The Mailbag: More on Race Then (Vietnam) and Now

Posted by Michael Getler on

The mail this week was focused on racial issues, something that, understandably because of the run of news of the past several months, is always on or not far from the mind of many people. Some viewers wrote about how today’s news is being covered, and others wrote about how new programs about an old war in Vietnam rekindled perceptions of racial issues surrounding that conflict. The letters follow, along with some responses from producers of the film “The Draft,” which aired on April 27, and some notes from the ombudsman.

“The Draft” is one of a string of programs that aired on PBS stations this month marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of American military involvement in the war in Vietnam. I thought all of these programs were worthwhile. But while the letters in this mailbag are focused on just one of them, I would like, personally, to tip my hat to Rory Kennedy, the producer and director of the two-hour, American Experience documentary on “The Last Days of Vietnam,” which I felt was superb and a true jewel in the crown, so to speak, of public television. It was told only through the eyes and voices of Americans and Vietnamese who lived it, no narrator, no talking heads, and had some of the most gripping personal stories and film clips ever shown about that extraordinary, final moment.

Here are the letters and some responses:

‘The Draft’ Still Hits a Nerve

The PBS program "The Draft" that aired on April 27th had serious integrity problems that would not stand up to even basic fact-checking and the program was full of recycled cliches and hyperbole from the 60s and 70s. To wit, during the Vietnam section there is a sound bite from an unidentified white male, i.e., "Blacks were dying at twice the rate of whites . . ." However, a little fact-checking is in order: According to statistics compiled by the VFW, 86.8% of servicemen killed in action (KIA) were Caucasian, while African-Americans accounted for 12.5% of the KIAs. This, at a time when African-Americans represented 13.5% of the population. So, African-Americans actually died at a slightly lower rate and certainly not at "twice the rate of whites."

Also, the program gave the distinctly false impression that the war was fought almost entirely by draftees. Another urban legend that does not stand up to fact checking: Again, citing VFW statistics, draftees accounted for only 30.4% of the KIA. The majority of KIA were enlistees, not some poor kids who got drafted. These facts are readily available and why the producers failed to conduct even the most rudimentary research comes as a huge disappointment to me as a decades-long fan (and financial contributor) of PBS. Please forward this to the producers and hopefully they will release a retraction or at least an apology to America's Vietnam veterans for this sloppy piece of journalism.

Smithfield, VA

The Producers Respond

Mr. Harris’s statement [David Harris, former draft resistor who appeared on the program] that black servicemen died at twice the rate of white servicemen refers to the early years of the war, from 1961-67. At this time, African-Americans were disproportionately assigned to infantry units, and consequently faced a higher risk of death. In 1965 alone, African-American soldiers were dying at twice the rate (of their percentage in the population) that whites were, while whites were dying in proportionate numbers to their population. Approximately 25% of combat deaths during this early part of the war were African-American—a number that was double their presence in the general population at that time. The outcry over this racial inequality forced reform of the draft boards, and the casualty numbers evened out by 1967 as the war continued.


Fry, Joseph A. The American South and the Vietnam War. University Press of Kentucky, 2015. 

Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War. New York University Press, 1997.

Economic circumstances were a vital aspect of draft decisions. Draft board exemptions favored the wealthy, who had access to college educations (and related draft deferments) as well as doctors who could declare someone unfit for the military. In fact, given the fact that over 70 percent of Vietnam-era servicemen were from middle and working-class backgrounds, one’s economic status was as likely as one’s racial background to be a determining factor in being drafted. 

Sources: Appy, Christian G. Working-class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Angrist, Joshua D. “The Draft Lottery and Voluntary Enlistment in the Vietnam Era.” Journal of the American Statistical Association. Volume 86, Issue 415, 1991. 

(Ombudsman’s Note: Context is important in this issue and both sides make fair points. But most importantly, David Harris did not use any qualifiers on the program indicating that he was referring to the early years of the war. So I find the producer’s response somewhat misleading on that point. This is a long and complex history. There is no doubt that blacks, in the earlier years of the war and during the big troop build-ups in the mid-to-late 1960s, were being drafted, recruited, assigned to combat units and killed or wounded at rates much higher than their percentage of the population. But there was strong criticism of this situation and the numbers started dropping and by war’s end, by most accounts, black combat deaths roughly equaled the percent of population.)  

More on Vietnam

I am sure that your story and assertion that blacks shouldered most of the fighting in 'Nam is a lie. I grew up in a blue collar town in Bergen County. Kids were drafted, white kids and they were on the front lines as well. This story is a calumny.

John J., Rutherford, NJ

~ ~ ~

I watched the PBS presentation about the military draft last night and was very disappointed in its content and accuracy. It seemed at the same time to say that President Nixon ended the draft so he could fight the Vietnam War without controversy and that we should bring back the draft so more people would be connected to the military and soldiers would get the support they need. Perhaps they meant a general anti-war message and having a draft would be the best way to avoid future wars because people would protest the draft. Surely having to recruit an army of suitable size and pay an appropriate wage would be a better way to avoid an unpopular war. It totally ignored decisions about downsizing the military and funding issues for the Department of Defense.

They also had factual errors regarding Donald Rumsfeld's ending the draft. He was a vocal opponent of the draft while serving in Congress before the Nixon administration. This is a matter of public record, easily checked and appeared to be deliberately misrepresented in the video. I planned to watch the rest of the series. I won't bother now.

Marjorie Oi, Pittsford, NY

The Producers Respond on Rumsfeld

Mr. Rumsfeld introduced legislation to end the draft on August 7, 1969. This is what is said in the show:

NARRATOR: As Nixon takes office, one of his allies, a junior congressman from Illinois, wades into the draft debate.

RUMSFELD: “I introduced the legislation to end the draft – because the draft was the only thing we did in our society where we forced people to do it, where we told people you may not do what you want to do — you must do what the government wants.”

Sources: Griffith, Robert K, Jr. The U.S. Army’s Transition to the All-Volunteer Force, 1968-1974. Center of Military History, United States Army, 1997.

Henderson, David R. “The Role of Economists in Ending the Draft.” Faculty Publications, Calhoun Naval Postgraduate School, 2005.

~ ~ ~

I recently watched "The Draft" on PBS and appalled does not fully convey my displeasure with PBS for presenting so much misleading information. Starting with current/former members of the military chastising Americans for not supporting the current illegal "war" in Iraq and continuing with war criminal Donald Rumsfeld getting credit for ending the draft to misrepresenting JFK's inaugural speech as support for war in Vietnam, this documentary was propaganda pure and simple!

Paul Ellcessor, Durham, CA

And the News Still Hits a Racial Nerve

There have been about 10 more PBS episodes (following a handful of more black men dying at the hands of policemen) and yet still there has not been mentioned how important it is to indict, judge, convict, and sentence these bad cops. As a result, the good cops are put at risk, and social unrest just keeps growing. When will anyone on the news say the obvious: if these bad cops are not convicted and sent to jail, minority populations are going to get more and more angry. That puts the good cops at risk and will lead to the breakdown of law-and-order.

As a Caucasian male, my thinking is if the cops are above the law (and the Constitution), then where does that lead us? Why can't PBS devote at least 5 minutes to this subject? It's so simple and clear in my mind... the lack of media coverage of this issue tells me that it is simply off the table for discussion. And that is really scary. That means the media supports a police state. And where does that take us? Time for PBS to do its job and report the obvious solution to this crisis.

Crossville, TN

(Ombudsman’s Note: I’ve written about this issue of race and the police many times in the past several months since it has been a steady point of coverage on the NewsHour in the wake of so many controversial shootings. But I have also said that, “It would have been good to hear from actual cops,” something which I feel has been missing from NewsHour coverage in terms of getting an on-the-ground sense from policemen and women rather than officials. Last night, I heard exactly that on the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.)

~ ~ ~

PBS evening news is at risk of losing credibility in its reporting and interview discussions of the Baltimore and similar situations because of its persistent failure to address the issue of violent crime that has preceded some, and followed many other protests. This is also a problem with its reporting on the police, who have to deal with many violent individuals, and who often must be subdued. Granted that this does not justify some of the actions that have occurred, but no national conversation that includes a significant part of the majority will ever occur, unless these issues are also taken seriously. Those of us who lived through the 1960s riots are starting to have a strong sense of deja vu. The most obvious outcome those events had was to undermine the influence of ML King and others, leading to the racist campaign of Gov. Wallace and the regime of Richard Nixon. This may be a moment in which the terrible legacy of slavery and racism can be taken up again in a positive way. But all of the issues have to be on the table.

T. Schmid, Wilmington, NC

~ ~ ~

The news media plays an important role in our society. Our Constitution gave protection to media with the goal of the "truth" being heard without obstruction. I am pleased that most media heavily broadcast Toya Graham reprimanding her son for participating in a riot. It was a refreshing change in news reporting that showed the positive side of life. Of great interest to me was what she said at the end of the interview about the cause of the riot.

Paraphrase: "People of Baltimore wanted information. The only thing given was news media repeated showing Freddie Gray on the ground and then being dragged to a paddy wagon. Then him in the hospital with tubes connected to him. Over and over, that's all we heard". It implied excessive use of force, racism, and police brutality.

Did the media give the whole truth? Did they tell of Freddie Gray's history? What about the reason for his arrest? Are media interested in discrediting police and destroying confidence that police protect them from criminals? Is the news media driven by sensationalism? Do they intentionally generate their own business? Are they at all responsible for truth, and complete truth in reporting? Did news media incite the rioting?

Donald Dettmann, Houston, TX

Busboys & Poets and Books & Noise

One of PBS NewHour's fine features, Bookshelf, is a favorite of mine and many of my friends, however, the location of the interview, a busy coffee shop, with background noise (talking, clinking cups, etc.) is very distracting and makes the interview unwatchable, which is unfortunate. I suspect this is not an uncommon observation by your viewers. Please consider editing out the background noise, chatter and visual distractions show we can focus on the content. Or, move the location entirely. Thanks for the option to let me share my (and many other viewer observation.)

Valencia, CA

~ ~ ~

Why do you insist on having book interviews at Busboys and Poets...the background noise makes it hard to hear?

Silver City, NM

(Ombudsman's Note: I'm with the viewers who wrote on this one. The book segment is also a favorite of mine and I applaud the effort to find new settings generally, but a noisy cafe does seem distracting and not a great place for probing interviews.)

Posted on April 30, 2015 at 3:38 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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