In 1970 Mississippi had a population of 2,217,000. More than 10 percent of those people—an estimated 227,000—served in the Vietnam War, meaning that the conflict personally affected nearly everyone in the state. A total of 637 Mississippians were killed, while 12 are still listed as missing in action. Two men from Mississippi, Ed W. Freeman (1927–2008) and Roy M. Wheat (1947–67), received the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions in Vietnam. In addition to numerous local monuments honoring area residents who served in the conflict, the Mississippi Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Ocean Springs features a remembrance wall honoring those who gave their lives.
The state also contributed to the war in other ways. Pascagoula’s Ingalls Shipbuilding (now Huntington Ingalls Industries) became a major supplier of US Navy vessels that saw action in Vietnam, most notably the USS Washoe County. Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base trained South Vietnamese pilots. Hattiesburg’s Camp Shelby provided combat training for members of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. The Strategic Air Command’s 454th Bombardment Wing operated from Columbus Air Force Base. And numerous military personnel who later served in Vietnam spent time at the Meridian Naval Air Station.
Mississippi’s most prominent voices in the cacophony of debate and dissension swirling through the Vietnam War era were those of US senators John C. Stennis and James O. Eastland. First elected to the Senate in 1947, Stennis distinguished himself as an informed student of foreign affairs. During the 1960s Stennis served as chair of the Senate Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, providing him with a platform from which to critique American diplomacy and military policy. After Pres. Lyndon Johnson escalated American military intervention in Vietnam in 1965, the senator took an increasing interest in the administration’s management of the conflict. In 1967 Stennis’s subcommittee held a series of hearings crafted to highlight policy differences between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of defense Robert McNamara as well as provide committee members the opportunity to demand a more vigorous use of military power. Frustrated by the administration’s adoption of a limited-war paradigm as well as its apparent lack of progress toward victory in the conflict, Stennis decried Johnson’s application of graduated military pressure on the ground in South Vietnam and his restrictions on American air power in North Vietnam. During Richard Nixon’s administration Stennis frequently voiced approval of the president’s war policy, particularly Nixon’s intensified bombing strategy and incursions into Cambodia and Laos.
While Stennis often criticized Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War, Eastland was generally more supportive. Eastland, who joined the Senate in 1941, was known for his strident anticommunism, race-baiting, and opposition to civil rights reforms, and his interest in foreign policy centered largely on American communism and its purported links to Soviet diplomacy, the civil rights movement, and antiwar protests. The senator chaired the Internal Security Subcommittee and conducted several investigations, including a 1965 examination of anti–Vietnam War “teach-in” protests on college campuses that concluded that communists had infiltrated and exploited the antiwar movement.
Mississippians’ opposition to the Vietnam War was intertwined with the civil rights movement, in large part because of the disproportionate number of African Americans serving in the US armed forces. In the mid-1960s blacks comprised 11 percent of the US population yet accounted for almost 14 percent of the military forces in Vietnam and 15 percent of casualties. Some black Mississippians viewed the state’s all-white draft boards and military recruiting efforts as racially biased. In Mississippi and elsewhere, whites with wealth or political connections could lessen their chances of serving in Vietnam by joining the National Guard, but African Americans generally lacked that option: at one point the more than 10,000 members of the Mississippi National Guard included only one black.
In addition, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and others worried that the war would distract from the movement, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in particular combined its civil rights work with opposition to the war. In March 1965 the party sponsored a prayer meeting against the war at Leflore County’s Newton Chapel Church, which was burned to the ground shortly thereafter. The party repeatedly called for an end to the war and argued that blacks should not fight for a country that failed to recognize their rights at home.
When McNamara spoke in Jackson on 24 February 1967, Tougaloo College students and other protesters confronted him, holding signs with slogans such as, “Students can’t abide McNamara’s genocide!” Over the next two years, students at the University of Mississippi protested the school’s required Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, and in 1969 school officials blocked Quaker antiwar activist Earle Reynolds from speaking on campus.
Along with the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War helped to push Mississippians away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans. After voting for the Democratic candidate in every presidential election between 1876 and 1960 with the exception of 1948, when the state supported Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, Mississippi voters backed the presidential candidate with the most hawkish stance on Vietnam in 1964, 1968, and 1972. The state has subsequently become a Republican stronghold, in large part because Ronald Reagan and the party’s other candidates have promised to restore US military power in the wake of the country’s defeat in Vietnam.
Finally, the war also resulted in the migration of Vietnamese people to Mississippi. By the early 1990s about ten thousand of those displaced by the war had moved to the state, where many of them found work in the seafood industry along the Gulf Coast.
- Christopher Myers Asch, The Senator and the Sharecropper: The Freedom Struggles of James O. Eastland and Fannie Lou Hamer (2008)
- Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate (2002)
- Joseph A. Fry, Debating Vietnam: Fulbright, Stennis, and Their Senate Hearings (2006)
- David W. Levy, The Debate over Vietnam (1991); Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistory.k12.ms.us
- Mississippi Legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 512, https://legiscan.com/MS/text/SC512/2013/X2 (2 July 2013)
- US Senate, Senate Documents, vol. 2, Miscellaneous, 89th Cong., 2nd sess., US Congressional Serial Set No. 12668–2 (1965)