Black and White in Vietnam

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Marines at Con Thien in 1968. CreditJohner/Associated Press

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.”

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