Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Race Relations During Vietnam

BOND: And the task force concludes that the Armed Forces has a race problem because the nation has a race problem.

THEUS: Yes. That's right.

BOND: Now you could have said, why don't we solve the nation's race problem and that will solve the Armed Forces --

THEUS: That's right -- no, but we couldn't do that because you see our job, as you well know, our job is to defend the nation. We could not say that we will model our treatment of people in the service after what's going on in the nation because all of us knew that this was wrong and that it only fostered conflict, disruption. And as an armed force we had to be sure that our people would not, under any circumstances, hesitate to carry out orders --

BOND: At the same time there are people who are saying, "Well, we tolerate these things in the civilian society."


BOND: "Why should the Armed Forces be a social laboratory?"

THEUS: Well, it wasn't to be a social laboratory. It was more to assure that people would have no reason -- military men and women, would have no reason -- to inject racial, ethnicity, religion and so forth in their decisions to conduct any -- an operation. I used to tell a number of commanders who were on the fence about supporting this program – I used to tell them very simply, "Your job is to, one, put bombs on the targets, to shoot down enemy aircraft. And in order to do this, you need people, don't you? How can you do this if your men and women are fighting it out in the back of the hangar because of their differences in races, religion, don't like each other, and so forth? How can you conduct your mission? So whether you agree or not -- whether you agree or not, you have to support this program that we placed in effect. And as you recall, we developed a program that -- a recommendation that said simply, "Every individual in the armed rorces must undergo a course of education in race relations. We must establish an institute to do research, to develop policy and procedures, to train instructors and to monitor this program as it goes. And that institute still exists, incidentally, and it's still doing a great job. It's changed somewhat because now it includes the whole scope of equal opportunity, civic -- civil rights and so forth. And also includes, of course, the women, you know, to be sure that they're taken care of. I get to that school occasionally, they still ask me to come sometimes and to speak. I was very flattered a few years ago that they named an auditorium after me down there. But in any case -- that again sounds self-serving and I apologize for that. But in any case, we found that implementing this program was somewhat difficult. There were people who said, "I don't need any training of race relations. I am not bigoted." And this is on both sides, now.

BOND: Sure.

THEUS: And there were some who took advantage of it to do some silly things. We wanted people to get to know each other, there were some who advocated "let's take off all of our insignia, talk to people on a man-to-man basis or woman-to-woman basis," and you can't do that in the military. So we insisted that we have only the best people teaching and that they followed strict rules.

BOND: And in your view, this has been a success – despite these silly things?

THEUS: Yes, there's no question in my mind that the program was a success and is a success. We found first of all that the number of incidents that occurred were, first of all, the number was lowered. Secondly, that the intensity of the conflicts were lowered. Now you might say, rightly so -- you might say, well then, in our civilian society, this was happening at the same time. But we do believe that by instituting this program of race relations and by -- through that program the commanders all the way from the top, right down through, indicated their support of this program, that it couldn't help but really impact favorably race relations throughout the armed forces. Now, we're still continuing to work this because I get back to the truism that we discussed earlier -- you can't just issue an order that everyone will get along with one another.

BOND: Right.

THEUS: And expect that to be just carried out immediately. People still have their – sometimes not admitted – biases and so forth. People still have problems with getting along with people of different races and different ethnic origins, religions, even different genders. But you can lessen this by putting sufficient pressure on from the top.