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1971 SPECIAL REPORT: "RACIAL TENSIONS IN VIETNAM"

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Above All That Drama

Black soldiers were nothing new in the American military, but Vietnam was the first major conflict in which they were fully integrated, and the first conflict after the civil rights revolution of the 1950s and early ’60s. Executive Order 9981 officially desegregated the armed forces in 1948, but many units remained segregated until late 1954. Other changes were afoot: The few years before McGee’s report saw passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

And yet, like changes back home, integration on paper did not translate into full equality and substantive integration. As in the United States, white soldiers — particularly from the South — resisted. And troops in Vietnam couldn’t help being aware of rising racial tensions, marked by the nearly simultaneous riots in Newark and Detroit during the summer of 1967.

But McGee, who was white, found surprising differences, too, between the home front and the battlefield. He observed black and white soldiers in the 101st Airborne sharing supplies, telling stories and jokes, and generally empathizing with one another, whatever their race. Asked about race relations in his unit, Sergeant Larry stated emphatically, “There’s no racial barrier of any sort here,” an assessment echoed by the men in his command. These comments led McGee to conclude, “Nowhere in America have I seen Negroes and whites as free, open and uninhibited with their associations. I saw no eyes clouded with resentment.”

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