David Webb's findings on National Guard during 1967

History major David Webb is one of several students researching the Detroit Rebellion this past year. Here are his findings on the National Guard. 

 

"Ill-prepared but Indispensable; the Michigan National Guard in the 1967 Detroit Uprising."

National Guardsmen clear Linwood Street of curfew violators during the civil unrest of 1967. In the background a group of Detroit Police officers are in view. Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor & Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Sunday, July 23rd, 1967 was an exceptionally hot day in Metro Detroit with temperatures peaking at 86 °F. Around 4:00 pm a young man had just returned to his home after a day out with his father. As he turned on his television set, he was exposed to breaking news and images of a great American city burning and descending into chaos. The newsman cut in with an announcement: the Michigan National Guard had been mobilized and were ordered to report to staging locations in the City of Detroit to aid police and firefighters in restoring order to the city. Moments later, his telephone rang and the voice on the other end of the line informed him that—as an officer of the Michigan National Guard—he was ordered to report to the Detroit Light Guard Armory in preparation to, “hit the streets.” Once he had mustered in, he was given command of a two-man squad that for the next 24 hours would accompany a Detroit Police officer in their wagon to provide visual support and protection as the police officer made arrests of those suspected to be rioters, looters, or arsonists. For the next few days as the civil disorder unfolded around him, the young man would see .50 caliber machine guns mounted on tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) strafe buildings where snipers were holed up, be the target of sniper fire himself, and experience sleep deprivation to the point of saying, “it all felt like a bad dream.”

The young officer’s experience over the roughly one week that the Michigan National Guard was deployed to the City of Detroit was not atypical and, in fact, reflects what the average Guardsman faced while activated. Even before the fires were extinguished and the dust had settled on the streets of the Motor City, the local news media took a critical look at the Guard’s actions. Their conclusions did not convey a positive opinion of the Guard’s performance. The Detroit Free Press criticized the Guard for what they viewed as their sloppy behavior and appearance, trigger-happy behavior, and inability to quell the civil unrest, which ultimately required Federal Paratroopers to restore order. These criticisms were picked up by the national news media and then, over the decades afterwards, by historians seeking to explain the causes of the 1967 civil disorder.

What went wrong with the Guard? To be brief, the National Guard faced the difficulties it experienced due to a variety of factors. At the forefront of these was completely inadequate training, outdated equipment, and logistical difficulties in simply getting the guard to the city. Once in the city, new problems confronted the guard including lack of maps and communication equipment, sleep deprivation, and an unwillingness by political leaders to commit the full strength of the Guard to the streets and instead choosing to hold thousands in reserve until the situation had escalated to a breaking point.

Even before a single guardsman appeared on the streets of Detroit, the very question of whether they were necessary to restore order was being hotly debated by political leaders. By 7:00 am on July 23rd, 1967 Michigan governor George W. Romney was ready to order the guard to mobilize but when he telephoned Detroit mayor Jerome P. Cavanaugh the mayor replied that the additional men were not required to bring the situation under control. Cavanaugh, a Democrat, did this despite police insistence because he did not want Romney, a Republican and likely frontrunner in his party’s Presidential race, to gain any political capital or credit for being the man who returned order to the city.

As the morning turned to afternoon and incidents of violence, looting, and arson continued to increase, Cavanaugh gave in to the pleadings of DPD and Guard leaders and formally requested that guardsmen be deployed to his city. Guardsmen started to perform a variety of duties including going out on 10 man patrols in trucks, riding along 3 to a car with a Detroit police officer, and guarding firefighters as they struggled to bring the many fires across the city under control. As the Guard struggled to deescalate the disorder Mayor Cavanaugh and President Lyndon B. Johnson felt they would be unable to do so. In response to this Johnson ordered in regular Army paratroopers who he could be sure would succeed if the Guard failed. Oddly, the paratroopers were only stationed in the much quieter eastern half of the city, while the guard bore the brunt of the fighting in their areas on the west side. By July 29th the city was by and large peaceful and the paratroopers were moved out while the National Guard remained until August 2nd to ensure the disorder had run its course. Almost immediately the local media began examining the Guard’s involvement in the uprisings.

The first major article questioning the abilities of the National Guard coincidentally was printed on July 23rd, 1967 in the Detroit Free Press. It speaks of bored Guardsman who cared little for the instruction they were receiving and instead considered the two-week training as a vacation. It also notes the lack of African-Americans in the guard. In an editorial on August 29, 1967 the editorial board writes of a National Guard that is completely inadequate for its role in the nation’s defense. They also write of Guardsmen napping on sidewalks and keeping poor grooming standards while deployed in the city during the riots. The national news media also repeated these criticisms. In a Life Magazine article published October 27th, 1967 the author writes of sloppily dressed Guardsmen behaving like frightened children in the heat of the fighting around 12th Street.

The leadership of the Guard did not appreciate such scathing articles and on multiple occasions wrote letters to the editors providing context and corrections while they also began internal investigations of their own conduct. Between the results of these investigations and using after action reports written by guard officers, both kept in the Archives of Michigan, some common themes began to develop. These themes were echoed in testimony given before congress by Guard and regular Army generals. All records cite a lack of communications equipment making the dissemination of orders a challenge as well as outdated armament when compared to army paratroopers. By far the greatest challenge the individual guardsman faced was a complete lack of training in both urban combat and riot control while also being constantly sleep deprived, some being awake for 30 hours or more. When this evidence is taken into account, the picture painted by the media and later historians gains much needed context.

As we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit uprisings, we find ourselves with an opportunity to reflect and reexamine the established narrative of the entire event and especially that of the National Guard’s involvement. A better understanding of their role requires oft-repeated claims to be looked at with nuance. The meme of inept and unprofessional guardsmen being unable to restore order -or even making the situation worse- and requiring regular Army soldiers to come to their aid is a narrative that precludes a more complete study of the ’67 Uprisings. The need for truth and reconciliation compels a second look at all aspects of the Uprisings, hopefully this article adds important context to at least one aspect of a seminal chapter in the history of the City of Detroit.  

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David Webb's findings on National Guard during 1967 7/31/2017
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