Racial Tensions in the Military

Racism, Unrest, and Resistance

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"Race Relations in the Vietnam War." (September 13, 1992). America's Defense Monitor. Retrieved August 4, 2005 from the World Wide Web at http://www.cdi.org/adm/Transcripts/552.

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Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque (USN, Ret.)

Director, Center for Defense Information


Sanford Gottlieb, Senior Producer


David T. Johnson


Mark Sugg


Daniel Sagalyn

Marguerite Arnold


Sanford Gottlieb


Marguerite Arnold & Daniel Sagalyn


Washington, D.C.




13 September 1992


(Center for Defense Information).

(C) Copyright 1992, Center for Defense Information. All Rights Reserved.

Videotapes also available.


Features commentary from:

Participants in Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Forum:










Also interviewed separately:




NARRATOR: The Vietnam War was the most divisive American conflict since the end of the Civil War a century earlier. On the racial front, it was also America's first fully integrated war. Blacks and whites, Native Americans, Hispanics and Asian Americans fought side by side. They saved each other's lives and died in each other's arms.

["AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR" program introduction.]

Admiral GENE LaROCQUE: Welcome once again to "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR."

Our troops in Vietnam experienced some dramatic changes in race relations. Fighting in combat together, they learned to live together. The question we have to ask is whether or not those experiences which our troops had in Vietnam have any lasting impact on race relations in the United States. Our program is about that. I think you'll find it interesting.

NARRATOR: President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948. But segregated units still existed during the Korean War. It wasn't until the mid-1960s in Vietnam that truly mixed units saw action in a major war.

What impact did the Vietnam experience have on race relations?

TIM BROWN: It starts from the time you're in boot camp, where for the first time in your life, you're living with people of different cultural backgrounds and different racial back- grounds, and you suddenly start to realize that, hey, some of these people are brighter than you are or as bright as you are, they're stronger than you are, they're just as able and capable as you are, yet they've come from different racial backgrounds. You get to know each other on different turf. You're forced by the discipline of the military training to learn how to depend on each other.

NARRATOR: Tim Brown, a former Marine, grew up in North Dallas, Texas. He calls it perhaps the whitest and most conservative neighborhood in America. Mr. Brown was one of the participants in a unique seminar on race relations during the Vietnam War sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund at Howard University.

Mr. BROWN: My service in the military, and particularly my service in Vietnam, saved me from myself. It saved me from those thoughts that had been bred into me and cultivated into me over the years, where I, for the very first time in my life, was able to interact with black people, and Hispanic people, and Native American people.

NARRATOR: In combat together in Vietnam, American troops overcame many of the racial feelings they brought with them from back home. Lily Adams, a Chinese American, served as a nurse in Vietnam.

LILY ADAMS: Sometimes you get five seriously ill coming in every five to fifteen minutes. But when the men start to come in and their buddies come in later on to check on them, there is this love and compassion and sensitivity, and sensitivity that I never experienced before Vietnam. And I see that only -- I hate to say this -- only among Vietnam veterans today. Whether it's in front of the Wall, or at the reunions, there's a love there that I really would like to see among the other populations in this country.

NARRATOR: This seminar was one of a series held to commemo-rate the tenth anniversary of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Wall.

Jan Scruggs, a decorated infantry veteran, led the effort to establish a national memorial to Vietnam veterans in Washington, D.C.

JAN SCRUGGS: I found myself having to rely on people of many different ethnic groups in order to keep myself alive. Two of my best friends were African American and they put their lives on the line for me on numerous occasions, as did I for them.

I served with members of the Navaho and Black Foot tribes. And January of 1970, there was a terrible tragedy; I saw twelve men die. It was a very instantaneous thing and of those twelve men, two were from Puerto Rico, one was Jewish, one was black, the others were assorted Caucasians. The only thing that came to me was the only color that I saw was red, the red of -- the color of blood of little 19-year old kids who had been the victim of a terrible tragedy.

NARRATOR: Retired Air Force Colonel Fred Cherry, a former fighter pilot, was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for seven and a half years.

FRED CHERRY: That we could have a nation like our little nation we had under enemy hands, those of us who spent seven, eight years in Vietnam as prisoners, we would have a nation that's almost free of discrimination and segregation.

NARRATOR: Colonel Cherry's captors tried to manipulate what they assumed were racial divisions among the POWs.

Col. CHERRY: They said being a person of color, how can you support the white imperialistic Americans. I am an American, that's why I support Americans. I am not a Vietnamese, I am an American. And so, because of that, they expected me to do this. As I mentioned earlier, 35 or 40 percent of the troops in South Vietnam were African American out on the front lines, and if they could get me to make tapes denouncing the war or make statements, it would certainly have been to their advantage. So because of that, and I would not do it, I got treated worse.

NARRATOR: Did the close bonds across racial lines that were forged in the dangers of combat extend to the troops in the rear? Usually not. Here's what Jaime Rodriguez found when the Army sent him to Vietnam from Puerto Rico.

JAIME RODRIGUEZ: When I went to Vietnam, we had like three or four bunkers; the white were there, the black were there. And depend who call you -- who did the right approach like the black -- "Hey, brother, come over here" -- you have rum and Coke, Bicardi. (Laughter.) But the white never invite us to join their bunker.

NARRATOR: Puerto Rican soldiers did not have much trouble figuring out where they fit in.

Mr. RODRIGUEZ: The black soldier used to call me "brother," the white man used to call me "boy." So, it was very easy to make a decision. (Laughter, applause.)

Especially we Puerto Ricans, we coming from three major races: white, black and Indian. So then we come to an army that you had to be a groupie army, you had to be with one group or with another. Where we Hispanic going to be?

NARRATOR: Medal of Honor winner Louis Rocco, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, saw the different groups there segregating themselves after hours.

LOUIS ROCCO: The only time that I actually seen the separation was in the bars. And the thing was that nobody segregated the bars but the people themselves. The blacks didn't want to hang out with country and western. They didn't want to hear that music. They didn't want to hear Chicano music. The Chicanos didn't want to hear country and western. They went where they felt comfortable, where they could enjoy a good time.

NARRATOR: Wayne Smith was an Army combat medic in Vietnam for 18 months.

WAYNE SMITH: I volunteered, you know. I wanted to be a medic and do all these good things. And I remember boot camp was pretty damn racist. The sergeants talked about the "gooks." And they would call brothers "niggers" and -- You know, 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.

NARRATOR: Sadly, in one negative way, the Americans in Vietnam were in all of this together. According to Jan Scruggs, many Americans of all races dehumanized the Vietnamese.

Mr. SCRUGGS: One of the interesting things that I found about the Vietnam experience was that it gave individuals really an opportunity to experience racism themselves. It was a chance really for black soldiers, Hispanic soldiers and Caucasian soldiers to become racists because everyone began using the term "gook." And everyone hated the "gooks" and "didn't we kill a lot of gooks the other night," and that type of thing. So, everyone got to see and feel really the ugliest side of racial and ethnic hatred.

NARRATOR: Alone among the veterans in this discussion, Louis Rocco could remember racial fights among American soldiers in Germany in the 1950s. In Vietnam, he says:

Mr. ROCCO: All the fights that I've seen, the race fights that I've seen were always in the rear. They were never with the combat units. It strikes me that for those of -- the people that were in actual combat, that they have a total different outlook on races.

NARRATOR: Race relations in the Vietnam War were clearly not one simple thing. Chief John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux tribe at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, served as an Army linguist and interpreter in Vietnam. He agrees that racial attitudes were different at the front and in the rear. But, he says, there was another element:

JOHN YELLOW BIRD STEELE: It depends on where you were at and I think it depended upon -- a lot upon the individual person, the individual soldier. Now if you were up on the front, there was no race addressed. But if you went back to Saigon or to Danang -- And I'm like my friend over here, that when I met an Indian, boy, we got together.

NARRATOR: Louis Rocco agrees.

Mr. ROCCO: It wasn't all black and white. There was a lot of grey areas. You know, I know that a lot of black troops had white friends, and a lot of white friends had Puerto Ricans, and the Chicanos and the blacks and the whites hung out together. It wasn't all just cut and dry.

And the way I seen it happen is the guys that showed their colors, and were straight, and weren't bums but had good reputations, it didn't matter who they were.

NARRATOR: According to Chief Steele, in some situations there was racial grouping; in others, racial mixing among the troops.

Mr. STEELE: So, we see the blacks over here and they do their dap, you know, and sometimes we'd be with them and then sometimes the whites over here, and it just depended upon who we were with at the time that we would go there. But there's a lot of people, you see. It depended upon the individual because back in Saigon or anywhere, they were together also. The war did have an effect upon them that they didn't care what color and they were friends.

NARRATOR: Chief Steele's reference to "dap" is to the African American soldiers' elaborate greetings and gestures of recognition, as shown in this wartime photo of Wayne Smith and his buddies. Such displays of racial pride in Vietnam often caused tension among white soldiers.

Mr. SCRUGGS: The whole idea of these kind of radical concepts of saying "I'm black and I'm proud," people back then never heard anything like that. And all of a sudden, it became something that was significant in the lives of these black soldiers who, by and large, came from very poor families.

NARRATOR: This new consciousness sprang from years of civil rights struggles and the rage triggered by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

Here, in a separate interview, Jan Scruggs talks about the impact on white troops of African American displays of racial pride. Today, Mr. Scruggs is president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

INTERVIEWER: For white soldiers, was that seen as divisive?

Mr. SCRUGGS: I believe that, in many ways, yes, it was seen that way. I believe that there was a certain amount of intimidation that seemed to go on between black and white soldiers in the late 60s and early 70s that was probably bad for the military back then, as a matter of fact, which ultimately led to a lot of race relations training in the Navy and other branches of the service.

NARRATOR: Before the armed forces started race relations training, however, there were race riots inside the military during the Vietnam War, onboard the USS Kitty Hawk and at Travis Air Force Base in California, for example.

Mr. SMITH: 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.

NARRATOR: Jan Scruggs says the impact of home front problems on most troops in Vietnam was mixed.

Mr. SCRUGGS: I would have to say it was, in the combat units, mild -- mild in some units, negligible. In others it may have been somewhat severe. I believe in some of the rear areas of Vietnam there was racial violence.

Mr. SMITH: After duty, be it in combat or one as a cook or whatever, after the work was done in the evening hours, we would get together in large groups or cliques and talk at length about the problems, what we would do when we got home. Also, because the recycling of the troops, the rotation constantly brought new soldiers into Vietnam from Detroit, from Chicago, from Los Angeles, from Tupelo, Mississippi and other places that one constantly was given new information. But it was always a tension as to whether we should continue to try to do our duty or should we revolt.

NARRATOR: Something else occurred before race relations training took root in the armed forces. The Vietnam veterans came home, but not to the kind of welcome that recently greeted Desert Storm vets. Many civilians seemed to blame the veterans for the troubles of the Vietnam War.

Mr. ROCCO: Vietnam, for the first time, made Anglos, whites know what it is to a second class citizen because the Vietnam veterans were treated as second class citizens.

Mr. SMITH: After the war, clearly all of us, white brothers as well, and sisters, it was evident that we had fallen through the cracks. America had abandoned Vietnam veterans, in general, all of us. In effect, the Congress created the Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Act that had both counseling, health care and some employment components. And generally, it has been effective in some ways.

NARRATOR: Today, Wayne Smith is director of development at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Mr. SMITH: There's been official welcome homes, the American people created a monument, all of which did help the homecoming. But we have to be clear that, for many Vietnam veterans, they've still fallen through the cracks.

NARRATOR: Former nurse Lily Adams is now clinical coordinator for the San Francisco Vets Center. She confirms that some minority veterans are still falling through the cracks.

Ms. ADAMS: This year they pulled back 22 1/2 percent of travel allotment for us, so now the committees can't meet to do their work, to do the research, to train other people about minority issues. Again, here we go; we've got programs, but they're not being financed.

NARRATOR: What kind of race relations do the Vietnam veterans return to? Some of those who had made friends across racial lines in Vietnam came home to a racially divided country.

Mr. ROCCO: I go these veteran organizations and they're still segregated. In New Mexico, I went to an American Legion, DAVs, and all of sudden I go to this one American Legion and it's all black. And I'm telling myself how come these guys aren't in this other post? And how come the Vietnam vets, the VVA, how come I only see one or two blacks in it? Where are the rest of the Vietnam vets? They're not in any organization, I'll tell you that.

NARRATOR: A veteran whose two brothers preceded him to Vietnam describes his return home in the early 1970s.

VIETNAM VET (in audience at VVMF Forum): I had a brother that went over there in '64, I was in the third grade. And another brother over there in '68, I was in the sixth grade. And I was over there in '71 and we fought the Ku Klux Klan and we wasn't in the rear. I know Jim Crow all my life, and when I came back here I still couldn't sit in a bar. I had to go to the back door of some places, 250 miles from Dallas.

NARRATOR: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stanley Karnow moderated the seminar. He asked the veterans to try to connect the Vietnam War to race relations in the United States today. There was no consensus.

STANLEY KARNOW: On the whole, I gather racial relations were relatively better in the armed forces in Vietnam than they are in the society today. Would everybody kind of agree with that?

Mr. ROCCO: I don't think so. I think that Vietnam brought the worst of us out. It was an obscene, evil war and it brought the worst that we had. And that evil that got into a lot of us is still living with us today. Until you clean it out, you'll never have peace.

Ms. ADAMS: It also brought the best of us out. Okay?

Mr. ROCCO: Yes. But for many people, it did not.

ANOTHER PANELIST: Yes, it's not absolute.

Mr. KARNOW: Now are you suggesting that Vietnam contributed in any way to the racial tensions in the country today?

Mr. ROCCO: It contributed in the way that the riots that are going on in L.A. When you have hopelessness, desperateness, anger and fear, what do you do?

Mr. KARNOW: What has that got to do with Vietnam?

Mr. ROCCO: That's what was brought on the vets and that's what they were dealing with.

NARRATOR: Racial turmoil in the 1960s and 70s, in Vietnam, the United States and elsewhere, persuaded the military that it wasn't enough just to train its volunteers to fire rifles, fly planes and sail ships. The Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute was established at Patrick Air Force Base to train military personnel in race relations. About 11,000 servicemen and women have participated so far in the institute's tough-minded discussions, role-playing and courses. And the armed forces started to take more seriously the need to promote experienced, capable African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities.

Today, blacks make up 20.5 percent of the active duty armed forces and Hispanics are 5 percent. The military has become the most racially integrated institution in American life. It works well.

But much progress remains to be made. Although General Colin Powell is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only 7 percent of all officers are black and only 2 percent are Hispanic.

In civilian life, racial attitudes make for the deepest divisions that exist among Americans. There's no positive peace-time equivalent of fighting side by side in Vietnam to overcome these divisions.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Combat is not the only time that this type of thing happens. During hurricanes, and floods and other natural disasters and manmade disasters, people do tend to pull together and kind of bond with one another for a short period of time. But whether an experience like that really has a lasting impact, I'm really not sure.

Mr. SMITH: Within the context of the change of the 1960s and since then, we had a dream, much like Dr. King, that we could advance equality. That not only could we show that we were able, but that white Americans, those who were in power would accept us and give us the deserved position in this country, and that's not happened. With the exception of a Colin Powell or a Clifford Alexander, former secretary of the Army, the American leadership, government, indeed private corporations have woefully been inadequate in terms of sharing the American dream with African Americans.

Mr. SCRUGGS: If anything good came out of Vietnam, it was the fact that many, many hundreds of thousands of individuals who never really would have been exposed to people of other races, particularly people like me -- We never had any Hispanic popula- tion of any significance in the Maryland-Washington, D.C. area. I had an opportunity to become friends with Mexican Americans in different parts of the country. So, I think it was probably good for many Americans that they had that experience, but the long term impact really eludes me.

Mr. SMITH: One still sees the sadness in the eyes of these people, I do certainly, when they haven't had the opportunity to relate to African Americans again. Particularly, this is true for white soldiers. They feel a real sense of loss that -- Usually it's a Willie Joe Smith or something like that from the South or somewhere who they were incredibly close to and miss that, but can't quite come up with the way to reach out or try to renew a like relationship.

INTERVIEWER: They can't renew it back home in civilian life.

Mr. SMITH: No. Most have talked about how difficult it is. As you know, most white people live in white communities. And when African Americans walk through, never mind visit, you know, the neighbors have something to say. There's this real consciousness.

NARRATOR: It would be unwise to count on wars to unify a racially divided nation and civilians may not follow the military's lead on race relations. If there's to be change, where will it come from?

RODNEY KING: "People, I just want to say, you know, can we -- can we all get along? Can we -- Can we get along?"

Admiral LaROCQUE: Every person who's ever served in combat knows how important it is to trust your fellow officer, your fellow enlisted person because your very life depends on it. All of us come to depend on each other in combat, partly because we want to achieve a victory.

We've learned also from our experience in Vietnam that we can have an integrated military force during peacetime, very successfully. Today, for example, over 20 percent of our armed forces are black and we have a large percentage of minorities in the armed forces, and they all work together very well. Everyone appreciates each other's capabilities and we learn a lot from each other under those circumstances.

However, the question really before us as a nation today is whether or not we can successfully integrate the rest of our society as well as we've integrated the armed forces. I leave that question for you to answer.

Until next time, for "AMERICA'S DEFENSE MONITOR," I'm Gene LaRocque.

[End of broadcast.]


(Center for Defense Information].

(C) Copyright 1992, Center for Defense Information. All Rights Reserved.

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