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African Americans in the Vietnam War


John Sibley Butler

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement, 1965-69, blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam. The majority of these were in the infantry, and although authorities differ on the figures, the percentage of black combat fatalities in that period was a staggering 14.9 percent, a proportion that subsequently declined. Volunteers and draftees included many frustrated blacks whose impatience with the war and the delays in racial progress in America led to race riots on a number of ships and military bases, beginning in 1968, and the services' response in creating interracial councils and racial sensitivity training. . . .

The participation of Americans of African descent in the U.S. military has a long and distinguished history. But although African Americans have participated in all American wars, they have sometimes faced almost as bitter a hostility from their fellow Americans as from the enemy. Nevertheless, particularly since the 1970s, the U.S. military has made a serious effort at racial integration, and while much remains to be done, the military has achieved a degree of success in this area that surpasses most civilian institutions.

from The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Copyright 1999 by Oxford UP.


David Coffey

African Americans have served in every war waged by the United States. Throughout the nation's history, African American soldiers, sailors, and Marines have contributed conspicuously to America's military efforts. From the Civil War through the Korean War, segregated African American units, usually officered by whites, performed in both combat and support capacities. In 1948 President Harry Truman ordered the military establishment to desegregate. Although the Navy and Air Force accomplished integration by 1950, the Army, with the vast majority of African American servicemen, did not achieve desegregation until after the Korean conflict. Vietnam, then, marked the first major combat deployment of an integrated military and the first time since the turn of the century that African American participation was actually encouraged.

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy reactivated the President's Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces. Chaired by attorney Gerhard Gesell, and known as the Gesell Committee, the panel explored ways to draw qualified African Americans into military service. In 1964 African Americans represented approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population but less than 9 percent of the nation's men in arms. The committee found uneven promotion, token integration, restricted opportunities in the National Guard and Reserves, and discrimination on military bases and their surrounding communities as causes for low African American enlistment. Before the government could react to the committee's report, the explosion of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia changed the problem. An expanded military, a discriminatory draft, and other government programs brought not only increased African American participation but accusations of new forms of discrimination.

U.S. involvement in Vietnam unfolded against the domestic backdrop of the civil rights movement. From the outset, the use, or alleged misuse, of African American troops brought charges of racism. Civil rights leaders and other critics, including the formidable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., described the Vietnam conflict as racist—"a white man's war, a black man's fight." King maintained that black youths represented a disproportionate share of early draftees and that African Americans faced a much greater chance of seeing combat.

The draft did pose a major concern. Selective Service regulations offered deferments for college attendance and a variety of essential civilian occupations that favored middle- and upper- class whites. The vast majority of draftees were poor, undereducated, and urban—blue-collar workers or unemployed. This reality struck hard in the African American community. Furthermore, African Americans were woefully underrepresented on local draft boards; in 1966 blacks accounted for slightly more than 1 percent of all draft board members, and seven state boards had no black representation at all.

"Project 100,000," a Great Society program launched in 1966, attempted to enhance the opportunities of underprivileged youths from poverty-stricken urban areas by offering more lenient military entrance requirements. It largely failed. Although more than 350,000 men enlisted under Project 100,000 during the remainder of the war, 41 percent were African American and 40 percent drew combat assignments. Casualty rates among these soldiers were twice those of other entry categories. Few Project 100,000 inductees received training that would aid their military advancement or create better opportunities for civilian life.

African Americans often did supply a disproportionate number of combat troops, a high percentage of whom had voluntarily enlisted. Although they made up less than 10 percent of American men in arms and about 13 percent of the U.S. population between 1961 and 1966, they accounted for almost 20 percent of all combat-related deaths in Vietnam during that period. In 1965 alone African Americans represented almost one-fourth of the Army's killed in action. In 1968 African Americans, who made up roughly 12 percent of Army and Marine total strengths, frequently contributed half the men in front-line combat units, especially in rifle squads and fire teams. Under heavy criticism, Army and Marine commanders worked to lessen black casualties after 1966, and by the end of the conflict, African American combat deaths amounted to approximately 12 percent—more in line with national population figures. Final casualty estimates do not support the assertion that African Americans suffered disproportionate losses in Vietnam, but this in no way diminishes the fact that they bore a heavy share of the fighting burden, especially early in the conflict.

Destructive riots in the Watts district of Los Angeles and in Harlem had negative effects on the military, but the widespread violent reaction to the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King brought the greatest racial turmoil to the armed forces. Racial strife, rarely an issue among combat units because of shared risk and responsibility, became most evident in rear areas and on domestic installations. At the Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay, Republic of Vietnam (RVN), white sailors donned Ku Klux Klan-like outfits, burned crosses, and raised the Confederate flag. African American prisoners, many of whom were jailed for violent crimes, rioted at the U.S. Army stockade at Long Binh, RVN; one white soldier was killed and several others were wounded during the upheaval, which spread over weeks. The Marine base at Camp Lejeune and the Army's Fort Benning were among the important domestic posts to witness serious racial problems.

African Americans played a major role in Vietnam and, in the process, changed the complexion of the U.S. Armed Forces. Contrary to popular impressions, a large proportion of African American servicemen were well-trained, highly motivated professionals; some 20 received the Medal of Honor, and several became general officers. Despite the likelihood of seeing hazardous duty, they reenlisted at substantially higher rates than whites. In 1964 blacks represented less than 9 percent of all U.S. Armed Forces; by 1976 they made up more than 15 percent of all men in arms. Although the percentage of African American officers doubled between 1964 and 1976, they still accounted for less than 4 percent of the total.

from Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History. Ed. Spencer C. Tucker. Oxford, UK: ABC-CLIO, 1998. Copyright 1998 by Spencer C. Tucker. [NOTE: This three-volume set is the most comprehensive reference work on the Vietnam War. A concise one-volume edition is now available for the general reader.]


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