Posted on August 25, 2023

Racial Trouble in the Vietnam Era

Helen Andrews, American Conservative, August 25, 2023

On July 20, 1969, Corporal Edward E. Bankston was walking back to his barracks at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he was beaten to death by a mob of thirty to forty black and Puerto Rican Marines wielding broken broom handles and tree branches. The mob had set out earlier that night from a dance at the service club where scuffles over minor racial incidents, such as a black Marine breaking in on a white Marine dancing with a black woman, produced an atmosphere of tension that caused the club manager to call the police. After leaving the club around 10:30 p.m., the group of mostly black Marines roamed the base beating up white personnel at random, shouting, “We’re gonna mess up some beasts tonight.” Cpl. Bankston had been wounded three times in Vietnam.

Most histories of military integration end with Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948 or the integration of the last segregated unit in 1954. Historian Beth Bailey takes this as her starting point. Her subject in Army Afire is the three decades that followed, when the military struggled to cope with the challenges of its new policy.

Bailey opens with a litany of incidents that give the reader an idea of the nature and scale of the problem:

On August 23, 1968, between sixty and 100 black soldiers at Fort Hood announced their refusal to be deployed for anti-riot duty at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. “The people we are supposed to control, the rioters, are probably our own race,” one said. “We shouldn’t have to go out there and do wrong to our own people.”

On August 29, 1968, Long Binh Jail, a U.S. military prison in Vietnam, erupted in a weeks-long riot that destroyed several buildings and left the commanding officer so badly beaten that he soon took medical retirement. One white inmate, Private Edward Haskett, was beaten to death with a shovel. The prison had been built to house 400 inmates but at the time housed over 700, the vast majority of them black. The part of the stockade where the rebellious prisoners holed up was declared the “Soul Brothers Compound.” One participant later recalled, “We used the blankets to make African robes and the tent poles for spears.”

On October 14, 1968, Major Lavell Merritt staged an unofficial press conference in Saigon where he denounced the Army as racist and distributed a written statement detailing his grievances. “Army Denounced by Negro Major,” reported the New York Times. An investigation revealed that Major Merritt had become obsessive on the subject of race, interrogating his white subordinates about their hidden prejudices. He was forcibly retired in January 1969.

On May 21, 1970, a grenade was hurled through the window of the mess hall at Hohenfels training ground near Augsburg, Germany, after the commanding officer had refused to meet with a mob of forty to fifty black soldiers who demanded to air their grievances. {snip}


Searching Bailey’s book for verified incidents where white servicemen were the aggressors, one finds only a handful of cases. {snip}

Germany was a hotbed of racial violence in the 1970s, with soldiers afraid to go out at night due to rampant attacks, but it is hard to determine exactly what were the grievances at issue. “White soldiers were being randomly attacked under cover of darkness,” Bailey writes. “Black soldiers had taken to carrying intimidating ‘soul sticks’ on base, cutting to the front of the mess hall line, blatantly ignoring regulations.” More than 1,000 crimes of violence by black soldiers against whites were reported in Germany in the first nine months of 1971. {snip}

Disparities in punishment was the complaint cited most frequently. Black soldiers were 14 percent of U.S. troops in Germany but received 80 percent of prosecutions for serious crimes, such as robbery, assault, and rape. One report found 2,984 crimes of violence by black soldiers during a period when white soldiers committed 740. Bailey does not consider the possibility that this reflected reality rather than prejudice. {snip}

In truth, the Army was not hostile to black servicemen. If anything, it was the opposite. Major General Frederic Davison, the first black soldier to reach that rank, admitted in 1974 that problems in Germany were partly because “some of these white commanders are too scared of black soldiers to enforce discipline.” When the German papers reported a flurry of crimes against civilians by black soldiers (including the gang rape of a 16-year-old German girl), the American brass persuaded the German press council to stop reporting servicemen’s race. {snip}