"'You and me-same same" and "They called me 'monkey'": Conflicting African American Views of Vietnamese Civilians
In the documentary, No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Nigger, James Daly, a black marine who had returned to the United States in 1968 after serving in the Vietnam War, claimed that Vietnamese civilians favored black soldiers over whites.1 Daly argued that the Vietnamese understood that white soldiers were far more likely to use slurs like "gook" and "slope" while "a lot of colored guys wouldn't call a Vietnamese a gook or a slope...because it's a racial epithet." He was also convinced that many Vietnamese identified with the struggles of African Americans in the United States. He claimed "the Vietnamese then saw what was happening back in the States was happening right there in their own country. There was racism right there in front of their eyes."2 According to Daly the Vietnamese perception that both Vietnamese and African Americans were victims of white racism led them to empathize with black soldiers. Daly recalled that Vietnamese civilians frequently approached him and said "me and you same same" or "hey soul brother!" He believed these greetings reflected the Vietnamese view that they shared a special bond with black soldiers because both groups faced similar hardships and struggles.3
On the surface, Daly's observations may seem outlandish. Most Vietnamese civilians whom soldiers encountered were uneducated and poor.4 Most did not speak more than a few words of English, and most American soldiers did not speak more than a few words of Vietnamese. Additionally, interactions between Vietnamese civilians and American soldiers occurred in the midst of an ongoing war. African American soldiers, like all American soldiers, were sent to Vietnam under the pretext of defending the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and by proxy the Vietnamese population from communist forces. There was certainly a diversity of opinions among the Vietnamese population regarding the presence of thousands of Americans, but the simple fact that Americans were an occupying military force likely impacted interactions between black soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. Supporters of American intervention might have been nice to black soldiers as a way of showing their appreciation. Others might have befriended blacks simply as a way of gaining favoritism from them. Vietnamese who opposed the American presence or who secretly supported the National Liberation Front (NLF) might have claimed an admiration for African Americans as a way of confusing them or creating tensions with whites.5
It is unlikely that very many Vietnamese peasants, refugees, or civilian workers had even a cursory knowledge of American history or American race relations. Most Vietnamese with whom soldiers interacted knew little more about the United States than that it was a powerful country which had sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Vietnam.6 Conversely, most African American soldiers had never traveled outside of the United States. Few, if any, would have had any previous contact with the Vietnamese or any knowledge of their history or culture.
Equally important, the Vietnamese had their own notions of race which predated the American arrival. Roughly 90 percent of the population was ethnically Vietnamese, known as Kinh, but it not an entirely homogenous society and ethnic minorities often faced discrimination at the hands of the majority population.7 Given these realities, Daly's conclusions about "progressive" Vietnamese views regarding race in general or African Americans specifically should be viewed with some skepticism.
Nonetheless, African American views of and interactions with Vietnamese civilians is an issue that deserves historical study. Regardless of their accuracy, many black soldiers shared Daly's opinion that Vietnamese civilians held positive views about African Americans and were sympathetic to the black struggle against racial prejudice and discrimination. Because the Vietnamese were not white and because they faced racial discrimination from whites, black soldiers assumed that the Vietnamese would naturally be sympathetic to African Americans who had experienced similar injustices. They believed that skin color, race, and common experiences were as important to the Vietnamese as they were to African Americans.8
The reality was that some ethnic Vietnamese expressed racist sentiments towards American blacks and discriminated against them. However, more often than not, blacks explained Vietnamese racism as the creation of racist American whites. They believed that whites brought their prejudices to Vietnam and taught the Vietnamese civilian population to discriminate against African Americans. As we will see, there is considerable evidence that some white soldiers did encourage the Vietnamese to look down upon or mistreat African American soldiers. Yet, even when there was no specific evidence of white interference, black soldiers believed that this had to be the case as they had trouble imagining the Vietnamese weren't naturally sympathetic.
Black soldiers serving in Vietnam were not the first African Americans to believe that other non-white peoples would naturally be sympathetic to American blacks and their aspirations. Many 20th century black intellectuals had earlier reached the same conclusion. Historian Marc Gallicchio's The African American Encounter with Japan & China highlights the efforts of such African American leaders as W.E. B. Dubois and Marcus Garvey to create an international alliance which linked the African American struggle for civil and political rights with global anticolonial movements. These "black internationalists" believed that as victims of racism and imperialism "darker" races had a common interest in overthrowing white supremacy and establishing an international order based on racial equality. In the years before World War II, these internationalists were particularly interested in forming an alliance first with Japan and then with China after the Pacific War began in 1941. They believed that because the Japanese and Chinese were not white they would naturally sympathize with the African American struggle for greater civil and political rights.9
In recent years, historians Thomas Borstelmann, Mary Dudziak, Gerald Horne, and Michael Krenn have argued that with the advent of the Cold War the predisposition of African Americans to link their fight for equality at home to international events and to the struggles of other non-white peoples became all the more common and pronounced.10 It is not likely that many African American soldiers serving in the Vietnam War, given their educational levels and socio-economic status, were influenced by the ideas of black elites. However, when confronted by a non-white people these soldiers reached similar conclusions.
While historians have analyzed the views of "black internationalists," they have paid less attention to the opinions of African Americans who were not journalists, intellectuals, activists, or prominent leaders. Approximately 90 percent of black soldiers who served in Vietnam came from working class or poor backgrounds and as such they were certainly not members of the black elite.11 Thus, by examining the views and attitudes of African American soldiers we gain greater insight into how a larger and more representative group of African Americans perceived of another non-white group: in this case Vietnamese civilians.
Similarly, historians have said little about how Vietnamese civilians viewed the thousands of African American soldiers who were stationed in their country during the war. There has been at least some work on how the NLF and Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) viewed black soldiers, especially in regards to their propaganda efforts.12 Additionally, accounts written by members and supporters of the NLF or North Vietnamese Army (NVA) occasionally mention the presence of black soldiers.13 That said, if there is at least some information regarding these view-points, there is far less regarding the perceptions of Vietnamese civilians in the RVN towards black soldiers. Thus, in focusing on black views of and interactions with the Vietnamese civilian population, we also gain a better understanding of how Vietnamese civilians viewed African American soldiers.
To analyze the perceptions and opinions of African American soldiers, this essay uses a variety of traditional historical sources including memoirs, contemporary newspapers and magazines, government and military archives, and oral history collections. These sources are not without their limitations. Journalistic accounts tend to have certain biases and they often reveal only one perspective or opinion. Archival sources tend to provide evidence about problems or investigations, and they rarely examine how different groups interact with or thought about one another. Even memoirs and oral history collections often do not include information about specific issues or individuals' feelings or perceptions. While useful, these sources provide only limited insights into how African American soldiers may have viewed Vietnamese civilians.
During the last thirty years historians have become increasingly interested in describing and analyzing soldiers' experiences. The Vietnam War is of particular interest as it was the first conflict in which American military forces were fully racially integrated for the duration of the conflict.14 The war not only put blacks and whites in closer proximity to one another, it also provided African Americans with the opportunity to interact with the Vietnamese civilian population, an Asian population with whom they previously had no contact.
Traditional historical sources can tell us only so much about these racial/ethnic interactions and their nature. Here oral history has much to offer. Interviews with African American soldiers who fought in Vietnam can tell historians much about their experiences with the Vietnamese.
To understand better African American perceptions of the Vietnamese through the lens of race, I conducted interviews with a cross section of more than thirty black Vietnam veterans.15 The majority of African Americans who served in Vietnam were draftees or draft-influenced enlistees who served in the Army or the Marines, and I concentrated on these two groups. I interviewed veterans who served in a variety of Army and Marine divisions as well as some who served in in the Air Force and U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV).16
These interviews provided me with the opportunity to ask black veterans, on the phone or in person, very detailed questions about their interactions with and perceptions of Vietnamese civilians. During these interviews I asked veterans the same open ended questions about their experiences with the Vietnamese and provided them with the opportunity to elaborate on their perceptions and experiences. I also asked follow up questions when necessary. Their oral testimonies made it possible for me to access ideas and opinions which traditional sources ignore or only mention in passing. Traditional sources definitely helped me to formulate questions to ask veterans, but the interviews themselves helped me gain more information and insights into the African American response to the Vietnamese. Without question, these interviews provided a better understanding of the complex nature of black opinions of the Vietnamese.
Oral interviews obviously present certain problems. Memories of events occurring nearly 50 years ago can be faulty or tainted. Some veterans who might have provided invaluable information have died, and others are unwilling to speak about their experiences. Aware of these limitations, I have done my best to ensure that any conclusions based on these interviews are supported by contemporary sources such as newspaper articles, other testimonies, and archival evidence.
The nature of the Vietnam War changed over time, and these changes could have influenced the experiences of African American soldiers. That is, someone who served in Vietnam in early 1965 would have had a different experience from someone who served in 1971. Similarly, soldiers serving in one part of the country may have had greater opportunities to interact with the Vietnamese civilian population than those located in other parts of the country. Many of the veterans I interviewed were in different units during their service and in different regions of Vietnam. When relevant, I have noted differences in experiences among those serving in different periods and regions.
"Me and you same same"
A number of contemporary journalistic accounts describe the belief of many African American soldiers that Vietnamese civilians were sympathetic to them.17 In January 1965 the Cleveland Call and Post published an article on the experiences of black soldiers in Vietnam. When asked about the Vietnamese, black Air Force staff sergeant Felton McFarland asserted that the Vietnamese were "most receptive, especially toward Negroes." He also claimed that on numerous occasions, the Vietnamese "confided to him that colored people were warmhearted and friends, not cold and haughty like the French colonialists and some white Americans."18
In June 1966 Whitney M. Young Jr., executive director of the National Urban League, spent ten days traveling throughout Vietnam. Young reported that with few exceptions relations between African Americans and the Vietnamese were quite positive. Furthermore, he noted that most African Americans believed that the Vietnamese "feel special sympathy toward the Negro soldiers."19 That same year the Los Angeles Sentinel reported that African American soldiers believed that the Vietnamese had positive feelings for them.20
Most black soldiers agreed with the views expressed in the Cleveland Call and Post and the Los Angeles Sentinel and by Young. Howard Jackson, a black marine from San Diego, reported from Vietnam in April 1967 that "the Vietnamese have no overt racial prejudice."21 Speaking of his interactions with Vietnamese people, Anthony Martin, who served in 1966-67 with the Third Marine Division in Con Thien Province, recalled "everything that I received from Vietnamese people was a whole lot of curiosity and love."22 Martin also believed that some Vietnamese took an interest in the black experience in the United States. He befriended a young boy who spoke some English and asked Martin "a lot of questions about the United States and what's it like to be you know a black man in the United States."23 Don Jernigan observed that "you certainly felt the kinship with the people of color...in the villages and the hamlets, sometimes you felt that brotherhood in terms of reaching out and the warmth that you got from certain papasans and certain mamasans."24 In 1969 Asa Martin of Chicago wrote a number of letters home to his mother from Vietnam. In one of these letters he informed her that "the Vietnamese people treat 'brothers' like kings."25
Louis Perkins, who served in 1966-67 and again in 1968-69, believed that the Vietnamese liked African American soldiers better than whites because they perceived that white soldiers were more likely to hold prejudicial views towards them. In his estimation, "The Vietnamese knew who were genuine and who were full of crap to be honest with you, and that's why they could relate to us blacks a lot better than the whites."26 Perkins credited the behavior of African Americans for the preferential treatment from the Vietnamese, but others claimed that the Vietnamese favored them because they were persons of color and victims of discrimination.
In November 1965 journalist Simeon Booker reported from Vietnam that black soldiers were commonly welcomed into bars by women who "point to their skin as a sign of brotherhood in the worldwide order of darker people."27 Emanuel Holloman, who served with the Twenty-Fifth Infantry in Cu Chi in 1966-69 and again in Long Binh in 1971, claimed that Vietnamese people preferred the company of African Americans and that they would instinctively "warm right up to a black person even if they had never seen one."28 Holloman's statement implies that the Vietnamese identified almost immediately with African Americans at least in part because both were non-whites. James Lewis, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1968-69, also concluded that the Vietnamese generally viewed African American soldiers in a positive light because both were non-whites.29 Harold Bryant believed that the Vietnamese favored blacks because Buddha, whom many Vietnamese worshipped, shared similar physical characteristics. He theorized, "Buddha was black. Take a good look at a Buddha. You'll see that he has thick lips and has a very broad nose and very kinky hair."30 No evidence substantiates Bryant's allegation that the Vietnamese made any connection between the physical characteristics of Buddha and African Americans. Nevertheless, his account demonstrates that black soldiers were often looking for some kind of confirmation of empathy.
A number of African Americans claimed that the Vietnamese explicitly expressed their affinity for African Americans. James Daly recalled a number of incidents in which Vietnamese people told him "me and you same same," and others remembered the Vietnamese using similar terminology.31 Dan Dubose, who served in the Mekong Delta with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in 1966-67, observed that the Vietnamese were a "very open-minded people" in terms of racial issues. He claimed that it was not uncommon for a Vietnamese person to approach an African American soldier and state, "You and me, same-same."32 On more than one occasion, Thomas Brannon, who served in 1966-67 with the First Cavalry Division in the Iron Triangle region of Vietnam, recalled a Vietnamese person telling him "you same same me."33 Similarly, Wayne Smith, who served with the Ninth Infantry Division in 1968-69 in the Mekong Delta, remembered, "There were some Vietnamese that said same-same soul brother, same-same soul sister. They wanted to identify with African Americans."34
Thomas Belton claimed that on numerous occasions Vietnamese approached him and said "You GI you black you same same like me, have same problems." These Vietnamese apparently saw themselves and African Americans as facing similar problems. Belton also claimed that some Vietnamese even questioned as to why he had come to Vietnam in the first place considering that African Americans faced a far more important "war at home" against prejudice and discrimination.35 Belton's account suggests that some Vietnamese were aware of the status of African Americans in the United States.
Ron Bradley, who served in an aviation unit with the Ninth Infantry Division in 1967-68, claimed that the Vietnamese "preferred being with the black soldiers and identifying with us and we got along better. They used to call the white soldiers devils with horns."36 He felt that Vietnamese people developed an affinity for African Americans because they treated them in a more humane manner than the average white soldier. However, he also perceived that the Vietnamese "identified with us because of what they heard about we were going through in America and how we were being treated as third class people." According to Bradley, at least some Vietnamese saw parallels in the way some whites treated African Americans in the United States and the way they were often treated by white soldiers.37
Mel Adams of Orangeburg, South Carolina, who served in 1966-67 and 1971-72, also believed that the Vietnamese, especially those with some degree of education, recognized that African Americans were often victims of discrimination and prejudice in their own country and empathized with them. He recalled that some Vietnamese people "thought you had it worse off than they did because they're reading the paper 67, 68, Martin Luther King, the riots, and the police dogs and all that stuff." In Adams's estimation the struggles of African Americans meant that some Vietnamese people "wanted to identify with you from the standpoint that you're like them. The North Vietnamese are trying to run over you and the white people are trying to run over you."38
Brian Settles, who served in 1968-69 as a navigator pilot with the 390th Fighter Squadron, also believed that the Vietnamese favored African Americans over whites. He remembered, "There were a lot of Vietnamese women and men too who related to the brothers more than white dudes because of some understanding of how white-black relationships were in the United States and relating more to the brothers as victims of oppression in America."39
At least a few African Americans believed that their friendships with the Vietnamese provided them with some protection in potentially dangerous areas. A December 1967 Chicago Tribune article, "Viet Cong Put Bounty on Yank But Villagers Snub Big Offer" discusses the efforts of an African American marine named Melvin Smith to organize a group of Vietnamese villagers into a militia in the hamlet of Tuy Loan. Smith was so effective in organizing this militia that the Viet Cong offered $1,700 to anyone who would either kill or capture him. While it was not unusual for the Viet Cong to offer rewards, the Tribune noted that the "amount offered for the sergeant was exceptionally high."40 The Viet Cong distributed leaflets and even broadcast the reward offer using bullhorns, but none of the villagers, all of whom were poor, turned Smith in. The article suggests that Smith, known as Trung Si Mel to the Vietnamese, was so well liked by the villagers that instead of killing or capturing him for the Viet Cong they protected him.41
Serving with the Fourth Infantry Division in Pleiku and An Khe in 1970, Robert Holcomb often gave food and other supplies to needy Vietnamese. While his gift giving was done primarily out of a sincere concern for their welfare, he also recognized that his actions gained him trust and respect in the community. After he purchased some eucalyptus oil from a local woman, she provided him with information about Viet Cong troop movements.42 Luther Benton, who served in Hoi An in 1967-68, claimed that his friendships with a number of orphans allowed him to drive through different villages without harassment.43
Friendly Vietnamese civilians on occasion provided black soldiers with information regarding potential enemy attacks. Stationed at Cam Ranh Bay in 1966-67, Eddie Wright developed a friendship with a maid who worked on the base. One night, at around four in the morning, Wright heard a knock on the door, and the maid rushed in. Wright stated that "she grabbed my arm and said 'Papa San Dee Dee' and she risked her life to tell me that the Viet Cong would hit Cam Ranh Bay in two days and she didn't want me to be there."44 This incident says much about their relationship. The maid had a close friendship with Wright, and she ran to tell him about the attack as soon as she heard about it. She had come to his door well past curfew, risking death as it was military policy to shoot any Vietnamese found on the base after curfew.
Lee Ewing reported a similar incident. Assisting in bridge construction over the Perfume River in 1967, he befriended a young Vietnamese woman who sold soft drinks to the soldiers. The woman provided warnings to Ewing and his fellow soldiers: if the NLF was planning an attack, she would either not show up or leave early, signaling to them that they should prepare for an attack.45 While these actions could have been motivated by more than simple friendship, there is no evidence of a more intimate relationship.46
"I'm colored to her, same as I'm colored to anybody else"
Many African Americans believed that their empathy for the Vietnamese was naturally reciprocated, but others were skeptical. Clyde Jackson, who served in Phu Bai in 1968-69, claimed that it was fairly common for Vietnamese civilians to approach African American soldiers and say "soul-brother number one and you know white boy ten thousand."47 However, he did not believe that these statements reflected their real views. Instead, he believed that some Vietnamese pretended to favor African Americans in hopes that they would buy whatever they were selling or help them in some way. Some Vietnamese civilians likely did have ulterior motives when they claimed "sameness" with African Americans.
A September 1965 Jet article discussed an anonymous black airman's experiences with Vietnamese civilians. The man stated, "You go into a bar and the girl sits down next to you and points at her skin and then she points at mine. That's supposed to mean we're all the same." However, the airman did not believe that these sorts of declarations of equality were genuine. He reasoned, "Hell, I know she's just trying to con me out of my money. I'm colored to her, same as I'm colored to anybody else."48 To him the idea that the Vietnamese favored African Americans was nothing more than a myth.
Some African American soldiers also recognized that the Vietnamese were not free of prejudice. Lamont Steptoe had a positive impression of the Vietnamese, but he also thought that the Vietnamese were "racial purists" who did not believe it was acceptable to be anything but Vietnamese in Vietnam.49 Steptoe suggests that Vietnamese conceptions of race were far different from what some African American soldiers perceived them to be.
Others understood that even if some individual Vietnamese liked African Americans it wasn't necessarily an endorsement of their presence in Vietnam. Ron Bradley believed that while the Vietnamese liked African American soldiers better than whites, most wanted all American soldiers to leave the country as soon as possible. The general attitude of the civilians he encountered was "we don't need you, we don't want you."50 Likewise, Ron Copes was empathetic towards the Vietnamese he encountered, but he did not think they preferred African Americans or had any interest in or knowledge of American racial issues. Most Vietnamese just "wanted to be left alone...we were all interrupters of their lifestyle...they didn't want to deal with Americans period."51
The skepticism of these African Americans is likely a more realistic and more perceptive assessment of Vietnamese racial views. There is considerable evidence that many Vietnamese did not hold particularly "progressive" views about race. In the spring of 1968 African American journalist Thomas A. Johnson interviewed a Vietnamese journalist named Nguyen Lao, who wrote a popular column in the English language Saigon Post. Lao admitted that "Vietnamese normally prefer a light skin over a dark skin. This is why you will not see Vietnamese girls sunbathing."52 Lao also explained why some African Americans might have felt that Vietnamese people preferred them to whites. He stated, "You will also find that Vietnamese will frequently approach a darker person before approaching a white person, feeling more comfortable, less afraid and perhaps superior to the darker person."53
Other evidence suggests that many Vietnamese were not only uncomfortable with dark skin but also viewed the presence of other races as a threat. Historian Nu-Anh Tran describes an incident involving an American serviceman named James R. Kipp. On April 4, 1966 Kipp wrote to the English language Saigon Daily News criticizing Vietnamese society and culture. When the article was reprinted in the Vietnamese language version of the same paper, many Vietnamese readers angrily responded. Tran argues that their responses underline "how the American presence generated acute anxiety among the South Vietnamese reading public concerning the maintenance of an authentic, autonomous identity."54 All the letters asserted that Americans and Vietnamese were different peoples. A number even claimed that the Vietnamese were far superior.
Kipp's original letter criticized Vietnamese women who, he alleged, were always ready to sleep with American servicemen. A number of Vietnamese commentators focused on this allegation, some claiming that any Vietnamese woman who slept with a foreigner was no longer Vietnamese but a race traitor. A respectable Vietnamese woman was expected to be loyal to Vietnamese men and to ignore American men. This incident suggests that these Vietnamese not only opposed their women having sex with someone of another "race," but also believed that the Vietnamese should remain distinct and "pure."55
African American soldiers were not the first black soldiers that the Vietnamese had encountered. France employed African soldiers throughout the First Indochina War (1946-54). In 1946, thirty thousand African colonial troops, mostly from Senegal, Morocco, and Algeria were stationed in Vietnam. By 1950, the number had risen to fifty thousand.56 While little is known about how different sectors of Vietnamese society viewed these troops, historian Shawn McHale has shown that the Viet Minh utilized racist propaganda, which portrayed African troops as animalistic cannibals bent on debasing Vietnamese society, to attract support and unite the Vietnamese against the French war effort.57 This propaganda was likely intended to appeal to those Vietnamese who feared that African soldiers were more likely to mistreat and kill civilians. This anxiety was intensified by an incident in which African troops allegedly participated in the killing of some six hundred civilians in the Mekong Delta. However, the Viet Minh may have focused on Africans simply "because Africans and Moroccans were more alien and unfamiliar than Frenchmen," making them "more convenient targets of hatred." 58 It is, of course, hard to know if the Viet Minh were stoking existing fears in a population whom they believed to be prejudiced against blacks or if they were trying to introduce the belief that blacks should be feared and hated. Either way, McHale's article demonstrates that at least some Vietnamese had prejudiced opinions about blacks before African Americans arrived.
"They looked like my little brothers"
Vietnam was not a racially homogenous society. It included a Chinese minority, Cambodians, and a number of smaller ethnic groups, most notably Montagnards, a collective term used to refer to dozens of indigenous groups which resided in the Central Highlands region of Vietnam.59
A U.S. Armed Forces study of 1973 on relations between the Montagnards and the ethnic Vietnamese found that while the groups that made up the Montagnard subset had a variety of different languages and cultural characteristics they "have in common an ingrained hostility toward the Vietnamese." 60 The study largely blamed the RVN government for the hostility of the Montagnards, concluding, "The Vietnamese had not only made no attempt to gain the support of the Montagnards and other minority groups but in the past had actually antagonized them." It also noted that the Vietnamese generally viewed the Montagnards, who were darker skinned than the Vietnamese, "as an inferior people, calling them 'moi,' or savages."61
Some contemporary black observers were aware of the ethnic Vietnamese views of this minority group. In a May 1968 article in The Chicago Daily Defender Donald Mosby suggested that if a person really wanted to know how the average Vietnamese viewed people of color, they just needed to look at how Montagnards were treated in Vietnam. The article accused the Vietnamese of "trying to exterminate the mountain tribesmen" because their "skin colors range in many instances from brown to deep black."62 In an article published a month later Mosby described the poor treatment afforded to Montagnards, concluding, "Black soldiers have no business fighting and dying for these people, because the people hate them, just as they hate the Mountinards(sp), who are black people, too."63
In focusing on the plight of the Montagnards, the Chicago Daily Defender not only questioned how racially "progressive" the Vietnamese majority really was, it also suggested that because the Vietnamese Kinh majority treated a local dark-skinned group poorly, its members would have no sympathy for African Americans. They also questioned whether it was worth fighting for a group which had a history of discriminating against other "black" people. While the Vietnamese may not have been white, because they discriminated against Vietnamese "blacks" the Defender argued that African Americans should not be fighting on their behalf.
An August 1967 article in The Christian Science Monitor discussed the efforts of a black lieutenant to organize a group of Montagnards for an Army project. His fellow officers warned him that the Montagnards would not be interested, but he was able to enlist the assistance of a large group. When questioned as to how he was able to organize a group which had previously been uninterested, the black soldier responded, "I told them I was the biggest Montagnard in the world and that they'd be hurting if they didn't help."64
The black lieutenant's comments revealed the perception of many black soldiers that skin color linked African Americans to Montagnards. His account suggests that he not only used his skin color to appeal to the Montagnards, but also that the Montagnards responded to him because of his skin color. In the black lieutenant's view the Montagnards were willing to help because they viewed him as one of them and therefore deserving of their help. The Montagnards had previously been unwilling to help with the Army project but did so when a black officer directed it.
Speaking of his interactions with Montagnards, Arthur Barham, who served with the 173rd Airborne Division in 1967-68, recalled, "When you would encounter them they would come up to us, black soldiers, and compare skin. They would hold their skin up to yours...They embraced us as black guys because our skin color was the same...It made you smile because they could see the difference, they embraced the difference." In contrast, he remembered, "The Vietnamese soldiers showed them absolutely no respect ...they were treated differently."65
James Gillam had little contact with ethnic Vietnamese, but his tour in the Central Highlands from late 1968 until early 1970 with the Fourth Infantry Division provided him with the opportunity to interact with Montagnards on a number of occasions. He knew that Montagnards were looked down upon and often mistreated by the ethnic Vietnamese and especially ARVN soldiers. This mistreatment bothered him, and he developed feelings of antipathy towards the ethnic Vietnamese because of their treatment of the Montagnards. To Gillam, Montagnards were not only good people, but they also resembled him. He recalled, "They looked like my little brothers, how could you not like these guys?" On one memorable occasion, Gillam happened upon a Montagnard village where he was welcomed like a family member. He remembered, "It was definitely a visual and race thing for them...I was a Montagnard homeboy until I opened my mouth."66
Gillam's reactions are striking. He compared the Montagnards he met to his own family, concluding that some resembled him sufficiently that they could be his little brothers. Their darker skin immediately endeared them to him. He believed that they responded to him in much the same way. Their shared skin color was an attribute that united them and perhaps reflected a common experience.
Emmanuel Holloman discussed an incident in which a thirteen-year-old Montagnard girl was evacuated to a hospital in Long Binh after being shot. The girl was naturally very upset, but because she had a broken jaw she was also unable to communicate. Holloman recalled, "The first person she grabbed was me. She wouldn't let anybody feed her but me. I sat with her all night holding her hand...I took care of her for four days."67 Like Gillam, Holloman believed that his skin color endeared him to the young Montagnard girl.
An Armed Forces Human Relations Council study of 1972 revealed that many African American soldiers wore bracelets modeled after Montagnard bracelets normally reserved for honorary members. That some African Americans designed their bracelets to resemble Montagnard bracelets suggests that they saw themselves as honorary Montagnards or at the very least wanted others to see them that way.68
African Americans not only identified with Montagnards, they were also well aware of their mistreatment by the Vietnamese ethnic majority. Serving in the Central Highlands with the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division in 1967-68, Richard Ford had a few interactions with Montagnards. Ford and his fellow black soldiers considered Montagnards "brothers because they were dark" and felt they could relate to them because "the people in Vietnam didn't have anything to do with Montagnards. It was almost like white people in the States didn't have anything to do with blacks in the ghetto."69 Ford was not the only soldier to see a parallel between the way Montagnards were treated in Vietnam and the way blacks were treated by whites in the United States. Oscar Roberts was stationed in Pleiku as an advisor to ARVN in 1968, and he reported that the "Montagnards are treated the way we used to be treated back home."70
Wayne Smith recalled that "some Vietnamese, you know they had some prejudices... They were discriminating against the Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam, who were darker complexioned." Much like the African Americans who believed ethnic Vietnamese identified with blacks, Smith claimed "the Montagnards would say to people like me 'me same same soul brother.'"71 The base where Smith was stationed employed a number of Cambodians. He believed that many African Americans were intrigued by these workers as they "were dark complexioned," but he also recognized that most Vietnamese disliked them. He recalled, "The Vietnamese treated them like white people in the South treated African Americans."72 Just as Smith evoked American racism in discussing white mistreatment of the Vietnamese, he referenced it as well in discussing the mistreatment of Montagnards and Cambodians by the Kinh majority. Smith recognized that the Vietnamese had their own prejudices which led to discrimination against those that were different.
Horace Coleman, who served as an air traffic and intercept controller with the Air Force in 1967-68, also associated with Chinese and Cambodian ethnic minorities. From these experiences, he concluded that "Vietnamese had some prejudices of their own. Vietnamese looked down on Cambodians. Vietnamese weren't that hot about ethnic Chinese, who had been living there for who knows how long."73 Similarly, a 1970 investigation conducted by Army Counterintelligence revealed that a large group of African Americans, most of whom had gone AWOL or deserted, were living in Saigon with Cambodians in the area surrounding Truong Minh Ky Street. Allegedly, both groups had "a mutual understanding of one another as 'oppressed minorities.'"74
The poor treatment afforded to the Montagnards and other ethnic minorities reveals that Vietnamese society had its own problems with racial prejudice and discrimination. While it is difficult to determine if Montagnards and other ethnic minorities faced discrimination solely because of their skin color, African Americans, operating from a perspective largely shaped by their own experiences back home, believed this to be the case. While most African American soldiers did not have any interactions with Montagnards, those that did more often than not viewed them as fellow "blacks" mistreated by an ethnic majority. They viewed the situation as similar, if not identical with, the situation they faced in the United States. Interactions with Montagnards and other ethnic minorities revealed to black soldiers that Vietnam was not free of racial prejudice, but it also gave them an opportunity to empathize with a group even more oppressed than the Vietnamese majority. In much the same way that many blacks thought that they had a bond with ethnic Vietnamese because of their shared experience of racial discrimination by whites, others believed that they had a bond, likely even a stronger one, with Montagnards.
"By the time I got there they were calling some black soldiers niggers"
A black soldier did not need to witness the treatment given to the Montagnards to see evidence of Vietnamese racism. Some experienced it firsthand. In August 1968 the Cleveland Call and Post printed a letter written by Stanley Miller, an African American sergeant serving with the Third Battalion, 60th Infantry in Vietnam. Miller's depiction of the Vietnamese contrasted sharply with those African Americans who claimed that the Vietnamese were sympathetic. He claimed, "The Vietnamese don't appreciate what we are doing for them. They steal from us; they try and cheat us out of our money. They call the Negro soldier names and treat him like dirt." 75
Others made similar claims that Vietnamese people sometimes used derogatory names in reference to African Americans. Wayne Smith recalled, "Despite what Muhammad Ali said, you know no Vietnamese ever called me nigger. By the time I got there  they were calling some black soldiers niggers."76 Similarly, while Joshua Page would eventually befriend the people of Tam To, a small village outside of Da Nang, when he first arrived there in 1968, he was treated very poorly by most of its residents. He recalled, "They called me 'monkey' and other names." Only after the intervention of the local priest did the townspeople began to warm up to him.77
A number articles in the contemporary black press chronicled incidents of Vietnamese expressing racist views or mistreating black soldiers. In March 1966 Jet discussed the contents of a letter allegedly written by a South Vietnamese. The letter writer claimed that the United States sent "Negro soldiers all over the world to pollute the races from Germany to Vietnam." The writer also suggested, "Our signs should not be 'Yank go home' but 'Get your G__ D____ niggers out our country."78 The letter writer did not appear to oppose either the American war effort or the presence of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers in Vietnam. Rather, he/she was only opposed to the presence of African Americans.
Marion Williams, a black female Minnesota journalist, spent seven months in Vietnam in 1967-68 and reported that most of the Vietnamese people she encountered disliked African Americans. She claimed that while African Americans wanted to help and understand the Vietnamese, this was a waste of time because the Vietnamese "hate them."79
In the spring of 1968 Chicago Daily Defender journalist Donald Mosby traveled to Vietnam where he "encountered anti-Negro hate that rivaled attitudes in small Southern towns back in the States." 80 When he refused to buy pornography from a street peddler, the salesman called him a "dirty black bastard." He asked a black soldier whether the salesman was rude to him because he was a stranger, only to be told "the Vietnamese are very prejudiced toward black people."81 The soldier, who worked in pacification in a local village, told Mosby that it was routine for old people to send local children to insult African Americans. Mosby also pointed out that Confederate flags were routinely sold on the streets of Saigon. In fact, it was one of the most popular flags sold in Vietnam.82 The vendors likely did not know its connotation.
Mosby also pointed to the taboo nature of black-Vietnamese relationships as evidence that the Vietnamese were far from colorblind. He observed that "while Vietnamese women walk freely with white servicemen, I never saw one with a black soldier." He surmised that any Vietnamese woman seen with a black soldier in public would immediately be arrested under suspicion of prostitution.83
In another article which appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier in May 1968 Mosby again claimed that the majority of Vietnamese people he encountered in Vietnam were prejudiced against African Americans. Mosby alleged that most civilians scowled at him as he walked by, stopping only to laugh at or insult him. According to Mosby, the Vietnamese "made it plain that they didn't want me in the country."84 Black soldiers did not fare much better as Mosby observed that "Vietnamese don't bother to hide their dislike of Negro GIs." Vietnamese women were particularly contemptuous of African Americans. So much so that many prostitutes were unwilling to sleep with black soldiers.85
Mosby's allegation that the majority of Vietnamese he encountered insulted him should be taken with a grain of salt as they were almost certainly speaking Vietnamese, a language which Mosby did not speak. He had visited only Saigon, limiting his ability to gauge accurately whether the Vietnamese in other cities and towns were equally unfriendly. Additionally, his charge that Vietnamese women universally refused to date or be seen with black soldiers on the street is obviously exaggerated. At least some Vietnamese women were interested in dating and even marrying black soldiers.86
However, Mosby's claim that prostitutes refused to serve black soldiers is supported to some extent by other sources. A June 1966 article in The Los Angeles Sentinel noted that Vietnamese prostitutes were not as welcoming to African Americans as they were to white soldiers and that some refused to take black customers.87 Wayne Smith recalled hearing rumors that some prostitutes refused to have sex with blacks.88 Lamont Steptoe agreed that some Vietnamese prostitutes refused to service black troops, but he also noted that some were uninterested in white soldiers as well.89 Arthur Barham supported his statements about Vietnamese prostitutes and American soldiers.90
Mosby also believed that the stigmatization of Amerasian children, born of black fathers and Vietnamese mothers, provided evidence of Vietnamese racism. Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the number of American troops stationed in Vietnam, thousands of Amerasian babies, the product of GI-Vietnamese relationships, were born during the conflict.91 However, according to Mosby, the Vietnamese reaction to these children depended upon the father's race. He claimed that "white American babies are highly prized, while black babies are scorned." Furthermore, it was routine for a woman's family to hire bodyguards to protect a white Amerasian child from being stolen, but if the baby was a black Amerasian, her family would force mother and baby to leave immediately.92 Marion Williams also mentioned the poor treatment afforded to black Amerasians as evidence of the racist beliefs of the Vietnamese. She recalled, "A Vietnamese girl thinks that the gods have smiled on her, if she has a white baby, but that the gods have cursed her, if she has a black baby."93 Similarly a December 1967 article in the Philadelphia Tribune claimed that "a bleak future is forecast for the thousands of new Negro Asian children because of the alleged color consciousness of the Vietnamese people."94
Other evidence supports the accuracy of these observations. In a November 1972 story the Hartford Courant estimated that about half of the Amerasian children found in Vietnamese orphanages were black. According to Wells Klein, general director of the American branch of International Social Service, a black Amerasian faced "dim prospects because of his color...because there is no black community in Vietnam, he will grow up and live in relative social isolation. He will always be the oddball."95 African American journalist Era Bell Thompson traveled to Vietnam in 1972 for a story on black Amerasians. Thompson found that black Amerasian children were far more likely to end up in orphanages and far less likely to be adopted by Vietnamese families. Thompson determined that "Vietnamese admit privately that their people are prejudiced against dark skin" and even those Vietnamese who might be willing to adopt a black Amerasian child, are reluctant because "it is assumed that they will be rejected when older by the society into which they were born." 96
These accounts suggest that Vietnamese attitudes towards skin color and race were more varied and complex than some black soldiers believed them to be. A number of blacks believed that the Vietnamese were more or less color blind, but those who experienced Vietnamese racism directly challenged this notion. Even for those African Americans who never experienced prejudice or discrimination first hand, the treatment offered to Montagnards and Amerasians demonstrated that the Vietnamese people were perfectly capable of "othering" those of different skin color.
The armed forces received numerous complaints from black soldiers about Vietnamese discrimination against them. In December 1969 the Office of the Secretary of Defense released a report on interracial relations and equal opportunity in Vietnam. This report revealed that at least some Vietnamese were discriminating against black soldiers. The Third Marine Amphibious Force, headquartered in Da Nang, reported "scattered instances of anti-Negro feeling by Vietnam nationals."97 The Twelfth Tactical Fighter Wing, headquartered at Cam Ranh Bay, reported that two Vietnamese waitresses had recently been dismissed for discriminatory treatment. However reports of Vietnamese staff members' racial discrimination continued.98 In 1970 the Army received a complaint from the 525th Military Intelligence Group, eventually substantiated by investigators, that Vietnamese waitresses intentionally provided poor service to black troops. Human Relations officials informed the waitresses that "if they were observed showing preferential treatment to club customers because of race" they would lose their jobs. Reports of discriminatory service ended after this threat.99 In April 1972 Michael Hayes, serving in the Fifty-Sixth Transportation Company at Long Thanh, filed a similar complaint against Vietnamese workers, charging that "Vietnamese waitresses deliberately gave poor service to blacks."100
"You had Vietnamese whose minds had been turned against black soldiers"
These accounts substantiate that some Vietnamese discriminated against African Americans on the basis of skin color or race. Some blacks may have concluded that individual Vietnamese were inherently racist, but most looked for some explanation for what they regarded as aberrant behavior. Many African Americans concluded that Vietnamese racist behavior could be explained in large part by the influence of white soldiers. In their minds, not only had whites brought their racism to Vietnam, but they had also infected the local population, turning one dark skinned group against another. Throughout the war blacks complained that white soldiers had a pernicious influence on the Vietnamese.
In November 1962, when there were relatively few American soldiers in Vietnam, Ronald Lewis, an African American stationed there, wrote a letter to Ebony, which charged that white soldiers were spreading racist information. Lewis claimed that the Vietnamese had "been brain-washed to believe that our race is a violent, ignorant, and loud one."101 He recalled an incident in which a Vietnamese proprietor who happened to be reading a copy of Ebony informed him that the information in the magazine contradicted everything whites had told him about African Americans, which was that "our race were the peasants of the United States and were inclined to cut you with a razor (which we all carry) almost any time." Whites had told the man that blacks were only capable of working menial jobs and were not intelligent enough to attend school. Lewis believed that this man's views were not atypical and that many Vietnamese had been taught by whites to have a negative image of African Americans.102
A number of accounts support Lewis's complaint. Ronald Manning, an African American from Elizabeth, New Jersey, served as an advisor to ARVN in 1965. Speaking of the Vietnamese he noted that "the people show prejudice only when they have been 'indoctrinated' by whites."103 In March 1969 Roman Metcalf, a black marine from Chicago, wrote a letter to his mother from Vietnam claiming that racist whites "turn the Vietnamese against us."104
Assessing Vietnamese racial views, Willie Thomas, who served in 1969-70, concluded, "You had Vietnamese that loved black soldiers and you had Vietnamese whose minds had been turned against black soldiers."105 He believed that white soldiers spread rumors that "blacks were animals, you know we were monkeys, we really had tails," and some Vietnamese were influenced. 106
When Lamont Steptoe first arrived in Vietnam in July 1969 a hooch maid pointed at him and said ""you same same monkey.'" Although shocked by the woman's comments, Steptoe did not think that she came up with this offensive characterization on her own. He recalled, "I knew where she had gotten this attitude."107 Similarly while stationed in Tuy Hoa in 1967-68, Arthur Barham was told by a prostitute that white soldiers had instructed her not to sleep with black soldiers because they had tails.108
The Vietnam War was not the first conflict during which racist characterizations of blacks were spread by white soldiers to native populations. Willie Thomas was surprised when he first heard these stories in Vietnam but not really shocked as his father had described similar instances of whites spreading offensive comments about blacks during World War II.109 Similarly, George Brummell was stationed in Korea before serving in Vietnam in 1966, and he remembered that Korean girls "would tell us the white guys always said that the black guys had tails...that we were close to monkeys."110 During his R&R in Thailand, a number of Thai prostitutes told Ron Bradley that white soldiers told them that blacks had tails.111
In May 1968 the Navy received a number of complaints from Chief Petty Officer Barry Wright, a Chicago native and Vietnam veteran. Wright charged that white soldiers were openly "encouraging Vietnamese civilian employees to discriminate against Negro personnel."112 Also in May 1968 a black soldier named Willie McCarthy wrote to Senator Abraham Ribicoff, a Democrat from Connecticut, detailing his experiences with discrimination in Vietnam. McCarthy claimed that white soldiers would "tell Vietnamese people that colored people were number 10, (meaning no good) and that they were liars and thieves. This made the Vietnamese people scared to talk to Negroes for a long time until they found out different, but they still fear them some."113 He concluded that this was not only a problem in Soc Trang, where he was stationed, but he had heard of similar reports in Can Tho and Vinh Long and he feared it was spreading further.114
Many would have agreed with Ron Copes, who served a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67 and another in 1969-70, that while on the surface some Vietnamese may have appeared to be racist, in reality they were just reflecting what white soldiers had taught them. Copes pointed out that in Vietnam there were "establishments that catered to white soldiers" and "establishments that catered to black soldiers." While one might assume that this meant that the Vietnamese did not want blacks and whites to be together, Copes was sure that this was done at the behest of white soldiers. He remembered, "If you looked at it without seeing anything else, you would think that Vietnam, the Vietnamese people, were running a segregated situation, but it was the Americans that insisted upon it and they just complied." Copes believed that white soldiers pressured Vietnamese bar owners into admitting only whites into their clubs, and for financial reasons the Vietnamese obliged. 115 Similar complaints were made by black soldiers stationed in Germany, Japan, and Okinawa during this same period.116
In a February 1971 article in the New York Amsterdam News, Reuben Davis, an African American veteran, was interviewed about his experiences as a scout dog handler in Vietnam. Davis recalled, "When I arrived in Vietnam I found that the Caucasians had taken their petty prejudices over there. The Vietnamese people referred to us as Mideim, which means Black Devil." In Davis's estimation, the Vietnamese had "been brainwashed by the white establishment" into thinking that African Americans were inferior and deserved mistreatment.117
Even journalist Donald Mosby, who had publicized Vietnamese discrimination against blacks, Montagnards, and Amerasians, agreed that racist white soldiers influenced their behavior. Mosby claimed, "White servicemen in this country help promote the racism by infecting the local population with it, whenever they can." However, he remained convinced that the "the intensity of Vietnamese hatred of black people could not have been created in the short time that large numbers of white GIs have been in Vietnam."118
One should be careful not to hold white soldiers entirely responsible for the attitudes and actions of the Vietnamese. Many black soldiers felt and expressed empathy for the Vietnamese, and they wanted and likely expected reciprocation. They were disappointed when they did not get it and needed an explanation. The belief that racist whites were somehow responsible for Vietnamese racism reflected black soldiers' experiences with racism and prejudice in the United States. Whites definitely discriminated against blacks in the United States, and it was certainly plausible to conclude that racist whites would bring their beliefs to Vietnam and broadcast them.
These complaints eventually came to the attention of armed forces officials. To some extent they were taken seriously. In November 1969 L. Howard Bennett, the acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civil Rights, traveled to Vietnam as a part of a task force investigating racial tensions. His findings and the subsequent briefings he provided are revealing.
On December 4, 1969 he sent a briefing to Major General Jack Wagstaff, Deputy Commander, United States Military Assistance Command, Thailand (MACT) regarding racial tensions in Thailand and Vietnam warning that "the exportation of racial prejudice to Thai and Vietnamese nationals is a very serious problem and it demands close command attention." 119 A few days later on December 6, he wrote a second letter to Admiral John S. McCain, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Command (CINCPAC) informing him of the racial situation in Vietnam. Similar to his warning to Wagstaff, he informed McCain that the "exportation of American racism, prejudices, and discrimination" to Vietnam was a matter of serious concern. Bennett did not mince words as to who was responsible. He explained, "This was done by our white comrades-in arms. They will tell the Thai and the Vietnamese that the blacks are really devils of a sort—that after 6 o'clock their tails come out or if you watch carefully there is a place in their head where horns might sprout." 120 The wording of his statement is significant because it is almost identical to the allegations made by Willie Thomas, Lamont Steptoe, and others. Bennett's insistence that some white soldiers were telling the Vietnamese that blacks were devils with horns is eerily similar to an accusation made by Reuben Davis.
A report of the Joint Office of the Secretary of Defense, based almost entirely on Bennett's findings, was released in April 1970. It sought to "evaluate the implementation of Department of Defense and Military Department policies and programs on equal opportunity and treatment and to analyze occurrences of, and potential for interracial tension and conflict among military personnel." Bennett's preliminary findings suggested that a primary source of conflict was that many African American soldiers blamed, often with some justification, white soldiers for exporting their racist views to the Vietnamese. 121
Bennett's investigation revealed a number of incidents of white soldiers encouraging the Vietnamese to discriminate against African Americans. A white sergeant serving with the Twelfth Tactical Fighter Wing instructed Vietnamese workers to call all black soldiers by the name "boy," a practice which quickly spread.122 Race relations were particularly fractured among members of the First Aviation Brigade stationed at Long Binh. Investigators maintained that the main cause of friction was a white sergeant who was instructing "Vietnamese girls not to wait on Negroes." 123 Another report revealed that "a mess sergeant had told the Vietnamese kitchen laborers not to obey a Negro Cook." Military officials did intervene on the black cook's behalf, but their solution to the problem left quite a lot to be desired; the mess sergeant was transferred to another unit but was not punished.124 Collectively, these incidents had caused considerable racial tension leading investigators to determine that that the enlisted men's club was "ready to explode."125
Bennett's report appears to have led some high-ranking officers to express concerns. In a letter to Chief of Staff, Major General Welborn G. Dolvin, MACV, Brigadier General MacFarlane claimed that the black belief that they were being "discriminated against by local girls at the instigation of white soldiers" was one of the more routinely heard black complaints and a cause of racial unrest. MacFarlane argued that the only way to prevent further racial problems was to address these and other allegations of racial discrimination directly.126
In November 1970 under the auspices of the Department of the Army a Race Relations Conference was held at Continental Army Command headquarters at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The conference included participants from all major Army commands as well as representatives from other services. Lieutenant James Anderson, who had recently returned from a fact finding trip to Vietnam, reported that one of the most frequent complaints made by black soldiers was that "U.S whites encourage foreign nationals to discriminate against black soldiers. Commanders do not require employers to comply with equal opportunity policies."127
In 1970 the armed forces responded to the rise in racial tensions by creating a Human Relations Council to uncover the causes of racial tensions and address accusations of prejudice and discrimination. Branches of the Council were established at larger military bases. Their reports provide additional evidence that some white soldiers were influencing the Vietnamese to discriminate against African American soldiers. On February 13, 1971 representatives from the Long Binh Post Human Relations Council met to discuss racial problems in the area. The participants focused particular attention on an accusation made by an unidentified black soldier that a Vietnamese worker had informed him that blacks were required to "drink milk and juice from one set of containers, and whites from another set" in the mess hall cafeteria. Chaplain Barbinette, who served as post chaplain, verified the black soldier's account and urged "the council that it is a matter for immediate command action."128 The fact that the cafeteria "segregated" drinking containers, thereby replicating the policies of the segregationist South, was certainly disturbing. However, it was perhaps even more troubling that the Human Relations Council believed that it was possible that "someone in authority in the mess hall had instructed the VN (Vietnamese national) to do this."129
In February 1972 members of the Council met with a group of black soldiers to discuss racial tensions in the armed forces in Vietnam. A lieutenant Barksdale reported that the "majority of blacks" believed that "the indigenous personnel has been threaten(sp) with dismissal if they are too friendly with the blacks on the compound."130 Similar accusations were repeated by four other soldiers present. Human Relations officer Mitchell assured the soldiers that it was official policy to inform every Vietnamese worker that discrimination against any soldier was forbidden. His statement suggests that there had been previous instances of discriminatory behavior and that a policy existed to deal with them. His statement was meant to reassure, but it seems clear that some whites were instructing Vietnamese employees to ignore established policy. As to the rumors that whites were threatening to dismiss Vietnamese workers if they were too friendly with blacks, the report stated, "Considering the attitudes of some of the high ranking individuals who departed this compound, it is quite possible that there might be some truth to the rumor."131
The statement is telling because it suggests that the Council was aware that some high ranking white officers held racist views. Equally significant, the report disclosed that the officers may have actually encouraged or even instructed Vietnamese workers to discriminate against black soldiers, confirming the findings of the Long Binh Human Relations Council the previous year. This was contrary to official policy, but even when the actions of Vietnamese employees were exposed, they were not always fired because white enlisted men or officers who had put these ideas in their heads were responsible for hiring and firing. A soldier named Williams and another named Jones discussed their experiences with one particular waitress who had a reputation for discriminatory treatment of blacks. A black soldier accidentally dropped money, and the woman exclaimed, "Black GI's are mother----ing number ten." She was supposed to be fired for this incident. However, according to the Council, "A month later the waitress is still working in the club and apparently her attitude towards blacks has not changed. No one knows why she was not fired."132 That she was not fired suggests at the very least that her supervisor was not particularly interested in either punishing her or maintaining an environment free of discrimination. At worst it suggests that higher ranking soldiers agreed with the waitress's views and may even have influenced them.
Vietnamese civilians likely assessed American soldiers, including African Americans, from a variety of perspectives. American soldiers were defenders of South Vietnam, they were customers, they were employers, and they were also members of an occupying army. Their views of Americans likely changed over time in response to their views of the war and Americans' actions in their country. Using traditional historical sources it is difficult to know for certain how Vietnamese civilians viewed American soldiers, including blacks.
African American soldiers' views of how the Vietnamese viewed them were diverse. Archival sources, contemporary journals and newspapers, and most importantly oral accounts and interviews with black veterans, reveal that African American soldiers believed that the Vietnamese had a variety of reactions to their presence. Primarily, they believed that Vietnamese civilians empathized with them as persons of color and as victims of racial discrimination. Some even claimed that the Vietnamese supported the African American struggle for greater rights and freedoms in the United States. According to these soldiers, the Vietnamese recognized that Vietnamese civilians and African Americans had much in common. This perception was no doubt influenced by the fact that at least some Vietnamese greeted black soldiers with statements such as "me and you same same."
The perception that African Americans and the Vietnamese shared a common condition and faced similar struggles was influenced by the racial situation in the United States. Back home, the racial dividing line was between black and white. The most explicit symbol of that dividing line was skin color. As blacks saw it, the Vietnamese were another group with non-white skin mistreated by whites in a manner similar to the way many African Americans saw themselves as victims of white racism. It made sense to think that this shared experience would lead to a degree of empathy and unity.
The reality was that the Vietnamese were not free of color or racial prejudice. The ethnic Kinh majority were quite capable of discriminating against racial and ethnic minorities in their own country as evidenced by their historical mistreatment of Montagnards and other groups. Some black soldiers were aware of this mistreatment, while others experienced Vietnamese racism firsthand. This discriminatory treatment challenged both the idea that the Vietnamese were free of racial animus and the notion that blacks and the Vietnamese shared a bond forged out of their common experiences and skin color.
Interviews with black veterans, substantiated by evidence in traditional historical sources, reveal that it was difficult for many black soldiers to view the Vietnamese as prejudiced or discriminatory. Frequently, when black soldiers encountered Vietnamese racism, they found it so unacceptable or hard to believe that they were forced to look for an extraneous explanation. Vietnamese racism and discrimination must be inspired or heavily influenced by white soldiers. Many believed that some white soldiers had brought their racist ideas to Vietnam and "taught" them to the Vietnamese. Racist whites—the same people responsible for black mistreatment in the United States—were also responsible for Vietnamese discrimination against blacks in Vietnam. Armed forces' investigations do support the charge that some whites encouraged the Vietnamese to discriminate against and mistreat black soldiers.
What is interesting about these contrasting opinions of the Vietnamese and their racial views is that both viewpoints embrace the idea that the Vietnamese, a non-white people, were naturally free of racial prejudice. African Americans who believed that the Vietnamese empathized with them clearly felt this way, but even black soldiers who experienced racism shared this opinion because they believed that Vietnamese civilians wouldn't have expressed racist ideas or engaged in discrimination without white influence. In other words, the Vietnamese were not and perhaps could not be prejudiced but had been corrupted by racist whites who exported American racism to Vietnam. African Americans whose experiences with Vietnamese civilians were positive, negative, or somewhere in between reached similar conclusions about Vietnamese civilians. Left to their own devices the Vietnamese would embrace African Americans and empathize with their struggle against racial discrimination and prejudice.
It seems likely that at least some Vietnamese civilians felt prejudice, based on skin color or race, against African Americans. Whites had little if anything to do with their reaction. What is clear is that Vietnamese civilians did not collectively embrace the vision propagated by some black soldiers of a world in which skin color, race, and shared experiences with poverty and racism created close bonds among diverse peoples. Encountering a people and a culture with whom they had no previous contact, African American soldiers made major assumptions when they assigned "progressive" racial attitudes to the Vietnamese. They were bound to be disappointed by the reality of Vietnamese racial views however they explained them.
Gerald F. Goodwin received his PhD in United States History from Ohio University in 2014. He currently teaches American and World History, as well as American Government, at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington, Indiana. His research focuses on the ways in which issues deriving from "race" shaped the experiences of African Americans serving in Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com
1 No Vietnamese Ever Called Me A Nigger, 1968. No Vietnamese Ever Called Me A Nigger Video December 16, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVVh1JEe7Bw
4 Christian G. Appy, Working Class War: American Combat Soldiers & Vietnam (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 288-289. The South Vietnamese civilian population will be defined as non-combatant civilians of no confirmed political affiliation. African Americans undoubtedly interacted with Vietnamese civilian supporters of the National Liberation Front (NLF), better known as the Viet Cong, but unless otherwise noted, Vietnamese political opinions were unknown and no assumptions can be made about their views on American intervention.
5 Gerald F. Goodwin, "Race in the Crucible of War: African American Soldiers and Race Relations in the 'Nam.'" (PhD diss., Ohio University, 2014). While this article deals with Vietnamese civilians, my dissertation also examines African American interactions with and perceptions of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), NLF, and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers.
6 Of course, members of the Vietnamese middle class, academics, politicians, and higher ranking military officials were more likely to know something about American race relations, but most American soldiers had little, if any, interaction with these groups.
7 David L. Anderson, The Vietnam War (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 2.
8 While it is important to note that skin color and race are not necessarily the same thing, most African American soldiers would have seen their skin color and racial background as being intrinsically linked. They carried this viewpoint with them to Vietnam.
9 Marc Gallicchio, The African American Encounter with Japan & China (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
10 Thomas Borstelman, Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena (Boston: Harvard University, 2003), Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University, 2011), Gerald Horne, Ends of Empire: African Americans and India (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009), Michael Krenn, Black Diplomacy: African Americans and the State Department, 1959-1969(Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1999).
11 Appy, Working-Class War, 22.
12 Marc Jason Gilbert, "Persuading the Enemy: Vietnamese Appeals to Non-White Forces of Occupation, 1945–1975," Wynn Wilcox. ed. Vietnam and the West: New Approaches (Cornell University Press, 2010), 107-142. The Vietnamese commonly directed propaganda in the form of radio addresses and pamphlets at African Americans soldiers. This issue is also discussed in greater detail in my dissertation Goodwin, "Race in the Crucible of War: African American Soldiers and Race Relations in the 'Nam.'"
13 Dan Cragg and Michael Lee Lanning, Inside the VC and the NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam's Armed Forces (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008), 71-72. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 14. Al Santoli, To Bear any Burden: the Vietnam War and its aftermath in the words of Americans and Southeast Asians (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 161.
Most notably, Sorrow of War provides a sympathetic description of the ghosts of a group of black soldiers wandering through a haunted forest in Vietnam.
14 Sherie Merson and Steven Schlossman, Foxholes and Color Lines: Desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces
(Washington, D.C: The Johns Hopkins University, 1998). While the armed forces were officially desegregated with Executive Order 9981 in 1948, many units remained segregated until the end of 1954.
15 Finding African American Vietnam veterans to interview was not always an easy process as blacks are generally underrepresented in traditional veteran organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) or the American Legion. I found the best method was simply to ask black veterans to inform other veterans in their family or circle of friends of my interest in their experiences in the military during the Vietnam War.
16 This is not to say that I interviewed the same number of veterans from each division. I interviewed a greater number of veterans who served with the First and Twenty-Fifth Infantry Divisions than others largely because I had greater success locating former members of these divisions. Members of the First Division were stationed in Vietnam from 1965-70, while the Twenty-Fifth Division was stationed there from 1965-71. Both divisions were present in Vietnam for the majority of the conflict, and they were involved in significant fighting.
17 Lawrence Allen Eldridge, Chronicles of a Two-Front War: Civil Rights and Vietnam in the African
American Press (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011), 100, 162. It is worth noting that the majority of the black press including the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, New York Amsterdam News, Jet, and Ebony supported the Vietnam War for the entirety of Lyndon Johnson's administration in large part because they feared alienating an administration which had been so supportive of civil rights causes. Their positions on the war shifted dramatically when Richard Nixon became president. There does not appear to be any political motivation behind their emphasis on the perception of many African Americans that the Vietnamese favored blacks over whites and empathized with their struggles.
18 Dan Daly, "Call-Post Correspondent Reports From War-Torn Vietnam: Negro GI's 'Not Angry; Just 'Confused,'" Cleveland Call and Post, January 2, 1965, 1A. Generally speaking, the black press provided a positive assessment of the war effort in Vietnam even when the war became less popular.
19 John Randolph, "Integration Needs Viet Approach, Negro Says: Leader Impressed by Teamwork Found Among U.S. Troops on Visit to Saigon," Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1966, F5.
20 Bob Lucas, "'Jim Crow at Home' Added Foe for GI's," Los Angeles Sentinel, June 20, 1966, 1A.
21 Ethel Payne, "GIs Tell How They Stand On The Viet War," Chicago Daily Defender, April 11, 1967, 2.
22 Anthony Martin, interview by author, September 12, 2011.
24 Interview with Don Jernigan as found in Eddie Wright, Thoughts About the Vietnam War: Based on my Personal Experience, Books I have Read and Conversations with Other Veterans (New York: Carlton Press, 1986), 94. "Mamasan" and "Papasan" were colloquial terms used by American soldiers in Vietnam when referring to older women and older men.
25 "Mother Seeks More Info On Son Slain in Vietnam," Jet, April 3, 1969, 25.
26 Louis Perkins, interview by author, December 17, 2011.
27 Simeon Booker, "Negroes in Vietnam: 'We too, Are Americans,'" Ebony, November 1965, 89.
28 Emmanuel J. Holloman's account as found Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Random House Publishing, 1984), 84.
29 James Lewis, interview by author, March 20, 2012.
30 Harold Bryant's account as found Terry, Bloods, 25.
31 No Vietnamese Ever Called Me A Nigger.
32 Dave Dubose, "Combat Knows No Color," Vietnam, December 1990, 20-22.
33 Thomas Brannon, interview by author, December 6, 2011.
34 Wayne Smith, interview by author, October 25, 2011.
35 Thomas Belton's Account as found in Wright, Thoughts, 68.
36 Ron Bradley, interview by author, October 23, 2011.
38 Melvin Adams, interview by author, March 14, 2012.
39 Brian Settles, interview by author, October 1, 2012
40 "Viet Cong Put Bounty on Yank But Villagers Snub Big Offer," Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1967, 7.
42 Holcomb's account as found in Terry, Bloods, 208.
43 Luther C. Benton's account as found in Terry, Bloods, 68.
44 Eddie Wright's account as found in Wright, Thoughts. 120.
45 Lee Sleemons Ewing, interview by Pat McClain. Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.,5.
46 Of course, some Vietnamese civilians certainly helped or provided information to white soldiers as well.
47 Clyde Jackson, interview by author, January 8, 2012.
48 "GI's In Vietnam Have Their Say On L.A. Riot," Jet, September 2, 1965, 60.
49 Lamont Steptoe, interview by author, June 25, 2012.
50 Bradley, interview by author.
51 Ron Copes, interview by author, November 17, 2011.
52Thomas A. Johnson, "The Negro in Vietnam: An Opportunity to win the career man's reward," Globe and Mail, April 30, 1968, 7. Johnson's account is particularly credible as he spent considerable time in Vietnam interviewing African American soldiers about their experiences.
54 Nu-Anh Tran, "South Vietnamese Identity, American Intervention, and the Newspaper Chinh Luan, 1965-1969," Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 1. 2006, 170.
55 Ibid., 186-194.
56 Shawn McHale, "Understanding the Fanatic Mind? The Viet Minh and Race Hatred in the First Indochina War (1945-1954)," Journal of Vietnamese Studies, Vol. 4, No.3 (Fall 2009), 122.
58 Ibid., 122.
59 Anderson, The Vietnam War, 2.
60 Verne Bowers and Francis J. Kelly, Vietnam Studies: U.S. Army Special Forces 1961-1971(Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1973), 31.
61 Ibid., 30.
62 Donald Mosby, "Young And Old Vietnamese Wish Black GIs Would Leave Country," Chicago Daily Defender, May 21, 1968, 5.
63 Donald Mosby, "Woman Reporter Tells Of Race Hate in Viet: Mrs. Williams Irked By Bias In War Area," Chicago Daily Defender, June 5, 1968, 10.
64 George Ashworth, "GI Integration meets battle test: Race held unimportant," Christian Science Monitor, August 23, 1967, 1.
65 Arthur Barham, interview by author, February 19, 2013.
66 James Gillam, interview by author, Lubbock, Texas, March 14, 2008.
67 Holloman's account as found Terry, Bloods, 84.
68 Report, 1972, Subordinate Unit Publications, Equal Opportunity Reporting Files-MACV Publications: Box #5, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, Record Group 472, National Archives at College Park, MD (NACP), College Park, Maryland.
69 Richard Ford's account as found in Terry, Bloods, 40.
70 Thomas A. Johnson, "The U.S. Negro in Vietnam," New York Times, April 29, 1968, 16.
71 Smith, interview by author.
73 Horace Coleman, interview by author, June 12, 2012.
74 Report, Major Pace, January 6, 1971, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Plan, Racial Unrest: Box #2, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
75 "Black Soldier Tells of Treatment in Vietnam," Cleveland Call and Post, August 10, 1968, 6B.
76Smith, interview by author.
77 Tom Chance, "'Mr. Mountain:' U.S. Navyman fights his own very special war," Ebony, January 1969, 61.
78 "A Racist South Vietnamese Wants Negroes Out," Jet, March 3, 1966, 5.
79 Mosby, "Woman Reporter Tells Of Race Hate in Viet," 10.
80 Mosby, "Young And Old Vietnamese." 5.
84 Donald Mosby, "Mosby Meets Anti-Negro Hate: What's This? Jim Crow Found in Saigon Brothels," Pittsburgh Courier, May 18, 1968, 16.
86 Edward Doyle et al., A Collision of Cultures: The Americans in Vietnam, 1954-1973 (Boston: Boston
Publishing Company, 1984), 38. There were approximately 6,000 marriages between American soldiers and Vietnamese women during the war. While it is unknown how many of these marriages involved black soldiers, there were undoubtedly some.
87 Bob Lucas, "'Jim Crow at Home," 2A.
88 Smith, interview by author.
89 Steptoe, interview by author.
90 Barham, interview by author.
91 Doyle, et al., A Collision of Cultures,38. It is also difficult to estimate how many of these children were black Amerasians.
92 Mosby, "Young And Old Vietnamese,"5.
93 Mosby, "Woman Reporter," 10.
94 Lance Woodruff, "Many Vietnam Infants Fathered by Negro GI's Left Abandoned," Philadelphia Tribune, December 26, 1967, 20.
95 "Many Illegitimate Children Stay In Vietnam as GI Fathers Leave," Hartford Courant, November 9, 1972, 18.
96 Era Bell Thompson, "The Plight of Black Babies in South Vietnam," Ebony, December 1972, 108.
97 Report, David I. Cooper Jr. to L. Howard Bennett, December 1969, Racial Literature, Race Relations Briefing for the Secretary of the Army: Box #4, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
99Report, E.L Barnard to Commanding General, April 12, 1971, "Race Relations Survey, Provost Marshall Report on Serious Incident Reports with Racial overtones," Box #3, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP. Unfortunately, this is one of the few instances in which the documents provide information as to how officials responded to accusations of Vietnamese discriminating against African Americans.
100Report, Herald F. Stout Jr. to Roland Day, April 18, 1972, Racial Incidents, Equal Opportunity Reporting Files- MACV Publications: Box #5, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP. These documents do not contain a response from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
101 "Ebony Helps Abroad," Ebony, November 1962, 22.
103 Dan Day, "Dan Day Interviews Negro GI's in Viet Nam," Cleveland Call and Post, January 9, 1965, 11B.
104 Faith C. Christmas, "Sons Fighting In Vietnam: Mothers Ask GI Bias Probe," Chicago Daily Defender, April 12, 1969, 1.
105 Willie Thomas, interview by author, September 3, 2011.
107 Steptoe, interview by author.
108 Barham, interview by author.
109 Thomas, interview by author.
110 George Brummell, interview by author, October 21, 2011.
111 Bradley, interview by author.
112 Ethel Payne, "Navy Plays Down Racial Bias in Vietnam," New Pittsburgh Courier, May 25, 1968, 2.
113 Letter, Willie McCarthy to Abraham Ribicoff, May 25, 1968, Complaint Regarding Alleged Racial Discrimination in Vietnam, Submitted by Senator Abe Ribicoff on Behalf of Willie McCarthy: Folder # 5, Official Papers-Complaints: Box #5, Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel DCSPER Policy Files on Discrimination in the Army, U.S. Army Heritage Collection, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Many Vietnamese interpreted the American colloquial phrase "You are number one" to mean that any statement which labeled someone as being any other number than number one was an insult, hence the term "you are number ten."
115 Copes, interview by author.
116 Maria Hohn, GIs and Frauleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002, 208-211. Brummell, interview by author. Robert Louis, interview by author, November 30, 2011. Letter, James Johnson to unknown, September 19, 1966, Folder 10: Complaint regarding alleged discrimination by taxis cabs on Okinawa, made by Specialist 5 James Johnson, Box 8: Official Papers-Complaints, DSCPER.
117 Willie L. Hamilton, "The Black Vietnam Veteran and His Problems: Fifth in a Series," New York Amsterdam News, February 20, 1971, 1.
118 Mosby, "Young And Old Vietnamese,"5.
119 Briefing, L. Howard Bennett to Jack Wagstaff, December 4, 1969, Racial Literature, Race Relations Briefing for the Secretary of the Army: Box #4, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
120 Ibid. Admiral John S. McCain is the father of Senator John McCain of Arizona. There is no evidence that Bennett received a reply from either Wagstaff or McCain.
122 Briefing, David I. Cooper Jr. to L. Howard Bennett, December 1969, Racial Literature, Race Relations Briefing for the Secretary of the Army: Box #4, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
124 Briefing, Thomas Anderson to L. Howard Bennett, November 18, 1969, Visit of Mr. Howard Bennett, Equal Opportunity Reporting File-Survey: Box #1, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
125 Briefing, David I. Cooper Jr. to L. Howard Bennett, December 1969, Racial Literature, Race Relations Briefing for the Secretary of the Army: Box #4, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
126Briefing, Macfarlane to Welborn G. Dolvin, September 1970, Equal Opportunity and Racial Unrest, Equal Opportunity Reporting File-Survey: Box #1, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP. Unfortunately, MacFarlane's first name is illegible.
127 Report, James R. Anderson, December 29, 1970, Staff Visits, Reference Paper Files: Box #2, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP. Anderson did not state what policies these soldiers were referring to, but their comments suggest that the armed forces had policies in place which forbade Vietnamese workers to engage in racial discrimination.
128 Report, Richard F. Ward to Human Relations Branch, February 14, 1971, Staff Visits, Reference Paper Files: Box #2, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP.
130Report to the Department of the Army, February 13, 1972, Racial Incidents, Equal Opportunity Reporting Files-MACV Publications: Box #5, U.S. Forces in South East Asia, 1950-1975, NACP. The report doesn't state where in Vietnam the meeting took place.
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