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"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 here alone."

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 this degree.

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 enough."

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 education.

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 the blood.

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 educational institutions.

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 my dues."

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