In “Fallen Angels”, Walter Dean Meyers described the Vietnam War in the fictional account of a young African American man named Perry, whom Meyers modeled after his own brother’s experiences during the conflict. The book brings the country to life as a hotbed of racial tension between black and white soldiers and officers that almost led to murder in a few notable instances1. Although the book receives credit as one of the most historically accurate fictional novels describing the war, it leads me to wonder just how tense the ideas of race became in that environment. This became the basis for the question of my historical inquiry. How did race relations between African Americans, White Anglo-Americans, and Vietnamese citizens affect the conflict in Vietnam, and what effect might the war have had on equality movements in America? A wealth of material exists describing this issue, including multiple firsthand accounts by veterans describing their experiences within the country and upon returning to the United States. From the existing evidence concerning race relations, three general consensuses develop. First, it appears that black men disproportionately entered the armed forces and fought due to the draft policies of the time period. On top of this, the timing and actions of the war played a significant role in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the decade, which in turn led to heightened aggravation inside Vietnam. Lastly, video and interview testimony shows that the war had a profound negative effect on the attitudes of GIs of all races toward the Vietnamese citizens they had orders to befriend and protect.
The United States formally entered into conflict in 1964 shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson presided over the passing of the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.” This document, which Congress passed almost unanimously, gave the commander in chief the ability to deploy soldiers and utilize military resources outside the United States without needing a Declaration of War authorized by the House of Representatives and the Senate. Having only recently ended our involvement in Korea, the nation had already seen a healthy dose of conflict in Southeast Asia surrounded by the fear of the spread of Communism, and the need to protect American freedom overseas so that the fight would not take place on domestic soil. However, in spite of all of the manpower and financial resources spent keeping a suspected invasion of the homeland at bay, a different kind of war had sprung up within the borders of the United States. In the decades surrounding the brushfire conflicts overseas, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and a host of other civil rights movements and activists began championing the cause of equality among the different races living in America2. The two wars could not remain distinct, however, as young black men in Vietnam found themselves on the receiving, dangerous end of racist policies and attitudes among the commanding officers directing troop movements throughout the fighting. In combination with a return to a segregated and racially divided America, this would add fuel to the fires of the Civil Rights Movement. All the while the population of Vietnam, both active militants and passive civilians, suffered at the hands of United States soldiers, with both of them traumatized and jaded by the scenes of horror they witnessed3.
While casualty figures for the Vietnam conflict appear staggering on all accounts, a closer inspection of the demographics of fallen American draftees and volunteer soldiers reveals a troubling trend that makes one question the integrity of those in charge of military conscription and command. According to the research on the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam provided by Columbia University, “64 percent of all eligible African-Americans were drafted, but only 31 percent of eligible whites”4. This statistic specifically regards the year 1967, but calculations for the rest of the war show similar figures. These drastic differences in conscription largely resulted from the policies surrounding mandatory service during the conflict. At the time, young men and women could avoid joining the military by enrolling in college and gaining a “deferment” that fulfilled their draft obligations. While this assisted the largely white middle class of Americans, it provided little reprieve for many young black men who found themselves unable to attend universities due to financial or segregation-based determents5.
In one notable instance, US Army veteran William Giles, a black man of 24 years of age during 1966, actually failed to receive a deferment in spite of his attending the University of Illinois while studying pharmacy6. When asked during an interview on his reaction to the notice, he responded, “Well, at that time, I think that there was not that many deferments going around [sic]. They didn’t offer me the deferment.” When Giles attempted to escape the unfair policies that threatened to take him away from his academic pursuits and send him to fight in a foreign country, the FBI found him and threatened him with incarceration for failing to report to the draft board7. One can gather from this evidence that the conscription protocols unfairly worked against African Americans, which eventually led to an outcry within the Civil Rights movement against the war.
Rather than taking the suspiciously biased draft policies of the war without reprisal, the African American community looked toward the already entrusted religious and political movers and shakers of the fight against segregation to bring an end to the disproportionate deployment of black men in Vietnam. While the marches for civil rights continued in the United States, they soon touted the distinct goal of an end to any involvement in the war on the part of the black population, if not the end of the conflict altogether89. Veterans and civilians alike gathered behind the popularized phrase, “No Vietnamese ever called me n----r”10, a statement of the bond that they felt for the citizens of North and South Vietnam, who they considered fellow victims of the racist policies of the American government. Media outlets quickly popularized the idea by photographing protestors in marches with signs quoting and paraphrasing the motto, originally spoken by Muhammad Ali when he responded to questions about his refusal to fight in Vietnam. The racial tension building in America carried over to the conflict as well, leading to scenes like what veteran Andrew J. Bacevich describes in his book Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country11. He recalls one incident in which hostilities led to extreme violence in the selection, “After exchanging words over allegations of barracks theft, the black soldier [Private First Class James D. Moyler] flipped the safety off his M16 and in broad daylight shot C Troop’s white commander at point-blank range”12. Clearly the fighting in Vietnam moved well past the point of settling issues with words.
Apart from the general displeasure with the concept of forced conscription to fight overseas, prominent members of the Civil Rights movement felt that the war shifted America’s collective attention away from the pressing domestic issues of equality. A press release by the Spring Mobilization Committee stated that Dr. King had come to the conclusion that “U.S. involvement in Vietnam violates the U.N. Charter’s principle of national self-determination and that the war effort is crippling the U.S. anti-poverty program.”13 This declaration sums up one of the greatest internal conflicts a black soldier fighting in the war might have faced. How could he willingly kill human beings who often stood for the same values of “self-determination” his community fought for at home? Reverend James Bevel, the national director of Spring Mobilization during this period, stated that “we view this war as a war against a colored people and we do not intend to stand idly by while our Vietnamese brothers are cruelly destroyed.”14 Again, this brings up the question: how could a soldier of color to move from an environment in which he stood up for ideals such as Reverend Bevel’s, into one wherein he faced threats to his life and health by Vietcong and NVA soldiers?
Unfortunately, evidence shows that the sentiments popular among the SCLC and Spring Mobilization Committee failed to accompany soldiers as they served through their deployments. An overwhelming amount of recorded testimony points not only to a lack of compassion on the part of American GIs of all races, but in some cases a complete disregard for the value of the lives of the Vietnamese, citizen or otherwise15. Giles specifically recalls one of his first sights upon stepping out of a carrier plane onto the base of his first deployment: “Well, there was a Viet Cong sniper that they had hanging from the tree. And he had been dead for a month or so and they just left his body up there I guess to intimidate the other VC’s or whatever. So that’s the first dead body I saw – combat”16. Even if this stood as an isolated incident of disrespect to a fallen combatant, it alone might have caused some alarm among the new recruits and the American public at large.
The testimony of dozens of veterans during the Winter Soldier Investigations of 1971 point to a much more institutionalized racism, and with it an acceptance of the violence and dehumanization heaped on the people of North and South Vietnam17. Gathered in Detroit, these young men of all races openly discussed the inhumane acts they witnessed and took part in. One soldier in particular recounted one of the worst crimes imaginable and the unfortunate frequency with which it took place18: “These people are aware of what American soldiers do and so naturally they try and hide the young girls. We found one hiding in a bomb shelter in sort of the basement of her house. She was taken out and raped by six or seven people in front of her family, in front of most of the villagers.” He would go on to say, “This wasn’t just one instance; this was just the first I could remember. I know of 10 or 15 such instances at least.”19 Such continuous, unpunished actions point to a wide spread and deep rooted issue, not only among the enlisted soldiers who perpetrated these acts, but in their commanding officers who turned a blind eye to the problem. As 1st Lieutenant William Crandell explained during the opening proceedings, “We intend to show that war crimes in Vietnam did not start in March 1968, or in the village of Son My or with one Lt. William Calley. We intend to indict those really responsible for My Lai, for Vietnam, for attempted genocide.”20 Their accounts bring a heavy question to mind: how could the people of Vietnam have benefitted from American involvement with all these war crimes going on?
While the recordings and testimonies of the soldiers and citizens examined in this inquiry come from people of all different segments of America, their message remains the same. From the historical evidence of the unfair practices in deployment and conscription of African-Americans into the military, to the admittance of hundreds of war crimes by veterans, the truth becomes clear. Racism blurred the already unclear lines that separated combatant from bystander, and GIs stationed in the country found themselves destroying the lives of the people whom their leaders intended to protect. At the same time, the country became a pressure cooker for the already raised tensions between black and white soldiers, an issue that all too frequently resulted in fatal violence. Racism divided our armed forces when they most needed to stand together.
Amistad Digital Resource. Section 13: Black Opposition to Vietnam [Internet]. Columbia University; 2009 [ cited 2013 October 7]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: http://www.amistadresource.org/civil_rights_era/black_opposition_to_vietnam.html
Bacevich AJ. Breach of trust: how Americans failed their soldiers and their country (American empire project). New York (NY): Metropolitan Books; 2013. 9-10.
Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville & Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc. Winter Soldier Investigation [online publishing of recorded dialogue]. Charlottesville (VA): Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville; 1999 January [cited 2013 October 7]. Available from: http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Winter_Soldier/Units/1st_Marine_roster.html#William Crandell
Meyers WD. Fallen angels. New York (NY): Scholastic Books; 1988
PBS. “American Experience: Vietnam Online.” Last modified March 29, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/timeline/tl2.html#a
Texas Tech University. “The Vietnam Archive Oral History Project Interview with William Giles Conducted by Laura M. Calkins, Ph.D.” Last modified June 30, 2005. Accessed October 7, 2013, http://www.virtual.vietnam.ttu.edu/cgi-bin/starfetch.exe?WOVVPCSphvrBCeGD6Rzk6cesvYn8TlhS78p3L4OxQlOteVyUl4SJDd3rMWlp9yedoREkgKdzworjRTxqiX13tD0ipz6JT@G@Wigw.8ehXrZOhYrU3hP1RQ/OH0432.pdf
The King Center. “Black Americans Take the Lead in War Protest.” Accessed October 7, 2013, http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/black-americans-take-lead-war-protest#
Vietnam War and the Strong Racist Background (of American Culture) [video on the internet]. Milliarium Zero, producer. The Winterfilm Collective; 1972 January 27 (online 2012 April 2) [cited 2013 October 7]; 10 min., sound, color. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY91OTCwwQk
1 Meyers WD. Fallen angels. New York (NY): Scholastic Books; 1988
2 PBS. “American Experience: Vietnam Online.” Last modified March 29, 2005, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/vietnam/timeline/tl2.html#a
3 Vietnam War and the Strong Racist Background (of American Culture) [video on the internet]. Milliarium Zero, producer. The Winterfilm Collective; 1972 January 27 (online 2012 April 2) [cited 2013 October 7]; 10 min., sound, color. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vY91OTCwwQk
4 Amistad Digital Resource. Section 13: Black Opposition to Vietnam [Internet]. Columbia University; 2009 [ cited 2013 October 7]; [about 3 screens]. Available from: http://www.amistadresource.org/civil_rights_era/black_opposition_to_vietnam.html
6 Texas Tech University. “The Vietnam Archive Oral History Project Interview with William Giles Conducted by Laura M. Calkins, Ph.D.” Last modified June 30, 2005. Accessed October 7, 2013, http://www.virtual.vietnam.ttu.edu/cgi-bin/starfetch.exe?WOVVPCSphvrBCeGD6Rzk6cesvYn8TlhS78p3L4OxQlOteVyUl4SJDd3rMWlp9yedoREkgKdzworjRTxqiX13tD0ipz6JT@G@Wigw.8ehXrZOhYrU3hP1RQ/OH0432.pdf
8 The King Center. “Black Americans Take the Lead in War Protest.” Accessed October 7, 2013, http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/black-americans-take-lead-war-protest#
9 Amistad Digital Resource. Section 13: Black Opposition to Vietnam [Internet].
11 Bacevich AJ. Breach of trust: how Americans failed their soldiers and their country (American empire project). New York (NY): Metropolitan Books; 2013. 9-10.
13 “Black Americans Take the Lead in War Protest.”
15 Vietnam War and the Strong Racist Background (of American Culture)
16. “The Vietnam Archive Oral History Project Interview with William Giles Conducted by Laura M. Calkins, Ph.D.”
17 Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville & Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Inc. Winter Soldier Investigation. 1999 January [cited 2013 October 7]. http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_docs/Resources/Primary/Winter_Soldier/Units/1st_Marine_roster.html#William Crandell
19 Vietnam War and the Strong Racist Background (of American Culture)