One of the most contentious times in the short history of the United States occurred during the 1960s. The nation was feeling increasing adversarial threats from the ramifications of the Cold War turning into potentially life-ending nuclear attacks. Black citizens were increasingly demanding their civil rights, and communism was encroaching upon the ideologies of the foundation of America: freedoms through democracy. The Soviet Union was forming a communist alliance with Cuba, right outside the United State’s back door. Communist China was continuing to espouse its communist roots through the teachings of Mao, and now, a tiny little, seemingly inconsequential country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam, was continuing to engage in civil war. It was the North representing a communist regime, and the South trying to fight the threatening incursion of communism against the North in the name of democracy. While there are numerous theories as to why the United States began fighting in Vietnam in earnest in the 1960s remains a point of policy and sociopolitical values. What is certain is that young men from America, most poor, uneducated, and of lower socioeconomic status, were being systematically conscripted to fight. The American views of the war, and the views from the Vietnamese, from both north and south citizens, differ greatly through their respective vantage points that can be reviewed through oral histories and scholastic inquiry.
The basis of the civil war in Vietnam was the result of colonialism. The French had ruled over the country but, after being defeated at a Vietnamese colony in 1954, they abandoned it. The U.S. believed the country would fall to communist incursion, an anathematic thought to America, and decided the country needed military assistance. While Eisenhower initiated sending troops to Vietnam, the country’s presence did not really escalate until after the Kennedy administration’s blunders against communism with the U2 spy incident, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Communism was slowly encroaching upon U.S. soil, and something was needed to stop it. Thus, involvement in Vietnam escalated with the Johnson administration. The reinstatement of the draft also happened to coincide with African Americans fighting for their equality through the Civil Rights Movement as well. Part of the issue of the causes and consequence of the Vietnam conflict (it was never officially acknowledged as being a “war”), arising out of the delegitimization of a group.
It is perhaps the delegitimization of the Vietnamese that allowed for seemingly wonton indiscriminate killings by American soldiers through their attitudes, and through what they were being told by superiors. It can also be used as a rationale. “Sometimes a conflict erupts when the ingroup perceived that the negating goal(s) of the outgroup is far-reaching and evil. Then, the threat is especially high and the in-group uses delegitimization to explain the conflict.” Political labels further this notion, and referring to the Viet Cong as “commies” and “gooks” only increased the distancing, removing the Vietnamese from being part of the accepted position of what Americans thought of as being “right” or “proper.” As one soldier said “When you go into basic training, you are taught that the Vietnamese are not people. You are taught, they are gooks. The Asian serviceman in Vietnam is the brunt of the same racism.” This attitude is also reflected in the historical recounting from the Terry book.
Terry’s book is filled with black “grunt” soldier’s reminiscences of their experiences in the Vietnam War. Granted, there are other stories coming from soldiers of higher ranks, but it is the grunts that are the most relatable since few held higher office. Many of these first-person accounts describe indiscriminate fighting and killing without consideration for the who or what of the equation. Others discussed whites’ deference to the blacks. As one said of uneducated and disenfranchised white soldiers, “Those guys were dumb. Strong, but with no problems with us blacks. Matter of fact, the whites catered to the blacks in the infantry in the field.” Many discussed specific episodes of killing, whether it was done in the jungles or in the villages. The Viet Cong, as well as soldiers, civilians, women, children, and even animals counted as targets. These black soldiers discussed their weapons, their missions, their hits, etc. They recounted their daily existences and experiences. What they did not talk about was pride in fighting for a democratic ideology of foreign policy and helping to keep the world “safe” from the threat of the “other,” which meant the communists. One soldier recounted an incident where another soldier took a phosphorous flare and inserted it into the vagina of a young Vietnamese woman. The soldier lit the flare, and the woman began flopping around until she, of course, died. The soldier who witnessed the event tried to protest, but the others stymied him. He told the author “And who was I to report it to? What would have they done? I mean you know, they’re there to kill people, anyway. So, what’s another person killed?” Regardless, for some of the black soldiers, it was not necessarily the racism that they experienced while actually being over in Vietnam, it was the racism that came after they returned home.
As one soldier told the author “I don’t think you can call Vietnam a success story for the young blacks who served there. A few stayed in service and did very well. But those who experienced the racism in a war we lost wear a scar.” These were the events and ideas these soldiers wanted to talk about and remember. What they did not discuss was the American tradition of going to war as being a signifier of honor, tradition, valor, and commitment. This war was not symbolized by honoring God and country, it was fighting for an intangible idea they could not recognize in a country nobody had heard of. The Vietnam war was significantly different from previous wars the United States had engaged in. The Korean War had also been fought against communism, and both world wars were fought against powers that presented threats to American ideology. However, because of the cultural change and the hegemonic shift that transpired in the 1960s, with increases inequality for blacks, and nascent feminism, the Vietnam conflict was viewed as being different, and not acceptable to many. The younger generation, those who were being drafted and their cohorts, began protesting against the war and siding with peace and non-aggression. It was the politicians and the policymakers who defined what the “threat” was, and America’s own sense of imperialism set in. From the perspective of the Vietnamese, there was a sense of fighting for honor and duty. After all, it was their homeland that was being fought for, not some foreign country that was all but invisible.
In the film “The Face of the Enemy: Vietnam War,” there are also first-person accounts of what the experiences were like, but this time they come from the Vietnamese, both North and South. More than once, the interviews were with women who had joined in the effort. Some were part of the “Youth Force,” which was composed of young females. One mentioned that they stood for the history of war, and that being a soldier was part of being dedicated to a cause. These women felt a sense of duty not found in the American contingent. As one woman said, “Everyone in the village joined forces to help out.” On the other hand, another person remarked that if they did not support the war effort, they were taken away, never to be seen again. Another claimed that “We had to do our revolutionary duty.” Yet another said, “Many women had to sacrifice their personal happiness for the common good of the nation.” These sentiments were not echoed by any of the Americans, especially the black soldiers.
Blacks had served in the U.S. military in every war since the country was founded. However, from the Civil War onward (even after the emergence of the Freedom Riders), they were segregated and typically officered by whites. The Navy and the Air Force integrated in 1950, but the Army did not do so until after the Korean War. Therefore, Vietnam was the first time all servicemen, regardless of race, served and fought together. This was furthered in 1962 when Kennedy reactivated the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces.” While the majority of young men who were drafted were not minority citizens, and this reflects the percentage of Americans who were white as opposed to black, black soldiers recall their experiences differently through a lens of what some would consider orchestrated or institutional racism.
As mentioned, the draft came amid the Civil Rights Movement and many of its leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., denounced it as racist, being “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight.” While the Selective Service did offer deferments to college students, it also offered the same for people who held civilian occupations that appeared to be favorable to whites. Therefore, the majority of draftees tended to be urban, poor, and undereducated as well as blue-collar workers or young men who were unemployed. Regardless, the conflict remained unpopular.
Vietnam remains a symbol of divisiveness in U.S. history. Those who served went unwillingly and returned unceremoniously. Many blacks had experiences that differed from whites. The ideologies were different, and even Vietnamese women were more than willing to fight for their cause, a cause that was not shared by American soldiers, regardless of their color.
Bar-Tal, Daniel. “Causes and Consequences of Delegitimization: Models of Conflict and Ethnocentrism.” Journal of Social Issues, 46, 1990.
Coffey, David. Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Pauser, Erik. “The Face of the Enemy: Vietnam War.” Filmed [January 2009]. YouTube video, 1:15:53. Posted [January 2017]. https://youtu.be/yJCmyzo0HLQ
Terry, Wallace. Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History, New York: Random House, 1984.