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Volunteering For Vietnam: African-American Servicewomen

The history of service of African-American servicewomen, who served in Vietnam, is reflected in the Women’s Memorial Foundation Register and archive.The stories and memories included in this paper illustrate the experiences of a few of the many African-American servicewomen who volunteered for assignment to Vietnam, as well as their reasons for volunteering and the methods they used to overcome the gender and race-driven difficulties they encountered.

In March 1971, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun interviewed COL (Dr.) Clotilde Bowen, US Army Medical Corps, about her experiences in Vietnam. “What is it like to be black and female in the mostly white, male U.S. Army?” he asked. “Rough, often,” she replied. “Many assume you are weak and inferior, not very capable. At best, you are patronized. At worst, there is just outright discrimination. But it’s not so much because you are black, but because you are a woman. The Army is learning, often painfully, how to accept blacks as people. But it is still uptight about women.”1

African-American women who volunteered for military service during the war in Vietnam served under racial and gender related policies established during the early years of the Cold War. These policies were put into place to alleviate military manpower shortages by encouraging women and minorities to enlist and make careers in the service. Unfortunately, these policies were less than successful. Personnel shortages continued to plague the armed forces throughout the Cold War, and neither women nor minorities rushed to volunteer.2

Although the US Armed Forces finally realized its goal of guaranteeing equal treatment and opportunity to all persons regardless of race by the end of the Korean War, opportunities for African-Americans to rise to leadership positions were minimal, causing many to leave the service after one or two terms of enlistment.3 Meanwhile, misguided regulations pertaining to gender strictly circumscribed servicewomen’s job assignments and promotions, so that many of the most talented and ambitious opted for careers in the civilian sector.4 These restrictive policies remained in place through the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, and exacerbated recruitment and retention problems for the armed forces during the war in Vietnam. Male draftees and volunteers questioned the military’s commitment to equal opportunity and wondered if the proportion of minority soldiers in infantry units in Vietnam was too high.5 At the same time, servicewomen, both black and white, were often denied the opportunity to serve in Vietnam, and the relatively few women who were assigned there were relegated to traditionally feminine jobs to keep them safe.6 Regardless of these constraints, however, some exceptionally brave and determined African-American servicewomen succeeded in gaining assignments to the battle theater.

Early Integration Efforts
The early Cold War policies that stymied servicewomen’s military careers were institutionalized in 1947 and 1948 with the passage of the Army Navy Nurse Act and the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.7 The first piece of legislation gave military nurses permanent commissioned status equal to that of male officers in the regular and reserve components of the Army and Navy, while at the same time imposing strict limits on the length of nurses’ careers and their promotion potentials.8 The 1948 Integration Act established a permanent place for non-nursing women in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force–both regulars and reserves. The Coast Guard was not included in this act because during peacetime it was part of the Department of Transportation rather than the Department of Defense.

In an attempt to facilitate the management of women, the 1948 Act constricted servicewomen’s assignments and careers. It placed a 2 percent ceiling on the number of women in each service, prohibited women from serving in combat or commanding men, limited the scope and variety of their assignments and narrowed their promotion opportunities.9 The legislation also set age limits that forced women to retire earlier than men so that they would not be in uniform during menopause. Finally, if a servicewoman became pregnant or married a man with children, she was immediately discharged.10 These restrictions were still in place by the time of the Vietnam War. The essential spirit of the US Armed Forces remained wholly masculine during that war.

One month after signing the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, President Truman took a third step meant to encourage recruitment when he issued Executive Order 9981, mandating an end to racial discrimination and segregation in the US Armed Forces. Of course this order did not immediately end all racially discriminatory practices in the military. Initially, some military leaders, such as Army Chief of Staff GEN Omar Bradley and Army Secretary Kenneth Royal, were reluctant to implement the President’s order. Less than total support at the top of the chain of command made it easy for some commanders to drag their heels for as long as possible.11

The Truman administration formed an executive committee headed by former US Solicitor General Charles O. Fahy to prepare and submit a plan for desegregating the services. Almost two years elapsed before the committee submitted its final report. Fahy believed that the purpose of the committee was not to impose racial integration on the services, but to convince them of the merits of the President’s order and to agree with them on a plan to make it effective.12 The committee members used the concept of military efficiency to demonstrate to the services that racial integration was a desirable goal. They contended that the increasing technical complexity of war had created an increased demand for skilled manpower, and the country could ill-afford to train or use any of its soldiers below their full capacity. With logic understandable to the President and public alike, the committee stated that since maximum military efficiency demanded that all servicemen be given an equal opportunity to discover and utilize their talents, an indivisible link existed between military efficiency and equal opportunity.13 Equal opportunity in the name of military efficiency became one of the committee’s basic premises; until the end of the committee’s existence it hammered away at this concept.14

By Dr. Judith Bellafaire, Chief Historian, Women’s Memorial (July 2006)

If you are a servicewoman or woman veteran or know one who is serving or who has served in the US Armed Forces, please contact the Foundation at history@womensmemorial.org, so that we can continue to enrich the history of women’s service and sacrifice in defense of our nation.

1Michael Parks, “Col. Bowen Says Army More Uptight Over Her Sex Than Her Race,” The Baltimore Sun, 23 March 1971, sec. B.
2Linda Witt et al., “A Defense Weapon Known to Be of Value” Servicewomen of the Korean War Era, (Lebanon, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2005), 1-12.
3Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way (New York: Basic Books, 1996), 30-33.
4Witt et al., 1-12.
5Moskos and Butler, 8.
6Jeanne Holm, Major General, US Air Force (Ret.) Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution Revised Edition (Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1992), 205-225.
7Holm, 108, 113-129; Witt et al., 13-31.
8Witt et al., 118.
9Witt et al., 113-127.
10Witt et al.
11Michael Beschloss, statement made on “One Nation, One Army,” A News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Public Broadcasting System, 31 July 1998, Transcript, Historian’s Files, Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, Arlington, Va.
12Morris J. MacGregor Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces 1940-1965, (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1981), 343-379.
13Carl W. Borklund, Men of the Pentagon (New York: Praeger, 1966), 121-24; MacGregor, 343-379.
14MacGregor, 343-379.