Black America and the War in
William M. King
First, it was the heat. Then it was the smell. Both
the first and the last experiences you had in the Nam
if you survived your 365 and a "wake-up."That's
what being "in country" was like for most
of the folks who went there. That, and staying alive.
The war in Vietnam was like no other war in American
History. It was our first truly technocratic war in
which rationalized planning supported by immensely
destructive firepower was brought to bear on an agricultural
country--and found wanting. It was also our longest
war. The United States first became involved in Indochina
in 1941. When it was declared over with the fall of
Saigon on 30 April 1975, some 58 thousand plus men
and women were dead almost seven thousand of them
black Americans. The Vietnam conflict (for it was
not a war in the official declarative sense) was also
the first time since before the U.S. Civil War, 1861-1865,
that black and white had shared the same foxholes,
cheek by jowl, and become dependent on each other for
survival. THERE WAS NO TIME FOR RACISM IN THE BUSH.
In the rear it was a different story however. Blacks
had their part of town where whitey wasn't allowed.
White boys--and they really were, both of them, since
the mean age of the combat soldier in Vietnam was 19
years in contrast to that of 26 years in World War
II--had theirs too. By 30 April 1968 total U.S. military
personnel in Vietnam numbered 543,300. Assuming a
nine to one ratio, that is nine service and support
for each grunt in the bush characteristic of a modern
technology (including technologies of the intellect)-based
army, such as we had in Vietnam, and you rapidly conclude
that all of the fighting was done by no more than 50,000
men at any one time. What this means is that with
a surfeit of bodies in the rear, a critical mass was
effected that recreated America in Vietnam. RACISM
IN THE REAR WAS ALIVE, WELL AND VIRULENT. Both the
Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese would exploit this
pernicious flaw in the American Character as a divisive
weapon illuminating what the war managers could not
seem to grasp--the fundamentally political character
of the conflict.
Like nothing else, the war in Vietnam had and continues
to have a profound impact on the home front. Wars
are not fought on battlefields alone. Thus the need
in this course to focus also on the domestic side of
the war. At the outset of the build up in 1965, the
Hawks seriously outnumbered the Doves. In fact, students,
teachers, clerics and kindred souls were overrepresented
in their ranks. And while we are talking about students,
let us be clear about one thing: at no time was there
greater than 12 percent participation by the national
student body in the anti-war movement. Television,
the Elmer Gantry of the merchandising set, has a way
of magnifying events out of their usual significance.
As the war got closer to home and the draft calls began
to rise, protest intensified, not unlike a similar
situation in about 1780, the fourth year of the war
of 1776. Like that earlier time, some white folks
found a way to get black folks to do their tours of
duty for them. This time it was called student deferment.
Student deferments had been introduced into the selective
service legislation during World War II as a means
of encouraging study in selected areas of science,
engineering and kindred fields, which knowledge, not
the body that produced it, was employed to prosecute
the war effort. Folk who could afford it struggled
to get in college and stay there as long as they could.
Those who could not went to war. In a Spencerian
way, a disproportionate number of the grunts in the
Nam were of the lesser breeds.
Coeval with the rise of the war as an item of social
interest, there was the fall of the Civil Rights Movement,
which had reached its peak with the Mississippi Freedom
Summer Project of 1964 as a way of life for many of
its participants. Granted Black Power was coming in,
the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was yet to be, and Model
Cities and the Great Society were just gearing up.
Some of these participants would be absorbed by those
endeavors. Still, many of them little understood that
the struggle had only just begun. And then there was
Cassius Clay, The Louisville Lip, who said: "Hell
no, I won't go!" He had to be made an example
of because he was symbolic of a rising tide of black,
anti-war activity whose import sent shutters throughout
the land of the free and the home of the brave. His
case was followed closely overseas because the consciousness
of the brothers had begun to change.
When there was conflict in the urban core, there was
conflict in the rear area. Blacks arriving in the
Nam after Tet were very different than Bloods there
before. The early ones volunteered because, even with
the war, the Army was a place where you could get ahead.
The latter were conscripts--the poor, the illiterate,
the detritus of a throwaway society. Some were from
the war zones of Detroit and Newark. All they wanted
was to do their time and get back to the world. The
military made the same mistake with these folks it
made with the "enemy"--it chose not to learn
anything about them until it was almost too late.
Back and forth, back and forth. Both the war and the
homefront are inextricably intertwined.
They continued to be intertwined as the war wound down
and after American involvement in it was declared ended.
For then the veterans were among them their perspectives
reshaped by their experiences. Unlike previous wars,
Vietnam vets did not come home as a group. With the
exception of the first combat units initially deployed,
each soldier who went to Vietnam thereafter went as
a replacement into a unit whose composition was constantly
changing. And they came home the same way. No bands.
No banners of "Well Done!" Instead, they
came home to confusion, hostility, rage and a misdirected
emphasis on the instrument of the policy rather than
the policy itself. Moreover, there was so little time
to adjust. One day you were in a place where they
want to take your life. The next, you are back in
the world where all they want is your soul.
Veterans are people with problems just like everyone
else. Some of their problems were present even before
they went to Vietnam. Not a few (physical, psychological),
were acquired in country. Most of the wounds suffered
in combat came from booby traps and ambushes. After
all, with all the noise our machines made, we could
be heard long before we could see the "enemy."
And then there were those whose problems arose because
they could not readjust to
civilian life--find a way to fit in. Having been so
close to death in so many ways, life had acquired an
entirely new meaning.
Black vets got it coming and going. Those who had incomplete
educations and no skills when they went in, more often
than not came out the same way. I mean, how much use
is there for a rifleman or pig gunner back in the World?
With no skills there were no jobs. Besides, there
was the common belief that ALL Vietnam vets were junkies
anyway. Too, many black vets left the army with Bad
Conduct or Undesireable Discharges. One reason these
were given was a supposed failure to adjust to military
life. As I noted above, by the time the war managers
began to take note, it was almost too late.
By the time it was over, some 3.5 million military personnel
(men and women) had done tours of duty in Vietnam,
Laos and Cambodia. There was also an equivalent number
of civilians who engaged in activities ranging from
diplomacy to racketeering. For every one of them the
war was different. For the brothers and sisters, it
was very different indeed.
II. Materials and Methods of Instruction
A. Background readings (required)
B. Supplementary readings.
- James S. Olson and Randy Roberts, Where The Domino Fell.
- Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War
by Black Veterans.
- Stanley Goff and Robert Sanders, Brothers: Black Soldiers in
- Charles Pugh, The Griot.
- John Benjamin Carn, Vietnam Blues.
- Chuck Bianchi, Black Bitches Dancing With Charlie.
These materials will be
placed on reserve at Norlin Library. They are intended
to supplement the background readings and amplify various
of the course topics and are listed thereunder although
each article can and often does relate to more than
1. My intent in this course is to provide a view of
the War in Vietnam from an Afrocentric perspective.
As such, it is focused not so much on the larger questions
of objective, conduct and command and control, as much
as it is on the experiences of black people both at
home and in the war zone. Structurally, the course
is divided into three parts: Homefront, In Country
and Postwar. Within each of these parts there is additional
division respecting the topics outlined in Part III
of the syllabus.
2. Operationally, the course is designed more as forum
than lecture What this means is that you must prepare
for each class session since it is conceivable that
you might have to perform in some substantive way at
each meeting. Accordingly, you are required to take
responsibility for the quality of your own education
since it is a participatory process--the instuctor
helps those who help themselves. To learn you must
question: what you know, what you believe and, what
you have previously taken on faith. You are also asked
to do two other things. The first is evince discipline
the only way you can master whatever talents you have.
The second is make a commitment to excellence however
you choose to define that word.
III. Topical Outline of the Course
1. American idealism and the rest of the world.
2. The 60s: Optimism. Doubt. Disenchantment.
Clayborne Carson, "Civil Rights Movement."
3. Black antiwar protest.
Clyde Taylor, "Black Consciousness in the Vietnam
William M. King, "What Do We Want?"
Herbert Shapiro, "The Vietnam War and the American
Civil Rights Movement."
a. Before 1965
Robert S. Browne, "The Freedom Movement and the
War in Vietnam."
b. After 1965
Addison Gayle, Jr., "Hell No, Black Men Won't Go!"
David Cortwright, "Black GI Resistance During the
Martin Luther King, Jr., "A Time to Break
4. Jackson State: The Lost and forgotten episode in
American Antiwar Protest.
John A. Peoples, "The Killings at Jackson State
University: May, 1970."
Tim Spofford, "Lynch Street: The May, 1970, Slayings
at Jackson State University."
Vernon Steve Weakley, "Mississippi Killing Zone:
An Eyewotness Account of the Events Surrounding the
Murders by the Mississippi Highway Patrol at Jackson
Gene Cornelius Young, "May 15, 1970: The Miracle
at Jackson State University."
5. Stateside and overseas: duty stations other than
Charles C. Moskos, Jr., "The American Dilemma in
Uniform: Race in the Armed Forces."
Congressional Black Caucus, "Racism in the Military:
A New System for Rewards and Punishment."
William Stuart Gould, "Racial Conflict in the U.S.
Flora Lewis, "The Rumble at Camp Lejune."
6. Project 100,000.
Patricia M. Shields, "The Burden of the Draft:
The Vietnam Years."
L. Deckle McLean, "The Black Man and the Draft."
Lisa Hsiao, "Project 100,000: The Great Society's
Answer to Military Manpower Needs in Vietnam."
7. The rise of black power in the American military
Milton White, "Malcolm X in the Military."
Jack White, "The Angry Black Soldiers."
Wallace Terry, "Black Power in Vietnam."
B. In Country
1. Arrival and deployment.
William M. King, "'Our Men in Vietnam': Black Media
As a Source of the Afro-American Experience in Southeast
Jack D. Foner, "The Vietnam War and Black Servicemen."
Gerald Gill, "Black American Soldiers in Vietnam."
Gerald Snead, "Vietnam: A Brother's Account."
2. Lifers, volunteers and conscripts.
Nick Jackson, "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus:
GI Rebellion and Military Disintegration in Vietnam."
3. Differential manpower utilization policies and practices--who
Rufus Brooks, "An Inquiry into Personal, Racial
and International Conflict--August, 1970"
4. Vietnamese perceptions of black American troops.
Diane Nash Bevel, "Journey to North
5. Yankee Station, the Riverine and the air war over
6. Life in the rear area.
Doris I. "Lucki" Allen, Interview from A Piece
of My Heart.
"Samaritans on Wings: Black Nurses in Vietnam."
7. The war in the bush.
Thomas A. Johnson, "The U.S. Negro in
8. Racial solidarity among black troops: pre and post
George B. Crist, "Black is Beautiful and the Military
9. Racially oriented propaganda and its consequences.
10. Black prisoners of war.
11. The trials and tribulations of military justice.
David F. Addlestone and Susan Sherer, "Race in
Congressional Black Cacus, "Racism in the Military:
A New System for Rewards and Punishment."
C. Post War
1. Returning to the World.
Whitney M. Young, Jr., "When the Negroes in Vietnam
Wallace Terry II, "Bringing the War Home."
James Fendrich and Michael Pearson, "The Returning
Black Vietnam Veteran."
2. Last hired, first fired: employment problems and
job retention among black vets.
Thad Martin, "Still Looking For Respect."
3. Black Viet vets and the administration of justice.
Myra MacPherson, "The Blacks," from Long Time
4. The disabled black American war vet.
Erwin Randolph Parson, "The Intercultural Setting:
Encountering Black Viet Nam Veterans."
5. Recapitulating the war: portrayals of black viet
vets in literature and film.
IV. Measures and Methods of Performance
There will be three measures of performance evaluation
used in this course this term. Two are written, one
The first (counting for 45 percent of your final grade),
is a three (3) to five (5) page, double-spaced, typewritten
response to the following: In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois
wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is
the problem of the color-line,--the relation of the
darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa,
in America and the islands of the sea." In what
ways does the black American experience in Vietnam
illustrate his comment? The quote comes from "Of
the Dawn of Freedom," which is chapter II in his,
The Souls of Black Folk.
Your second written measure (worth 40 percent of your
final grade), also three (3) to five (5) double-spaced,
typewritten pages, requires you to take a specific
event covered in the course that most effectively characterizes
this period in American History. You will then describe
that event and offer a rationale for your selection.
As you do this remember not to exclude either the
domestic side or the foreign side of the question.
The third measure (worth 15 percent of final grade)
is class participation and will be comprised of both
single and group presentations which will be announced
in advance to allow adequate preparation time.
Item 1 is due in my box (30 Ketchum) not later than
1700, Friday, 10 March 1995.
Item 2 is due in the same not later than 1700, Friday,
28 April 1995.
NOTE WELL, LATE SUBMISSIONS REQUIRE LATE FEES. The
late fee in this case is automatic reduction of the
highest possible grade by ONE FULL LETTER.
V. Criteria for the evaluation of written work
A. THE DAY MY EVALUATION OF YOUR WORK TAKES PRECEDENCE
OVER THE PROCESSES OF ITS CREATION IN IMPORTANCE, YOU
HAVE A PROBLEM. NOT ONLY IS GRADING NOT FAIR AND NOT
OBJECTIVE, IT HAS VERY LITTLE TO DO WITH EDUCATION.
PURELY AND SIMPLY IT IS THE EXERCISE OF POWER THROUGH
THE AUTHORITY OF THE TEACHER. ITS END IS PURPOSELY
POLITICAL: TO LIMIT ACCESS TO SMALLER AND MORE ELITE
GROUPS AS A MEANS OF PRESERVING THE STATUS QUO.
B. All work submitted must be an original copy. Reproductions
(xerox, mimeo, ditto, etc) submitted in lieu of original
copies will be penalized. MAKE SURE THAT YOU KEEP
A COPY OF YOUR WORK FOR YOUR FILES.
C. ALL WORK MUST BE SUBMITTED ON OR BEFORE THE PUBLISHED
D. Since each of us has a different image of what a
specific grade means, I offer herewith what they mean
for me. DO NOT, WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR PAPERS, ATTEMPT
TO WRITE TO THESE CRITERIA. THEY ARE ILLUSTRATIVE
ONLY. WRITE FIRST TO EXPRESS YOURSELF, EXPLAIN YOURSELF
AND THE POSITIONS YOU TAKE AND, TO PLEASE YOURSELF
WITH WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN.
1. "A." Demonstrates that you have mastered
the subject and its supporting materials. A neat,
solid, tightly organized presentation in which you
make your case with authority.
E. GRADES SHALL BE ASSIGNED ON THE BASIS OF HOW EFFECTIVELY
YOU ADDRESS THE FOLLOWING ITEMS IN YOUR WORK.
2. "B." A solid work but unimaginative in
character. Covers all the bases but rarely transcends
them to express new insights or understandings.
3. "C." Competent. Follows the letter not
the spirit of the assignment. Lacks substance, effort,
care and concern.
4. "D." A weak and ineffectual presentation.
A thoroughly disorganized endeavor from start to finish
with no evident craftsmanship whatever.
1. Appropriate evidence of a thorough review of the
pertinent resources. This will be shown by the identification,
assembly and organization of those materials that help
to establish context for your presentation. 15 percent
2. Demonstrated understanding of your project, its
supporting materials and its relations to the larger
subject of which it is a part. The emphasis here is
on analysis, synthesis and interpretation of those
materials. This will be reflected in the thought,
detail, and examination of issues (indicators of rigor,
discipline and skill) which appear in your paper.
In short, how completely you have developed the character
of your presentation. 35 percent of grade.
3. Effective transmission of the meanings you have
made of your labors. This will be reflected in the
organization of the work (form) and the manner (style)
with which they are communicated. To achieve maximum
impact and effectiveness, purpose, direction, focus
and objective must be clear. Coherence is your main
goal here. 35 percent of grade.
4. Errors in composition. Here I am concerned with
neatness of your final copy, spelling, syntax, grammar,
typing and verb/subject agreements. 15 percent of