Human Rights: From the South to South Africa”
By Wallace Terry
Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 9-13
I was profoundly affected by what I saw on the battlefields in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1969, particularly the outrageously racist behavior of White troops towards Blacks. I knew that most Blacks would receive far too little at home for the blood they spilled abroad. So with the kind and generous assistance of Leslie Dunbar and our friends at the Field Foundation and the Center for National Security Studies, I have spent the last few years recording and writing the Black GI’s story. It seems a small way to salute them.
From units all over the country and at any given moment, Black soldiers would meet to log their experiences with discrimination. From them I learned of our American sailors burning crosses at Cam Ranh Bay; wearing Ku Klux Klan costumes at the Navy base in Cua Viet; writing graffiti on the walls of latrines: “I wouldn’t compare a gook to a nigger.” Blacks were refused rides. They were held back in promotion. And if they became too militant, White officers shipped them to the DMZ where they were more likely to be killed in action. In effect, there were two wars in Viet Nam. And as the war against the Vietnamese wound down, the race war between Black and White Americans spread.
Investigating these racial incidents, of course, made me very unpopular with the commands. Indeed, I think the Marines once tried to eliminate me. When a Marine chopper dropped me into a field, there was no one on the ground to meet me. And the chopper did not return to pick me up in this very hot zone. My escort, a White major, was, ironically, of no real use. He was from North Carolina, and always wanted me to pose in pictures with him, because he planned to run for sheriff back home. The pictures, he said, would help him get the “colored vote.” Perhaps he had his eye on the White House, too. Anyway, I later learned that he was considered a roustabout, a troublemaker, so the Marines probably considered him expendable as well.
Racism, of course, is not the private preserve of White people. In my travels I’ve had my eyes opened to the fact that some Asians don’t like other Asians; that there are Black people killing other Black people in places called Uganda, Eritrea and Zimbabwe. Tribes in the same African country hate each other. And in Lebanon, a very beautiful country is being destroyed, because there are Arabs who cannot live in peace with other Arabs. Yet, there seems to he no more arrogant form of racism than the racism based upon color and culture.
Once, I told a very liberal and politically prominent publisher of New Republic Magazine that I believed that the war in Viet Nam lasted so long and was so wrong because of our racism. The Vietnamese were transformed into objects. Lyndon Johnson called them “little brown people.” The armies he and Nixon sent to kill them called them dinks, slopes and zipperheads. Well, the publisher was dubious. How could I suggest that this war was racist, or anymore or less racist than any other? “After all,” he
explained, “in World War II, we called the French ‘frogs.’ So, I see nothing wrong with calling them dinks over there.” But the French belong to his race and to his culture.
Have you ever noticed that whenever there is a change of government in a European nation, no one here doubts their ability to govern themselves? But, this is the first question we raise about a new African government and the new one in Iran.
Have you noticed, too, that we never consider ourselves racists or racist murderers although we have been killing Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Vietnamese almost without interruption since the turn of the century? Yet, we call Idi Amin a “racist murderer.” And what race other than his own has he murdered? Idi Amin should simply be ignored and isolated. That means we should get the Americans out of Uganda and break diplomatic relations. Left to his own devices, he undoubtedly will kill more Ugandans. But, by robbing him of the world stage we have thrust him upon, there is a good chance that his macho impact on other Africans will diminish. In time, he may be done in at home by this very impotence. Our castigation simply makes him a champion of defiance of the White Western world to supporters inside and outside of Uganda. And he is likely to remain so as long as our magazines call him “the wild man of Africa” and our editorials demand his assassination.
And why, simply for the sake of a few dollars, do we insist upon lining up on the White racist side in South Africa? The Russians don’t. Frankly, I was impressed by Castro’s explanation for being in Angola. “We have an African heritage,” he explained. And that is a more convincing reason than America has for its presence in South Africa, which is helping to keep apartheid alive. If Henry Kissinger had had any respect for Black Africa or, for that matter, his fellow Black Americans, he could have made the same claim as Castro. After all, there are more people of African heritage in the United States than in all of the Caribbean.
You may also recall that Steven Biko accused this country of being the handmaiden of the tyrannical practices which led to his death since American investments in South Africa make the government stronger and the position of the struggling Blacks weaker. We should simply break all relations with South Africa until it frees its slaves, or, by whatever means necessary, the slaves free themselves.
Now the Arabs and the Persians earned Kissinger’s respect. They had the oil he wanted. That’s why the Arabs stopped being the butt of every dirty joke in Washington and Ardeshir Zahedi became the toast of Georgetown. But Ayatollah Khomeini emerged on our editorial pages as the world’s next boogey man, an Idi Amin in turban and flowing white beard who wants us to return to the glories of the Dark Ages. I confess. My sympathies for the moment lie with him. I cannot root for the Shah simply because he turned on the oil at our will and kept our arms merchants busy. The Shah was an arrogant autocrat who plundered his nations wealth. How many exdespots can fly off into exile piloting their own Boeing 707 and packing more money than a hundred Rockefellers? And what did he leave behind? Thousands jailed by Savak, his vicious secret police, and a nation whose social and economic fabric was shredded by uncontrolled growth and the co-consumption of the elite. But the American press gives no credit to Khomeini for pressing for the reforms we should have demanded from the Shah.
Meanwhile, I find myself in the awkward position of cheering the Hanoi takeover of Cambodia. For that seems to be the only way to stop the total destruction of a land as gentle as any I ever visited or learned to love. We have, of course, Nixon and his friend, Kissinger, to thank
for that. When they chose to invade Cambodia in 1970, they turned this once peaceful land into a battlefield, and precipitated the events which led to the singularly barbaric behavior of the Khmer Rouge. After the corrupt Lon Nol regime was toppled, the genocidal Khmer Rouge took its place. We had missed the opportunity of reestablishing Sihanouk, an eccentric but benevolent dictator, on the simple grounds that his independence and neutrality had been guaranteed at Geneva. In the hands of the Khmer Rouge none was spared – the old, the women, the children. Cities were abandoned. Villages were razed. Hundreds of thousands were worked, beaten, starved or shot to death. A culture was obliterated, and your hands and mine are stained forever by Richard Nixon’s bloodiest legacy which may continue to claim even more lives.
As I perused the pages of The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice? I felt the same shudder I felt in the days of Kent State and Jackson State. Are we killing our own children again? Had he lived, young Horman seemed destined to join the ranks of The Best and The Brightest. After a brilliant career at Exeter and Harvard and service in the Air National Guard and the federal anti-poverty program, he ventured to Chile as a freelance writer. Apparently he inadvertently witnessed U.S. military and intelligence activity off the coast on the morning of the bloody coup d’etat. A few days later he was probably executed in the national stadium where thousands of detainees were beaten and tortured. The State Department says it could not establish a legal basis for attributing an international wrong to the Chilean government. Horman’s father believes otherwise. His son may have died because he knew too much, too much about American involvement in the establishment of a clearly fascist government. He has said, “I have lost trust in the statements, motives, and decency of our government.”
However many crosses we burned in Viet Nam, however many Klan costumes were worn or other insult to the Black G I, nothing still quite matched our behavior toward the Vietnamese, friend or foe.
There was the $50,000 John Deere plow we shipped to Qui Nhon without the spark plugs to start it up. So it became a public urinal where it was abandoned at the railroad station.
There were the free radios we supplied the farmers so
that they would listen to our propaganda, which they didn’t. We tried to get their sets turned on by giving weather reports. That didn’t work, of course, because being farmers they had learned from their fathers exactly what the weather would be like the next day and the next. So we finally managed to gain their attention by announcing the next B-52 bombing strikes.
There were the women we stripped and searched for contraband before they entered our bases to clean out the hootches and do the laundry. A naval officer asked, ever so simply, “How do we win the hearts and minds by searching the vaginas?” Of course the same question could be asked of British immigration officials who are testing the virginity of Indian women and of Chicago police who are examining the genitals of women held on traffic charges.
There were the children in Viet Nam, some afflicted with leprosy, who were paid a few pennies by the Marines for every live round of ammunition, grenades and mortar rounds they found in the countryside.
There were the brave warriors of the First Cav Charley Blues who drank beer from the skulls of the Viet. Cong victims. A brother asked me, “How would you like it if someone was drankin’ out of your head?”
There was the woman with the gun, brought down with napalm. Although she was still alive, the Cav troopers stripped off her burning clothes and, using a round of machine gun ammunition like a nail, tacked their patch into her vagina. Another brother told me, “I just couldn’t eat when I saw that.”
There were the entire blocks of cities blown up to kill one sniper because we were unwilling to fight one on one, sniper against sniper, American against gook.
There were the villages blown up by American air strikes because the villagers refused to be extorted by corrupt officials who told the Americans that the recalcitrant Vietnamese were enemy Viet Cong.
And there was, of course, My Lai.
We need, of course, an enlightened leadership in our military and foreign policy. A kind of leadership which places human value above economic expediency. Domestically, we are not where we should be, in the South, in the North, in the East or in the West. The unemployment rate among Black youth is a national disgrace. And there was something sad about Black people of this city applauding happily when their former governor called for a national holiday commemorating the late Dr. Martin Luther King while his staff prepared a budget which would reduce federal spending on social programs while increasing the defense outlay. I do not oppose a King holiday, but in this instance we watched Blacks swallowing a symbolic gesture while the issue of their economic survival remains imperiled.
A few weeks later Carter sat down to the most important state dinner of his term of office. There was only a token Black American couple present among the guests honoring the deputy premier of China. The message was clear to many Blacks: affairs of state which could affect billions are in the last analysis the White man’s business. Then the evening ended at the Kennedy Center where Teng Hsiao-ping watched a 20th century edition of the minstrel show. Black performers strutting and shuffling to the strains of the musical “Eubie,” and a clown act, commonly known as the Harlem Globetrotters. Apparently those who orchestrate the president’s schedule – in Atlanta and in Washington – have their heads buried in the pages of Gone With the Wind.
I hope, too, that we will hear an end to the Moynihans and Novaks who tell us how the Irish pulled themselves up and why shouldn’t we. We have been here for more than 200 years. Yet we are treated like the newest immigrants, watching one immigrant after another leap frog over our bent down backs.
I hope that we will hear an end to the Jesse Jacksons who, by suggesting that Blacks should help themselves first, play into the hands of racists who seek any excuse to continue their discriminating ways. Blacks have been helping themselves as far as they could for over 200 years from Nat Turner to Harriet Truman to W.E.B. DuBois to Patricia Roberts Harris.
I hope we can adopt a monitoring system involving outside attorneys to guarantee full and fair prosecution when police kill. We need a law limiting cops to the use of deadly force only when they or other people are threatened with death or serious injury. In Houston, a disabled Black Viet Nam veteran was shot eight times by police because he looked wild-eyed and was supposedly carrying a gun. The gun turned out to be a Bible. No one was indicted in that case. Cops, after all, should display the same degree of discretion as the average citizen. And statistics show that if you are Black in America, you are still more likely than anyone else to be killed by the police, whether you are guilty or innocent.
I hope that we can stay forever the execution order in our society if for no other reason than capital punishment is most often visited upon the Blacks and the poor. In one 40-year or so period, Georgia executed 414 persons but only 77 of them were White.
I hope that Black leaders are asking themselves where it was that they failed, allowing hundreds of Blacks to flee
America for a jungle utopia with the Reverend Jim Jones. Well, many Black people believe that if they are not a little paranoid in a racist society, then they are not being very realistic. Someone may actually be out to get you, so a little paranoia is like an ounce of prevention. Jones understood that paranoia, the product of centuries of division and dispossession, of intimidation and segregation. In the deepest recesses of that fear lurks a vision of obliteration in a racial Armageddon as devastating as the destruction of European Jewry under Nazi tyranny. So Jones fed that paranoia with dark warnings of impending doom in secret government death camps, and he proclaimed his message among those Blacks most easily lured, those with the least to lose and those we listened to the least. And just where were the State Department, the FBI and other authorities when those victims were crying out for help?
I hope that we develop controls to prevent the future abuses of the FBI and other intelligence agencies which in the past sought to destroy Dr. King, the Black movement and other political dissent. The entire history of FBI abuse in the sixties must be told, especially any wrong doing which it condoned, covered up or conducted.
I hope that Blacks do not get caught up in the half-baked, but suddenly popular, notions that their economic opportunities are now more shaped by class than race and that the civil rights movement was anti-Black women. Remember Diane Nash and Septima Clark and Ella Baker and Rosa Parks? I hope they are listening instead to Thurgood Marshall reminding them that the gap between Black achievement and White advancement grows greater, that they must beware of the traps laid for them by racists in every phase of American society and that they must not rely solely on the courts for progress – they must use economic and political muscle, too.
I hope Jimmy Carter will show the same concern for the human rights of Ben Chavis as he has shown for the human rights of Patty Hearst.
And I hope, finally, that we will hear an end to those Whites opposing preferential treatment for Blacks to compensate for conditions imposed by their ancestors. These same Whites have never turned down the favors created in the society they inherited, favors that stack success their way.
America must become my land, too. My Black heritage belongs to America. My talent is hers, too. My hopes are hers, too. And she is mine.
Wallace Terry is a former Newsweek correspondent and is now the Fredrick Douglass Professor of Journalism at Howard University.