Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
Racial issues in the Army during the Vietnam War was the focus of the latest Army University leader professional development session Oct. 23 in the Lewis and Clark Center’s Eisenhower Auditorium.
Dr. Beth Bailey, University of Kansas history professor, focused her discussion on the institutional logic of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.
“During the late 1960s and 1970s, the Army confronted a level of internal racial violence that seemed to threaten its ability to fulfill its mission of national defense,” Bailey said.
The Army also confronted challenges to Army policies and regulations that drew attention of Congress and the Department of Defense, as well as foreign governments, civilian landlords and bar owners, Black revolutionaries and civilian antiwar activists, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she said.
Bailey first briefly reviewed the various crises going on throughout the world at the time, including the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent riots in 1968, and the Long Binh Jail riot in Vietnam, before discussing the areas the U.S. Army concentrated on in response to the events — specifically leadership and command responsibility, and cultural symbolism.
“A commander, intent on solving the problem of race, might not change hearts and minds, but he certainly could change behavior,” Bailey said. “The centrality of command was a given, an essential piece of institutional logic and organizational practice.
“As Army leaders struggled with their racial crisis, however, some began to realize that Army structure of command, for all their utility, were not an unmixed blessing,” she said. “First, and most basically, commanders — whether they led a platoon or a brigade — were human. They were products of a society divided by race.”
Most senior commanders reached that level before the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“Those few senior officers who were black had risen in rank through talent and ability, but part of that ability was to navigate a white-dominated institution,” she said.
Bailey said there were white officers who supported racial justice and other white officers who were white supremacists, but it was widely agreed that solutions to racial injustice lay in the action of leaders.
One leader who took action was Gen. Michael S. Davison, head of U.S. Army Europe, and, although his efforts were met with resistance, he didn’t back down, summoning those under his command to take action. He referenced First Corinthians 14:8: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
“Using this summons, he told them, ‘I am trying to give you in this theater a very clear blast on the trumpet: the fight to achieve racial harmony must be a top priority,’” Bailey quoted.
“Davison understood quite well what his mandate was, and he was willing to use the tools at hand,” she said. “He relieved U.S. Army Europe company and battalion commanders who he believed were not adequately managing race relations of their commands.”
This led to Armywide measures in early 1972 when officers were regularly evaluated on their handling of race relations. This also eventually led to the creation of a race relations manual for junior officers as well as race relations modules in officer and noncommissioned officer training.
Bailey said many African-American soldiers at the time wanted to be able to show black pride and cultural nationalism in the form of soul music, afros, soul bands and access to ethnic retail products, such as afro combs.
The Army sent barber Willie Lee Morrow to military installations across the country to teach local barbers how to properly cut and style the hair of African-American soldiers. Additionally, soldiers were charged regular price for the cuts instead of a higher priced special cut.
In response to the request for ethnic retail products, a list of products was created and regularly stocked in exchanges worldwide.
Using these two examples, Bailey said there are three potential lessons to be learned.
First is the overall problematic lesson.
“Issues or groups that pose problems for the institution’s mission are the ones that tend to prompt a response,” Bailey said. “For all the military and the Army’s discussion of addressing race and some limited attempts to do so, ranging from Native Americans, Hispanics and Appalachian whites, it always at this moment defaulted to African Americans because that was the group that was most directly challenging the way things were and because there was some percentage of that group that was acting with a level of violence that was unacceptable to the institution.”
The next lesson is more positive, Bailey said.
“I’m arguing that the weight of the organization, its culture, history, tradition, logic, policy and practice fundamentally define what is going to most easily succeed and what will most likely fail, but institutions are not timeless,” Bailey said. “Leaders’ awareness of how institutional logic functions … helps them to craft effective interventions and helps them anticipate and manage the constraints that stem from that logic.”
Finally, the third lesson is an optimistic one, she said.
“We talk a lot about institutional racism, and, having spent a lot of time in the records of the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era, I can say without reservation that institutional racism was widespread,” Bailey said. “Some people see an acknowledgement of institutional racism as a suggestion that it is all structural and that individual acts matter little. That’s not true.
“In case after case, time after time, individuals mattered, most particularly senior leaders, and it wasn’t simply a matter of acting as a leader committing to and modeling the desired outcome. It was their willingness and ability to use their hard-won understanding of the institution in which they served and think creatively,” she said.