"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.
Bringing the War Home / Wallace Terry. (p. 201-212).
(Originally published in The Black Scholar, November 1970.)
SuDoc No.: Y4.V64/4:V67/6
Wallace Terry, author of Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans visited
Vietnam in 1967 as a correspondent for Time magazine. While there he observed that the majority
of African-Americans in Vietnam were of the school of thought that it was better to fight for
civil rights at home by proving their patriotism in Vietnam, rather than engaging in violence.
Three years later in 1970, Wallace Terry returned to Vietnam to conduct a survey among 392
African-American and white soldiers from all branches of the military and from both enlisted
and officer ranks. The results of his survey dramatically show a change in African-American
attitudes only after three years. In 1967 Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Stokely Carmichael
were not very popular with African-American soldiers because of their stance against the Vietnam
War. But in 1970 they were regarded as heroes for the same reason.
Some of the other results of Terry's 1970 survey:
It is not surprising that the attitudes of veterans changed so dramatically when one considers
some of the racial incidents described by Terry in his article. For instance, in April of 1968
when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, crosses were burned at Cam Ranh Bay and
Confederate flags were flown in Danang.
- 50% of African-Americans said that they would use their weapons in the struggle for civil
rights in the United States.
- 30% said they would join black power organizations.
- 83% believed that additional American race riots were inevitable and 45% of those said that
they would participate in such riots.
- 45% would refuse orders to put down riots involving African-Americans.
- 65% believed that race relations in Vietnam would deteriorate.
- 76% rejected the term "Negro" for "Black" or "Afro-American."
- 72% approved of Eldridge Cleaver.
- 70% approved of Malcolm X.
- 69% approved of Muhammad Ali.
- 53% approved of Roy Wilkins of the NAACP.
- 51% approved of Whitney Young of the National Urban League.
[From the Black Scholar, November 1970]
Bringing The War Home
(By Wallace Terry II)
Black soldiers, schooled in the violent arts of guerilla war as have no generation of blacks,
are returning home from Southeast Asia, fed up with dying in a war they believe is white man's
folly and determined to earn their share of American opportunities even if that means becoming
Black Panthers or turning to guns.
My survey of black and white troops discloses attitudes that are not only frightening but
which could add significantly to the racial problem in the United States.
For example, many black enlisted men are fed up with fighting and dying for a racist America.
A majority of black GI's in the survey feel that they have no business fighting in Southeast
Asia. They say their fight is in the United States, against repression and racism. A
frightening number – 45 per cent of black combat troops – say they would join
riots and take up arms if necessary, to get the rights they have been deprived of at home.
The spirit of black militancy has enveloped the GI on the battleground in much the same manner
as I have seen it involve the student on the college campus, and many black soldiers say they
will join the ranks of radical groups like the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic
Society when they return home.
This is in direct contrast to my impression of the black American fighting man of 1967 and
1968 who was anxious to prove himself in the most integrated war in U.S. history – and
did so by accounting for up to 22 per cent of U.S. combat fatalities, while back home
newspapers, magazines and television networks were heralding the spirit of brotherhood between
blacks and whites in the foxhole.
"The notion has been disproved on the Vietnam battlefield," Maj. Beauregard Brown,
a black, told me in Saigon in 1967, "that Negroes can't produce the same as white
soldiers. Given the same training and support, the Negro has shown that he can do the job
just as good as anyone else."
American commander William C. Westmoreland and President Lyndon B. Johnson agreed. Charges
of cowardice (usually baseless) against segregated black troops from World War I to Korea
were laid to rest. Concluded the Reader's Digest: the American Negro has earned his
red badge of courage.
But blacks today feel differently about the war, life in America and themselves. "The
young black soldiers are much more hostile than ever before," said Capt. Alexander
Benjamin of Mobile, Ala., a black personnel management officer in the 9th Army Division when
I visited him in Dong Tam. "I think we are probably building a recruiting base for
militant groups in America. It frightens me."
The change in mood, leading to ugly incidents, even killings, has been induced by a
combination of factors.
In large measure, the U.S. military in Southeast Asia reflects the entire American society.
A major factor contributing to the new unrest is the growing unpopularity of the war among
blacks as well as whites. In 1967 black soldiers roundly criticized Martin Luther King and
Cassius Clay for objecting to the war; today, King, Clay and others like Eldridge Cleaver
and Julian Bond, who have been heavy critics of the war, stand highest in their esteem.
Then, too, many of the black volunteers in 1967 in the Marine and Army Airborne Divisions have
been replaced by conscripts. Some of the "volunteers" I talked to were escaping
the draft or a jail sentence stemming from an arrest, perhaps during the ghetto uprisings.
Before the war went stale, the black soldier stoically accepted Martin Luther King's
proscriptions against violent protest. But such stoicism gave way to impatience, even riots,
among black youth. Consequently, many of today's black soldiers are yesterday's rioters.
Also, King and Robert F. Kennedy, the young black's ghetto heroes, have fallen prey to the
very violence they have been led to reject. "Kennedy was getting ahead. King was
getting ahead," observed Wardell Sellers, a black rifleman from New York City in the
1st Army Division. "They were trying to help the brothers. So you can see what that
Furthermore, in the White House now sits a President who fails to speak to black needs.
"He's not for the black man," said Seaman Ronald Washington of Los Angeles,
stationed at Danang. "He's thinking only of foreign policy and his own race. If
Nixon were a brother, he'd be the number one Uncle Tom."
And the black soldier has begun to flex his new-found black pride, making him less likely
to take without notice the cross burnings, waving of Confederate flags and common use of
racial slurs that have persisted among whites since American troops arrived in Vietnam in
This conflict has yet to have an observable effect on military performances in combat situations.
The close reality of common danger tends to suppress racial differences when troops are under
fire and in the field. But when the shooting stops, blacks will readily speak their minds.
"The immediate cause for racial problems in Vietnam," explained Navy Lt. Owen Heggs,
a black attorney from Washington, D.C., "is black people themselves. White people haven't
changed. The same people in the military today were in the military in 1930, 1940 and so on.
What has changed is the black population. As the military represents in microcosm the society
we live in, black people today in the lower ranks represent the young black movement in our
"Today there is a different breed of young blacks, not satisfied being in the Marine Corps
with their hair cut short. Either they say, 'Hell no, we won't go' or 'Yeah, I got to go and
I'm here, but I'm not going to take any pushing around. I'm not going to come 12,000 miles
from home to be insulted by some girl in the enlisted men's club who's been hanging around
with some whites. She calls me nigger. Why? Somebody taught her.' They don't want to take
the same pushing around they took in Philadelphia and Detroit, Hough (in Cleveland) and Watts.
They're not ready for it, and they won't put up with it."
In six months I submitted questionnaires to 833 black and white men in uniform of all branches
and ranks along the Vietnam landscape, asking each to answer 109 questions. I interviewed many
at length. The results of that survey, some of which are included here, were recently tabulated
with the assistance of Thomas Pettigrew and Kent Smith of the Harvard University faculty
and Howard Zinn of the Boston University faculty.
A large majority of the black enlisted men agreed that black people should not fight in Vietnam
because they have problems of discrimination to deal with at home, a striking contrast with
the typical attitude of the black soldiers I talked with in 1967. "Negroes should be
used in this war because the United States consists of Negroes and whites," Johnny E.
Lawrence of Fuquay-Varina, N.C., told me then. "If King had any pride in his race, he
ought to do what he can to support us." Said James H. Scott of Miami: "I don't
think King and (Stokely) Carmichael are right. They live in a free country and somebody has
to pay for it."
But today's black in Vietnam has a different view. "I think blacks should not be
fighting here because in America there are places we can't go, homes where we can't live and
jobs we can't have without chaos," said Thomas Garrett of New York City, a rifleman in
the 199th Infantry Brigade. "Even if you have money, whites don't want you. But as soon
as a war breaks out, we're pushed to the front lines."
Of 392 black enlisted men surveyed, 64 per cent believe that their fight is in the U.S.
"I think the black man in Vietnam is definitely fighting two enemies," Ken Bantum,
a black Air Force sergeant told me. "And he should only be at home fighting one."
Bantum, stationed at Bien Hoa, is from Philadelphia. One-fourth of the black officers and
senior noncommissioned officers agreed.
Only 22 per cent of the black enlisted men thought they should be fighting in Vietnam for the
same reason as whites; 62 per cent of the officers took that view.
More than half of the enlisted men objected to taking part in the war because they believe
it is a race war pitting whites against non-whites or because they flatly don't want to fight
against dark skin people. Only 37 per cent agreed that they were fighting a common Communist
enemy with their white buddies in arms – the prevailing attitude among blacks three
"America is just fighting this war so that the white man can put boo-coo money in his
pocket," Private Bruce Jessup of Washington, D.C., said in Pleiku. "He just lets
you die so he can send his little war materials over here. To hell with this war. We should
say, come on in, Ho Chi Minh, this is yours. You can probably do a whole lot better with
these people than we can." Jessup drove a gas truck for the 815th Army Engineer Battalion.
"I can't see dying in Vietnam to make someone else money," Marine Corporal James
E. Baker, Jr., of Chicago told me. "The way whites treat the natives of this country I
know they don't give a damn about their freedom."
Less than a quarter of the black and less than a third of the white enlisted men agreed that
the war should be ended by the strategy President Nixon has pursued. Only 22 per cent of the
blacks and 28 per cent of the whites agreed that the best way to pursue the war was by new
attacks on North Vietnam and invasions into Laos and Cambodia.
A small fraction wanted the war to continue as it was before Mr. Nixon ordered the Cambodia
invasion. About 3 per cent of the blacks and 8 per cent of the whites approved that course.
Much larger groups, 24 per cent black and 46 per cent white, argued for a reduction in the
battle tempo and a U.S. pullout as soon as the South Vietnamese could shoulder the full burden.
But 32 percent of the blacks and 11 percent of the whites answered that a withdrawal should
come immediately because the U.S. had no business in Vietnam in the first place. Twelve
percent of the blacks and less than 3 percent of the whites wanted an end to hostilities
because the loss of American life has been too great.
"The best way to end this war is to threaten to use 'the bomb'," said James Bennett,
a white soldier from San Lorenzo, Calif. "If they don't surrender, then use it. You'll
save a lot of GI's, and perhaps we won't have many more Vietnams."
As for why America is involved, most blacks and a large majority of whites rejected the notion
that the war is stemming the spread of Communism; 32 percent of the blacks, however, and 54
percent of the whites agreed that the conflict is. More than 40 percent of the blacks and
nearly 20 percent of the whites believe that America should not be fighting in what is
essentially a civil war or Asian problem. About 14 percent of the blacks and 21 percent of
the whites believe that the American presence is needed to build democracy in South Vietnam.
"Give it (Vietnam) to them," said Claude E. Bowen, a black Marine from Los Angeles.
"If the cracker want to stay here and fight, let him. If they kick his ass, too damned
bad. It's about time somebody did."
What is frightening many black officers and a few knowledgeable white ones is not so much
the course of the war as it is the potential of the young blacks to bring the lessons of
violence he has learned in the war against the Viet Cong to America with him.
"It's a new breed of black over here," said Army Captain Robert Robbins, a black
officer from Wilmington, N.C., serving in the 9th Division. "He has graduated from
peaceful demonstrations up to the riots. He comes here to put his life on the line for some
cause he probably doesn't believe in. When he goes home, he'll think the only way he can
get what he wants is to take it. He knows that first of all they stopped over in Africa and
Lieutenant Colonel Frank Petersen of Washington, D.C., a black Marine pilot who led a squadron
of Phantoms at Chu Lai, agreed. "You have some very angry blacks who are here who are
going to go back and are going to be more angry once they return. There is a hell of a chance
that many of the blacks who are being discharged, if they encounter the right set of
conditions, will become urban guerillas."
Indeed, only 38 percent of the black enlisted men surveyed agreed that weapons have no place
in the struggle for their rights in the U.S. Nearly 50 percent said that they would use
weapons, while 13 percent said they would consider arming themselves if forced to.
"Half the brothers over here can build their own weapons," observed Washington.
"They are going back ready for anything."
"I ain't coming back playing 'Oh, Say, Can You See,' said Marine Sergeant Paul Thomas
of Chesapeake, Va., in Danang. 'I'm whistlin' 'Sweet Georgia Brown,' and I got the band."
"When you come back to the States and the Man's going to say, 'Sorry, son, but I'm
going to give you these rights, but you ain't ready for the rest of them yet, after I put
my life on the line. "Uh-uh," says Sergeant Randolph Doby, a black Marine from
Milwaukee in Danang. "The man who says that, I'm going to try to kill him. If I can't
kill him, he's going to wish he were dead."
Only one black enlisted man in three believed that the use of weapons would damage the black
move for independence of choice and full opportunity. Thirty percent contended that weapons
would help, and 24 percent believe they would make no difference.
A significantly high percentage promised to carry home the lessons they learned in self-defense
and black unity to radical groups like the Black Panthers. Slightly more than 30 percent
said they would join such groups; 17 percent said they might. Among combat veterans even
more, 3 percent, said they planned to.
"The Black Panthers is what we need as an equalizer," explained Seaman James Cannon
of Gary, Indiana. "The beast got his Ku Klux Klan. The Black Panthers gives the beast
something to fear like we feared from the Ku Klux Klan all our lives." Said Seaman
Milton Banion of Maywood, Illinois, another sailor at Danang: "The honkies made the
Panthers violent like they are. I'd join 'em, and I'd help 'em kill all these honkey
m— f—, because do unto him before he do unto you." Albert Jackson of
Chicago, a black Marine stationed at Chu Lai, promised, "If at all possible I plan to
move as quickly as possible with a group that is ready to move. The Panthers are definitely
the most readiest group in the world, because they move so awesomely."
The vast majority, 83 per cent, of the blacks believe that America is in for more race
violence than has shattered the nation in the last decade, and most of these, 45 per cent,
believe that they would join renewed rioting.
"There's going to be more violence back in the world because we're goin' back."
said Bowen. "Hell, yes, I'd riot. If they're kicking crackers' asses, I'm going to get
in and kick a few myself. I'm just doing what my grandfather wanted to do and couldn't."
Said another black Marine: "My ancestors said, please. Yeah, they said, please. Did
they get any mercy? Why should we turn around and say, please, may I have this. Hell, no.
I say start an armed revolution." "I always back a riot," said a black sailor.
"Riots is good. It makes people wonder what's going on, and they come in and check it
Only 14 per cent of the black enlisted men said they would follow without reservation orders
to put down rebellious blacks. More than 45 per cent replied that they would refuse the order.
"I'd put 'em right down," said Jessup. "And put myself right down in the heart
of the riot, and riot right with them, Army clothes and all. As a matter of fact, I'd get out
there and put down the police."
(The Army has already had direct experience with this problem. At Fort Hood, Texas, 43
black soldiers refused to be part of the force assigned to guard the Democratic National
Convention, fearing they might be used to fight Chicago blacks. The military discipline
accorded them was lenient.)
The white student movement against the war drew surprising support from black troops. Most
black students have ignored the war issue, pressing instead for separate curriculums and
housing, while protesting police assaults on blacks. But 60 per cent of the black enlisted
men and 50 per cent of the officers agreed that the right to make the war protests should be
protected; 14 per cent of the enlisted men and 12 per cent of the officers expressed outright
support for the campus protestors.
A strong majority of white GI's took exception to the protests, including 47 per cent who
would either draft or jail the student dissenters. "I'd like to kick them in the
ass," said James Pole, a white private from Waycross, Georgia. "They should be
made to see how we live and die over here," argued Bennett, "then perhaps they
would appreciate college more."
Blacks are more tolerant; the right to protest means more to them. "I'd either join
the Black Panthers or SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), preferably SDS," said
Jessup, "because SDS is down on the whole thing, down on this war, down on society,
the establishment. The society and the establishment are messed up. They need changin',
man, so that people can live, live equally. Get all this racist stuff on out of here."
"Hell, yes, I'd riot," said Corporal Toby Hoffler, a black Marine from Brooklyn.
"The white man had his goddamn Boston Tea Party, so why can't we have our riots, and
the white students their marches? Is there any difference? Check it. Is there any
Despite the military's contention that life for blacks is better in service than out, fewer
than three black GI's in 10 said they get along better with whites in Vietnam than they did
back home. And nearly 65 per cent of them expect the racial strife in Vietnam to grow.
In the past three years, mistrust and hostility between black and white American troops have
increased to a dangerous extent. There have been beatings, killings, racial slurs from both
sides and cross burnings.
In one incident, more than 200 black inmates of the Long Binh stockade donned white kerchiefs
and African-styled robes made from Army blankets and went on a rampage that left one white
inmate dead, scores injured and the stockade in shambles. The uprising was one of the worst
prison riots in modern Army history. Military officials blamed overcrowding and racial
In another incident, a black guard was shot to death when a black sailor went on a wild
shooting spree at Camp Tien Sha near Danang. That episode followed rioting along China
Beach by black marines and sailors brandishing M-16 rifles. Other incidents:
"The military establishment is hailed as being one of the most democratic institutions
in America," observed Petersen. "This implies that everything is as it should be.
There are no separate and dual standards. Once the young black arrives in the military,
however, he finds that this is not the case. The military is simply an extension of American
society. Even though the rules have been written to make opportunities readily available
and equal, you'll run into one or two prejudiced individuals who can influence 15 blacks who
will influence others. The harm grows. Furthermore, in any war zone, once you've committed
your life to a 'true cause' and find that you are still subjected to different standards, it
tends to infuriate you to the extreme. That is what's happening out here."
- A black Marine sergeant with a reputation for being tough on black militants, and a
white major narrowly escaped death when a black Marine exploded a grenade under the orderly
room of the 5th Communication Battalion at Danang.
- Two white sailors were tried for inciting a riot at the Tan My enlisted men's club.
They were found guilty of disturbing the peace.
- When white officers at Chu Lai refused to give rides to black marines, they were severely
beaten. Later, name-calling whites triggered a riot at the enlisted men's club; two whites
were so badly injured that they were evacuated home. Clubs at Qui Nhon and a dozen other
places have been wrecked by racial melees.
- On the walls of bars and latrines throughout the country, whites infuriated blacks by
scrawling such phrases as "Niggers eat shit" and "I'd prefer a good to a
- A fight between black and white marines at a tank battalion base near Danang almost
ended disastrously when a dozen black marines in black shirts and gloves showed up armed
with rifles and grenades to help another black who was being beaten by whites.
- At Tan Son Nhut Air Base on the Saigon outskirts, a white trooper was shot and wounded
by a black GI he had been stalking with shouts of "I'm going to kill you, nigger."
The white was described as a race baiter and a bully.
- Roving gangs of black 1st Cavalry troops at Bien Hoa and of 9th Division soldiers at Dong
Tom have waylaid unsuspecting whites.
- When Martin Luther King was murdered, whites burned crosses at Cam Ranh Bay and flew
Confederate flags over bases at Danang. After appearing on the cover of Time magazine
for the story of "The Negro in Vietnam," Army Airborne Sergeant Clide Brown found
a cross burning outside his tent.
The black soldier is no longer silent over the discrimination he experienced a decade ago.
"When I came into the Army in 1956, everything was quiet," said Major Wardell C.
Smith of Des Moines, Iowa, a black who was inspector general for the 3rd Brigade of the 82nd
Airborne Division. "No one was raising any hell about the prejudice and discrimination
going on. The Negro soldier didn't know which way to go as far as speaking out against it.
Every time he tried to, he got kicked in the head. Now they can speak and somebody will
listen. And some feel that since they are going to face death, it doesn't matter what
After racial slurs, Confederate flags, and the intimidation that comes with wearing Afro
style haircuts and using black power signs and trappings, blacks most complain about their
failure to get coveted rear area assignments, medals and promotions on an equal basis with
Among all black enlisted men surveyed, nearly half believe that blacks are assigned more
dangerous duty than whites. Even some whites agree. "Percentagewise, I believe blacks
do get more dangerous duty," said Dennis Camire, a white soldier from Clarksdale,
Mississippi. Another white, Sergeant Dan G. Miller of Fort Dodge, Iowa, agreed. "I
think you have to honestly say that the black man in our brigade receives less consideration
than his fellow white soldier. He has almost no chance of getting a support job."
The belief is well founded. Defense Department figures cited by Charles Moskos, Jr., in his
book The American Enlisted Man, show that black combat deaths have been running about
one-third above the proportion of blacks stationed in southeast Asia.
Four of every five enlisted blacks and 41 per cent of the black officers said that whites
are awarded medals at a greater rate than blacks. Nearly 20 per cent of the white enlisted
men thought so, too. And almost 64 per cent of the black GI's and 45 per cent of the black
officers believe that whites are promoted faster.
The black soldier's bitterness deepens when his natural gravitation toward other blacks,
his use of black power signs and banners, and his wearing of Afro-styled haircuts is repressed.
These frustrations were illustrated in a remarkable, though confidential, report made by a
Marine Division Commander in the I Corps battle zone. His insight into the "very deep
layer of bitterness" among his black troops demonstrated a rare understanding of racial
tensions at that high level. The two-star general summarized the grievances that he found
in this set of questions:
Most black GI's, 58 per cent, and many black officers use the clenched fist black power sign
as a form of greeting or recognition of one black by another. But a third of the white
enlisted men and more than 40 per cent of the white officers in my survey condemned its use.
"They shouldn't make that sign," complained Staff Sergeant Bobby Edwards of
Woodsboro, Texas. "That is a show of rebellion and strength." Specialist Lane
Bragg of Los Angeles, a squad leader in a mortar platoon in the 82nd Airborne, recalled a
white captain chastising him for making the sign to a black sergeant. "What's this
clenched fist sign mean?" the Captain yelled. "That sergeant is a good man.
You're just a black nigger."
- Why is the natural gravitation of blacks to each other viewed as bad and subsequently
labeled as black power plotting?
- If restrictions are placed on banners, why is not the same restriction placed on the
display of Confederate flags as is placed on the display of black power banners?
- Why are black soldiers ostracized by superior noncommissioned officers and labeled as
troublemakers within the units?
- Why is there a feeling among enlisted blacks that their superiors are not concerned
with their problems?
- Why are whites who freely associate with black soldiers ostracized by superior
noncommissioned officers and also labeled as troublemakers?
- Why are blacks threatened with transfer to the northernmost region of the Division's
area of operation – the most dangerous place – at the slightest provocation?
Six black enlisted men in ten, and half as many officers now wear Afro style haircuts,
though some whites object to the. "I had an Afro cut," Air Force Sergeant Herbert
Harrison of Trenton, New Jersey, complained bitterly. "But I went through hell wearing
it. So I shaved my head bald."
Black pride and culture, as on the college campus, have spilled over into other areas.
At remote fire support bases along the Cambodian border, scores of blacks have banded together
to present their complaints against racial epithets and slow promotions.
Aboard the boats that sweep the Delta, and on the roads that connect bases, black sailors
and soldiers raise black power salutes in common recognition and often fly black flags.
In rear areas black soldiers, attracted by common music, language or hate, live when they can
in all black hootches, like "The Little Ghetto" in Danang, "Hekalu" in
Chu Lai, and "Hootch 8" in Cam Ranh Bay. On the walls, white pinups have been
replaced by black ones; one hootch sports more than 500 such photographs. "I don't
want no stringy haired beast broad with 'hidden beauty' on my wall," said one black
Marine at the Little Ghetto. "Black is beauty."
Many blacks sit together in enlisted men's clubs, scoring "hill-billy" and country
and western" music, or make their way alone to smoke pot and drink beer.
In Saigon's "Soul Kitchen," black GI's greet each other over spare-ribs, pork
chops, chitlins, grits and cornbread with more than 57 varieties of black power handshakes
that may end with vowing to die for your comrade by crossing the chest Roman legion style.
One company commander leading his 1st Air Cavalry Division troops into the field was startled
to find his black soldiers wearing black berets and shirts instead of the regulation helmets
Ron Karenga's Swahili-speaking US movement for black culture, pride and self-defense, has
spread to at least four Marine and Army bases in I Corps. And in Bien Hoa and Cam Ranh Bay,
Black Panthers in Army uniform have circulated their party literature.
In the 1st Marine Division, Lance Corporal Gene Johnson of Norfolk, Virginia, joined the
Ju Ju's, a 200-member black protective (against white prejudice and intimidation)
group "because the white man won't mess over us if we stick together. By acting in
unity, we can make our protest much stronger." Lance Corporal Roddie Latimer of
Washington, D.C., joined the Mau Mau's, a sister group of similar size and philosophy
begun by blacks in the same division. "Whites think we're starting some sort of black
power movement," explained Latimer, "or plotting some kind of riot. But if you're
not tight with the brothers in the 'Nam you can't get over. We want them to know that we
are definitely together. Mess with one of us, and you mess with all of us."
In Danang, black Marines have designed a flag for black soldiers in Vietnam. A red
background symbolizes blood shed by blacks in the war and in race conflict in America. A
black foreground represents the face of black culture. At the center are crossed spears
and shield, meaning "violence if necessary," surrounded by a wreath, symbolizing
"peace if possible." The flag bears a legend in Swahili, meaning "My fear
is for you."
So, not surprisingly, 76 per cent of the black soldiers insist on being called "black"
or "Afro-American," rejecting the traditional white label, "Negro,"
which only 6 per cent accept.
The heroes of the black soldiers today are drawn from among the most militant black
spokesmen. Eldridge Cleaver receives the approval of 72 per cent; Malcolm X, 70 per cent,
and Cassius Clay, 69 per cent. Edward Brooke, the only black U.S. Senator, draws the
approval of less than half; black sailors refer to him as an "Oreo." Another
moderate, Roy Wilkins, received only 53 per cent backing. The NAACP leader, highly popular
along with Whitney Young among the black soldiers of 1967, is roundly criticized today for
condemning the black studies movement. "I dig the militant brother," said Jessup.
"Nonviolence didn't do anything but get Martin Luther King killed." Young drew
the support of 51 per cent.
Nearly 59 per cent of the black GI's said they preferred to eat with blacks only; 60 per
cent wanted to live in all-black hootches or barracks, and 57 per cent believe that they
would be better off in an all-black fighting unit, or an entirely black military.
At the "Little Ghetto," Doby explained his preference for self-imposed segregated
living. "It's like you're at home," he said. "You can do your thing and
be yourself. You can't talk and act natural when you're around the beast."
There may be one color – Army or Marine Corps green – in the foxhole, but there
are two worlds when the races relax. During off-duty hours, 56 per cent of the black GI's
seek out other blacks; on liberty and Rest and Rehabilitation trips, even more travel only
with blacks. One in five blacks said he despised whites, and only 17 per cent counted whites
among their best friends.
"They'll try to sock it to a brother if they can," said Private First Class Alfred
Exum, Jr., of Denver, an assistant gunner on a 102 howitzer in the 82nd Airborne. "Just
like civilian life, the white doesn't want to see the black get ahead."
To try to solve the growing racial tension in Vietnam, the military command in I Corps has
tried to air and resolve complaints through 190 race relations committees. The results have
The 101st Airborne Division's "watch" committee has stopped meeting altogether,
well before I left Vietnam, despite continued grumblings among blacks. One Marine battalion
commander has no faith in the procedure, even though the Ju Ju's in his outfit continue
their clandestine meetings.
Commanders with more foresight have encouraged militants to participate in the meeting along
with white enlisted and officer personnel. Black Panther sympathizer Washington sat on one
such group at Tien Sha, and Corporal Joseph Harris of Los Angeles, a Karenga backer, twice
arrested during the Watts riot, participated in one at the Marine base in Chu Lai. Both
Washington and Harris were given jobs to keep whites and blacks in line at their enlisted
men's clubs. When Harris suggested commemorating the anniversary of King's death, the Marine
command supplied food and soft drinks for 300 black soldiers and marines. The demonstration
turned into a picnic and passed without incident. Heggs, on his own time and their, taught
black history to black and white airmen, soldiers and sailors in the Danang area. At Tan My
and Bien Hou, black sailors and airmen meet regularly to plan black culture events and discuss
their mutual problems.
My observations suggest that commands elsewhere would do better by opening such channels and
showing such tolerance. Suggested Petersen: "The only way to reduce tension is to sit
commanders at all levels down and give them a course in race relations as a part of their
military curriculum." "But," interjected Captain Freddie Harris of Tampa,
Florida, a black company commander in the 9th Division, "you got to admit there is a
Increasingly, the military is doing just that. And that is a first, though small, step in
the right direction.
A recent Army assessment of racial tensions at bases around the world warned commanders
that, "to take an ostrich-like approach to racial fear, hostility and misunderstanding
is indefensible, especially when the signs can be read in the racial obscenities written by
both groups on latrine walls and can be heard from an alarming number of black soldiers who
readily complain they suffer injustice in the Army solely because of their race."
The official study also took note of disturbances at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, where
some 30 blacks and Puerto Rican Marines attacked 14 whites; one of the white Marines died.
Racial antagonisms led to a brawl among 200 black and white soldiers at Fort Bragg, North
Carolina. And 17 Marines were injured when blacks and whites, just returned from Vietnam,
fought each other at Kaneohe Air Base in Hawaii.
Noting that "all indications point to an increase in racial tensions," the study
predicted more trouble "unless immediate action is taken to identify problem areas at
the squad and platoon levels."
Subsequently, Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird has appointed an Inter-Service Task Force
on Education in Race Relations to develop an educational program for use throughout the Armed
Forces. Commanders at Lejeune and elsewhere have modified their restrictions on Afro haircuts
and black power salutes and banners.
L. Howard Bennett, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Rights, has proposed five
immediate steps to curb the "dangerous increase in racial troubles" he has found
in Europe and Vietnam. Bennett wants race relations instruction for every basic trainee.
Instruction for every service man in the real meaning of black power signs – "a
time for the black brothers and sisters to unite and 'work together to get into the mainstream
of American life.'" Open forums where blacks and whites will discuss racial problems
face to face. On-post social activities in which both black and white women from nearby
communities will participate. And literature, films, recordings and entertainment which
appeal to blacks.
There is the danger that those recommendations, however much enforced, may be too little,
too late. None of these suggestions are aimed, for example, at discrimination in awards,
promotions and battle field assignments. And for many blacks, nothing short of an end to
hostilities in Southeast Asia can make any sense while the White House exercises
"benign neglect of the racial issue" and ignores black needs while Southern
police continue to eliminate black problems with gunfire.
To what extent the black serviceman in Vietnam turns his war experience into violent or
peaceful conduct when he returns home depends largely on his adjustment to civilian life
and what consideration American society gives to his economic and educational needs.
The black soldier is returning home more militant than when he left. "I was a dead man
when they told me I was going to Vietnam," a black paratrooper told me as he prepared
to jump into the Ashau Valley. "I have nothing to lose here or back home. The white
man has told me to die."
White friendships the black soldier makes drinking from the same canteen or ducking the same
bullets are not as evident as they were three years ago when I first went to Vietnam. A few
whites today refer to "my soul brothers" and make the black power sign. But most
black soldiers don't expect such friendships to change the racist world to which they will
Many black soldiers may become so busy socially and economically that their militancy will
fade somewhat when they return. "They have a lot of time on their hands over here to
get worked up," said Smith. "A lot of what they think they will do, they just won't.
They won't be so closely knit. And they will have girls, wives, families and jobs to worry
To help many of the 120,000 black servicemen returning to civilian life each year, the National
Urban League operates a housing, job, school and welfare referral service. But the program
is limited by size and official support. Since 1967, only 27,000 black veterans have been
actually helped. Lewis C. Olive, Jr., former West Pointer, who helps direct the League's
veterans affairs department, believes that with greater help from the military, more blacks
would learn about the program. Meanwhile, the League intends to computerize the service and
increase the number of participating cities from nine to 40.
Originally, the Pentagon encouraged commanders in the field to alert black troops to the
service. If he was interested, the black soldier independently wrote the League, which, in
turn, contacted a branch in the soldier's home town. But the military's help fell off when
Congressional objections were raised. Now the League must depend largely on its own
advertising in servicemen's newspapers and black publications to spread the news of the service.
A significant number of veterans are sure to continue to believe that America owes the
black soldier a debt for his service in Vietnam and for his suffering at home. In Vietnam,
this young black is coming increasingly to believe that if America does not meet this demand
peacefully, he will use the means he has learned in the paddies and the jungles – violence.
"When I come back, the Man's going to want to talk and I ain't going to want to
listen," said Corporal Joseph Harris.
"'Oh, son,' he'll say to me. 'Don't worry about it. We'll give you your freedom in
"My ancestors did the talking, and I don't have the time."