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A crowd of demonstrators are raising their fists in protest aganst the Vietnam War.
Anti-Vietnam War demonstrators raise their fists during a rally in New York on April 27, 1968. Bev Grant/Getty Images

A lesson on dissent from a Vietnam War protester who joined the US military – and then faced execution after his protest didn’t stop

During the late 1960s, when protests against the Vietnam War erupted across the country, college campuses emerged as places of more than intellectual debate over U.S foreign policy and the country’s deeply racist history.

Unlike the protesters against the Israel-Hamas War, many of the college-age demonstrators back then faced the very real possibility of being drafted by the U.S. military and forced to serve in what they considered an unjust war. I was one of the fortunate young Black men who had a deferment that enabled me to avoid compulsory military service because I was enrolled in college.

While some saw my deferment as a lifesaver, I was troubled by my friends who had either been drafted or already killed. By the end of 1968, the war had resulted in the deaths of nearly 17,000 Americans, with another 87,000 wounded. Among the bloodied were a disproportionate number of Black soldiers.

The protests also made me feel guilty about my own sense of patriotism as I reconsidered the military service of my father, several of his brothers, my grandfather and great-grandfather in different U.S. wars.

All of these competing factors came to a boil one day when I was listening to a professor rant and rave against the Vietnam War. Troubled, confused and increasingly frustrated, I asked the philosophy professor if he had ever fought in a war.

As some may know, a core tenet of existentialism is that one should experience reality in order to critique it.

He answered, “No.”

“Then how can you criticize it,” I snapped.

After that exchange, it didn’t take long before another disgruntled student and I dropped out of Southern Illinois University and walked into a nearby Army recruiting station. Both of us enlisted. He joined the Green Berets, the Army’s elite special forces, and I went into the Army Security Agency.

Surprisingly, I would learn later that my protest against the war – and appreciation for U.S. democracy – had only begun.

Secrets and truths

The Army Security Agency was a top secret unit within the Army. It was connected to the National Security Agency, a U.S. Department of Defense agency charged with supporting combat operations and providing cryptological security, cybersecurity and national intelligence. After my training, I received my orders for the war in Vietnam.

Our task was to be the eyes and ears of U.S. soldiers on the ground by providing intelligence on Vietnamese troops. It was 1971, and I was stationed about 50 miles within the demilitarized zone in a place called Phu Bai Combat Base.

A wounded white solider is carried by a black soldier during the Vietnam War.
A wounded soldier is carried by members of the 1st Calvary Division near the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War. Bettmann/GettyImages

For about the first six months, we did our jobs well. But almost to a man, we began to seriously question the U.S. role in Vietnam and whether the war was moral or just. We no longer believed in the American mission to prevent the spread of communism.

We came to the conclusion that communist leader Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam, was on the side of freedom. He had modeled his dreams of independence from colonial France on George Washington and the American Revolution against British rule.

So what did we do?

We went on strike.

Acts of treason?

Our commanders were pissed, and they read us the riot act. We became part of a small number of Vietnam soldiers that committed mutiny by refusing to do our job. Because the crimes were committed during an active war, we were threatened with major penalties, including court martial and execution by firing squad.

But our commanders had a dilemma. How do you punish about 100 essential intelligence officers with top-secret security clearances?

The Army did something unique – they promoted each of us and promptly shipped us to different locations in Vietnam to serve out our service tours.

Though we were thousands of miles away, our individual and collective protests against the war as soldiers kept us linked – at least symbolically – with our peers on college campuses.

Black student protests

When I finally returned to Southern Illinois University in 1976, the war had ended, but the racial unrest on college campuses and cities had continued.

Thinking back, its hard to rationalize all the chaos that was occurring. Cities were burning. New York City’s Harlem borough in 1964. The Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965. The entire year of 1967 became known as the “long hot summer” after more than 150 race riots erupted across the country. One of the most violent riots took place in Detroit, where 43 Black demonstrators were killed, anywhere between 450 and 2,000 were injured, and 7,231 were arrested before the National Guard ended the bloody mess on July 25, 1967.

Several policemen point their weapons at Black suspects who have their hands on a parked car.
Police arrest suspects during riots that erupted in Detroit in July 1967. AFP via Getty Images

And just as soon as the civil disorder appeared to subside, another wave of racial protests occurred in more than 100 cities across the country after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968.

In all, between 1965 and 1968, nearly 329 disturbances took place in 257 cities, resulting in nearly 300 deaths, 8,000 injuries, 60,000 arrests and property losses running into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But from all of the racial chaos came at least one tangible result on college campuses – the emergence of Black studies programs.

In February 1968, Black students at San Francisco State University withstood police beatings and mace and staged a 133-day strike to establish the new academic discipline. The school was the nation’s first to have a Black studies department.

It didn’t take long before other universities created similar departments. By the early 1970s, more than 500 schools had programs that explored the complexities of the Black experience long ignored by traditional academia.

Though its original intent was to empower Black students, the new departments were designed for the benefit of everyone and welcomed robust debate over long-accepted narratives that placed white people at the center of history, culture and innovation.

Those ideals are still relevant as demonstrators for the rights of Palestinians on college campuses draw some of their tactics from the 1960s struggle against racial oppression in the U.S. and French colonial rule in Vietnam.

But that debate over how American history and U.S. imperialism is taught rages on as anti-woke campaigns in 24 states want to restrict the teaching of race in public schools, state agencies and institutions.

As a professor of critical race studies, I welcome the chance to fight once again. America was born in protest, and civil disobedience is part of our national DNA. There was no reason to stop then, and there’s no reason to stop now.

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