Photo: Marines at Con Thien in 1968. Credit Johner/Associated Press

This article originally appeared at the


In 1967, the NBC journalist Frank McGee spent nearly a month living with soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. Though the troops were often engaged in heavy combat, McGee had a different interest: the experiences of African-American soldiers.

McGee’s reporting, which resulted in the NBC documentary “Same Mud, Same Blood,” focused on Platoon Sgt. Lewis B. Larry, an African-American from Mississippi, and the 40 men, black and white, under his command. “Our history books have taken little notice of the Negro soldier,” McGee said in the documentary. “How do the troops of this war, black and white, want its history written?” The answer isn’t easy.

Black soldiers were nothing new in the American military, but Vietnam was the first major conflict in which they were fully integrated, and the first conflict after the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and early ’60s. Executive Order 9981 officially desegregated the armed forces in 1948, but many units remained segregated until late 1954. Other changes were afoot: The few years before McGee’s report saw passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And yet, like changes back home, integration on paper did not translate into full equality and substantive integration. As in the United States, white soldiers — particularly from the South — resisted. And troops in Vietnam couldn’t help being aware of rising racial tensions, marked by the nearly simultaneous riots in Newark and Detroit during the summer of 1967.

But McGee, who was white, found surprising differences, too, between the home front and the battlefield. He observed black and white soldiers in the 101st Airborne sharing supplies, telling stories and jokes, and generally empathizing with one another, whatever their race. Asked about race relations in his unit, Sergeant Larry stated emphatically, “There’s no racial barrier of any sort here,” an assessment echoed by the men in his command. These comments led McGee to conclude, “Nowhere in America have I seen Negroes and whites as free, open and uninhibited with their associations. I saw no eyes clouded with resentment.”

A thorough examination of contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs and oral interviews reveals that many African-American soldiers agreed with McGee. In an interview with People magazine in 1987, Wallace Terry, a black journalist with Time magazine, recalled the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “In his famous 1963 speech at the Lincoln Memorial he said he had a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and sons of slave owners would sit at the same table. That dream came true in only one place, the front lines of Vietnam.”

These positive depictions of race relations are all the more remarkable when compared with the domestic racial situation, in which urban riots had come to be expected every summer.

Such violent incidents were not lost on members of the 101st Airborne. “I see all the stuff on television, I say, ‘What the devil is this?’ ” Larry said. “I am confused and I am sure a lot of other people are confused. Because I refuse to believe that people just can’t just live together.”

McGee saw things in a positive light as well. “The American Army is fully a generation ahead of the American public in its handling of the races,” he concluded. “What the Army has achieved, is what America, despite bigots Negro and white, hopes someday to achieve, the elimination of race as a factor in human existence.”

But was it really that simple? True, black and white soldiers formed close bonds of friendship in Vietnam, especially on the front lines. However, McGee’s claim that the military had eliminated “race as a factor in human existence” is too rosy. It reflected the belief of many white liberals that racial discrimination was a personal issue between whites and blacks, and not the result of a social structure that systematically discriminated against African-Americans.

And in fact, throughout the war, black soldiers charged that they were disproportionately assigned menial duties, denied promotion to the rank they deserved and unfairly targeted for punishment. A 1970 Army study of the 197th Infantry Brigade reported that black soldiers frequently complained that “white NCOs always put black soldiers on the dirtiest details.”

Despite accounting for 11 percent of the total troops in Vietnam, African-Americans represented only 2 percent of the officer corps. L. Howard Bennett, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for civil rights in the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations, noted that black soldiers often “complained that they are discriminated against in promotions … that they will stay in grade too long, that they will train and teach whites who come in and pretty soon their trainees pass them by and get the promotion.”

Unquestionably, African-Americans were disproportionately punished. A 1972 Defense Department study found that they received 25.5 percent of nonjudicial punishments and 34.3 percent of courts-martial in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, given these numbers, African- Americans were overrepresented in military prisons: In December 1969, they represented 58 percent of prisoners at the infamous Long Binh Jail, near Saigon.

African-Americans also complained that they were disproportionately drafted, assigned to combat units and killed in Vietnam. Statistics from the first three years of the war support these complaints. African-Americans represented approximately 11 percent of the civilian population. Yet in 1967, they represented 16.3 percent of all draftees and 23 percent of all combat troops in Vietnam. In 1965, African-Americans accounted for nearly 25 percent of all combat deaths in Vietnam. By 1967 this percentage had dropped considerably, to 12.7, but the perception that blacks were more likely to be drafted and killed remained widespread.

Eventually, the racial tension and violence that had convulsed the home front during the summer of 1967 erupted in Vietnam. In large part this was because of the inability or refusal of military leaders to address adequately complaints of racial discrimination, but there was a potent domestic factor at work as well. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 was the catalyst for rioting in more than 60 American cities, and it challenged the belief that racism and discrimination could be ended through personal relationships and peaceful protest — both at home and in Vietnam.

In May 1968, the journalist Donald Mosby traveled to Vietnam, where he spoke to a number of black soldiers about King’s assassination. He reported that many soldiers “had no intention of allowing things to stay the way they were when Dr. King was murdered.” Some soldiers had responded by embracing the black power movement. Others formed organizations like the Minority Servicemen’s Association, the Concerned Veterans Association, Black Brothers United, the Zulu 1200s, De Mau Mau and the Black Liberation Front of the Armed Forces, ostensibly to represent the collective interests of African-American soldiers but also to protect themselves.

Black anger over King’s assassination was compounded by the response of some white soldiers. When news of King’s death reached Vietnam, there were numerous reports of white soldiers hanging Confederate battle flags outside their barracks in celebration. There were at least three confirmed cross burnings. In response to complaints from black soldiers about the flag-raisings, the Army and the Marines briefly banned them, but the ban was overturned when Southern politicians objected.

Incidents of racial tension were uncommon in the early years of the war, but following King’s assassination they became a weekly if not daily occurrence. Tensions tended to be noticeably higher on rear-line military bases. On Aug. 29, 1968, hundreds of black prisoners overwhelmed prison guards at Long Binh Jail, captured the stockade commander and set the mess hall and administration building on fire.

The riot at the Long Binh Jail is the most publicized of thousands of racial incidents reported in South Vietnam between 1968 and 1971. On Nov. 23, 1968, The Philadelphia Tribune wrote of large-scale battles between black and white soldiers in service clubs in Da Nang and Long Binh. In late 1968, the journalist Zalin Grant reported that “racial incidents occurred at the nearby China Beach recreation area and in Danang clubs and dining halls” on an almost daily basis. He concluded that the “biggest threat is race riots, not the Vietcong.”

In September 1969, Time’s Wallace Terry, who had spent more time with black soldiers than any other journalist and had previously reported on the positive nature of black-white relations, came out with a decidedly bleaker assessment. There was, he said, “another war being fought in Vietnam — between black and white Americans.” He asserted that racial incidents on American military installations in Da Nang, Cam Ranh Bay, Dong Tam, Saigon, and Bien Hoa had become commonplace.

The situation raged out of control in some units. Official military reports reveal that among members of the III Marine Amphibious Force at Camp Horn, in Da Nang, there were at least 33 incidents of racial violence in the two months between December 1969 and January 1970. Racial violence was occurring almost daily.

The racial situation deteriorated as the war dragged on. In October 1970, the Army’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, Gen. Walter T. Kerwin, noted, “In the past year racial discord has surfaced as one of the most serious problems facing Army leadership.” Conditions were probably worse in the Marine Corps, which reported 1,060 violent racial incidents in 1970. The journalist and retired colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr. concluded in 1971 that racial conflicts were “tearing the services apart.”

Eventually military leaders took notice. However, they largely focused on the responsibility of black soldiers for these incidents. The actions of white soldiers were all but ignored, while the black troops’ complaints of discrimination went unaddressed. In late 1969, Deputy Assistant Secretary Bennett drew up recommendations that acknowledged that ignoring complaints of racial discrimination contributed to racial tension and violence. But military leaders ignored his recommendations, and when Bennett’s successor, Frank Render III, reached similar conclusions, he was promptly fired.

Even when blacks’ complaints of discrimination were received, they were often not taken seriously. Of the 534 received by the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General in 1968-69, only 10 were deemed legitimate. Equally troubling, another study commissioned by the Army found that between 1966 and 1969, commanders had failed to report 423 allegations of racial discrimination.

While McGee was right to highlight black and white friendships as an important element of the soldiers’ experience in Vietnam, it was far from the whole story. Military service in Vietnam remained, as Terry reported, “a place of discrimination.” One could leave the United States, but one couldn’t leave its racial heritage behind.

Correction: July 19, 2017 
An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect percentage of African-American servicemembers in the Vietnam War. It was 11 percent, not 8.3 percent.