"Minority Veterans." In Source Material on the Vietnam Era Veteran. Congress.
Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, 173-236. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1974. Committee Print 26.
Part 3: Minority Veterans.
When the Negroes in Vietnam Come Home / Whitney M. Young, Jr. (p. 173-182).
(Originally published in Harper's, June 1967.)
SuDoc No.: Y4.V64/4:V67/6
Whitney Young of the National Urban League visited Vietnam in July of 1966. While there he made
several observations about the attitudes and hopes of African-Americans serving in Vietnam and
what they were expecting upon their return to the United States. Young noticed many factors
that could potentially have persuaded returning African-American veterans to become more militant.
Among the factors were continued racism at home, racism from white servicemen, and the backlash
experienced by the black power movement. The "essentially non-white" community in Vietnam
(making whites a minority) was also cited as a factor.
Despite these pressures towards militancy he ultimately found that the overwhelming attitude of
African-Americans in Vietnam was one of patriotism and confidence in the American system. They
fully expected America to change after noticing the sacrifices that they were making.
[From Harper's Magazine, June 1967]
When The Negroes In Vietnam Come Home
(Whitney M. Young, Jr.)
The first war in which American armies are completely integrated is having an enormous –
and surprising – impact on both Negro and white soldiers. And it will affect the whole
country when they come back to civil life.
When I returned from visiting the American Negro GIs in Vietnam last July, I was surprised to
learn that my trip had caused consternation among some of the press and public who maintained,
among other things, that the place to be addressing myself to the Negro struggle for equality
was at home, not in some far-flung, war-torn land.
It is true that the Negro victory for equal opportunity and the full deserts of democracy must
and will be won on American soil. But it is equally true that what has happened – and
is happening – to the Negro and white soldier in Vietnam will have a profound and
far-reaching effect on the whole race situation in America during the next decade. For in
this war there is a degree of integration among black and white Americans far exceeding that
of any other war in our history as well as any other time or place in our domestic life.
The impact of this experience on both white and Negro servicemen in Vietnam has formidable
ramifications for the future of all Americans.
The armed forces were not officially desegregated until 1948. Negro troops fought as
segregated units all during the second world war and part way through the Korean war.
During the 1950s desegregation proceeded only fitfully. The Vietnam war thus represents the
first military occasion in the history of the United States when white and Negro troops have
trained and fought shoulder to shoulder, responsible for the same duties, answerable for the
same errors. Inevitably, the Mainland myths of the God-given superiority of the white man
and of the Negro's natural inadequacy are beginning to crumble.
When asked what was the most significant impression he had from this new integrated condition,
one Negro GI summed up the situation: "To find out for the first time that all white
people are not geniuses and all Negroes are not idiots." At the same time, the white
soldier can not help observing and coming to respect the courage, intelligence, and
effectiveness of his Negro fellows. One white American general in Saigon told me:
"My people in the Army were made to integrate in the early 1950s long before the rest
of the country. But we are sure glad it happened. Today, here in Vietnam, there is
absolutely no difference between the caliber of white and Negro soldiers. The Negroes
are good. In fact, I think they try just a little harder. They won't let that white guy
in the foxhole with them do better than they."
Having been given the opportunity – not readily available in civilian life – to
demonstrate their skills, ability for leadership, and precision performance in combat and
in man-to-man contact, the Negro in Vietnam has earned the deep-down respect of the white
soldiers, a respect that often takes the form of total dependence. In the guerrilla warfare
of Vietnam, discriminatory attitudes can command a high price, even the price of life itself.
"In a tight situation over here the race thing just doesn't exist," said Negro
Sergeant Otis Curry. "Sure you find guys with chips on their shoulders. But when
this happens, they are ostracized by their own kind. And, man, you can't make it over
Captain Lucius Reeves of Miami, a college educated Negro with two white Southern sergeants
assigned to his staff, told me, "When you're out in these hills, no one has time for
race. Everybody that has U.S. on his sleeve is a buddy. I've seen white guys hugging and
kissing their Negro platoon sergeant after he's brought them through a fire fight. And I
think a lot of white guys are leaving here with a completely different attitude."
This viewpoint was confirmed by a number of white soldiers from the South who told me they
would never again be victims of the stupefying myths on which they were brought up. Many
of them advanced the theory that their own sense of insecurity had been the major force
that helped perpetuate the degradation of Negro status.
It is, of course, possible to enforce integration – or any other moral ethic –
to a much greater degree in the armed forces than in civilian life. One of the first lessons
a young man learns on his first day in uniform is that it is not the function of the
private – or the general – to question military policy. His job – his
only job – is to do his duty to the best of his ability. If part of this duty is
functioning in an integrated situation, then that, patriotically speaking, is that. The
President of the United States himself cannot impose integration in civilian life to
When Whites Are A Minority
But this change has not been achieved by military directive alone. The young Negroes
fighting today in Vietnam are the war babies of the civil rights movement, and the
desegregation of the American armed forces is one of its major gains. If these men have
yet to experience the true taste of freedom in their own land, they are able to see the
inevitability of true equality which for their forefathers was barely a mirage.
Another factor contributing to integration in Vietnam is the color of the community itself,
which is essentially non-white. The Vietnamese for generations have suffered exploitation
by white people, principally the French. One of the favorite propaganda exercises of the
Vietcong is to drop leaflets explaining the race issue to the American Negro. These
thoughtfully remind the Negro troops of their own period of slavery and ask for what purposes
are they in Vietnam helping the whites oppress a colored people.
But this is a war in which white American soldiers find themselves in a non-white country.
The community and the situation are thus very different from World War II in Europe, when
the white soldier often made it his business to discredit the Negro in the minds of the
local citizens, who were white too. In Vietnam, because victory – and often survival
itself – depends on the friendship of the Vietnamese people and on the good will and
military prowess of the Negro, there are few attempts to educate indigenous groups about
racial differences and white supremacy. The whites are fighting in a situation where, for
the first time in their lives, they are the minority. In Vietnam, it's not always possible
to tell who are your friends and who are your enemies. And so the American soldier has to
put a great deal of effort into trying to understand the Vietnamese people and to develop
warm relationships with all associates if for no other reason than self-defense. By
necessity, then, the white American soldier has developed a sincere sympathy for people who
never in their lifetime have experienced peace, independence, and freedom from exploitation,
and who are different in culture, religion, and color. This is possibly another factor in
his change of attitude toward the American Negro serving beside him.
As a result of these combined influences, the Negro has clearly developed sophistication,
confidence in his own ability, and a sense of well-being in an integrated climate. He is a
man accustomed to discharging duty and exercising responsibility. He is used to commanding
the respect he has justly earned. And these are the spoils of battle he will bring with him
when he returns to America. This time the Negro veteran will return to his native land shorn
of his old sense of stunted purpose. This fact poses some deep questions.
What The Negro Will Expect
The first question is, naturally: what can the discharged Negro GI expect when he returns?
In talking with many of the Negro soldiers, I found this thought to be foremost. Many
expressed bitter concern about the condition of their parents, wives, and children in
semi-segregated America while they were risking their lives in the service of the country.
Sergeant Andrew May, a twenty-nine-year-old Negro squad leader from Rocky Mount, North
Carolina, who has been more than once decorated for bravery, said, "It does make you
feel funny sometimes, fighting here for things we're denied at home. But you just got to
shake your head and hope the situation will change."
While the Negro servicemen expressed rapt interest in the progress and development in the
civil rights movement it was evident from their responses to news of change and reform that
a wide credibility gap still exists. Many felt the changes were merely token compliance
with the law and were motivated less by desire for racial justice than by desire for
defense contracts. Many expressed bewilderment at the "backlash" and the defeat
of the civil-rights bill on the excuse of the riots and the rise of Black Power.
One soldier summed up the reaction of most when he said,
"Doesn't America understand that this so-called tide of violence is just a handful of
people, a very small minority of the population? That for every Negro who throws a rock
there are thousands in Vietnam, wading around in the mud, fighting their guts out in the
jungles, risking their lives twenty-four hours a day – and getting killed upholding
the honor of a country in which they don't even have their lawful privileges? If they can't
pass the civil rights bill because it's the just and right thing to do, they should do it
in recognition of what the Negro guys have done and are doing in Vietnam. That's reason
As I listened to countless Negro soldiers, one thing became obvious. After risking his life
in the service of his country and, in the process, having experienced the most advanced form
of integration in America's history, the Negro veteran is not prepared to return to the status
quo, to regress culturally and socially once he sets foot on American soil. He is grimly
determined – by whatever method necessary – to live in an America where his
rights are fully guaranteed. In his war experience he has acquired new confidence and new
skills, among them the skills of guerrilla warfare, of killing, of subversion, and the gamut
of tricks of military combat.
These returning veterans may face, as I faced when I returned from World War II, an America
that may choose to ignore their sacrifices, new skills, and proven ability; a society that
continues to subject them and their families to discrimination. If that be the case they
will be disillusioned and hostile – and full of fresh memories of an environment where
life was cheap and where the order of the day was kill or be killed. It would then be
realistic to expect such experts of mines and booby traps and all other forms of destruction
to find good reason why they should use these skills and risk their lives against the enemy
of personal injustice as they did against the enemy of Communist aggression.
The Negro men fighting in Vietnam are not representative of the racial extremists currently
active in the ghetto. "I sympathize with them," said one Negro private. "I'm
trying to accomplish the same thing, but I'm just doing it another way, that's all."
"The ghettos are a sore spot on the country, a sore spot on our race," said Sergeant
Otis Curry, an old time Negro soldier. "I come from Detroit and I was there during the
riot. Stores were busted up. Negroes were killed. What's it prove?"
However, if they return to find the conditions they left unchanged, these Negro veterans
might become an interested audience for the preachers of violence – and one capable
of being organized into a major national threat.
In contrast to this threat, the effects of the Vietnam war on the American Negro offer a
great opportunity to this country if they are understood and accepted in time. The veterans
are also capable of becoming responsible and productive citizens, if given the opportunity in
the industrial and civic community. Among the hopes and plans that the GIs spoke of to me,
the desire for further education had high priority. Ironically, the value of education is
one of the big lessons they learn from their war experience, for the simple reason that in
many cases an inferior education has arrested their rank-and-file advance in the armed forces.
The sad fact is that what has limited their advance in the Army also handicaps them in trying
to better their education in civilian life. The grades they made in high school under a
segregated and spurious educational system are the criterion too often used by insensitive
schools and universities as the basis for acceptance. For men who have graduated cum
laude in the life-and-death examination of self-discipline, professional skill, and,
above all, hope, ambition, and new maturity, this criterion is no longer valid. It would
be a tragic mistake if these capable and potentially outstanding young men were judged simply
on the basis of their previous high school records in their aspirations to higher or technical
There has been bitter comment and controversy about the high proportion of Negroes serving
in Vietnam. As of October first las year, there were 39,125 enlisted Negroes. This is 11
per cent of the total military force. The Negro death toll is reported to be proportionately
even higher. Of the 4,557 Americans killed in Vietnam during the first eleven months of
1966, 16.3 per cent were Negroes. A more recent Defense Department study shows Negroes
accounting for nearly 18 per cent of combat deaths.
The facts, however, do not bear out the charges of gross discrimination. First, close to
70 per cent of the Negro men who are drafted or who volunteer for the armed forces are
rejected because of poor educational background or poor health resulting from discriminatory
environments. The 30 per cent who are accepted are not society's rejects, not the functional
illiterates, the addicts, or the chronically unemployed – but the "cream of the
crop" of the Negro community. These are the men who represent the potential forces of
leadership in the war in Vietnam and in the battle cry for freedom at home.
The Negro percentage is higher mainly because a larger number of Negroes voluntarily enlist
– and reenlist – than do whites. The first enlistment is less representative of
disproportionate patriotism than it is a reflection on our country. The second enlistment is
not, as commonly believed, related simply to the opportunity to make more money, but because
the Army offers more opportunity for advancement, for learning skills and using natural
talents, for dignity, for self-respect and a sense of worth than does the present condition
of civilian life. For the majority of these capable young men, the Army is their university.
The reason for the high rate of Negro combat deaths lies in the simple fact that a higher
proportion of Negroes volunteer for hazardous duty. They do so not for the money –
which doesn't begin to justify the risk – but more from a desire to prove to themselves
and to their white colleagues that they are men capable of as much skill, courage, and
sacrifice as any man alive.
People, Not Politics
I heard relatively little political comment about the war among the troops serving in Vietnam.
This stems at least in part from the particular nature of the war itself. In the second world
war and to a lesser degree in the Korean war. American self-interest and self-defense were
the overriding concern. In this war, the prevailing attitude among American troops seems to
be a genuine sympathy for the Vietnamese – with their suffering. Americans, both Negro
and white, have developed warm personal relationships with the Vietnamese, particularly with
the children. It is a pretty plastic-hearted soldier who does not feel pity for the kids
bathing in the muddy water, sleeping in rat-infested quarters, and often existing on a meager
diet of rice. It is images like these that command, for the American soldier, the major part
of moral fervor. A large number of American troops – both Negro and white –
devote their precious off-duty hours to teaching and trying to help the villagers. This
close-up view of real people suffering great distress tends to obscure the political
controversy that we at home read so much about in the press.
One of the most rewarding experiences of my trip was a visit to the U.S. Agency for
International Development headquarters in Saigon. With $525 million – or one quarter
of the total AID budget for fiscal 196 – being spent in Vietnam, we are really fighting
a socio-economic and educational war at the same time we're fighting a military one. In order
to carry out their work in the villages, AID personnel have to rely heavily on the cooperation
and protection of the military. The teamwork among the two groups is outstanding.
It was interesting to meet a young man working at AID who had been active in the antiwar
demonstrations at Berkeley. There he was in Vietnam, beard and all, involved in the heart
of this vital action. His attitude toward the war was unchanged – he was still adamantly
opposed to it – but his approach had changed. His views had been modified by seeing
what seemed to be the pathetic alternatives for these people in the absence of American social
and economic aid.
The Negro and white Americans in Vietnam are thus for the first time in their history united
in spirit as well as in combat. Regardless of the moral issues or political differences about
this war. This shared experience is producing a vital effect on Negro-white relations. The
effect is particularly significant among whites from the Deep South. Before I arrived in
Vietnam, I was apprehensive about getting the chance to talk to Negro GIs without the whites
present. At the same time I wanted to be careful not to set up a segregated situation. But
to my surprise, I quickly learned that many of the white soldiers were as eager as the Negroes
to hear the latest news on the racial situation at home, and many responded to the information
about the slow pace of progress with a sense of disgust and disappointment. Many of the
white servicemen expressed more sympathy with the riots and the rise of Black Power than some
of the Negroes. It was an unusual experience to hear white men criticize a society which
permitted them to grow up with superstitious notions about the Negro. These men will represent
a strong and positive force for the kind of legislative and local action that will be needed
when they return to their own communities.
In Vietnam we stayed at the home of Colonel Sam Wilson, who at the time was Ambassador Lodge's
mission coordinator (a unique job which made him a member of both the Army and the State
Department). He was a veteran of the segregated forces of World War II and a Southerner.
He told us that as a result of his experiences in commanding integrated troops, his
misconceptions on race and segregationist attitudes had changed completely.
This is illustrative of the little-known truth that the best and least prejudiced liberals are
reconstructed Southerners. I think one of the reasons for this is that while Southern
prejudice is almost generic, it has a certain counterbalance in the fact that white Southerners
have the opportunity to see Negroes in positions of authority – in education, such as
college presidents, in private enterprise, such as bank presidents, insurance executives, and
so forth – that rarely exists in the North.
General W. C. Westmoreland, commander of the U.S. Vietnam forces, native of South Carolina,
candidly discussed his own personal feelings about the Negro troops. As he discovered from
firsthand experience that the Negro soldier had a highly developed intelligence, talent for
leadership, and a heightened awareness and self-control in tight situations, his attitudes
growing out of his past environment began to fall away. The most eloquent expression of this
approach is not in words, but in his command. The one place where I found a commendable number
of Negro officers in high places was on the General's staff. Among nineteen Negro officers,
there were four lieutenant colonels, seven majors, and eight captains.
The Navy Still Lags
Regrettably, this situation was not evident in other branches of the services. This dearth of
Negro commissioned officers and the failure to upgrade qualified enlisted men and noncommissioned
officers were most disturbing. Several white commanding officers openly admitted they had no
idea how many Negroes were in their units. Several regimental officers had no idea how many
Negro officers were on their staffs. The injustice of this situation was also confirmed by
the number of Negroes who complained that even with outstanding records of achievement in
combat, they were still unable to get promotions.
Of all the services, the Navy in terms of numbers still lags behind in spite of a new commitment
to integration, and Negro officers are few. On an aircraft carrier with a crew of 3,000, and
240 officers, the single ranking Negro officer was one junior-grade lieutenant. One of the
reasons for this is of course historical, since the Navy was the last of the services to break
down completely its barrier against Negro officers.
It is my guess that the Navy is not particularly proud of this fact, if my own experience is
any indication. During a night we spent on the U.S.S. Oriskany aircraft carrier, the
Navy brass made a touching and amusing attempt to justify to the fact of integration. A dinner
had been arranged with the Commander of the ship and the officers. All the officers present
were pilots. There was not a single Negro pilot on the ship. A lower-ranking officer, who
also happened to be Negro, was nonetheless invited on this occasion – his purpose being,
one presumes, to decorate the dining room with blooms of integration. The only other brown
faces present besides ours were the Filipino waiters and one Negro who appeared to have command
of the water glasses.
While one smiles at such obvious subterfuge, there is one aspect of it that demands serious
reflection – and that is the burden placed on one Negro to integrate a whole carrier
crew of officers.
Conversely, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip also occurred aboard the
Oriskany. At four o'clock in the morning, I stood on the top deck of the carrier and
thrilled to the sight of planes being shot off the carrier at intervals of one per minute.
At no time in my life do I remember witnessing such an exhibition of whirlwind, death-defying
teamwork. In the predawn light, I saw several hundred men, both black and white, dashing
through roaring jet exhausts, around the whirling propeller blades, lowering wings, checking
instruments, performing a multitude of skilled tasks with the speed and precision of a giant
machine. If one man failed to perform his job, and to perform it to the split second, it
might mean catastrophe for the whole operation. The efficiency was dazzling.
If this same degree of multiracial teamwork could be translated into the domestic life of
the nation, how dazzling might be the efficiency, the produce, and the human happiness in
America. It is our tragedy and our shame that thus far, in our history, the enormous benefits
of brotherhood can be extracted from society only under life-and-death circumstances.
The adjustment of the returning veteran to civilian life in America is not an easy one. This
is true even of the white servicemen. We have only to look at the case of Congressional Medal
of Honor Winner, Pvt. Robert O'Malley, a high school dropout who after having displayed great
heroism in the service of his country, returned to find that he still held that status of a
dropout (although a celebrity) and before the story broke was unable to get a job in the
prosperous society for which he risked his life. For the Negro veteran the difficulty is
many times greater.
Medals Down To His Knees
"We've got genuine Negro heroes over here," one Negro captain told me. "But
you take a kid from Jackson, Mississippi, and he goes home with medals hanging down to his
knees. Now where is he a hero? He is a hero down in the same part of town he left when he
came over here – not uptown."
The role of our Negro fighting men is perhaps best typified by Specialist 6 Lawrence Joel,
who recently received the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor, at a White
House ceremony. During an attack on his company's position, almost everyone in the lead squad
was killed or wounded in the attack, and Specialist Joel, a medic, treated the wounded men
while still under fire. After being wounded twice, he still dragged himself across the
bloody battlefield to treat more men. Even after his supplies ran out, he continued to help
his comrades, saving one man's life by placing a plastic bag over a chest wound to congeal
Can we ask so much from these men without doing something about the discrimination which
limits their opportunities in civilian life? Is our nation so morally backward as to ask
for such sacrifices from people not allowed to participate fully in all aspects of life?
My purpose in going to Vietnam was not to make any moral judgment, or any military or political
analysis of the war. No sane man would champion the horrendous phenomenon of war, with its
unspeakable atrocities, terrible human suffering, and tragic loss of life. I hoped, by my
presence and by my words, to voice the concern, of the Negro community for the men fighting
and dying in Vietnam and to let Negroes know the fight was continuing at home to assure them
equality of opportunity upon their return. Another reason for the trip was to gather
information about the kind of skills acquired by Negro GIs, the nature of their civilian
ambitions, and how they might best be helped to readjust and contribute to civilian life.
The trip was conceived, sponsored, and paid for by the National Urban League. The U.S.
government provided the necessary means of travel and transportation, security escort, and
access to facilities and personnel. On uninhibited and unannounced visits to the enlisted
men's mess halls, living quarters, combat areas, restaurants, bars, and night clubs, I talked
to Negroes in all branches of the services, in the hills, in the air, at airports, in their
living compounds, at their duty stations, and in the hospitals.
Despite the friendships forged in combat, I noticed that whites and Negroes usually split up
during their off-duty hours. This is the most evident in the bars and clubs, which are
self-segregated. As one Negro sergeant put it, "We remember too well the bars in
the States that are technically 'open' – but you didn't go to them unless you enjoyed
being made to feel uncomfortable. Over here we don't see any point in running this risk.
Time for recreation is too precious. When we're off-duty we don't want to use the time
fighting the race issue."
The exceptions to this rule are the places frequented by members of the Green Berets, the
toughest and most respected fighting unit in the Army. It's an exclusive combat unit and
one of the arms of the famed Special Forces. The Green Berets are assigned the most hazardous
combat duties, where survival itself depends on perfect teamwork. The common experiences of
these men seem to be a greater fraternal bond than race, and white and Negro members usually
stick together off-duty as well as on. Master Sergeant Frederick Robinson from Memphis, a
Negro who heads on of the outfits, told me, "We don't keep a man who's prejudiced in
the Green Berets. We're a close-knit fighting team and we don't stand for any nonsense."
The Negro GI is not prepared to return to the same old discriminatory conditions, the
second-class citizenship, and instant oblivion which greeted the Negro veteran of former wars.
He is prepared to use his new skills and confidence in the enrichment of American life –
or in active protest if he finds this opportunity denied to him. With the racial and political
unrest currently besetting the country, these Vietnam veterans are a force the nation can ill
afford to have embittered.
It is the job of public and private organizations, of business and education and government
to see that this does not happen: by industry, in an enlightened move to hire and train those
Negro veterans who are ready to enter the business world; by the schools to accept the promise
of those who wish to further their education; by the builders and the housing industry in
general to provide decent living quarters without the usual morass of red tape. The National
Urban League has taken the lead in creating a program of action to help the Negro veteran in
his reentry into the mainstream of civilian life. During my talks with President Johnson on
my return from Vietnam, I was assured that he would support the program without reservation,
and he promised the cooperation of the Defense Department and Veterans Administration. He
also expressed an avid interest in the experience of the Negro servicemen and pledged immediate
investigation into the problems of Negro officers, and action on the upgrading of competent
enlisted Negro GIs. Interest has been shown also by many corporations and labor unions and
The Veterans Affairs Program of the National Urban League is designed to inform returning
veterans on the benefits and services available to them, the housing, educational, and
social-service facilities, and the transfer of military skills into civilian employment.
In short, we hope to establish a citizens' Office of Veterans Affairs which would work in
cooperation with government, labor, industry, and educational institutions through the Urban
League's 81 local affiliates.
Approximately 15,000 Negro servicemen are being returned to civilian life annually –
and this figure will rise if the Vietnam forces continue to escalate. Judging from the
commissioned and noncommissioned officer ratios, as many as 4,500 a year will be discharged
with skills immediately transferable to civilian use. Those who do not have immediately
transferable skills can be directed to further training or education. America and her
institutions and communities need and must capitalize on this vast reservoir of skills,
maturity, and proven patriotism. Failure to grasp this opportunity could lead to
disillusionment and disorder on a scale far greater than we have ever known.
"There is no doubt in my mind that when I get home I'm going to have my freedom,"
said Private Tyrone Howell, a Negro combat-medic veteran. "You know when somebody
tells you over and over again you are inadequate, eventually you start to believe it.
Always this question of "heritage." Heritage, man, that's just a breeze that goes
by. I'm going to have my freedom, don't you worry. Let's just put it this way: I've paid