Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Fighting on Two Fronts

Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War

James E. Westheider
Copyright Date: 1997
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 248
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Fighting on Two Fronts
    Book Description:

    The racial tensions that have long plagued American society exist to a much lesser extent in the military where the bond of common pursuit and shared experience renders race less relevant. Or so conventional wisdom has long held. In this dramatic history of race relations during the Vietnam war, James E. Westheider illustrates how American soldiers in Vietnam grappled with many of the same racial conflicts that were tearing apart their homeland thousands of miles away. Over seven years in the making, Fighting on Two Fronts draws on interviews with dozens of Vietnam veterans--black and white--and official Pentagon documents to paint the first complete picture of the African American experience in Vietnam. Westheider reveals how preconceptions and petty misunderstandings often exacerbated racial anxieties during the conflict. Military barbers, for instance, were often inexperienced with black hair, leading black soldiers to cut each other's hair, an act perceived as separatist by their white counterparts. Similarly, black soldiers often greeted one another with a ritualized handshake, or dap, as a sign of solidarity, the unfamiliarity of which threatened many white soldiers and was a source of resentment until it was banned in 1973. Despite ample evidence of institutional racism in the armed forces, the military elite responded only when outbreaks of racial violence became disruptive enough to threaten military discipline and attract negative attention from the civilian world. A crucial addition to our understanding of Vietnam, Fighting on Two Fronts is a compelling example of the new military history at its finest.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-8459-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    On 28 April 1966, President Lyndon Johnson awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously to army private first class Milton Olive III. Olive became one of the few African Americans to receive the nation’s highest honor and the first from the Vietnam War. In presenting the medal to Olive’s parents, Johnson stated, “By his heroic death, Milton Lee Olive III taught those of us who remain how we ought to live.” The president added that unlike the previous seven black recipients of the Medal of Honor, “Pvt. Olive’s military records have never carried the color of his skin or his...

  5. 1 “Good Soldiers”: African Americans and the Right to Serve
    (pp. 8-17)

    African Americans often welcomed their assignment to Vietnam in the early days of the war. Historically, the black community had viewed wartime military service as a chance for social and economic advancement, as well as an opportunity to erase the myth that whites were superior fighting men to blacks. Frederick Douglass, writing one hundred years before American involvement in Vietnam, stated, “Let the black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S. Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has...

  6. 2 “I’m Not a Draft Evader … I’m a Runaway Slave”: African Americans and the Draft
    (pp. 18-36)

    On 6 January 1966, John Lewis, an official of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, issued a statement condemning American participation in the Vietnam War and the use of the draft to raise the manpower needed in the conflict. Lewis stated that SNCC was “in sympathy with and supports the men in this country who are unwilling to respond to a military draft which would compel them to contribute their lives to United States aggression in Vietnam … in the name of the “freedom” we find so false in this country.”¹

    In the following weeks, SNCC’s stance on the draft would...

  7. 3 “A Bonus for Growing Up White”: The Problem of Institutional Racism
    (pp. 37-65)

    Institutional, or systemic, racism has been defined by the Department of Defense as “policies or practices which appear to be neutral in their effect on minority individuals or groups but which have the effect of disproportionately impacting upon them in harmful or negative ways.”¹ Unlike the overt discrimination practiced by the armed forces before 1948, institutional racism is far more subtle, often unintentional, and therefore much harder to detect; but it still posed major problems for African Americans in the services during the Vietnam War, particularly in the areas of testing, training, assignment, and the administration of military justice.


  8. 4 “My Fear Is for You”: The Rise of Black Solidarity in the Armed Forces
    (pp. 66-93)

    Basic training, or “boot camp,” was the one common experience shared by all of the 8.6 million men and women who joined the armed services during the Vietnam War era. Whether one was destined to be officer or enlisted, a combat infantryman in Southeast Asia or a clerk-typist in North Carolina, all had to complete the six- to ten-week basic training course.

    Though the actual routine varied from branch to branch, the purpose of basic training was essentially the same throughout the services: to convert undisciplined civilians into disciplined soldiers, sailors, and airmen. This process entailed both a physical and...

  9. 5 “Going to Mess up Some Beasts Tonight”: The Outbreak of Racial Violence in the Armed Forces
    (pp. 94-130)

    On the night of 20 July 1969, the First Battalion, Sixth Marines, at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, threw themselves a “going away” party at the base service club, before departing the next day to join the Sixth Fleet at Rota, Spain. The party was attended by about one hundred black and seventy-five white marines, and through the course of the evening, several minor flare-ups and scuffles took place between the two racial groups. Tensions were already running high when the most serious of the incidents occurred: a black marine attempted to cut in on a white sailor dancing with a...

  10. All photographs
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 “We Have a Problem”: The Military Response to Racial Violence and Radicalism
    (pp. 131-168)

    As the 1960s came to a close and a new decade dawned, military officials were reluctantly forced to concede that they had not fully eliminated institutional racism from the armed forces, and that racial violence was now a crisis of the highest priority. After a two-week fact-finding tour of marine commands in Southeast Asia and the Pacific in the fall of 1969 by marine commandant General Leonard Chapman, the Corps senior officer admitted that “there is no question about it … we’ve got a problem. We thought we had eliminated discrimination in the Marine Corps and we are still determined...

  12. 7 Aftermath
    (pp. 169-176)

    The end of the Vietnam War also brought an end to the most severe and violent forms of racial discontent in the military, and by 1975 a relative peace had returned to the ranks. But what would never return, it seemed, was the armed forces’s glowing reputation as the most racially advanced institution in America. A once well deserved reputation had been trashed by years of war, the heightened expectations of the new inductees, and the initial refusal of the military even to acknowledge that serious problems existed. It now appeared that African Americans no longer viewed military service as...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 177-218)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 219-228)
  15. Index
    (pp. 229-239)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 240-241)