The Vietnam War was a conflict between North and South Vietnam with regards to the spread of communism. The communist North was supported by other communist countries while the South was supported by anti-communist countries, among them the United States. In South Vietnam the anti-communist forces faced off against the Viet Cong, a communist front. The involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War was ironical by the civil rights movements because despite their fight for democracy abroad and involvement of black soldiers, the situation was different back home as affirmed by sustained discrimination against black society.
When the Vietnam War escalated and was wholeheartedly backed by the White House, President Johnson failed to realize the racial nightmare that American involvement in Vietnam would create. Vietnam coincided with the protests of the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of Black Power during 1960s America. Whilst African-Americans were discriminated at home but also within the U.S. armed forces, the effects of black power, the impact of the Civil Rights struggle and “the resurgence of black sub-cultural style, expressed through dress, language and gesture”, had been transferred to the war zone. The escalation of the war also impacted the United States economy and funding that would have helped impoverished black communities was being channeled to fund the offensive. This caused a series of serious reactions from the Civil Rights group who saw this situation as a deliberate attempt to slow down their activities. Amidst increasing tension, black soldiers embraced Black Power: culturally and politically. Vietnam was America’s first racially integrated conflict. Black soldiers had fought in all of America’s previous military encounters, but in segregated units. However, a small number of segregated units still existed, and “an officer less and forgotten platoon of anxious black G.I.s despairingly shooting into the darkness…in the last American outpost on the border between Vietnam and Cambodia” was movingly portrayed in the film Apocalypse Now.
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One million African-Americans had served in the Second World War and returned home imbued with the desire to possess the full rights of citizenship so long denied them. In previous wars also, African-Americans had fought not only for their emancipation but also for their firm belief in democracy. When black servicemen returned victorious after having defeated Hitler and the threat of fascism in Europe, in 1945, they soon realized that they were still denied basic human rights. Protest groups were formed such as the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). Subsequently, demonstrations, sit-ins and boycotts pressurized the authorities to integrate schools and public buildings.
The Vietnam War was a war against communism: it was a war waged to promote liberal democracy instead of an imposed dictatorship. Again, black Americans consequently trusted that if they defended democracy abroad they were more likely to receive it at home. They recalled the words of the legendary leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, W.E.B. Du Bois, when he advised during the beginning of World War 1, “Let us, while the war lasts, forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens…fighting for democracy. We make no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly.” These words in turn echoed the sentiment of former slave and early African-American leader Frederick Douglas when describing the fundamental requirements and rights of American patriotism and therefore citizenship “..for once let the Black man get up in his person the brass letters, U.S; let him get an eagle upon his button…bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth…which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Nevertheless, legislation still segregated blacks in schools, in employment and socially. Accordingly, Schaller depicts the situation. “The U.S. was fighting enemies who proclaimed the right to enslave or exterminate inferior races. Presumably, American citizens were united in detesting such hateful ideologies. Yet American minorities at home still faced discrimination and abuse.”
All in all The Vietnam War hurt the Civil Rights Movement by taking the attention away from civil rights. The public, the government, and the media only have a limited amount of attention to give. When something as big as the Vietnam War is commanding a lot of attention, everything else comes to be less important. It helped split the civil rights community. There was controversy over whether to support the war and this led to diminished unity among those who supported civil rights. It cost a lot of money. This meant that there would be less money available for social programs like those the civil rights advocates would have wanted. President Johnson tried to do both for a while, but that was untenable.
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