An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era
By Beth Bailey
London Review of Books, March 2, 2023
Two new books challenge these ideas. After reading Matthew F. Delmont's Half American, the greatest generation, or at least its white component, seems considerably diminished. Although more than a million African Americans served in the armed forces during the Second World War, the default soldier in representations of the war is almost always white. When one directs attention to the Black experience, Delmont writes, 'nearly everything' about that war looks different. What, for example, was the conflict's purpose? Roosevelt's claim that it was being fought to ensure universal enjoyment of the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear) rang hollow for many African Americans denied basic civil and political rights at home. Delmont's title is taken from a letter by a Black cafeteria worker in Wichita, Kansas, to the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper, just after the attack on Pearl Harbor. 'Should I sacrifice my life,' he wondered, 'to live half American?' The Courier used the letter to launch the campaign for a 'Double V' – victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home.
Delmont, who teaches history at Dartmouth College, employs an impressive variety of sources – diaries, letters, newspapers, military and government documents – to explore the deep-seated racism of the armed forces and the emergence during the Second World War of a militant movement for racial justice. Beth Bailey's focus in An Army Afire is somewhat different. A professor of history at the University of Kansas and director of its Centre for Military, War and Society Studies, Bailey paints a sympathetic portrait of the army's struggle to adjust to the radical social changes sweeping the US, to which the military could hardly remain immune.
African Americans have served in every significant war conducted by the United States. But they almost always had to fight for the right to fight. During the War of Independence, the Continental Army initially excluded Blacks, a policy reversed only when the British offered freedom to slaves who enlisted in their ranks. Between the American Revolution and the Civil War, Black men were almost entirely barred from the militia and regular army, although during the War of 1812 Andrew Jackson called on Louisiana's free Black militia – a legacy of French rule – to help defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson, who owned many slaves, issued an address condemning the exclusion of Blacks from the army as a 'mistaken policy' and praising the Black soldiers as 'sons of freedom'.
African Americans were employed from the start as labourers in Civil War army camps. But Abraham Lincoln waited until almost two years into the war to authorise the enlistment of Black combat soldiers. (This was one provision of the Emancipation Proclamation.) Some 200,000 Black men had served in the Union army and navy by the end of the war. Confined to segregated units commanded by often racist white officers and initially paid less than their white counterparts, their experience was anything but equal to that of whites. Their presence helped to ensure that Union victory would mean the end of slavery and recognition of Black citizenship, but within a few decades, many of the rights won in the war's aftermath had been rescinded. White America's attitude, the Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, seemed to be: 'Negroes, you may fight for us, but you may not vote for us.'
Service in the First World War also brought little lasting improvement in the Black condition. In the Crisis, the monthly publication of the NAACP, W.E.B. Du Bois urged Black men to enlist as soldiers to make real the promise of equality. Those who tried to heed his advice, however, found that the army didn't want them. Blacks were eventually called on for military service in Europe, but with them went warnings by American military authorities to make sure Black soldiers didn't assault French women. These troops returned to a nation wracked by 'race riots' and an upsurge in lynchings; some of the victims were soldiers still in uniform. The army's attitude towards enlisting Black soldiers had not changed. A report for the Army War College in 1925, complete with a pseudo-scientific discussion comparing the size of Black and white craniums, concluded that African Americans lacked the courage and intelligence to succeed in combat.
When the US instituted its first peacetime draft in 1940, local draft boards, composed almost entirely of whites, turned away in large numbers Blacks who had registered. The Marines and Army Air Corps didn't accept Black members at all, and the navy restricted them to menial work as messmen, cooking and cleaning for white officers. One group of Blacks in the navy described themselves in a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier as 'sea-going bellhops, chambermaids and dishwashers'. The army adopted a strict literacy standard, motivated in part, as the secretary of war Henry L. Stimson noted in his diary, by a desire to 'keep down the number of coloured troops'. (Given the inadequacy of southern public education, the literacy requirement also excluded a considerable number of whites. My father, Jack D. Foner, later the author of a history of Blacks in the military, spent part of the war teaching draftees, mostly from the South, to read and write. I still remember his pleasure after the war at receiving letters from former students thanking him for the difference literacy had made in their lives.)
It didn't take long for the Roosevelt administration to recognise the absurdity of turning away men willing to join the armed forces. As preparations for war accelerated, the government ordered all branches of military service to establish Black units, while continuing the policy of segregation. Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, the highest ranking Black man in the army, was soon promoted to brigadier general (he remained the only African American general for the rest of the war). These changes led to a rise in Black enlistment. But Black draftees were often sent to training camps in the Jim Crow South, where they encountered segregated public facilities, contempt from fellow soldiers, officers and civilians, and occasional violence. At Camp Van Dorn in Mississippi, one Black unit was required to work on the nearby farm of a local politician. At least 28 Black soldiers were murdered in the southern states during the war, with the perpetrators almost always going unpunished. Complaints by Black members of the armed forces inundated the press and NAACP. Their letters home said they would be safer in the war zone than in the American South.
Some Black units achieved fame during the war. In the Air Corps, the Tuskegee Airmen, named for the segregated air base in Alabama where they trained, broke the colour bar. But it took them two years – far longer than white aviators – to be deployed to Europe. There, the white head of their combat group, convinced that Blacks lacked the capacity for aerial warfare, at first kept them hundreds of miles from the battle zone. But the Airmen went on to play a key role in the Battle of Anzio, shooting down a dozen enemy planes. In the last two years of the war, some Black soldiers were able to take part in ground combat, including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge in Europe, and the bloody island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific theatre. The vast majority of Black troops, however, remained confined to work as construction and transportation crews, stevedores, engineers and the like. Delmont also discusses the Black members of the Women's Army Corps, some of whom served as nurses and as members of the much admired armed forces postal service. But many others, including college graduates and school teachers, were consigned to work as cleaners.
Delmont makes a strong case that the unheralded work to which Blacks were assigned proved essential to Allied victory. Without the labour of thousands of Black troops removing mines, repairing railroad tracks and delivering food, ammunition, fuel and other supplies, the army could not have functioned following the Normandy landing. But Black soldiers continued to encounter overt racism. When Black engineers were dispatched to construct a vital military highway across Alaska, Brigadier General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr warned that they would 'interbreed' with the Indigenous population and produce an 'objectionable race of mongrels'.
Delmont shows that from the moment the US entered the war, the treatment of Blacks in the military was a major source of controversy. The Black press demanded the integration of the armed forces. Military commanders strongly resisted, claiming that white soldiers would resent being in close proximity to Blacks. At a meeting of Black editors with War Department officials the day after Pearl Harbor, one of the military participants announced: 'The army is not a sociological laboratory.' The army deployed this line throughout the war to evade responsibility for its resistance to integration, claiming it had no choice but to abide by Jim Crow laws and mores, even on army bases outside of local jurisdiction. In fact, by not taking action to protect soldiers who were victims of racist violence and other forms of mistreatment on and off military bases, directing Black soldiers to ride at the rear of southern buses and in Jim Crow railroad cars (while German prisoners of war were allowed in the far more comfortable cars reserved for whites), and doing, Delmont writes, 'everything they could to enforce American segregation' in Europe after the war, the army did more than simply abide by the Jim Crow system – it actively bolstered it. Its policies affected millions of people at home and overseas. The military transposed racist policies from the South to military camps in other parts of the country. The result, as Delmont says, was to put a 'federal stamp of approval on the South's system of racial apartheid'.
A. Philip Randolph, the Black labour leader and civil rights activist, described Washington DC as not only the capital of the United States but also the capital of 'Dixie'. Roosevelt and Congress were largely indifferent to Black demands for equality in the army and civilian life. While Blacks were fighting for the Double V, the federal government's recruitment posters promoted the idea that military success would restore the prewar world, grounded in traditions of work, family and, implicitly, segregation. (Senator James Eastland of Mississippi was quite candid about this: on the Senate floor he declared that white soldiers were 'fighting to maintain white supremacy'.)
Eastland was one of the members of Congress who, as the historian Ira Katznelson has written, exercised a 'southern veto' over New Deal legislation. They ensured that measures such as the Social Security Act excluded agricultural and domestic workers – that is, nearly all employed Blacks. They also made certain that the GI Bill of 1944 (the ticket to a college education, home ownership and well-paid jobs for millions of white veterans) was administered at the local level. This meant that Black veterans were largely excluded from the government-secured home loans that enabled their white counterparts to join the postwar suburban middle class. In the South, Black veterans could use federal benefits only to attend segregated colleges. Most, including those who had acquired valuable skills in the army, were shunted into menial employment. Delmont presents some astonishing statistics. Of 3200 government-secured home loans issued to veterans in Mississippi in 1947, only two went to Blacks. In New York and New Jersey, with 67,000 such mortgages, Black veterans received fewer than a hundred. These policies considerably widened the wealth gap between Black and white families, which persists to this day. Even at the height of the civil rights movement, the power in Congress of segregationist southerners such as Richard Russell, the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Carl Vinson, his counterpart in the House of Representatives, made efforts to purge the military of racism all the more difficult.
In 1941, Randolph's threat to organise a March on Washington to protest against discrimination in defence employment forced Roosevelt to create the Fair Employment Practices Committee. The FEPC, however, lacked enforcement power and was effectively disbanded midway through the war. And when employers hired or promoted African Americans, 'hate strikes' sometimes followed. In the summer of 1943, some 25,000 white workers walked off the job in Detroit to protest against the promotion of three Black men at a Packard plant making military vehicles. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP remarked that whites would rather lose the war than 'give up the luxury of race prejudice'.
Army leaders insisted that treating Black and white soldiers equally would have a deleterious effect on military efficiency. In fact, policies rooted in racism were counter-productive and often had dire consequences. The army and Red Cross segregated blood plasma, even while acknowledging that no scientific reason existed to do so, meaning men wounded in combat might die unnecessarily if only the 'wrong' blood was available. Time and money were wasted constructing duplicate facilities. Confining Blacks to the position of messmen in the navy and making it almost impossible for Black soldiers to rise to the rank of officer deprived the military of skills that could have contributed far more effectively to the war effort.
The wartime battle? for equitable treatment by the armed forces and in defence industries was part of what is sometimes seen as the birth of the modern civil rights movement. The experience of fighting against Nazism changed America's intellectual climate. Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, published in 1944, laid out for a large readership the extent of racism in the US. By the end of the war, the previously small NAACP had grown to half a million members. The wartime movement for racial justice linked Black activists with white progressives and used tactics that would become familiar in the 1960s: sit-ins, boycotts, litigation, even armed self-defence. And in 1948, President Truman, employing his constitutional power as the military's commander-in-chief to make an end run around Congress, ordered the armed forces to embrace 'equality of treatment and opportunity' regardless of race, religion and national origin. His executive order didn't use the words 'integration' or 'segregation', but within a few years, Black soldiers were fighting alongside white in the Korean War, as they have in every war since.
The transition, however, was anything but smooth. Beth Bailey's title, An Army Afire, evokes the widely held image of the Vietnam War army as fraught with divisions between Black and white soldiers, and between young draftees and clueless officers. By the late 1960s, many Americans had in fact come to see the military as a model of racial progress. The army itself promoted this narrative, especially after the draft ended in 1973, forcing it to recruit thousands of volunteers each month. In a historic reversal, Black leaders no longer fought for the right to fight. Instead, they charged that in Vietnam Black soldiers were over-represented among frontline combat troops and therefore suffered disproportionate casualties, a claim that Bailey offers statistics to reject. Re-enlistment rates were considerably higher for Blacks than other soldiers. Until 1968, newspapers reported little tension between Black and white troops. Everything seemed to change that year, a time, at home, of assassinations, urban uprisings, a full-scale generational rebellion and demands for Black Power. In Vietnam, the army experienced fights within military units and even instances of enlisted men turning their weapons on officers.
Like their counterparts on the home front, Bailey writes, 'young Black soldiers were angry.' And they were more likely than in the past to complain about indignities and maltreatment – Ku Klux Klan graffiti in bathrooms, the use of racial epithets by white soldiers, the low number of Black officers, off-base discrimination. But now, reflecting cultural currents swirling in the US, Black soldiers demanded direct recognition by the armed forces. They wore Afro hair styles and read books on Black history. In a 1969 speech, secretary of the army Stanley R. Resor said that the army needed to move beyond efforts to be 'race-blind'. 'The Negro soldier,' he added, 'is different from his counterpart of ten years ago.' In a (probably unwitting) echo of W.E.B. Du Bois's reference in The Souls of Black Folk to Black 'double consciousness', Resor continued: 'A Negro in uniform does not cease to be a Negro and become a soldier instead. He becomes a Negro soldier.'
Insubordination in the army was rife. Both Black and white troops displayed peace symbols on their uniforms. But unrest was greatest among Black soldiers. In August 1968, 43 refused orders to stand by for riot duty at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The same year, two hundred Black prisoners seized control of the army jail at Long Binh, South Vietnam. Part of the facility remained under inmates' control for three weeks. They burned buildings, dressed in makeshift dashikis and played improvised 'African drums'. They represented, one army chaplain claimed, 'the hard core of Black Power'. Time magazine described the situation in Vietnam as a 'war within the war'.
Bailey, however, is less interested in warfare than in the way the military responded to what she calls 'the problem of race'. At first, the army seemed unwilling to recognise that such a problem existed. In October 1968, a Black major, Lavell Merritt, walked into a press conference in Saigon and distributed a statement accusing the army of being a 'citadel of racism'. Military officers investigated him – not the army – and concluded that he had 'an obsessive preoccupation with matters pertaining to racial discrimination'. Major Merritt was retired, ending twenty years of service. The incident, Bailey argues, showed that the army was simply unprepared to confront rising tensions in its ranks. Lt. Col. James S. White, a Black officer, addressed a gathering of journalists in Saigon. 'The army,' he said, 'has a race problem because American society has a race problem.' This may strike readers of Bailey's book as an excuse rather than an explanation, an evasion of responsibility for the long history of military racism. Often, it seemed, army officials saw the problem as a failure of communication: older officers needed to learn how to deal with the new generation of young African Americans.
Bailey writes that once persuaded that a problem existed (which often took a while), the army's practice was usually to conduct investigations, issue reports, hold innumerable meetings and try its best to maintain morale and discipline in the ranks. This was the pattern followed in Vietnam. Bailey describes various efforts to understand and deal with the growing crisis. In 1970, Major Avrom Carl Segal, a psychiatrist from Philadelphia and chief of mental health services at Fort Benning, Georgia, organised focus groups and group therapy sessions for his battalion. To help improve communication, the army insisted that all soldiers attend lectures on Black history. It even screened a documentary, Black and White: Uptight, which Bailey describes as 'unflinching in its condemnation of white racism'. The army made training in 'race relations' mandatory in its educational system.
Many Black soldiers were interviewed by army officials about their experiences. A remarkable number of responses had to do with culture and fashion, including many complaints about army regulations that prohibited Afro hairstyles. A 1969 report by John Kester, a member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps, noted that young soldiers hated having to have their hair cut 'much shorter' than 'fashionable civilian men'. 'The modern young man,' he wrote, 'is extremely jealous of his individuality ... He regards hairstyle as an expression of himself.' The army changed its regulations to allow Afros as 'an assertion of manhood' and racial pride. It even paid to bring a barber from San Diego to military bases overseas to train local stylists. But such leniency raised questions. What about those white soldiers who, in good 1960s fashion, preferred long, shaggy hair? Or those who displayed the Confederate flag, claiming it was nothing more than an expression of regional pride? Bailey concludes that the army's efforts to allow soldiers to express their 'individuality' in an institution normally aiming at uniformity caused more trouble than it was worth.
Many army officers were committed to rooting out racism and making military integration work. Some were willing to stand up to the president. In 1971, as part of his 'southern strategy', Richard Nixon ordered West Point to construct a monument to graduates who had fought for the Confederacy. There were now 119 Black cadets at the military academy and each of them signed a 'manifesto' opposing the idea and condemning racism at the institution, including the low number of Black officers and teachers. West Point's superintendent opposed Nixon's plan, the academy's alumni association refused to finance it and the president abandoned it.
Among the more surprising heroes in Bailey's account is the defence secretary Robert S. McNamara, mostly remembered today as a leading architect of the Vietnam War. A lifelong member of the NAACP, McNamara commissioned a study that found many examples of off-base discrimination against Black soldiers stationed in Korea and West Germany. He insisted that members of the armed forces must not be subjected to 'the hate and prejudice that parades under the pomposity of racial superiority'. McNamara ordered military commanders, in effect, to treat housing and places of entertainment that discriminated against Blacks as if they were venues where soldiers might contract venereal disease. That is, he banned anyone in the army from frequenting them. Army leaders objected to this use of economic sanctions to combat racism, warning that the military would seem like an occupying force if it moved too far beyond 'local community attitudes'. But McNamara persisted.
Bailey's account of the way the army responded to the growing crisis is original and informative. When it comes to actually describing the crisis, however, difficulties arise. She adopts the army's own vocabulary, characterising the subject of her book as the 'struggle to solve the problem of race'. This language, no doubt unintentionally, seems to suggest that the 'problem' was the presence of Black people in the armed forces. The real problem, however, wasn't 'race' – a concept with no scientific validity – or 'race relations', but a long history of racism in the military. However one defines the 'problem', Bailey views the army's response as 'surprisingly creative'. She argues that a complex institution tried to do its best under difficult circumstances: 'commitment, innovation and success' marked its efforts, she writes. The army revised training and education and implemented programmes to increase the number of Black officers. Coupled with an easing of social conflict at home, these initiatives led to an ebbing of the army's crisis.
Today, the military is perhaps the largest integrated institution in the US. The Department of Defence conducts 'diversity training' exercises. Confederate flags are banned from military installations and the names of bases, and even streets on bases, that honour Confederate leaders are in the process of being changed. Twelve per cent of active-duty officers are Black. The army now welcomes female and gay soldiers. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has complained that today's military has been 'emasculated'.
Thirty-five retired military leaders, including four former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court urging the justices to rule, in pending cases challenging affirmative action in college admissions, that race-conscious policies do not violate the constitution. Abandoning efforts to promote diversity, they insist, would 'impede our military's ability to acquire essential entry level leadership attributes and training essential to cohesion'. The language may be bureaucratic but the brief is a remarkable intervention in a divisive political debate. The military has made progress, but a long history of entrenched racism can be difficult to overcome. A recent lawsuit charges that the Department of Veterans' Affairs still administers benefits such as disability payments in a discriminatory manner, rejecting applications from Black veterans at a considerably higher rate than those of whites. There is a similar disparity in the punishment of soldiers convicted of the same kinds of offence in military courts, with Blacks receiving a higher number of dishonourable discharges. The Pentagon itself has issued warnings about an alarming increase within the armed forces of members of white supremacist organisations. The military has not yet solved its 'problem'.