The Vietnam War
and the Revolt of Black GIs

From the Streets to Vietnam

In the mid 1960s-the civil rights movement among Black people gave way to urban uprisings and revolutionary sentiments developed among the basic Black masses-the U.S. ruling class developed a systematic policy to get Black youth off the streets and into khaki. Tens of thousands of Black youth were press-ganged into the Army and the Marine Corps.

One program called "Project 100,000" set out to recruit youth into the armed forces who were previously considered ineligible for military service because of low test scores. In all, "Project 100,000" recruited more than 250,000 soldiers-and 40 percent were Black. This program-the creation of White House advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan-was billed as a social welfare measure. Moynihan wrote in the New Republic later that year: "Acquiring a reputation for military valor is one of the oldest known routes to social equality."

In reality "Project 100,000" was a plan to deal with two problems facing the U.S. government-the military's severe manpower shortage at the beginning of major troop commitments to Vietnam and the thousands of angry Black youth on the streets of America. As the commander of the Army's 6th Recruiting District in San Franciso said, "President Johnson wanted those guys off the street." In less public utterings the policy was referred to as "using the nigger against the gook."

But the massive recruitment drive among Black youth and youth from other oppressed nationalities quickly came back to haunt the U.S. rulers. The racist oppression rampant in the U.S. military mixed with all the contradictions set loose by the losing war effort in Vietnam and intersected with the Black upsurge in the U.S. in the late 1960s.

The result: a storm of Black protest inside the U.S. military that was not limited to Vietnam. This was a central force in the disintegration of the U.S. military and the creation of anti-war and radical movements among GIs. It was a powerful example of the kind of strategic role the Black masses can play in making revolution in the U.S.A."

"No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Nigger"

From the beginning of the war, Black soldiers-and soldiers of other oppressed nationalities-were routinely given the most dangerous combat assignments, the harshest punishments, and subjected to constant racist abuse by officers, NCOs, and backward whites in the enlisted ranks. Before 1966 Blacks accounted for over 20 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam. Officially the figure dropped to between 11 and 13 percent after this.

One Air Force report admitted:
"Unequal treatment is manifested in unequal punishment, offensive and inflammatory language, prejudice in assignments of details, lack of products for blacks at the PX, harassment by security police under orders to break up five or more blacks in a group and double standards in enforcement of regulation."

Before the late 1960s, open protests against this kind of discrimination were rare, and many Black soldiers still believed that if they only went off to fight for the U.S. things would look much better when (and if) they returned.

But even in the early days of the Vietnam War-when going along with the program was still the dominant current among the Black soldiers and a revolutionary mood had not yet taken root broadly-there was a new current.

A section of Black troops strongly identified with Malcolm X. These troops were influenced by Malcolm's internationalism-his support for the Vietnamese revolution-and the way he called out the hypocrites in Washington who sent Black GIs to "get violent" in places like Korea but demanded that Black people stay nonviolent in the U.S. South. And these sentiments would have a powerful impact on other Black GIs and, through them, on the entire military as well.

Black power fists and peace signs painted on helmets, constant flaunting of hair regulations and dapping (the power handshake) among the Black soldiers became common. Black GIs often showed solidarity with the Vietnamese. Even having an apartment off base and living among the Vietnamese was often an expression of hatred for life on the base and of sympathy with the Vietnamese people.

A Black vet recalled:
"The Vietnamese constantly appealed to Blacks to get out of the war. They would leave leaflets laying all over the jungle. In perfectly good English, the leaflet would say, 'Blacks get out, it's not your fight,' or, 'They call us gooks here and they call you niggers over there. You're the same as us. Get out, it's not your fight.' In some ways those leaflets affected morale. It would make us wonder why we were there. Most of the people were like me; they were naive. We didn't know what the hell was really going on.

"Ho Chi Minh made a point that stuck in many of our minds. He said, 'It's a civil war. The war is between the Vietnamese, between the North and the South.' Old Ho Chi made sense to most of us. This kinda idea especially made sense to me, because we had too many Americans dying. And it was obvious that we were the aggressors because we were fourteen thousand miles from home rather than vice versa. We were fighting Charlie in his own backyard. We didn't really feel that we were fighting for our country; half the brothers felt it wasn't even our war and were sympathetic with Ho Chi Minh."

For many Black soldiers light dawned under fire. In his book Giant Steps, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar describes what happened to his friend Munti:
"My man Munti, who had lived in my building, went to Vietnam all gung-ho. He was a point-man on patrol in the jungle and loving it. Then one day his squad walked right into a horseshoe, a classic Viet Cong ambush where they let you move forward until you're almost encircled and then open fire from 270 degrees. Most of the guys in his unit were hit, and Munti got a flesh wound, some shrapnel in the mouth. They were pinned down, some guys dying, when the VC stopped shooting and yelled to them, in English, "Why are you fighting us, soul brothers?" As quickly as the ambush had begun it dispersed. Munti went wild after that. His political awareness had been magnified a thousand times; his life had been spared. From then on Munti decided he just wasn't going to fight anymore."

A favorite saying among Black troops in Vietnam became: "No VC ever called me nigger."

Urban Uprisings
Reverb in Vietnam

In the spring of 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King sparked rebellions in cities across the U.S., and thousands of soldiers were moved to open rebellion against the military. A freelance reporter at the besieged Marine post at Khesanh near the DMZ (the border between North and South Vietnam) wrote later: "The death of Martin Luther King intruded on the war in a way that no other outside event had ever done. We stood around the radio and listened to the sound of automatic-weapons fire being broadcast from a number of American cities." There were protests, revolts, and/or racial fighting on every U.S. base in Asia following King's assassination.

According to one account by Black vets, by this time most of the Black troops "felt that the American Dream didn't really serve us." "What we experienced was the American Nightmare. We felt that they put us on the front lines abroad and in the back lines at home."

For those soldiers who were stateside during the 1968 rebellion, the experience of being slammed against the wall by U.S. soldiers in the Black neighborhoods-while home on leave from Vietnam-was the last straw.

Another Black vet recounted a discussion in Vietnam off the urban uprisings:
"Captain one time asked Davis what kind of car he gonna have when he get back in the States. Davis told him, 'I'm not gonna get a car, sir. I'm gonna get me a Exxon station and give gas away to the brothers. Let them finish burnin down what they leave.' It wasn't funny if he said it in the stateside. But all of 'em bust out laughing."

The Black Panther Party issued calls to Black GIs to "Either quit the Army, now, or start destroying it from the inside." And many GIs from the oppressed nationalities thought the time was right for violent revolution. One poll found that 76 percent of Black soldiers supported Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver and were seriously dealing with the question of the armed overthrow of the U.S. government. And more than a few were making some concrete preparations.

A Black marine told a reporter that he knew guys from Detroit who were taking mortars back, breaking them down so that each one could get a piece into his duffle and then reassembling them when they got together back on the block. "You see that four-oh-deuce?" he told the reporter, "Now that'll take out a police station for you."

A Storm of Protest

Throughout Vietnam and the U.S. military, Black GIs launched protests against national oppression. Black GIs were in the forefront of combat refusals against being used as "cannonfodder" in "suicide missions," "fragging" of officers with hand grenades, antiwar protests, and other rebellions within the ranks.

Carl Dix [A founding member of VVAW AI, now a spokesperson for the RCP, USA-Ed.] was among six GIs at Ft. Lewis in Washington who refused orders to go to Vietnam in 1970-this was the largest group refusal by U.S. soldiers of orders to Vietnam.

In the fall of 1972 Black sailors revolted on the carrier Kitty Hawk demanding an end to racism on the ship and a withdrawal of the carrier from the war. A month later 150 Black, Chicano, and some white sailors seized control of various parts of the carrier Constellation for 24 hours, fighting Marine MPs and gangs of backward whites, and eventually forcing the ship to return to its home port of San Diego.

The stockades in Vietnam and the U.S. became special centers of struggle among the Black troops (who made up 53 percent of the population in Air Force prisons and 30 percent in Army stockades in the early 1970s, while comprising only 12.1 percent of all enlisted personnel in the U.S. military and 11.7 percent of total Air Force strength).

On August 16, 1968 there was a major rebellion at the Marine brig at Danang. Two weeks later 250 GIs rose up at the Longbinh Jail near Saigon (a.k.a. LBJ), destroying buildings, battling guards, and holding the prison for almost a month. In the U.S., in 1969 alone, the stockades went up at Ft. Dix, Ft. Jackson, Ft. Riley (three times), and Camp Pendleton, among other places, with Black soldiers playing a central role in each uprising. At Dix, one of the prisoners' demands was: "Free Huey P. Newton, the New York Panther 21, the Presidio 27, and all political prisoners!"

In August 1968 one of the most significant mutinies of the Vietnam War took place at Ft. Hood, Texas. On August 23, 100 Black soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division met to discuss racism and the use of troops against civilians-43 GIs then publicly announced that if called they would refuse to go to Chicago for riot duty during the Democratic Party National Convention. Over half of the Ft. Hood 43 were Vietnam combat veterans. Technically guilty of mutiny, which is a capital offense in the U.S. military, the 43 were arrested. But given the political atmosphere in the military and U.S. society generally at that time, the brass decided to hush up the mutiny as much as possible and to give out light sentences and transfers to the 43.

Meanwhile in West Germany, where many commentators say "racial tensions" were the sharpest inside the military at that time, important developments also occurred. On July 4, 1970 nearly 1,000 GIs of all nationalities met at Heidelberg University for a conference called by Black GIs to discuss U.S. military and economic activities in Vietnam and around the globe as well as racism in the military.

A little over two months later, at the U.S. Nellingen base in West Germany, following months of rising tensions, Black and white GIs threatened to blow up the entire base.

According to one account: "Their warnings were not idle threats, for two firebombs had already gone off in the early morning at an MP station near the base gate. Frightened commanders responded by mobilizing truckloads of MPs and imposing a 6:30 p.m. curfew. At about 9 p.m. that evening, however, approximately 100 GIs deliberately broke the curfew and marched through the base shouting 'Revolution' and 'Join us' to fellow GIs."

A number of Black political organizations were formed in the military, including in Vietnam, Europe, and the U.S. One, called the "Black Liberation Front of the Armed Forces," staged the demonstration at Longbinh Jail in 1971 in support of the demand to free the Black political prisoners in the U.S. And there are reports of clandestine chapters of the Black Panther Party being formed in Vietnam.

Two Armies

By the time Marines at Khesanh stood around a radio listening to broadcasts of uprisings in the ghettos "back in the world," there was no mistaking the fact that the Black upsurge had become a primary ingredient in the disintegration of the U.S. military. Especially in areas of Vietnam away from the heaviest fighting (where conditions more necessitated "sticking together" among the grunts, regardless of political views), the U.S. armed forces took on more and more the appearance of "two armies": one, the military proper; the other, Black GIs, other soldiers from the oppressed nationalities, and the "grays" - white guys sympathetic to the national struggles and general revolt back home - who identified more with the social upheaval in the U.S. than with the dominant social order.

The emergence of "two armies" partially reflected the split overall in the U.S. working class between genuine proletarians and the better-off section, and it often led to fights within units, especially in the rear areas. (The New York Times reported that "Racial tensions have so polarized whites and blacks in many units that fights break out periodically in bunk areas and latrines between September 1970 and August 1971, the Army recorded eighteen racial incidents-gang fights, protests, riots-that required 'significant' police action."

Vietnam was only the second war in U.S. history-after the Korean war-in which there were integrated companies, platoons, and squads. Black soldiers repeatedly faced off in violent confrontations to deal with racist oppression from white officers, NCOs and soldiers with white-supremacist attitudes. In one confrontation at a base outside Khesanh officers flew the Confederate flag over the base and were openly calling Black soldiers "nigras." When a Black GI told the commanding officer that Black soldiers would not go out on patrol under these circumstances, the officer drew his pistol and Pvt. James "Brother Smiley" Moyler shot the officer with his M-16.

But there were other interactions that proved more dangerous for the ruling class. The revolutionary politics and the growing anti-imperialist understanding of the Black soldiers spread to the white proletarian soldiers, including many who had never been in close contact with Black people in their lives. One Vietnam veteran who joined the Black Panther Party after leaving the service described a situation in his unit: "I had a white guy in the team. He was a Klan member. He was from Arkansas. Ark-in-saw in the mountains. And never seen a Black man before in his entire life. He never knew why he hated Black people. I was the first black man he had really ever sat down and had a decent conversation with. Arkansas and me wind up being best friends."

And more and more, an anti-imperialist political consciousness took root-seeing the Vietnam war not as "a white man's war," but as an unjust war of aggression by an imperialist power against an oppressed nation.

This article is reprinted in part from the Revolutionary Worker (voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA) newspaper, #795, Feb. 26, 1995 which was based on "When John Wayne Went Out of Focus: GI Rebellion and Military Disintegration in Vietnam," by Nick Jackson, Revolution, Spring 1988.