an ulterior motive. Blacks were disillusioned of how the issue of segregation was being handled at home, yet they were out of their country to safeguard American democracy.
Eldridge, Lawrence A. Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African American Press. Columbia [Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2011. Internet resource.
Fry, Joseph A. The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Internet resource.
Hampton, Isaac. The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration Through Vietnam. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.
Ingram, Glen. “NAACP Support Of The Vietnam War: 1963-1969.” Western Journal Of Black Studies 30.1 (2006): 54-61. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 Feb. 2016.
Kirby, Jason R. “Equality or Discrimination? African Americans in the U.S. Military During the Vietnam War (review).” Project Muse (July 2007). Web. 22 Feb. 2016. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jmh/summary/v071/71.3kirby.html
Mazhar, Muhammad Saleem, and Naheed S. Goraya. “A Critical Analysis Of Vietnam War In Comparison With Afghan War.” South Asian Studies (1026-678X) 28.2 (2013): 269-281. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Feb. 2016.
Willbanks, James H. Vietnam War: The Essential Reference Guide. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013. Print.