How the US Army confronted its racial crisis in the Vietnam era

Monday, September 18th, 2023

Beth Bailey’s Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era opens with a litany of incidents that she presents as protests:

It is a stretch. Major Merritt, for example, was clearly a crank. The written statement he distributed to the press contained gratuitous sexual insults directed at the “seventy-five percent” of white officers who were raised by “mammy who was also his fathers [sic] mistress.” Subordinates told investigators that Merritt’s constant racial badgering included his claim that “once a white woman had a negro she would never go back to a white man.”

Bailey insists that the senseless death of Cpl. Bankston must be seen in the light of rising racial tensions at Camp Lejeune. She repeats, rather irresponsibly, a rumor than white Marines had beat a black man to death the year before and never been prosecuted. The source of this rumor is a LIFE magazine article from 1969 that says the author heard about it from black Marines, who gave no further details except that the man’s death was “attributed to natural causes” by authorities.

Searching Bailey’s book for verified incidents where white servicemen were the aggressors, one finds only a handful of cases. “In 1970, at Fort Carson, Colorado, a white soldier—working part-time as a filling station attendant—murdered the head of the local university’s Black studies program,” she writes. Bailey omits the relevant details: Roosevelt Hill Jr. was filling up his car with gas when Ellis L. Little of Kentucky called to check the validity of his credit card, which was a type Little did not recognize. A passenger in Hill’s car suggested Little might be calling the police, so Hill rushed into the station and attacked him, shouting obscenities. With Hill’s hands around his neck, Little drew a gun from a drawer and shot him in the chest. A grand jury declined to charge Little with any crime.

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

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


  1. Jim says:

    I can think of a solution or two, or perhaps Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin would like to weigh in.

  2. Jim says:

    *Messrs. Abraham Lincoln or Benjamin Franklin

  3. Ezra says:

    In my experience the hate and agitation preceded the Vietnam Era and had been going on for a long time.

    Two destinations where I served during that era each and every “local town” contained a very large number of bars and houses of prostitution that catered to the American soldier.

    Usually an entire stretch of the “strip” would consist of bars solely devoted to the black troop and maintained as so by the black soldiers. Always referred to as “the block”. A white GI passing through the area on foot that alone was enough for him to get set up and beaten badly, even to death. Merely for having the nerve to walk through the block was enough to get you murdered. Whitey just had to know his place. A phenomenon too not confined to any locale or service.

    Those interested google and go see:

    The LBJ stockade riot Vietnam. Long Binh Junction riot.

    The USS Kitty Hawk riot.

    With regard to the Kitty Hawk riot not even really a riot, black sailors rampaging through the ship attacking every white sailor they could get their hands on. Events too on the Kitty Hawk as transpiring to remarkably like what you see when you view the old time Soviet propaganda silent film “Potemkin”.

  4. McChuck says:

    Blacks are dumb and violent. And if they hear you say this, they’ll beat you senseless.

  5. Bomag says:

    Ezra’s reference to Kitty Hawk reminds me of the Congressional report’s conclusion, circa 1973. Rather frank. Can’t imagine such being written today. From Wiki:

    “The subcommittee has been unable to determine any precipitous cause for rampage aboard U.S.S. Kitty Hawk. Not only was there not one case wherein racial discrimination could be pinpointed, but there is no evidence which indicated that the blacks who participated in that incident perceived racial discrimination, either in general or any specific, of such a nature as to justify belief that violent reaction was required … The members of the subcommittee did not find and are unaware of any instances of institutional discrimination on the part of the Navy toward any group of persons, majority or minority … Black unity, the drive toward togetherness on the part of blacks, has resulted in a tendency on the part of black sailors to polarize. This results in a grievance of one black, real or fancied, becoming the grievance of many … The Navy’s recruitment program for most of 1972 which resulted in the lowering of standards for enlistment, accepting a greater percentage of mental category IV and those in the lower half of category III, not requiring recruits in these categories to have completed their high school education, and accepting these people without sufficient analysis of their previous offense records, has created many of the problems the Navy is experiencing today.”

  6. Ezra says:

    The two perceived instances of discrimination as described were: 1. the refusal of a white server in the chow line to give two sandwiches to a black sailor. Given the amount of fresh lunch meat on a ship the server had been probably instructed to only give one sandwich per sailor. 2. A white galley attendant accidentally removed a tray of food that he thought the black sailor had already consumed and left behind.

    Both the server and attendant were attacked and beaten really without any provocation. Perceived discrimination without any foundation.

    The report on the Kitty Hawk incident too does not mention and COULD NOT EVER mention that nuclear weapons if indeed on the ship would have been considered to have been compromised. Compromised in the sense that the ship was in such a state of chaos they could not be used.

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