Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Military Race Relations

BOND: Now, Vietnam is also the first time we hear about racial conflicts within the military. I am sure it’s not the first time they occur, but it’s the first time we really begin to hear widespread accounts, typically in the army, conflicts between lieutenants, white lieutenants, and black troops. The Air Force – a little different, I am guessing – but does this come into play in the Air Force, as well?

THEUS: It did not, not to my knowledge, and certainly not during the time that I was there. However, this leads us to another point that I think is worthy of mention on this interview. Upon returning to the United States, I was assigned to the Pentagon again, as I had much wanted, and so I was back there. This time I was in charge of advanced technology for computers, for use throughout the Air Force. I was enjoying that assignment, because it was challenging, it was one of the sort of things that I wanted to do. But the Secretary of Defense rightly became concerned about human relations, race relations in the Armed Forces. And set about, then, establishing a committee to investigate the race relations within the Armed Forces. And I was honored to be asked to chair this particular committee. And so I gathered together about 30 people, a very heterogeneous group of individuals, some who were combat tested, Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant, a Naval Captain, a couple of Army Lieutenant Colonels, Air Force… and so forth…

BOND: How did you pick these people?

THEUS: Looked at the sort of people that I thought would bring first-hand knowledge, or at least first-hand good judgment to the committee. Some were selected by the personnel people of the individual services.

BOND: I am guessing that while you know a lot of people in the Air Force, you don’t know that many people in the Navy or the Army…

THEUS: No, I did not. So most of those were nominees of their services. And so they came to this committee as the nominees with the criteria that we had pointed out, that I pointed out, and that is that they should be levelheaded individuals who are familiar with the service, hopefully with some command experience, and so forth. And so we put this committee together, and I was asked if I should be relieved of all my other duties while doing this. I said no, because I felt that I had to keep that particular side going, while at the same time doing this job. And so for six months I ran between two offices. I would get up in the morning, somewhere between 3 and 3:30 in the morning, come in, run over to one office and work hard at that one, and then, put in about 8 hours there, and then run back to the Pentagon, and put in another 8 hours, finally go home, catch a little bit of sleep, and back again. So I did this…

BOND: Secretary of Defense is Mel Laird?

THEUS: That’s right.

BOND: I don’t associate [Melvin] Laird with this kind of effort. I am not saying that he is at all opposed to it, but it just doesn’t jump out to me, as someone… Why do you think he did that?

THEUS: I think that he realized that this situation was much more serious than most people had thought… And, because our mandate was to look at race relations in the Armed Forces, and determine one… status. Are they good, are they bad… If they are bad, is there a possibility that these poor race relations can spill over into the operational portion of the Armed Forces, and therefore, thereby prevent it from performing its mission of defending the nation? Now, you know that we did have some riots,

BOND: Sure.

THEUS: you know that we did have a ship that had to stand down because of problems, and so forth. So our team, then, met regularly, every day, and then we fanned out to visit bases, camps, stations throughout the country. We then, or at the same time, concurrently, we called in a number of experts in the area. Primarily some psychologists, some psychiatrists, some people who were just from the field of academia that we thought would be useful. We called in senior officers, some senior non-commissioned officers. We made it a point to talk with individuals at bases where we visited, but on the basis of strict anonymity, to be sure that they would be willing to talk. And we did find that, yes, race relations situation was bad enough for us to be concerned about it.

BOND: Now, before you get to the recommendation, why do you think Laird chose you?

THEUS: There is no doubt, there is no doubt in my mind that race played a part in this. I think that they were looking for someone to conduct this study, or to head this study, that whatever we found and whatever we came up with would have more credibility if that person happened to be an African American.

BOND: The numbers were small, but there were other people that he might have chosen?

THEUS: There were, there were. I don’t know… In fact, I can’t say any more about why without seeming self-serving. So I’ll just say that I think that he looked at those who were available, those that he felt would come up with an impartial, fair finding, and recommendation to deal with this problem.