Once upon a time, history—at least the academic version—was a steady procession of names and dates. Presidents, treaties, major inventions and the like constituted the majority of the material covered in most college-level history courses. Military history, and its close cousin diplomatic history, was a collection of maps, arrows, borders, “great men” and campaign studies—not entirely inaccurately depicted as little more than the story of “Dead White Males On Horseback.” Then came the riotous ’60s and tumultuous ’70s, and suddenly, whole new sub-disciplines appeared. Women’s history, labor history and histories relating to minorities, and a host of others, crowded their way to the fore. Military history, however, did not change much—at least at first.
Then an Englishman named John Keegan demonstrated in 1976 that perhaps this new academic trend of looking at things from the bottom-up, that is to say examining military events from the perspective of the participants, not just those of the generals, could have utility. His pathbreaking book The Face of Battle became an instant classic and almost singlehandedly opened a whole new era in military history, and that was a good thing. Four recent books examining the African-American experience during the Vietnam War represent some of the matured product of that “new” military history.
Soul Soldiers, African Americans and the Vietnam Era, edited by Samuel W. Black, (Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Pittsburgh, 2006) is the least useful of the lot from an intellectual point of view. It is divided into three parts which could be described as “Academic,” “Memoirs” and “Poetry.” Only the first two essays in the first section carry any real weight for anyone seeking an understanding of the African-American experience in Vietnam. Unfortunately, even these are limited and brief.
On the other hand, Black Sailor, White Navy, Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam War, by John Darrell Sherwood. (New York University Press, New York, 2007) is a perfect example of what is right in the “new military history.” Sherwood is no mere academician. He is an official historian with the U.S. Naval Historical Archives, yet he is very obviously not constrained by his position. Arguably his work is enriched by this role, as he had truly unfettered access to materials throughout the archives, and his role within the military probably gave him a boost in getting some interviews. Sherwood also seems to be one of that rarest of breeds, the academically trained historian who is also adept at telling a story. In telling the tale of the very real and distressing institutional and individual racism that plagued the Navy throughout the Vietnam era (culminating with the de facto riots aboard several ships in 1973), Sherwood manages to grip the reader. His book has more than just cold facts, it has a narrative arc, a hero (Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt) and several antagonists, not the least of whom are several prominent members of the United States Congress. And Sherwood pulls no punches. Noting that in the wake of WWII there was a dearth of African-American officers recruited by the Navy ROTC program, he continues, “The Naval Academy could have helped the service solve the officer recruitment problem, but it failed miserably in this regard.” Later, in describing the thought process that led Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird to choose Zumwalt, Sherwood is equally blunt and honest: “Laird, in short, needed a Chief of Naval Operations who not only could reform what had become America’s most hidebound service with respect to intergration and equal opportunity…” This is a book that satisfies the mind.
Moving along in a similarly excellent vein is James Westheider’s The African American Experience in Vietnam, Brothers in Arms (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Westheider is an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati, and his training as a historian shows. In this solid work of scholarship there is not as enjoyable a narrative as there is in Black Sailor, White Navy, but the general topic is broader. Indeed, were one limited to only one book on this topic, The African-American Experience in Vietnam should probably be the one. As an academic, Westheider pulls no punches either, and in addition to noting the uneven advances across the services in race relations (he too covers the Navy to some degree), he cleanly explains exactly how it was that race relations seemed to disintegrate in direct proportion to the distance from actual fighting.
Unfortunately, the same compliments cannot be heaped upon the final book in this group. Natalie Kimbrough’s first book, Equality or Discrimination, African Americans in the U.S. Military during the Vietnam War, (University Press of America, 2007) is a clear example of what can happen when an author is not grounded in source material. It is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. Kimbrough contends that previous historians had asserted that all was well and fine in race relations during the Vietnam War, that the war was America’s first with a well and fully integrated and racially mixed force—which is poppycock. Part of the problem, ironically, seems to rest in the fact that Ms. Kimbrough doesn’t actually know much of the literature on the topic.
In her bibliography, one finds French social theorist Michel Foucault, quite a few books on the creation of “race” and “cultural integration,” but damned little about military history, let alone African-American military history. Thus she can make such strange assertions as “Much has been said about the Vietnam conflict, either emphasizing political, military or personal aspects of the conflict, but the experiences of African American soldiers as members of the U.S. Armed Forces remain overlooked.”
Well, let us look back at her bibliography and try and determine why she might say this. Missing entirely are such absolutely basic works in the field as Michael Lanning’s The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell (1997), Gerald Astor’s The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military (1998), Gail Buckley’s American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm (2001), and Robert Edgerton’s Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America’s Wars (2001). And those are just the general works. One could list dozens of works about the African American military experience just in Vietnam, which somehow escaped the notice of Ms. Kimbrough. Indeed, her approach seems as well founded as trying to write a history of the Roman era without even noticing that, say, Julius Caesar wrote a little bit on that topic to which one might want to make reference. Accordingly, Ms. Kimbrough’s book comes to the “new” conclusion that some degree of both individual and institutional racism existed in the United States military between 1964 and 1973. Amazing.
Originally published in the August 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.