"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 Black GI Come Back from Vietnam / Sol Stern. (p. 185-193).
(Originally published in The New York Times Magazine, March 24, 1968.)
SuDoc No.: Y4.V64/4:V67/6
This article concludes that while most African-American veterans were not joining the militant
black power groups, they were very aware of the inequities and might be "forced" into
violence if the situation warranted. Two veterans are profiled in this article, one who called
the Vietnam War a white man's war and another who saw military service as beneficial to
African-Americans. Though both expressed different views about their experiences,they both
realized that racism was alive and well and that matters could have easily become worse.
A majority of the article then talks about Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's Project 100,000.
Project 100,000 was initiated in 1966 as a "civil rights" program designed to
"salvage" previously rejected enlistees by lowering mental and physical requirements.
The article describes how up to 40% of the "salvaged" group were African-Americans
and that in the Marine Corps up to 83% of "salvaged" African-Americans were assigned
to combat duty. Harsh economic conditions were what forced many African-Americans to enlist
in the first place and what forced many to re-enlist at rates three times their white
counterparts. Some saw Project 100,000 as a racist action designed to exterminate the
African-American population (Representative Adam Clayton Powell compared it to
Nazi atrocities). Others saw it as a necessary, if not ideal, way for the armed forces to provide
under-priveleged groups in society with an opportunity to advance within the military or to
learn new skills they could apply to civilian life once discharged. Daniel Moynihan, former
Assistant Secretary of Labor for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, wrote in a 1966 article
for The New Republic, "Civil rights as an issue is fading. The poverty program is heading for
dismemberment and decline. Expectations of what can be done in America are receding. Very
possibly our best hope is seriously to use the armed forces as a socializing experience for the
[From the New York Times Magazine, March 24, 1968]
When The Black GI Comes Back From Vietnam
(By Sol Stern)
In Vietnam, Charles Cato was a "tunnel rat" – a combat specialty reserved
for the very small, the very agile and the very daring. He had to crawl through dark,
narrow tunnels which may or may not have been sheltering armed Vietcong. One of several
thousand black combat veterans now returning to the urban ghetto, Cato doesn't see anything
extraordinary in what he did. "I didn't mind," he says. "I liked the job.
I found it exciting."
Cato didn't come back to his old neighborhood in Bedford Stuyvesant as a hero. No brass
bands greet returning Vietnam veterans anywhere these days. In the black ghetto the main
reaction to Cato's Vietnam experience has been some good-natured kidding from guys on the
block for fighting "the white man's war."
Charley Cato wasn't exactly happy about going off to Vietnam. He was enjoying his freedom
when he received his induction notice in 1965. Although he made only $55 per week as a
jeweler's apprentice he liked his job and he felt he was learning a good trade. "I
guess I just had to go though and so I went," he says quietly.
Trained as a rifleman and shipped to the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam, Cato spent 12
months in the field around Pleiku, near the Cambodian border, and Chulai. He never even
saw Saigon. Lots of his buddies were killed and wounded, and he did his own share of killing.
He figures that he accounted for at least 11 Vietcong.
Charles Cato doesn't have much to show for his year under fire. He's living back home with
his mother, brother and sister on a dreary, littered street in a battered four-story red-brick
tenement house. His mother is on welfare. Cato was discharged from the Army three months
ago but hasn't been able to find a job. His old job as a jeweler's helper isn't available.
"Things are slow now," says his former boss. Cato is collecting $33 a week in
In Vietnam, he didn't give much thought to the rights or wrongs of the war. "I was
just trying to stay alive and do my job," he says. How does he feel about it now?
"I don't think that country was worth fighting for. But they told us we had to be there
to stop Communism. I think now that we're in it we ought to win the war. We could win it
if we wanted to. I know my buddies who died over there would have felt real bad if we don't
win it now."
But Cato isn't bitter. He doesn't feel he has fought "the white man's war" and
he doesn't have much sympathy for black militants. "I don't want to make any trouble.
I don't feel I ought to hate whitey. A lot of my friends in Vietnam were white and we had
good times together. I'm not prejudiced against white people."
David Tuck, a 26-year-old black veteran, returned from Vietnam and got back his old job with
the Post Office – but he's still angry as hell. He's angry about the war, about the
role that blacks have played in it and about the society he has come home to.
Tuck, from Cleveland's black ghetto, was drafted after he had dropped out of junior college
at just about the same time that Charles Cato was drafted in Bedford Stuyvesant. Tuck was
also in the 25th Infantry Division and spent most of the war in Vietnam's central highlands
as a radio-telephone operator, calling in artillery rounds.
Discharged from the service, he was so upset at what he had seen in Vietnam that he took the
extraordinary step (for a young ex-GI with a Government job) of going to Copenhagen last
December to give testimony at the Bertrand Russell International War Crimes Tribunal. He
told the tribunal that he had witnessed atrocities committed against prisoners by American
and South Vietnamese troops, including the beheading of a captured North Vietnamese by a G.I.
in his own unit.
Tuck says that he went to Vietnam reluctantly. He had misgivings about the war but thought
of it "as a mistake." After more reading and thinking about the war since returning
he now says, "I realized it wasn't just a mistake but part of a whole policy. I realized
this was really an imperialist country. In certain respects it was also a racist war. This
country uses its minorities to do its dirty work up front in Vietnam – Negroes, Puerto
Ricans and hillbillies. I think it's deliberate. These groups are the same ones that are
most despised in American society and who nobody will miss."
Tuck acknowledges that in some respects Army life offers something to the Negro.
"Ironically," he says, "I have to admit I found more democracy among enlisted
men in the Army than outside. But this is the only freedom that black people have – to
fight and die. Some black soldiers I know are re-enlisting, but that shows how bad the
society is for black people – that they should have to stay in the Army to find a decent
Since returning from Vietnam, Tuck has become an activist in the Black Anti-Draft Union in
Cleveland, encouraging other blacks to resist the draft by any means they can.
"I would never fight on a foreign shore for America again," says Tuck. "The
only place I would fight is right here. Black people should not be called on to assume the
duties of citizenship when they don't enjoy the rights and privileges. If a black man has
the courage to fight 10,000 miles away he should have the courage to fight here. He could be
killed as easily by a white man here as by a yellow man over there.
"A lot of black soldiers have been brainwashed. But when they come back and see that what
they fought for doesn't mean a thing and that they are still considered niggers, well then, a
lot of things are going to happen. It all depends on how much combat fatigue they have."
The sharp difference in the attitudes of these two young ghetto blacks illustrates the variable
effects of military experience on black consciousness. About 41,000 black veterans will be
returning to civilian life this year and it is a reasonable guess that at least 5,000 will
have served in Vietnam. No one person can speak for them and no opinion survey will ferret
out their deepest feelings about the racial violence sweeping our cities. If they are inclined
to take part in ghetto uprisings, using the skills they were taught by Uncle Sam, it is not
the kind of thing they are likely to talk to an interviewer about. If there is one thing they
have learned in the service it is how to play it cool. More likely than not, however, they
don't yet know themselves how they will react if violence breaks out in their ghetto this summer.
To the ghetto militant, the returning black Viet vet is a potential source of leadership
and tactical know-how in helping the black community organize for what they expect to be
a savage summer of military repression. To the traditional civil-rights leadership, the
returning vet could be a bastion of stability and moderation in the black community. To
the jittery Defense Department official, the returning black G.I. is both a challenge and
a threat. He is a potential, and potentially lethal, opponent who has to be neutralized
by getting him off the ghetto streets, or he may be an ally, newly recruited into an urban
police department to help with this summer's outbreaks.
To many blacks the military is the only way of escaping from the ghetto. If there are still
remnants of discrimination and racism in the military it is also the only major institution
in American society that has had a thorough-going integration (even though black and white
G.I.'s have engaged in racial brawls in the bars of Saigon and Danang). The
extraordinary rate of black reenlistment attests to this. In 1966, at a time when Vietnam
casualties had started to mount dramatically, 66.5 per cent of Negroes in the Army on
first-term enlistments decided to re-enlist – a rate more than three times as high
as that among whites.
The proverbial catch is that the Army also exacts a disproportionate price in blood for
such benefits as it bestows. In Vietnam between 1961 and 1966, Negroes accounted for more
than 20 per cent of Army fatalities even though they represented only 12.6 per cent of Army
personnel in Vietnam.
Simply stated, the statistics show that the Negro in the Army was more likely than his white
buddy to be sent to Vietnam in the first place; once there, was more likely to wind up in a
front-line combat unit, and within the combat unit was more likely than the white to be
killed or wounded.
The Defense Department explains the disparity by citing the high reenlistment rate which tends
to concentrate many Negroes in the exposed ranks of noncommissioned officers in combat units.
Negroes also tend to volunteer for elite combat units such as the Airborne, says the department,
because of the higher pay rates.
Yet another factor is that the Negro is more likely to be assigned to a combat unit during
his first enlistment because of the lack of skills and education that drove him into the
service in the first place. It is also quite likely that the black is presumed, prima
facie, to be an unskilled young man, good mainly for infantry specialties, by those who
make such assignments.
The popular motion-picture image of black serviceman in World War II (and to some extent
even in the Korean war) as the smiling, compliant cook, or supply handler in a segregated
unit has thus radically altered. The black soldier has not only participated in his share
of White House medical ceremonies and been featured on the covers of magazines, but he has
been publicly praised for his contributions and heroism by General Westmoreland before the
all-white Legislature of South Carolina.
But is the black man's new role in the military a gain or a tragedy that will ultimately
breed more racial discord?
Lieut. Col. George Shoffer, one of the highest-ranking Negro officers in the United States
Army, sees it as a constructive development and a source of great personal pride. Shoffer
spent almost a year of hard fighting in Vietnam as a commanding officer in the field, and
led an all-black segregated unit in World War II.
When asked about the high casualty rate among Negroes in Vietnam, he said, "I feel good
about it. Not that I like the bloodshed but the performance of the Negro in Vietnam tends
to offset the fact that the Negro wasn't considered worthy of being a front-line soldier in
To the Negro militant, however, there is no pride in the combat performance of Negroes in
Vietnam. Rather it is another in the long history of cruel jokes played upon the black man
in white America – the black man is being forced to serve as cannon fodder for a war
directed by whites against a colored people. Stokely Carmichael has said it is "clear
that the [white] man is moving to get rid of black people in the ghettos."
Whatever the disagreement among blacks about the inequities of their participation in the
armed services, the Johnson Administration is committed to a long-term policy of broadening
and extending that participation. Secretary of Defense McNamara's famous "salvaging"
speech in August, 1966, launched a program in which induction standards for the armed services
were lowered. Previous rejects, drawn largely from disadvantaged minority groups, were to be
given the educational and training opportunities they would not ordinarily have received in
Now called Project 100,000, the program took in 40,000 previous draft rejects for the year
starting October, 1966; 100,000 during the second year, and will now continue to take 100,000
per year for an indefinite period. Statistics for the first year show that almost 40 per cent
of previous rejects taken in were black. And the percentage assigned to combat specialties
in this group was even higher than the already high rate among black men enlisted normally.
Adam Clayton Powell and other black militants called the program "racist," but,
given the distorted public-policy options arising from the war in Vietnam, some official
preferred to see it as a "civil-rights program." Although the Defense Department
is reluctant to admit it is in the civil-rights or poverty "business," the Defense
official in charge of Project 100,000, Irving Greenberg, hinted at the broader public-policy
considerations behind the program when he said recently: "We see ourselves playing a
role in developing a more stable society, but it is a role consistent with the principal
Department of Defense mission of national security. After all, we are taking people [in
Project 100,000] who we can make usable servicemen out of. We want to play our traditional
role of national security and also have by-products that are socially useful."
A fuller more frank rationale has already been offered by Daniel Moynihan, former Assistant
Secretary of Labor in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and one of the leading
strategists of both Administrations' domestic programs. In a 1966 article in The New
Republic that revealed how desperate domestic strategies were becoming, Moynihan looked to
the military as the only reasonable hope for America's disadvantaged poor – white and
Putting the issue bluntly, he said: "Civil rights as an issue is fading. The poverty
program is heading for dismemberment and decline. Expectations of what can be done in
America are receding. Very possibly our best hope is seriously to use the armed forces as
a socializing experience for the poor – until somehow their environment begins turning
out equal citizens."
Recognizing that the increased presence of Negroes in the armed services would also mean more
blacks being shot at, Moynihan felt even this macabre corollary could be a civil-rights plus
factor. "History may record," he wrote, "that the single most important
psychological event in race relations in the nineteen-sixties was the appearance of Negro
fighting men on the TV screens of the nation. Acquiring a reputation for military valor is
one of the oldest known routes to social equality – from the Catholic Irish in the
Mexican War to the Japanese-American Purple Heart Division of World War II."
Programs based on Mr. Moynihan's social analysis rest ultimately on certain blithe assumptions.
First, there is the assumption that as whites in this society become aware of the valor and
achievements of the Negro soldier their attitudes toward black people in general will change
as it did toward other ethnic minorities in the past. But it is just those earlier ethnic
minorities who are now the strongest sources of racism in the urban centers. If these and
other whites were capable of seeing blacks as just another ethnic group there would be
no race crisis.
More important, there is the assumption that a two- or three-year stint in the Army for the
disadvantaged black will furnish him with useful skills and training. But given the present
distribution of jobs in the armed services and the increasing pressures for more men in
Vietnam, the low-income and poorly educated blacks inducted under Project 100,000 are likely
to leave the service having learned only how to march and fight.
The new policy of drafting college graduates en masse may have the effect of reducing
the over-all percentage of black participation in the armed services but it is also likely
to increase the statistical imbalance of blacks assigned to combat specialties, since the new
college-educated inductees, predominantly white, will tend to monopolize the skilled specialties.
Project 100,000 statistics show that among the "salvaged" blacks going into the
Army, 42 per cent were assigned to the category of "Infantry, Gun Crews and Allied
Specialties" as against 31.5 per cent of the white group. In the Marine Corps, 83.7 per
cent of the blacks and 77.1 per cent of the whites in the "salvage" group were
being assigned to combat specialties.
Thus a program touted for "developing a more stable society" and as a last "best
hope" for civil rights may have effects which, in Pentagonese, could be called
"counterproductive." You take a poorly educated, poorly motivated young Negro and
put him through the harsh discipline of a highly integrated, competitive experience without
teaching him useful occupational skills. You put him through a horrendous war, in which he
cannot help but become conscious of the contributions and sacrifices his race is making, and
then return him to civilian society more disciplined, more competitive and with greater
expectations for himself but with no specific talents he can sell – a society,
furthermore, that has become, in the interim, more polarized along racial lines. Under such
conditions, some returning black Vietnam vets may become "destabilizing" elements
rather than a force for civil-rights progress.
That is why militant black ghetto organizers such as Carlos Russell, who emerged as the leader
of the black caucus at the Chicago New Politics Convention, look with some expectation to the
returning black veteran. "The establishment will do everything to neutralize them, to
see that they are not part of the movement. White America will do everything to make them
turn their backs on their black brothers, but it won't work. They have been trained to kill;
if rebellions break out and they see their black brothers and sisters slaughtered by racist
cops they will come to the defense of their own. They offer a good resource of skills and
technical know-how to those in the movement who feel the only solution is armed struggle."
The Administration, jittery as it is already over the racial situation in the cities, can
hardly afford to ignore the possibility. Thus, the Pentagon recently unveiled Project
Transition to supplement the McNamara salvage program. Project Transition brings private
industry onto military installations to conduct job-training programs for men with less than
six months to serve before discharge. Priorities for participation in the program go to
minority-group G.I.'s who have not learned a useful skill while in the service. Counselors
who supervise the program aim to reach black G.I.'s headed back to big explosive urban ghettos
and train them for jobs which will take them out of those ghettos. As part of the program,
urban police departments have also been encouraged to recruit and train black servicemen on
This Defense Department project is supplemented by an ambitious program of veterans' services
offered by the National Urban League and financed by grants from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
and a number of private firms. The Urban League's interest arose from two trips to Vietnam
by Whitney Young, its executive director. Young found great progress in the breakdown of
racial barriers in the services but also recognized the potential threat of the black Vietnam
Young later wrote: "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
abilities, 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
Young has also said that under the proper conditions Negro veterans back from Vietnam
"could make Rap Brown look like little Lord Fauntleroy."
Young returned from Vietnam to discuss his concerns with President Johnson and out of their
meeting came both the accelerated Defense Department job programs for returning veterans and
the Urban League's nine regional veterans' affairs offices around the country.
A New York regional veterans office is staffed by Otilio Mighty, a former Air Force sergeant
with 20 years' service. Mighty spends most of his time on the phone nagging personnel
departments of businesses in the New York area about this or that returned black veteran.
A short, soft-spoken man who remembers having to re-enlist in the Air Force because he could
not find a job in civilian life. Mighty is in as good a position as anyone to gauge the
attitudes of the returning black Vietnam veterans. He has seen hundreds of them just after
their discharge. Most of them, he feels, are trying hard to forget what they have been through.
"The black veteran," he says, "is more like a cross-section of black America.
There are all kinds of guys. But most of them seem to be apolitical. Don't forget he is a guy
who has been out of circulation and isolated for two years. And he has had very little time for
anything like political stuff. I'm not saying they won't ever get involved. If some of the
vets use what they have learned over there it won't really be surprising. On the other hand,
if a lot of others don't do anything I wouldn't be surprised either."
Mighty is suggesting that the black G.I. comes back from Vietnam a very pragmatic man. How
that pragmatism mixes with the black G.I.'s racial consciousness is graphically illustrated
in the forthcoming "Vietnam Diary," a book about his Vietnam experiences by David
Parks, son of Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks.
Parks was drafted into the Army from a middle-class suburban Negro home and sent to Vietnam
in a combat unit that took very heavy casualties. No matter what gripes he may have about
society back home or the war around him the black soldier must learn to play the game according
to the rules. "Read about the riots in the states... they leave me confused, the police
brutality and all... It makes me wonder whether we're fighting the right war," reads one
of Park's entries.
Reality then asserts itself again and such thoughts must be suppressed so that he can get
back to the job with his white buddies, and begin again the anxious counting of days until
the end of his tour of duty. "I never want to go through anything like this war
again." writes Parks.
As he leaves Vietnam after having come through his year of hell alive, he says good-by to a
white G.I. in his unit. "We'd been through a lot together. I wished him the best and
meant it. He said he hoped he'd see me on the other side and didn't mean it."
Parks, perhaps an archetypal black G.I., returns to a society that hasn't changed much. Yet
his strong resentment of the injustices meted out to the black man in the war is all but
submerged in a strong desire to reassert his prerogatives in private life.
In an entry near the end of his tour, he writes: "Frankly, I'm mixed up. The stateside
news bugs me. On the one hand, you have Stokely Carmichael saying Negroes shouldn't be
fighting for this country. On the other hand, some Negro leaders think just the opposite.
I doubt that most of them have ever been to war. One thing's for sure: I have been and I'm
fed up with it. This war is pointing up a lot of my mistakes. It's like the old man kept
on telling me, 'Champ, it looks like you're going to have to learn the hard way.' If I get
out here in one piece I'm going to be a different man. If you want to get something out of
life, you're going to have to grab it and hold on to it. When I was in school before, I
didn't realize this. I'm greedy now and don't think anything will step in my way."
Tired of fighting and killing, happy to be alive, wanting to forget what he has been through,
trying to organize his civilian life, getting a good job, finishing his education, the black
Viet vet is not likely to become a political activist immediately – as was the enraged
white veteran of World War II. He is probably still confused about the meaning of his
experience in Vietnam. He is not getting involved in anti-Vietnam war groups. Of the 200
or so Vietnam vets who have associated themselves with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against
the War, only a handful have been black.
Although black militants are looking hopefully toward the Vietnam vets as allies, they have
so far made no attempts to organize them. If there is any sizable number of black veterans
stepping forward to offer their lethal skills in preparing for this summer, it is a secret
that is being well kept.
The case of Bill Robinson is probably atypical. He is a 21-year-old vet just returned home
to the Bronx after five months in an artillery unit in Vietnam. Within a few days of his
discharge, Mr. Mighty at the Urban League helped him get a $7,500-a-year job as an account
executive with a Manhattan dry-cleaning firm. Robinson isn't joining any groups nor has he
been approached by any organizers. He wants to forget what he saw in Vietnam. He's grateful
for the help he got from the Urban League and recognizes that his status as a vet is helping
him financially, but he isn't any less conscious of the race question and he isn't suddenly
in love with the Great Society.
"A black G.I. coming back from Vietnam can't help feeling strongly about the situation
here," he says. "Don't be deceived that just because he gets a job that he isn't
going to get involved. The important thing is that he's coming back to the same old stuff.
Just helping a man get a job isn't going to erase the bitterness and the sense of injustice.
It is a step in the right direction but it isn't the answer."
Robinson believes that, having experienced warfare, the black G.I. is not looking for more
of it here at home in the cities, but being acclimated to violence he will not run from it
either if and when his people are its victims.
This view is shared by Don Ferguson, a 23-year-old black veteran of Vietnam, now looking for
a job in New York City. Ferguson joined the Marines three years ago "to get off the
streets. In the service you are taught the other man is trying to kill you and you have to
kill him first," says Ferguson. "You learn self-preservation – wrong or
right doesn't matter much. And veterans are going to react that way. I feel that if there
are riots this summer there will be a lot of vets fighting. If it comes to them they will
On the basis of conversations with a dozen returned black veterans one might hazard these
generalizations: that having fought and lived alongside whites in an integrated Army and
having probably gotten some economic benefits from having served, they are more than ever
aware of the deep racial gulf that separates them from mainstream America. If, to the
disappointment of some ghetto militants, they are not yet stashing away M-14's for the day
of reckoning, many of them will still move with the tide of militancy and nationalism now
rising in the ghetto. Under appropriate conditions some will be ready to resort to guns.
How many will move in that direction no one can say. In one sense, numbers do not matter much.
There is still one black man re-enlisting for another tour of military service for every one
who is discharged – and many of those who re-enlist wind up in units such as the 82d
Airborne, used during the uprising in Detroit last summer to suppress other blacks. If, as
the black militants are saying, when racial conflict reaches its peak there will be open
season on all blacks, then that black G.I. who remained in the 82d Airborne may become an
even greater threat than the black ex-G.I. in the ghetto. Under those conditions he may
feel he is black first and soldier second, and turn his gun around.
Ultimately, it is extremely dangerous to try to use the military to solve social problems
in a society that is torn by racial conflict. It is a dangerous illusion to think that under
such conditions the experience of white and black young men fighting and dying together
overseas could have a cleansing effect. The military experience is a very special one; when
it is over there is an entirely different ball game to go home to. David Parks understood
this when he sensed that the man who was willing to share a canteen with him when both were
thrown together and trying to survive in the mud in Vietnam wouldn't have lunch with him back
in his clean, peaceful hometown.
A society that feeds millions of its disadvantaged young men into the military machine in the
name of "civil rights" may only insure that when racial conflict reaches its violent
climax, it will be fought on both sides with greater military sophistication and more lethal
weapons and by young men grown accustomed to killing.