A Kansas historian details how the U.S. Army confronted its ‘race problem’ during Vietnam War
As troops took to the battle fields of Vietnam, internal fighting among American service members threatened to weaken the Army's ability to wage war. "An Army Afire" explores how commanders confronted the crisis.
Historian Beth Bailey is interested in the mechanics of social change, an interest that has yielded wide-ranging research.
“My first book about dating was really about the conventions that govern courtship,” says Bailey, the Foundation Distinguished Professor in the University of Kansas’ history department, “and what rules people followed or broke as they were sort of trying to deal with heterosexual courtship.”
After tackling the world of dating in 2002’s “Sex in the Heartland,” Bailey’s newest release, “An Army Afire,” looks into the ranks of the U.S. Army as it attempted to confront its racial crisis in the Vietnam era, and shows how a massive, bureaucratized organization saw a problem, tried to identify its causes and worked to fix it.
“This book is about social change in a different way,” she says.
Bailey started writing the book during protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. She says the circumstances in Minneapolis and across the nation then seemed similar to events in her research, like a racial uprising at the Long Binh Jail in 1968. In each case, people were loudly — sometimes violently — demanding large-scale change.
“If we want to understand social change, we do what we've been doing, which is paying attention to the people who are demanding change because that matters enormously,” Bailey says. “But we also need to pay attention to the institutions.”
In the case of Long Binh, inmates at the Army’s stockade in Vietnam made their well-orchestrated attack as part of a group that called itself “the syndicate.” Inmates injured 63 military police officers, killed one prisoner and hurt 50 others. They also burned down the stockade buildings and tore its surroundings apart — all without articulating a specific complaint or set of demands.
“The language this group commanded was violence,” Bailey writes. “And that language was not without power.”
It was, she says, “one of the Army’s earliest experiments in managing the problem of race.”
For three weeks no representative came forward with a demand. Instead, left alone, the prisoners used the area to create an “alternative ‘African’ space for themselves in what came to be known as the ‘Soul Brother’ compound,” Bailey writes.
In the end, the 13 inmates who hadn’t already voluntarily surrendered did so under the effects of tear gas.
Decades of neglect
Few of the issues facing Black service members in the 1960s and ‘70s were much different from what they’d been for decades. President Harry Truman had signed executive order 9981, desegregating the armed forces, in 1948, but Bailey says it wasn’t until well into the Korean War that the Army started making changes.
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as the country struggled to shore up civil rights for all Americans, the issue became explosive in the Army, she says, because young Black soldiers weren’t willing to accept the treatment their fathers and grandfathers had to withstand.
Bailey writes that the “racial conflict extended from fire bases in Vietnam to Army posts within the United States and to installations in West Germany, Korea, Thailand, and Okinawa. It spilled into the streets of surrounding communities both within the United States and beyond.”
The riot at Long Binh Jail was only part of a much larger trend that threatened to undermine the Army’s mission during a major conflict. It had to be addressed.
After studying the riot and other events, Army leaders noted the troops’ desire for, among other things, a more authentic and grounded identity than “soldier.” Bailey was struck by how satisfying that desire stoked the Army’s drive for creative solutions.
“In a funny way, they're often embracing really progressive actions in service of a fundamentally conservative goal,” she explains: “Preserving the ability of the Army to fulfill its mission.
“They let Black soldiers wear Afros and other forms of Black identity — slave bands, and other kinds of signals — that don't fit with a uniform, that break the code of proper behavior under the U.S. military,” Bailey says.
Such gestures swung the Army’s pendulum of inclusion away from the baseline — a white and male identity — to what was and remains a diverse cross-section of American culture, she suggests.
But measures like changing regulations to allow Afros and stocking products in military stores that appealed to non-white customers was not enough.
“Army leaders — using their concern about the stability of the Army, using the way they understood how the Army functioned, using what I call ‘Army logic’ — tried to identify the problem, tried to define the problem,” Bailey says. “Their proposed solutions came from the ways in which they defined the problem.”
Over time, those solutions came to include president-appointed committees, academic studies, and the establishment of a new institution that serves all branches of the military, the Defense Race Relations Institute, which later became the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute.
“What happened most fundamentally is that race was bureaucratized into the Army,” Bailey says.
This story was produced in partnership with the Kansas City Public Library.
Beth Bailey will discuss her book “An Army Afire” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 31 at the library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., Kansas City, Missouri 64112. The event is free and will be livestreamed on their YouTube page. In-person attendees should RSVP online. More information at KCLibrary.org.