African American Studies Vietnam War
Samuel W. Black
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0130


African Americans have served in every war of the United States and colonial America dating back to the French and Indian War (1756–1763). By the time the United States involved itself in the Vietnam conflict (1955–1973), over 250,000 African Americans had served in country, stateside, or in a US military outpost in Europe, Southeast Asia or the Far East. The Vietnam War was fought during the Cold War amid the civil rights, Black Power, women’s rights, and voting rights movements. As early as 1945 the US government had an opportunity to work with the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh to actualize the independence of Vietnam. Instead, it supported the French repatriation of its Southeast Asia colony, Indochina. Thus, the start of the First Indochina War in 1946 witnessed French forces that included Francophone African soldiers. The United States supported the French with intelligence, weapons, and financing. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the United States remained invested in South Vietnam using a policy of stopping the spread of communism in Asia. Initially serving as advisors and offering training and support to the army of the Republic of Vietnam, the United States slowly escalated its advisory force and then by the early 1960s added combat units. African American soldiers were part of the military initiative all along. Although President Harry S. Truman had integrated the armed forces with Executive Order 9981 in 1948 and its trial in the Korean War in the early 1950s, the Vietnam War became the first American war to have a fully sanctioned racially integrated military. The era of the Vietnam War, from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, was also the era of major civil rights activities. Civil rights and Vietnam crossed paths on many occasions and was exploited by various factions indicating that the military was not immune to the social and political challenges of civil rights. The civil rights movement also meant a heightened scrutiny of the war. Some African Americans protested the war as an extension of the civil rights movement. Iconic protesters like Muhammad Ali came to symbolize defiance to America’s foreign policies. However, those who did serve did so with valor. Twenty African Americans were recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor. The focus of this article is to provide a guide to sources and documentation of useful works that address the complex history of the Vietnam War and the role of African Americans in it.

General Overviews

The focus of the African American experience in the Vietnam War is not only on the soldier’s story but also on the impact of societal challenges to military service. General studies of Vietnam are vast in topic and structure. But a more finite study of the African American in Vietnam presents a different dynamic that hardly separates life in American society from life in the American military. Racism and discrimination are prevalent in both civilian and military society. The author of Westheider 1997 and Westheider 2007 positions his scholarship around racial tension and discriminatory practices in military life in-country and stateside. The tensions of the civil rights movement that itself contained both non-violent social action and Black militancy became a dangerous factor among men who are trained to kill. However, in the dynamic of war, the battlefield negated much of the racial tension. Based on Graham 2003 racial hostilities came secondary to the need for cooperation and unity in the jungles, elephant grass, and rice paddy combat zones. Furthermore, Graham notes that “soldiers understood that they had to overcome, or repress, their prejudices for the good of the group” (Graham 2003, p. 45). More pointed studies of the convergence of civil rights and the Vietnam War can be found in Lucks 2014, an examination of the reaction to the Vietnam War on the part of civil rights leaders. Eldridge 2012 examines the role of the Black press in the conundrum of African American Vietnam concerns. Initially the Black press was less than critical of President Lyndon Johnson’s policies in Vietnam, however reports of high numbers of casualties and the threat from the Black community against the Black press changed the focus of many of these papers to provide an accurate accounting of the war with respect to the African American troops. Pro and con perspectives framed in Cold War politics tugged at the prospect of African American political independence. Black 2006 relies on oral histories of veterans who served in civil rights organizations prior to Vietnam to show the military draft as a weapon to weaken the ranks of civil rights activists. Finally, the impact of US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000 not only increased the number of African Americans on the front lines in Vietnam, but also opened the door to militant political thinking from those Black ranks. Of the 58,318 Americans who died or are listed as killed in action (KIA) in the Vietnam War, roughly, 7,262 were African American casualties. Brooklyn, New York, native Dan Bullock was the youngest American soldier to die in Vietnam at fifteen years of age.

  • Black, Samuel W., ed. Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era. Pittsburgh: Senator John Heinz History Center, 2006.

    An anthology of essays, poetry, and art focusing on various topics of the African American experience in Vietnam including the experiences of women and the artistry of Vietnam vets. The focus of the book is on the impact of the Vietnam War on the civil rights movement, Black communities, and families. It was produced as a companion to the exhibition of the same name.

  • Eldridge, Lawrence Allen. Chronicles of a Two-Front War: The African American Press and the Vietnam War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2012.

    Studies the how the Black press during the period of the Vietnam War dealt with the results of an increasingly unpopular war and the impact on African American communities.

  • Graham, Herman, III. The Brothers’ Vietnam War: Black Power, Manhood, and the Military Experience. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2003.

    Graham looks at the issues of manhood, race, and military life among African American and white fighting forces.

  • Lucks, Daniel S. Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.5810/kentucky/9780813145075.001.0001

    An important work centered on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. Well-researched and well-written as it examines the relationship between these two seminal developments. It discusses the effects of the Vietnam War on civil rights and Black Power leaders such as Stokely Carmichael, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as rank-and-file activists who faced the threat of the military draft along with racial discrimination and violence.

  • Schmermund, Elizabeth. Minority Soldiers Fighting in the Vietnam War. New York: Cavendish Square, 2018.

    The Vietnam War was the first American war fought with a desegregated military. However, racism was abundant during the war, and the percentage of minority casualties was substantially higher than that of white troops because minority soldiers were often positioned on the front lines. This book provides a close look at the role of African American and Hispanic soldiers in the war while also explaining the quest for racial equality.

  • Sherwood, John D. Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam War Era. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

    A chronical of racial unrest in the US Navy during the Vietnam War era, as well as the navy’s attempts to control it. Racial riots on board the USS Kitty Hawk, the USS Hassayampa, and the USS Constellation are witness to some of the worst clashes in the military.

  • Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

    Chronicles some of the racial clashes between African Americans and Whites in various branches of the military during the Vietnam War era. Pointing out that racial tensions were not limited to the civilian civil rights arena the author documents the means to which the military went to quell racial tension, violence, and even death as a result of violent clashes between Africa Americans and Whites.

  • Westheider, James E. The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2007.

    A sequel to Fighting on Two Fronts, this book focuses on a general history of African Americans in Vietnam. It chronicles the war from the African American perspective and includes statistics, oral history, and analysis of the US government means to address racism in the Vietnam War.

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