What role did African Americans play in the Vietnam War?

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The Vietnam War was the second major conflict in which the United States was engaged since Harry Truman's 1948 integration order, which caused the end of segregated military units. As such, the history of African Americans in Vietnam was—to a greater extent than previous wars—more directly tied to that of...

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The Vietnam War was the second major conflict in which the United States was engaged since Harry Truman's 1948 integration order, which caused the end of segregated military units. As such, the history of African Americans in Vietnam was—to a greater extent than previous wars—more directly tied to that of the non-African-American population.

That said, however, African Americans had disproportionately higher casualty rates than non-African-Americans in Vietnam. This was partially due to lower levels of college access among the African-American community, which resulted in decreased eligibility for draft deferrals and, as a result, higher levels of recruitment. During the Project 100,000 recruitment drive, for instance, 41 percent of new enlistees were African American, even though African Americans were only 11 percent of the population at large.

Two particularly notable achievements of African-American military personnel during Vietnam were the cases of marine James Anderson and soldier Riley Leroy Pitts. In 1968, Anderson became the first African-American marine to receive the Medal of Honor, while Pitts, the same year, became the first African-American commissioned officer to receive that decoration. Unfortunately, in both cases, the medal was awarded posthumously.

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African Americans were very involved in the Vietnam War, even more than their proportion in the population as a whole.  This was due in part to the fact that the draft originally exempted college students and African Americans were less likely to go to college than whites were.

Racism also played a part in the role that blacks played in this war.  They made up 14% of all military personnel in the the Vietnam War yet they accounted for (as an example) 25% of the personnel killed in the years 1965 and 1966.  This is due to the fact that African Americans were more likely to be put in combat units than people of other races were.

African Americans, then, played more of a role in the fighting of the war than might have been expected given their numbers in society.  To its credit, the military became one of the parts of society in which African Americans were most likely to be able to advance and to be treated fairly in they years during and after Vietnam.

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