Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War, by James E. Westheider, New York University Press, New York, 1997, $32.95.
The struggle for civil rights by African Americans who served in Vietnam is well researched by James Westheider, lecturer in African-American studies at Northern Kentucky University. Through careful documentation, Westheider dismantles what was once called the great democratic equalizer–the armed forces–by showing a disturbing statistical analysis of infractions of civil rights. Westheider discusses the problems of institutional racism, personal prejudice within the military and the measures that were taken to prevent further unrest.
The enactment of President Harry S. Truman’s executive order in 1948, which forced the armed forces to integrate, began the slow process of bringing African Americans up through the ranks to levels equal with other ethnic groups. Institutional racism already in place caused further setbacks for those who had the ability to rise within grades. Personal racism further thwarted advancement within the armed services.
African Americans, according to Westheider, faced two wars during the Vietnam conflict. A growing civil rights movement in the United States spawned radical fringe groups–i.e., the Black Panthers, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Movement for a Democratic Military–whose agendas were militant at times, urging African Americans not to go to Vietnam and to resist. The war was condemned as a capitalist, racist war against Asians, fought by white imperialists who wished to use the bodies of African Americans to further their own interests.
The author believes that the rising consciousness of the African-American soldiers–solidarity, individuality and separateness–sometimes baffled their commanding officers, whose main objective was to encourage cohesiveness and teamwork. The “Bloods,” as African-American soldiers called each other, grouped together and became a unit within a unit, which was not encouraged by the commands. Often, the disturbing result was race riots within units, with a disproportionate number of African-American men put into the stockade or given Article 15s, which caused further dissension among the ranks. Black militancy and underground newspapers condemning the war flourished during the hellish battles that were taking place in Dak To, Khe Sanh and the A Shau Valley.
Meanwhile, many African-American soldiers fought with bravery, distinguished themselves in units and rose through the ranks to help themselves as well as the cause of their fellow soldiers. The author does not fail to mention the positive results of black and white soldiers fighting alongside one another–they formed bonds where prejudice had no place. African-American officers such as General Daniel “Chappie” James and General Colin Powell broke ground by entering the higher ranks. Others, like Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, helped to implement programs that sensitized new NCOs and officers.
I highly recommend Fighting on Two Fronts, which complements Bloods, by Wallace Terry, the definitive book about African Americans who fought in the Vietnam War.