A Tactic of Silence: An Excerpt from “An Army Afire”

The following is an excerpt from An Army Afire: How the US Army Confronted Its Racial Crisis in the Vietnam Era by Beth Bailey, available everywhere books are sold.

Bailey’s account of the way the army responded to the growing crisis is original and informative.

Eric Foner, London Review of Books

book cover for An Army Afire by Beth Bailey


On a humid afternoon in mid-October 1968, Maj. Lavell Merritt, described by one newspaper as “a uniformed Negro,” strode into the official press briefing in Saigon and passed out copies of a statement asserting that “the American military services are the strongest citadels of racism on the face of the earth.”

Merritt had no official business in that room. His right to distribute such a statement was unclear and vigorously contested; by 1968 the military was struggling over the legal limits of dissent by those in uniform. Merritt knew he was on tricky legal ground. He knew his actions were likely to have consequences. But this infantry officer, nearing the forced retirement that would mark the end of his army career, had concluded that he had nothing to lose and much to gain—to his mind, it was his manhood that was at stake.

The next day (on the other side of the international date line), Merritt’s claims made the front page of the Chicago Tribune, with its banner slogan “The American Paper for Americans.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin headlined its story “Negro Major Finds Army Racism Strong.” The Los Angeles Times offered “Negro Major Charges U.S. Army Is Racist.” Similar claims appeared from Elmira, New York, to Hobbs, New Mexico, in America’s small towns and big cities alike. With few exceptions, each paper ran a photo of Major Merritt, a fit-looking man of forty with close-cropped hair and the sort of heavy, black-framed glasses that would not become fashionable for decades. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch captioned his photo “Maj. Lavell Merritt Calls Army a ‘Racist Organization.’”

Most powerful was coverage in the New York Times, where Merritt’s complaints (“Army Denounced by Negro Major: Equality and Justice Denied to Blacks, He Asserts”) seemed simply confirmation of the heart-wrenching story Times editors placed adjacent to it. The parents of a twenty-one-year-old soldier, here shown receiving their son’s posthumously awarded Bronze Star, had learned he was missing in action the same day they heard from the wife of another son, a soldier stationed in Germany, that the couple had been unable to rent an apartment there because of their race. “‘And that afternoon,’” the grieving mother told reporters, “‘still heavy with the cruelty of discrimination, the Army notified us that Fred was missing in action in Vietnam.’” Major Merritt, scant column-inches away, offered the broader lesson: “‘The American people have for years been told that the military leads the nation in breaking down and eliminating all vestiges of segregation and discriminatory treatment of minority groups,’ he said. ‘This is a blatant lie.’”

None of this was good news for the army, which had gotten a fair amount of mileage from the relative calm of its integrated forces as violence erupted in the civilian world, whether in the form of murderous attacks on those who sought their full rights or of cities in flames during the long hot summers of the mid-1960s. When Frederic Ellis Davison was promoted to brigadier general in September 1968, becoming only the third Black man to reach flag rank in the history of not only the army but the entire US military, he praised the army’s “unbelievable progress” in race relations. That was the story the army meant to tell, and one that many of its officers and NCOs, white and Black, endorsed. Not perfection, but progress.

From that perspective: it had been only twenty years since President Harry Truman ended official racial segregation in the US Armed Forces, and even fewer since segregation had ended in fact. How could one not applaud what had been accomplished? Not recognize the positive changes the army was making? Certainly, those who embraced the story of progress would concede, there were problems. A scarcity of Black faces in positions of leadership and command? True. But they could not pull generals out of nowhere; there was no possibility of lateral hires, no fast-track from second lieutenant to brigadier general. The army was starting to grow a cohort of Black leaders, to move past the poor decisions of the past. That would take time, the story went, but it would happen.

That was the story the army meant to tell, and one that many of its officers and NCOs, white and Black, endorsed. Not perfection, but progress.

And off-post housing? That was a perpetual issue, most particularly in the American South and in Germany. President John F. Kennedy’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces had highlighted the problem back in 1961. But surrounding communities were not under military control, and relationships were especially tricky in host nations. Those who saw progress acknowledged that civilian discrimination was a problem. They nonetheless emphasized the changes accomplished and to come.

What of the indignities of “boy,” the outrage of “nigger,” the casual racism in the daily life of the enlisted man? Many whites never registered that language, or they paid it no heed. They had come of age where such words were common, or they saw them as no different than “pollock” and “wop” and “kike” in a sergeant’s vocabulary of abuse. Countering such lapses were tales of the “notable camaraderie between the races” at Fort Bragg, the insistence from Vietnam that “we don’t talk or think race out here; we depend on each other too much. … I see only one color and that’s olive drab.”

Such interpretations seem undeniably self-serving, especially in retrospect. They were, however, in keeping with both external and internal analysis. Sociologist Charles Moskos, who had spent a year studying the issue, concluded in 1966 that (in the words of the Washington Post) the army was an “Example of Integration’s Success.” Time magazine told its close to 20 million readers in late 1966 that “despite a few blemishes, the armed forces remain the model of the reasonably integrated society that the U.S. looks forward to in a new generation.” Black leaders agreed, praising the military for its progress, endorsing it as a model for the nation. And where it may have mattered most, inside the army, race did not make the list of command concerns. When the secretary of defense received a top secret briefing on Vietnam soldiers’ morale in July 1967, he heard about the use of “marihuana” and narcotics, rising courts-martial rates, and the extent of the black market—but not a word about race.

And where it may have mattered most, inside the army, race did not make the list of command concerns.

Just two years later, by late summer of 1969, both the army chief and its secretary would put race second only to the war itself in their catalog of concerns. In this shift, as in so much else for the army and for the nation, 1968 marked a turning point.

Beth Bailey is a Foundation Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Kansas.