Black servicemen in Vietnam in ’68….
In Thomas A. Johnson’s 1968 article on black servicemen in the Vietnam War I was reminded of the state of the nation at that time and how race continued to show the clearest divides of its people. Johnson reveals how racial progress in 1968 was accelerated in Vietnam yet the volatility of race relations in America was far from solved. Today we find the notion of young black men flocking to join the military simply to elevate their own personal status a shocking one, but that was clearly the case in the sixties.
In Vietnam, the negro soldier finally found a degree of parity with his white comrade, in the mud and stench of battle all men were equal but for the black man it was a chance to earn more money and be free of discrimination; ‘Bread and freedom, man, bread and freedom’ one soldier told Johnson, whilst another spoke of his anger at a clothing factory in the Deep South which offered ‘coloured only’ jobs at a lower rate to the white employees for the same work. A sad indictment of 1960s America in which a citizen felt more socially accepted fighting a war in a foreign country than living a normal life back home.
The 1960s was a time of great unrest in America, the fight for civil rights had gained massive momentum and the death of Dr. King in April 1968 sparked riots in over sixty US cities. In Vietnam, there were reports of white soldiers draping Confederate flags over their huts in celebration of his assassination whilst black anger and the rise in the Black Power movement was felt in both countries.
But the level of disharmony between the two races in Vietnam varies from report to report. Johnson interviewed many soldiers who said that what was reported back home didn’t reflect the situation they were in yet there were many racial incidents between soldiers reported, particularly from1968 onwards. Indeed, on August 29th, 1968, a riot broke out at Long Binh Jail in which some two hundred black inmates overwhelmed the guards, injuring sixty three of them and beat one young soldier to death with spades. Racial tension certainly increased after 1968 with reports of frequent fights between black and white soldiers. Much of what was reported focused on actions by the black soldiers whilst those of the whites went largely ignored.
Johnson’s report may not have reflected the situation as a whole but it is interesting to compare varying accounts, especially from serving black soldiers at the time. It seems clear to most of us who have never witnessed combat that in the heat of battle the skin colour of your comrade would take something of a back seat and presumably carry on once the fighting had stopped. Vietnam was a condensed version of the American male population and these young men would have carried their home-grown thoughts and opinions with them. If it took machine gun fire to diffuse prejudice then the tragedy of racism becomes evermore stark and disgusting. But the generals who sent these young men into battle could boast of ‘advancement’ in one sense; for the first time since American conflicts began, the black soldier was no longer segregated from his white counterpart in the combat zone and for that, I am sure they were very grateful.
This was the only article I could find by Johnson for my review of 1968, it would be interesting to read his work post that year when the tensions took a turn for the worse both in Vietnam and in the United States.