Jim Guy Tucker and the Vietnam War

Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

By Colin Woodward

Where I work, I’m the lead archivist on the Governor James Guy Tucker, Jr., processing project. The project hopes to process the personal and political papers of Tucker, which are housed at the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture. Tucker’s papers consist of about 600 boxes of material that cover his days as governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. Congressman, attorney general, and prosecuting attorney. He also worked as a war correspondent in Vietnam. In 1968, he published a book on his experiences, Arkansas Men at War.

The Draft

To better understand Tucker and the war, I’ve been doing some background reading on the conflict in Vietnam. I have been surprised at some things I’ve learned about the war. Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned is that most of the men who served in Vietnam were not drafted. The draft, of course, was very unpopular. We have images of protests and the burning of draft cards in our heads. And yet, more men were drafted during World War II than were during the Vietnam War.

Careful, smoking can kill you! Jim Guy Tucker (on right) with unidentified American. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

War Correspondent

Tucker was a correspondent, not an enlisted man. He was “in country” for a few months in 1965 and 1967. Tucker–who had served in Marines Corps Reserve before being discharged for a medical problem–was a sharp and objective observer of what was happening. His book, Arkansas Men at War, focuses on a cross-section of Arkansas men, from a helicopter pilot, to a sniper, to a boat driver. As a writer, Tucker composes prose in the tradition of Hemingway. His lines are direct and uncluttered, but also evocative of the time and place. Tucker was in danger much of the time, and the reader feels the tension on each page. Tucker’s writings on Vietnam will prove one of his most lasting legacies.

Race and the War

At one point in the writing of the articles that became the book, Tucker was told by an African American newspaper that his stories would have to examine more the role of the black soldiers in Vietnam. Most of the Marines in Arkansas Men at War are indeed white. And yet, so were most of the men who served in Vietnam.

I had always been under the impression that African Americans provided a disproportionate number of troops in Vietnam. The facts, however, are more complicated. In total, African Americans did not provide a significantly disproportionate number of men in Vietnam. But, this was not the case early on in the conflict. In the first years of heavy combat in Vietnam (1964-1967), black men had a better chance of serving in Vietnam–and dying there–than his white countrymen. Eventually, black leaders in the U.S.–among them Martin Luther King–saw racism at work in Vietnam. They demanded more equality in the military.

One of the reasons why blacks served in disproportionate numbers was the draft system itself. College students could receive deferments. And since whites on average were more likely to go to college, that mean many African Americans served who had no means of avoiding the draft. In the South, especially, draft boards were overwhelmingly white. In some former Confederate states, including Tucker’s home state of Arkansas, there were no black draft board members at all.

The Vietnam War was the first major U.S. conflict in which the military was completely desegregated: units consisted of black and white troops. Yet, there was no shortage of racial tension. Race riots erupted both in Vietnam and at bases back home.

By the end of the war, the government made better efforts at achieving equality in the military. Service became less deadly for African Americans as the war continued. Ironically, despite the racism embedded in the military bureaucracy, by the mid-1970s, African Americans signed up for extended duty at a higher rate than whites. As the war wound down, increasingly, blacks saw the military as a means of bettering themselves and achieving job security. The officer corps, too, opened itself to African Americans. General Colin Powell, one of the architects of the First Gulf War and later Secretary of State under George W. Bush, was a Vietnam veteran.

Jim Guy Tucker in Vietnam. Source: UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.

A Complicated Conflict

Tucker’s book on Vietnam doesn’t portray the soldiers there as demoralized. At one point, a man says that the war was being fought “about as well as it could be fought.” Many people might dispute that. And regardless of how the war was fought, the American way of war did not lead to victory. But Tucker’s book, as well as other primary sources I have read on the war, suggests that soldiers were dedicated and professional, but their commitment was not enough.

The reasons for American failure in Vietnam were complicated. Indeed, some people assert that the war was not even lost. The U.S. certainly did not lose the war tactically (Americans suffered far fewer casualties than the Vietnamese). At a more controversial level, some have argued the war was not a strategic failure either. The logic goes like this: failure in southeast Asia only showed the U.S.’s long-term commitment to combating communism. The ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and in eastern Europe, they argue, was a result of America’s Cold War policies, including a more than ten-year commitment in Vietnam.

Whatever the “larger” issues involved in the outcome of the Vietnam War, I am eager to learn more about it. And Tucker’s book (which, unfortunately, has been out of print since 1968) provides a compelling look at combat in the jungles and rice paddies of southeast Asia.

Colin Woodward is an archivist and historian. He published his first book, Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War through UVA Press. He is working on a book on Johnny Cash.

Dan T. Carter, George Wallace, and the “Duality of the Southern Thing”

By Colin Woodward

I recently started reading Dan T. Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, which examines the life and political career of the Alabama Governor, who infamously said in 1963 that he wanted “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace gained national headlines for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, trying in vain to prevent the integration of the college. He also ran for president several times, running most famously on a “Law and Order” platform in 1968. He was forced to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt wounded him during his 1972 campaign. Yet, despite being paralyzed by Arthur Bremer’s bullet, Wallace would run again in 1976 (the same year the film Taxi Driver, inspired by Bremer came out). Altogether, Wallace was governor of Alabama for sixteen years, a record unmatched except by a former governor of Iowa.

Wallace’s stamp on the history of southern politics is clear, and in Carter, he has a worthy biographer. Dan T. Carter might just be the greatest living southern historian. He has written not just about twentieth century race relations, as in his terrific Bancroft Prize-winning book Scottsboro, but the Reconstruction Era. His When the War was Over is one of the best books I’ve read on Reconstruction and the white backlash after the Civil War. Carter also has a somewhat personal connection to Wallace. He grew up in South Carolina, but he is a distant relative to Asa Earl Carter, a Klansman and speech writer to Wallace (he is also the author of the story that became the film Outlaw Josey Wales and, oddly, the children’s book, Education of Little Tree, about a Native American boy).

Carter is too good of a historian to portray Wallace as merely a race-baiting demagogue. And the Wallace story isn’t that simple. I’m only about 40 pages into the book, and Wallace has yet to enter the military during World War II. So far, there is little to suggest the future governor was ardently racist. As a young man, he grew up in a small racially-mixed town in Alabama, where he excelled at boxing (his favorite picture of himself involved him giving a gloved opponent a bloody nose) and had a lifelong thirst for politics. As was Huey Long before him, Wallace was a born hustler and politician. Unlike Long, however, he made racial politics the lynchpin of his pursuit of power. It’s that decision that is central to the Wallace story.

Back in 2000, the Alabama southern rock band Drive-By Truckers made an album called Southern Rock Opera, which uses Wallace as inspiration for a couple songs. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (a cartoonish anthem for redneck pride), the Truckers make more than a passing reference to the governor. The Truckers’ take on Alabama, furthermore, is far more nuanced than Skynyrd’s ever was. In the spoken-word song “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” the band’s chief songwriter Patterson Hood discusses Wallace’s early, fairly progressive career, which was eclipsed by his opportunistic stand for segregation, even after the Brown v. Board decision made the destruction of Jim Crow inevitable. “Icons” also examines Wallace’s conversion to a more moderate political stance, which enabled him to get a vast majority of the black vote in later gubernatorial campaigns. The Truckers dub Wallace’s appeal to so many people as example of the “duality of the southern thing.”

Even so, the Truckers talk about George Wallace being in hell (where the devil brews him some sweet tea)–not for his racism necessarily, but his sheer ambition at the expense of black civil rights. After all, not everyone who supported civil rights was racially enlightened. Could Wallace have been another LBJ, a man who grew up prejudiced but came down on the side of promoting, rather than blocking, civil rights? Perhaps. But Wallace didn’t, and we are left with the legacy of a man who became a spokesman for segregation.

The Wallace story is further complicated by the redefining of “conservatism” in America. Wallace was a lifelong Democrat, but his rise to power coincided with a realignment that occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. In that time, southern Democrats began migrating to the Republican Party, something helped greatly by Sunbelt conservatives Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Wallace was a creature of the Solid South, which had been strongly Democratic from the mid-19th century up through the mid-20th. But his views found a home in the new, very southern Republican Party.

African Americans would remain Democrat after the civil rights movement, but it was the big government-based Great Society that drove so many white politicians from the Democratic fold. While most white politicians were too shrewd to allow themselves to lapse into Wallace-like language about African Americans, many learned to speak in racial code. They could, however, be much more open, as was Wallace, about being tough-on-crime stance and their evangelical faith. Today, Wallace would, no doubt, be a Republican.

In his book’s introduction, Carter discusses Wallace’s late life conversion to moderation and wonders how real it was. By the 1980s, many people had softened toward Wallace, a fact helped by his obviously weakened physical condition. Many people, even African Americans, seemed willing to forgive his racist past.  I’m not sure if Carter will be as forgiving, but that’s something I’ll find out as I read more.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.