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Heroism & Racism: Black People & The Military
Did you know that, as of 1978, Blacks were about 30% of the U.S. Army but were 51% of the Army prison population? That 4% of the Army's lawyers are Black? That in the Army Reserve, which served as a great protection from Vietnam for its members, in 1972 there were 3% Black enlisted and 2.6% Black officers and five years later, the enlisted rate had jumped to 23.3% while Black officers still accounted for 3.9% of the total? Discharges—while there were approximately 30% Blacks in the Army, 57% of those getting dishonorable discharges were Black as were 40% of those getting bad-conduct discharges. Figures for Hispanic vets are much the same, though the record keeping was fare less thorough.
To anyone who served in Vietnam, or during the Vietnam-era, it was no secret that racism was rampant in the military, despite the recruiting ads about being an "equal opportunity employer." It didn't take a pile of statistics to see it either. It might have been the prisoners in the Presidio who refused to move for days; it might have been the KKK at Ft Pendleton. Or it more likely was any one of thousands of incidents where a predominately white officer corps which was often from the South used their authority against the Black or Latin GI.
These constant "incidents" which went on throughout the Vietnam War and after were only the surface. The rivers of racism ran much deeper than that. Any Vietnam vet who served in combat can testify to the high percentages of minority vets in combat units, a result both of the racism of the military and of the American society which meant that a minority was less likely to have the background which would lead to assignment at a non-combat unit, and was, at the same time, much more likely to be a draftee. Few minority vets had the money to escape the draft; few had families with the influence to get them out; few had the experience or the connections to get away to Canada; as noted already, there were few Black reservists, and minorities were less likely to be able to hide away in college. And it sure isn't hard to picture the changes of a minority vet in front of his draft board in Mississippi trying to persuade them he was a conscientious objector. Finally, for minorities who were not drafted, there was always the problem of high unemployment which made the military, with its lies about benefits and job training, a more inviting prospect for enlistment than the alternatives of starvation or knocking over liquor stores.
One of the ways in which racism has been sustained in the military has been through total neglect of the history of minorities in the military as if, by never mentioning the contributions made by minority GI's that history would disappear. It won't, of course, even though it takes looking beyond some of the traditional histories to find it.
For instance, how many people know that the most decorated single unit in World War II was the 442nd Regimental Combat Team which was all Japanese, and which was fighting for the U.S. during a period when over 110,000 Japanese-Americans were shuttled off to the U.S. Concentration Camps on the West Coast?
But minority participation in U.S. wars goes way back before World War II. Crispus Attucks, Black sailor and fugitive slave, was one of the victims of the Boston massacre in 1770, causing some questions among some of the colonists who were fighting for their freedom from being "slaves" of the British. Black soldiers were a part of many early Revolutionary War battles until, under General Washington ( a fourth-generation slave-owner fearful of slave revolts) Blacks were excluded from the military. The policy was rapidly reversed, however, when the British offered freedom to slaves who fought for them; finally, there were some 5,000 Black soldiers, most of whom were returned to their owners once the war was over.
The "Great Emancipator," Abraham Lincoln began the system of segregated military units. Forced by the lack of manpower to allow Blacks to join the military, Lincoln approved the recruiting of Black volunteers into the 54th and 55th Infantry regiments in July, 1862 (with white officers); Blacks were first drafted in 1964. By War Department directive, they were $7 a month compared with $13 for white soldiers. It wasn't until 1948 that President Truman ordered official desegregation of the military.
While Black troops helped to save Teddy Roosevelt and his "rough riders" during the invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, it was only after demanding "no officers, no fight" that the Black troops finally won a few Black officers in the field. (A few Black officers were used in the Indian Wars—the first Black graduated from West Point in 1877 after 4 years of the famous West Point silent treatment.) This war saw the first segregated Filipino units-part of the quartermaster corps to serve as waiters, cooks, and on clean-up and sanitation details. Because of the fear of yellow fever, ten "immune" companies were formed: Blacks, Chicanos, and Southern whites; they died of the disease just like the "non-immune" troops. In all of these units, white officers held every position above lieutenant.
370,000 Black troops fought to "save the world for democracy" in World War I; while there was a universal and "desegregated" draft, a higher percentage of Blacks were drafted than whites, then put in all Black units with white officers. Training of Black units often took place in the highly segregated South; in Houston, Texas, after pitched street battles with white townspeople, 13 Black soldiers were hung and 41 sentenced to life imprisonment after a one-day trial before an all-white tribunal. In the trenches, Black soldiers often found themselves much better treated as prisoners of war when captured by the Germans than as soldiers fighting for the U.S.
World War II found the U.S. government still hesitant to use Black troops to fight the war, though they were drafted in large numbers for cooking, clean-cleaning latrines, loading and unloading cargo. But by 1943, manpower requirements forced the brass to use the Black units—still with white officers—in combat, and by 1945 with manpower becoming even more critical, there were integrated units. Despite the success of these units on the battlefield, they were disbanded immediately after the war.
Segregated units were a major sore point for Blacks, and the pressure to abolish them grew throughout World War II, where the irony of fighting Hitler in Europe while racism at home created hundreds of little Hitlers was intense. And pressure did not cease after the war. In 1948, President Truman finally signed an order officially ending segregation in the Armed Forces, a program for gradual desegregation which would open schools, and jobs, and eliminate quotas and, it was thought, would thereby eliminate segregated units over a period of time. But in fact, only when all-Black units were banned during the Korean War was there any real integration of the military. Even this integration came about only after groups like the 65th Infantry, on all-Puerto Rican unit, mutinied over racism; desertion among minority GI's (and, for that matter, all GI's) was rampant.
In some ways, the Korean War provided a preview of Vietnam. Much of the U.S. propaganda effort in the war was simply racist—North Koreans were slants and dinks (a real problem when supposedly fighting alongside South Koreans, and a problem similar to "gooks" in Vietnam were it just was not as simple as the racist propaganda made it out to be.) Minority troops, acutely conscious of the racism at home, were not about to buy a whole lot of the racism being used to "inspire" us to fight—and the slogan "NO Vietcong ever called me 'Nigger" put it about as clearly as it could be put.
In many of American's earlier wars, minorities could put aside the fight against racism at home in the interest of fighting a war in which they believed: fighting against Hitler, for instance, was a clearly just cause. But with wars like Korea and even more so, Vietnam, when the great majority of troops of whatever race could see that they had no interest in fighting the war, racism at home and racism in the military—no matter how well disguised from public view-became an immediate struggle. That Black leaders such as Malcolm X and later Martin Luther King, took up the anti-war struggle gave impetus to the rebellions of minority GI's.
When George Washington forced the question of using slaves to fight, he saw the problem as one of giving guns and training to slaves who might not then be willing to be slaves again and who would, more importantly, have the ability to resist their "station in life." Washington was right, though it took much longer than he imagined. The racism of U.S. society has for years been pushed by those who fight it in their own interests to keep races fighting among themselves. Racism is far from dead in the military, but the role of Black and other minority GI's in Vietnam and since—both as GI's and as veterans—points a clear direction for the future.