During the Korean War, the integration of the U.S. armed forces demanded by Executive Order 9981 became a harbinger for the integration of U.S. public schools demanded by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. Implementation of desegregation proceeded slowly despite orders to do so.
The Vietnam War was different. It proved to be the most integrated conflict in American History. (Lanning 250) Black soldiers were a major part of this controversial undeclared war. Blacks made up 13.5% of the U.S. population and10.6% of the forces in the war zone. Yet blacks accounted for 20% of the U.S. casualties. (Lanning 257) One could conclude, as Michael Lanning does, that the military now offered equality of opportunity to a greater degree than the rest of America. (255) But one could also conclude that Vietnam offered more opportunities for black Americans precisely because it was unpopular -like the Civil War and World War One, but unlike World War Two.
It is clear that black Americans fought bravely. On April 24, 1967, General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, addressed the all-white state legislature in his native state of South Carolina. Westmoreland commented that the black soldier was serving in Vietnam “with distinction equal to his white comrades in arms.” (Lanning 252)
Black resistance to military service, despite the highly publicized example of Muhammad Ali, was rare. (Lanning 256) Furthermore there was a slow but consistent increase in the percentage of black military officers. Yet it would be erroneous to state that the military had become a race relations utopia. The assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., exposed racial divisions within the military. Some whites displayed Confederate flags in response to black gatherings in Vietnam to honor King and to protest racism. (Lanning 263-264)
Anecdotal evidence suggests one bright spot. On many occasions white U.S. soldiers risked their lives to save black U.S. soldiers and black U.S. soldiers risked their lives to save white U.S. soldiers. (Astor 429-430, 440)
Black reenlistment rates became double that of whites. (Lanning 263) The role of African-Americans in the U.S. military after Vietnam was starting to become clear. Given the absence of equal opportunity in other American institutions, the military would become one of the few places where a black American could reasonably expect to get a fair shake.
Questions for Discussion:
How did the Vietnam War indicate progress in race relations in America was taking place?
What still needed to be done before the military could say it was free of racial prejudice and discrimination?