Funny you should ask, as I’m writing a paper this semester that focuses largely on the issue of racism in the military during the Vietnam era. It’s a very good question you ask, because you’re right in saying that popular culture does not offer any meaningful insight.
Yes, there was widespread racial tension in the military during the Vietnam War.
As the Civil Rights movement at home continued while American involvement in Vietnam drastically increased, these racial tensions grew. There seems to have been less racial incidents among combat troops while in the field, presumably because it benefited all parties to get along well. In the rear, however, there were numerous incidents. By 1968, the military was beginning to realize these tensions existed and were not going away.
Systematic, or institutional, racism also heavily affected African Americans. They were more susceptible to being drafted. They were less likely to access technical fields in the military due to poorer education, and therefore more heavily concentrated in combat units, and therefore had high casualty numbers. There was a lack of promotions for black soldiers. The military justice system was also a great source of this institutional racism. (See Westheider)
“United in being racist toward the Vietnamese” is an interesting thought. You might have heard the quote from Muhammad Ali: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” While it’s debated if he ever said this, the sentiment nonetheless rang true with many African Americans at the time. Their fight was at home, for their own rights and freedom, not against another brown-skinned man who had (and still was) experiencing oppression under the white man.
Books on the subject:
- The African American Experience in Vietnam: Brothers in Arms by James E. Westheider – You might also see his book Fighting on Two Fronts. Brothers in Arms is mainly an updated version of his previous work. I highly recommend this.
- Soul Soldiers: African Americans and the Vietnam Era edited by Samuel Black
- Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War by Daniel S. Lucks – I very highly recommend this book. Be ready for some intense scholarly analyses and somewhat dense language. Worth it to get through though.
- Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History by Wallace Terry