By Colin Woodward
Where I work, I’m the lead archivist on the Governor James Guy Tucker, Jr., processing project. The project hopes to process the personal and political papers of Tucker, which are housed at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture. Tucker’s papers consist of about 600 boxes of material that cover his days as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congressman, attorney general, and prosecuting attorney. He also worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam. In 1968, he published a book on his experiences, Arkansas Men at War.
To better understand Tucker and the war, I’ve been doing some background reading on the conflict in Vietnam. I have been surprised at some things I’ve learned about the war. Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most of the men who served in Vietnam were not drafted. The draft, of course, was very unpopular. We have images of protests and the burning of draft cards in our heads. And yet, more men were drafted during World War II than were during the Vietnam War.
Tucker was a correspondent, not an enlisted man. He was “in country” for a few months in 1965 and 1967. Tucker–who had served in Marines Corps Reserve before being discharged for a medical problem–was a sharp and objective observer of what was happening. His book, Arkansas Men at War, focuses on a cross-section of Arkansas men, from a helicopter pilot, to a sniper, to a boat driver. As a writer, Tucker composes prose in the tradition of Hemingway. His lines are direct and uncluttered, but also evocative of the time and place. Tucker was in danger much of the time, and the reader feels the tension on each page. Tucker’s writings on Vietnam will prove one of his most lasting legacies.
Race and the War
At one point in the writing of the articles that became the book, Tucker was told by an African American newspaper that his stories would have to examine more the role of the black soldiers in Vietnam. Most of the Marines in Arkansas Men at War are indeed white. And yet, so were most of the men who served in Vietnam.
I had always been under the impression that African Americans provided a disproportionate number of troops in Vietnam. The facts, however, are more complicated. In total, African Americans did not provide a significantly disproportionate number of men in Vietnam. But, this was not the case early on in the conflict. In the first years of heavy combat in Vietnam (1964-1967), black men had a better chance of serving in Vietnam–and dying there–than his white countrymen. Eventually, black leaders in the U.S.–among them Martin Luther King–saw racism at work in Vietnam. They demanded more equality in the military.
One of the reasons why blacks served in disproportionate numbers was the draft system itself. College students could receive deferments. And since whites on average were more likely to go to college, that mean many African Americans served who had no means of avoiding the draft. In the South, especially, draft boards were overwhelmingly white. In some former Confederate states, including Tucker’s home state of Arkansas, there were no black draft board members at all.
The Vietnam War was the first major U.S. conflict in which the military was completely desegregated: units consisted of black and white troops. Yet, there was no shortage of racial tension. Race riots erupted both in Vietnam and at bases back home.
By the end of the war, the government made better efforts at achieving equality in the military. Service became less deadly for African Americans as the war continued. Ironically, despite the racism embedded in the military bureaucracy, by the mid-1970s, African Americans signed up for extended duty at a higher rate than whites. As the war wound down, increasingly, blacks saw the military as a means of bettering themselves and achieving job security. The officer corps, too, opened itself to African Americans. General Colin Powell, one of the architects of the First Gulf War and later Secretary of State under George W. Bush, was a Vietnam veteran.
A Complicated Conflict
Tucker’s book on Vietnam doesn’t portray the soldiers there as demoralized. At one point, a man says that the war was being fought “about as well as it could be fought.” Many people might dispute that. And regardless of how the war was fought, the American way of war did not lead to victory. But Tucker’s book, as well as other primary sources I have read on the war, suggests that soldiers were dedicated and professional, but their commitment was not enough.
The reasons for American failure in Vietnam were complicated. Indeed, some people assert that the war was not even lost. The U.S. certainly did not lose the war tactically (Americans suffered far fewer casualties than the Vietnamese). At a more controversial level, some have argued the war was not a strategic failure either. The logic goes like this: failure in southeast Asia only showed the U.S.’s long-term commitment to combating communism. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe, they argue, was a result of America’s Cold War policies, including a more than ten-year commitment in Vietnam.
Whatever the “larger” issues involved in the outcome of the Vietnam War, I am eager to learn more about it. And Tucker’s book (which, unfortunately, has been out of print since 1968) provides a compelling look at combat in the jungles and rice paddies of southeast Asia.
Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.