Racial Tensions in the Military

Billy Dean Smith

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Seize the Time. [s.l.]: Black Disciple Party, 1971.

Insert abstract here....


Seize the Time. [s.l.]: Black Disciple Party, 1971.

Billy Dean Smith was born tenth in a family of twelve children in Bakersfield, California, in 1948. The family lived in Texas for ten years, moving to Watts in 1957. Billy was drafted into the Army in 1969. He was opposed to the war and the Army even then and wanted to resist induction, but respected his family's desire that he not go to jail. He was sent to Vietnam in October 1970, where he was assigned to the command of Captain Rigby.

On March 15, 1971, at 0045 hours, a fragmentation grenade exploded in an officers barracks in Bien Hoa -- killing two young lieutenants and wounding a third. Captain Rigby and First Sgt. Willis, who were to have slept in these barracks, arrived on the scene, decided they were the real intended victims -- and that the logical guilty party could only be one Pvt. Billy Smith. Without hesitation, they informed the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officer of their conclusion (verdict) and together they called a battalion formation. In spite of the absence of several individuals, without questioning Captain Rigby's "theory", and without a single scrap of evidence, Billy Dean Smith was called forward to the front of the formation, a heavy CID hand slapped on his shoulder, and was told that he was under apprehension for murder -- the equivalent to a declaration of guilt before all the potential witnesses. He was also charged with resisting arrest and two charges of attempted murder. The Army is asking the death penalty.

From the moment of his apprehension, the entire effort of the military has been directed toward fitting the facts to the theory -- and tightening the case against Billy Dean Smith. The direct evidence consists of one item: when arrested, Smith was illegally searched, and a grenade pin was found in his pocket (a circumstance in a "line" unit about as unusual as finding a ball point pen or the latest letter from home). The grenade pin was sent to a laboratory in Japan for tests against a grenade spoon found near the explosion. While the photographs of markings of the two items clearly show there is not the slightest matching between them, the Army claims there is. The circumstantial evidence shows basically that Billy Dean Smith hated the Army, hated the war, hated his C.O. and First Sgt., that he had stated that all these were racist and that he would "get even" with them that "fragging" was a good way to do it, and that he had access to a fragmentation grenade. To consider that as evidence, one has to overlook and/or ignore that perhaps nine of every ten men of the lower enlisted ranks in most line outfits, Smith's included, disapprove of the war and harbor animosity toward commanders who project either approval or apologies for the war, but who condone the placing of the men of their command in jeopardy for the sake of the "mission". Whether another person or persons might or could have done the "fragging" seems not, from the record, to have been part of the investigation. But Billy Dean Smith is fighting back.

Even while the controversy over the trial of Lt. William Calley is still "hanging fire", and the whitewash of Medina's responsibility has already been accomplished, the case of Billy Dean Smith exposes even more aspects of the war in Vietnam to public scrutiny and may well become more important and far-reaching than the Calley case. Smith and his attorneys, headed up by Luke McKissack and Kenneth Cloke, are more than denying the charges. They are attacking the system of military justice, the rampant racism in the military structure, and challenging the legality of the war itself, the first time this question will be litigated since the advent of the Pentagon Papers. As one of their opening salvos, they have petitioned President Nixon to continue the precedent established in his intervention in the Calley case and release Billy Smith from pre-trial confinement. Given a comparison of the facts in each case, on what basis can he refuse to do so? Calley was charged with the murder of 102 persons and was convicted of the murder of 22, by a jury of his peers (military juries are, with rare exceptions, composed entirely of officers). Smith is charged with -- and presumed innocent of -- the murder of two persons. Can he refuse to release Billy (who has been in solitary confinement for 23 out of every 24 hours since the date of his apprehension) because he is black and Calley is white? Or because Billy is an enlisted man and Calley is an officer? Or will he invoke the "mere gook rule" and remind us that Calley's victims were, after all, only Vietnamese civilians and Smith's alleged victims were white American Officers?

In the past, the military has tried to ignore, deny or otherwise shrug off what has become known as "fragging" -- it was with great reluctance that they admitted 209 such cases were reported in 1970. This is the result, quoting Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, of an
"atmosphere that drives an American G.I. to kill his fellow G.I. or superior... Fragging, I fear, is just an outgrowth of this mistaken, this tragic conflict."
This is an important case because of the wide array of issues it must, of its very nature, raise. For the first time in a long while, the case of Billy Dean Smith will put the built-in biases in the system of military justice -- and the Indochina war -- on trial.

As is most often the case, neither Billy Dean Smith, nor his family have the financial means to offset the necessary expenses to produce the quality of defense needed. The uniqueness and importance of the case deserve the very best possible. This means extensive research, travelling [sic] (to Vietnam to interview witnesses, to the laboratory in Japan, etc.), independent lab analysis, months of pre-trial and trial procedures, travel expenses for witnesses, and so on.

We need help of all sorts -- but we desperately need money. Offers of assistance and money can be addressed to:

6430 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 521
Hollywood, California 90028

Office of the Judge Advocate General
Washington, D.C. 20310

JAGJ 1971/7806

30 SEP 1971

Mr. Luke McKissack
Attorney at Law
6430 Sunset Boulevard, Suite 521
Hollywood, California 90028

Dear Mr. McKissack:

On behalf of President Nixon and the Secretary of the Army, I am responding to the petition from you and Mr. Kenneth Cloke requesting action by the President in the court-martial case of Private Billy Dean Smith.

As I am sure you are aware, a great deal of concern has been voiced by the American people regarding the conviction of Lieutenant Calley, William Jr. The public interest has gone far beyond the innocence or guilt of Lieutenant Calley with respect to the specific charges. It is due to these unique circumstances that President Nixon deemed it within the national interest to take the action as announced in the White House press conference following the sentencing of Lieutenant Calley. President Nixon will review the Calley case following completion of the appellate procedure under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As you pointed out in your petition, the issues in Private Smith's case are in no way similar to the issue inherent in Lieutenant Calley's case. Thus, I feel it is inappropriate to cite the Calley case as establishing a precedent for Private Smith's requested action. The President's right to take action in cases brought under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a discretionary power which President Nixon will exercise only in the most extraordinary circumstances.

Sincerely yours,

Lawrence H. Williams
Brigadier General, USA
Assistant Judge Advocate General for Military Law


I am calling upon the people all over the world to help me and my family fight for my life. I'd like to thank all of the people who are already helping me in my fight and those who will help me in the future.

My family is very worried about me because they don't have the kind of money that's needed to defend me against all of the charges the Army has brought against me. I need money for my lawyers and for my family. My family would like to come to visit me and attend the trial, etc., but they can't afford it, and the Army will not give them any money for transportation or for any of their needs.

Luke McKissack, my chief lawyer, is my main man, and Ken (Cloke) is very together too. They are helping me to fight back -- FREE OF CHARGE. They know that I don't have any money to pay them to defend me. But dig this -- they didn't ask for any money. Luke and Ken just said, can I help you out. That was very hip of them both. But even if they don't get any fee, it will still take money to carry out a righteous defense.

The Army is playing a very heavy game on me, and on all of the people at the same time. They are doing everything they can to keep my lawyers in place -- trying to keep information and evidence from them and to keep them from saying what has to be said. It is very clear that they will keep on trying to stop us from getting what we need for my defense.

I myself feels that the Army will not win their case against me, because they don't have any evidence against me. But, nevertheless, they will try to hang me and I want people to be aware of my case and my trial.

The Military Judge is obviously going to spend his time denying the defense motions. The Army is not going to let me go unless the people DEMAND that I get a fair and just trial by law.




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