Reference Entry

Vietnam War

Heather Marie Stur

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Vietnam War

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For nearly thirty years the United States and Vietnam maintained a contentious relationship that began with U.S. backing of political leaders and ended in a full-scale war that lasted until 1975. After World War II the United States adopted foreign policies aimed at preventing the spread of Communism so as to keep its rival superpower, the Soviet Union, from gaining influence throughout the world. The apex of the war in Vietnam coincided with the civil rights movement and President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, and some African Americans—including Martin Luther King Jr.—protested the Johnson administration's decision to increase military spending and thus decrease spending on antipoverty programs. Additionally, the disproportionate numbers of black men who were placed in combat units and died in Vietnam led some African Americans to speak out against racist draft practices and the war in general. In Vietnam, racial tensions erupted within units and on bases, and North Vietnamese forces took advantage of the tensions to convince African American soldiers to desert. As social and cultural conflicts in the United States influenced efforts in Vietnam, the war developed into a symbol of the troubles that plagued the home front.The Vietnam War embodied the ways in which ideas about race played into American Cold War foreign and domestic policymaking. The war occurred while African Americans were fighting for civil rights at home, and the image of an America that discriminated against its own people of color threatened to harm relations between the United States and the newly independent states of Africa and Asia. The United States courted the new nations for economic and strategic purposes as it envisioned its role as a world superpower. However, some African Americans criticized the Vietnam War as a racist endeavor, both in its attacks against the Vietnamese and in the effects of the war on black communities. Black men were drafted in numbers disproportionate to their percentage of the U.S. population, and black casualty rates were out of proportion with the number of African American soldiers in Vietnam. Black civilians who protested the Vietnam War often argued that communities needed their black men at home, not thousands of miles away in Vietnam. Other black antiwar activists encouraged black troops to refuse to fight nonwhite peoples.Vietnam.On 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the nationalist Vietminh forces, declared Vietnam an independent nation. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Vietnamese resistance movements had struggled against French and then Japanese colonialism, and when Ho announced Vietnamese independence shortly after the end of World War II, he issued a declaration of independence modeled almost exactly on the words of the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence. Ho had appealed to the United States for support since the end of World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson advocated self-determination for all nations, but his overtures generally went ignored.With the onset of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union after World War II, Ho's status as a Communist made American politicians wary of his motives. In 1946, France began its quest to regain colonial holdings in Indochina, and the United States supported its European ally despite its claims to oppose imperialism. Fears of Soviet expansion into still-fragile Western Europe motivated the United States to approve France's move, and by 1954 the United States covered nearly 80 percent of France's expenses in its war against the Vietminh. French troops finally surrendered to the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, and U.S. advisers gradually replaced French ones.Vietnam Serviceman. A member of Company I, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment, on patrol eight miles south of Da Nang, 1969. U.S. Department of Defense, Records of the U.S. Marine Corps, National ArchivesThe Geneva Accords of July 1954, signed by France and Vietnam, set the groundwork for the eventual conflict between the United States and Vietnam. The treaty divided Vietnam at the Seventeenth Parallel into the Vietminh-controlled Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam in the south. It also called for an election to be held in 1956 to reunify the country. Neither the United States nor the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) signed the accords—from the U.S. point of view, a countrywide election would make Ho Chi Minh president and guarantee that Vietnam would operate under a Communist regime. Guided by the foreign policy of containment—containing Communism where it already existed and preventing its spread to anywhere else—U.S. policymakers argued that if Vietnam became Communist, this would set off a chain reaction that would threaten U.S. interests in Asia and weaken its global influence.In the search for a leader for South Vietnam, the United States gave its support to Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic and a vehement anti-Communist. Drawing on what many policymakers considered an example of successful nation building in the Philippines with the charismatic president Ramon Magsaysay, the United States believed that it could mold Diem into a leader who would rally Vietnamese support and prevent Ho Chi Minh from building a base of voters in the south. One of the main differences between Diem and Magsaysay, however, was that Magsaysay enjoyed widespread support among Filipinos, while Diem alienated and angered the majority of his constituents. Buddhists, who represented the majority of Vietnamese, protested Diem's often violent policies of religious oppression and discrimination against Buddhists, and on 11 June 1963 the self-immolation of the monk Thich Quang Duc in the middle of a busy Saigon street gained international attention.Members of President John F. Kennedy's administration feared that association with a regime that practiced religious discrimination would harm U.S. standing with other nations of the so-called Third World—those nations that had emerged out of post–World War II independence movements and had not committed their allegiance to either the United States or the Soviet Union. Therefore Kennedy, his advisers, and the Central Intelligence Agency allowed a coup to overthrow and assassinate Diem on 2 November 1963. The United States continued its advisory role in South Vietnam until President Johnson and his staff decided that only all-out war would stop the collapse of its South Vietnam ally and defeat North Vietnam's Communist forces. In March 1965 the United States began mass deployment of troops to Vietnam.The Home Front.As Vietnam occupied foreign policy discussions, African Americans’ struggles for civil rights dominated the home front. Having fought Nazi racism in segregated units during World War II, black veterans demanded that Americans eradicate racism in the United States. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces as one of his civil rights measures. Yet civil rights battles remained part of the American landscape through the 1950s and 1960s, and as the U.S. government and military escalated the war in Vietnam, African Americans protested increased military spending, arguing that increasing war spending sacrificed antipoverty programs and other initiatives that benefited African Americans. Some African Americans also began to view the war specifically as a racist war that not only took black men from their communities in disproportionate numbers but also targeted Asians.On the home front, African American women experienced the Vietnam War through their husbands, sons, and brothers, and the conflict caused some women to organize in protest. Black Women Enraged, a Harlem group founded to oppose the draft, criticized not only the Department of Defense and the armed forces, but also African American sons, brothers, and husbands for not standing up to the military and refusing to fight a war waged by whites. Members of Black Women Enraged argued that black men should stay in the United States and fight the wars against poverty and racial inequality. The Black and Third World Women's Alliance took the argument one step further, calling on black women to assert themselves in the social wars at home, just as women in North Vietnam took up arms in the fight against the United States and the government of South Vietnam.A maternal sense of duty to protect young men motivated Diane Nash, a prominent civil rights activist, to travel to North Vietnam in December 1966 with three other women from the United States. Nash, one of the founders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was the only African American in the group, which spent eleven days as guests of the North Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese Women's Union paid for a portion of the women's airfare to Hanoi. During the trip Nash and her companions met with members of the Women's Union of South Vietnam, members of the South Vietnamese Youth for Liberation, Catholic priests sympathetic to North Vietnam, various government officials, and Ho Chi Minh. When Nash returned from the trip, she called on African Americans to question a U.S. war against a people of color.The Vietnam War coincided with a heightened national awareness of urban poverty as a distinctly racial issue. In March 1965, Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a study on African American families in which he attributed inner-city poverty to the absence of strong male role models. The report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, accused African American women of emasculating their sons and thus blamed family structures—along with segregation and employment discrimination—for urban problems. Moynihan offered military service as a solution, concluding that military service would teach young black men employable skills and instill in them the virtues of masculinity. From Moynihan's perspective, when African American soldiers returned home after their tours of duty, they would be prepared to get jobs, provide for families, and ultimately break the cycle of poverty.Standing in the way of Moynihan's plan, however, were statistics indicating that black men had trouble meeting some of the qualifications for military service. In his report, Moynihan noted that 56 percent of African American men who took the Armed Forces Qualification Test in 1962 failed it—a failure rate almost four times that of whites and something that Moynihan called “the ultimate mark of inadequate preparation for life.” He called on the armed forces to open their ranks to inner-city African American men.Project 100,000.In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara submitted a solution to the problem that Moynihan outlined. During a speech in New York City, McNamara announced that the Department of Defense would lower the mental and physical standards for admission into the U.S. military in order to make service more accessible regardless of background. Project 100,000, as McNamara's plan came to be called, was designed to enlist or induct forty thousand soldiers by June 1966 and up to 150,000 men per year. The plan was connected directly to projected troop levels needed for the conflict in Vietnam. In May 1965 the Defense Department estimated that it would need about fifty thousand troops in Vietnam, but by January 1966 the number had increased to more than four hundred thousand. Between October 1966 and June 1969, 246,000 men were recruited into the military under Project 100,000. Forty-one percent of them were African American. Of those men, more than half went to Vietnam, and 37 percent were assigned to combat units.The lowered standards of Project 100,000 applied to all draftees and enlistees regardless of race, but McNamara positioned the program as a specific response to what Moynihan had deemed the needs of inner-city African American young men. In a 1967 speech, McNamara stressed that military service would provide African American men with the chance to learn employable skills so that they could be productive citizens in an increasingly technological society. Moreover, military accomplishment would provide a sense of personal achievement that would lift black men out of the urban ghetto and allow them to move forward as productive citizens when they returned from service. As America's industrial economy declined, however, the skills that male veterans honed in the military were not in high demand when they returned home. At its heart, Project 100,000 was antimaternal, for it assumed that mothers had failed in making their sons into men, and it touted the military as a father figure to young black men.In addition to Project 100,000, the Defense Department also sought to increase the number of African Americans in the National Guard. The urban riots of the 1960s motivated the creation of a special recruiting effort aimed at attracting young black men. Guard units had been deployed to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Detroit, and other cities to quell revolts, and the racial composition of the units was nearly all white. The Illinois governor Otto Kerner, chairman of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by President Johnson in July 1967, argued that placing white troops on riot duty was sure to alienate African American residents of the neighborhoods occupied. Therefore they called for a recruiting drive focused on black potential recruits. McNamara authorized recruiters to exceed assigned strength by 10 percent so long as the additional enlistees were black. Yet some African American soldiers protested against sending troops into cities in order to quell rebellions: they viewed it as forcing them to repress their brothers and sisters who were fighting for civil rights.Inequities in the Draft and in Casualties.Inequities in military conscription also shaped African American responses to the Vietnam War. Throughout the war, disproportionate numbers of black men were drafted and placed in combat units sent to Vietnam. In 1967, although only 29 percent of black men were eligible for the draft—as compared to 63 percent of white men—64 percent of the eligible black men actually were drafted, compared to only 31 percent of the eligible white men. African American community activists argued that in poorer neighborhoods, nearly every family had a member fighting in Vietnam. Thus black communities bore the burden of the war. Martin Luther King Jr. began opposing the war publicly and more aggressively in 1967, angry that Johnson had neglected antipoverty programs at home in favor of war in Vietnam. Additionally, King observed that the war harmed African American families by sending black men to war overseas when they had yet to win the struggle for freedom and civil liberties at home. The unfair draft system affected not only the men taken for military service but also the families that the soldiers left behind.Casualty rates among African American soldiers in Vietnam also fueled protests against the war. In 1966, the casualty rate for black GIs was 21 percent. Combat units contained large proportions of African American men because many lacked specialized technical skills and were draftees. In 1968 about a quarter of the casualties in front-line combat and paratrooper units were blacks. Some black soldiers nicknamed the combat units “Soulsville” because of the concentration of African Americans in them. Others believed that the government and military considered black troops cannon fodder.In the United States, as civil rights activism became more militant and race relations disintegrated, racial tensions flared among black and white troops stationed in Vietnam. Ideas about black nationalism and Black Power circulated among African American soldiers, and some men adopted symbolic elements of style to signify their identification with black pride. The Afro hairstyle, particular handshakes, and particular music unified black soldiers in a common heritage in response to a military system that some considered to be racist. Some white soldiers resented black camaraderie, while some black soldiers were wary of whites, who they thought would be more likely to side with commanding officers if problems arose on base.From time to time frictions turned hostile, particularly following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. On U.S. posts at Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang some white GIs burned crosses and flew Confederate flags. In August 1968 a group of African American inmates temporarily took control of Long Binh Jail, a prison notorious for allegations of abuse, neglect, and overcrowding, and a place that some black GIs believed symbolized discrimination in the military justice system. Tensions also existed among black soldiers, especially between older, career military men and young draftees. For years African Americans had viewed military service as a vehicle for upward mobility, but some younger GIs, inspired by Black Power, rejected the military as part of a racist system that oppressed African Americans.Veterans.Upon return from service in Vietnam, some African American veterans had difficulty finding work even though the military had promoted itself to black men as a way to learn useful job skills. Unemployment among black veterans was higher than that among white veterans, and one of the factors contributing to the lack of job opportunities for black military men was the disproportionate number of less-than-honorable discharges they received. By early 1973, African American male veterans had received more than a quarter of the less-than-honorable discharges handed down by court-martial or administrative action. Most of the so-called bad discharges resulted from a conviction of some form of misconduct. Some veterans argued that such discharges often were related to expressions of Black Power or black identity. As black GIs adopted cultural forms such as the Afro and soul music, some officers feared that revolt was in the works.Vietnam War Veterans. Protest at a veterans’ hospital in New York City, 10 November 1979. Photograph by Bettye Lane. © Bettye LaneA bad discharge hindered a veteran in receiving benefits such as those from the GI Bill, hospital and medical care, and employment and job training opportunities. Additionally, employers often refused to hire veterans whose records contained less-than-honorable discharges. Among black male veterans, unemployment increased from 8.5 percent in 1969 to 14 percent in 1971. By 1973—even though this year featured a general economic upswing across the country—the unemployment rate stood at 11 percent for black veterans in general and at 16.3 percent for those twenty to twenty-four years old.The issue became such a cause of concern that in July 1971 thirty-two African American lawmakers from twelve states wrote a letter to President Richard Nixon warning that the bad discharges could inflame racial tensions and fuel another round of race riots in U.S. cities. The legislators argued that the discharges exacerbated already high unemployment rates in African American communities around the country. They also blamed the problem on racism and injustice in the military. In 1971 the unemployment rate for black male veterans between the ages of twenty and twenty-four was 21 percent—not far from the overall unemployment rate in the United States during the Great Depression, the black legislators noted. Although programs such as Project 100,000 presented military service as a means through which African American men could attain the skills that educational and other social inequities had denied them, some black veterans found fewer opportunities—because of both blemished military records and the exodus of industrial jobs from U.S. cities—awaiting them when they returned home from Vietnam.

Reference Entry.  3377 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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