Denver, CO, USA
I am a survivor of the sixties’ anti-Vietnam War rebellion. I participated
in college protest marches, refused to finish the 1970 spring semester
following the Kent State Massacre, and alienated my parents.
Today, I am angry and concerned about this formative chapter of my life.
Society prefers to discredit my generation’s sacrifices. Some say we contributed nothing; we robbed America of its patriotic soul. There were no antiwar movement heroes. Ours was a destructive rebellion, a rip in the fabric of democratic idealism. We were an unfortunate collision of youth, a generation out of control.
Outspoken critics have discredited the Vietnam antiwar movement and its associated social uprising. It was a time of adolescent rebellion, situational morality, and excesses of democracy. Society only remembers our drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, mean-spirited disobedience, egocentricity, a volatile generation gap, and our deviation from the good social order.
As these revisionists would have society recall, baby boomers abandoned moral consensus. Instead, we chose self-gratification, marijuana, Woodstock, draft card burn-ins, and protest marches. We turned America upon itself, and the only accurate moral reflection about the sixties would be one of mass humiliation.
As seen through a revisionist’s lens, the war might have been illegal, but not necessarily immoral. American soldiers bravely sacrificed to stop the spread of communism and save the indigenous Vietnamese from China’s severe agenda of East Asian domination.
Bellicose domestic disunity served no other purpose than to encourage a tyrannical enemy, buttress Hanoi’s resolve, and beget our shameful defeat. The significant costs borne were those of American soldiers: a tragic body count and enduring emotional and physical injuries among surviving veterans.
The best Americans can hope for is to put the nightmarish mistakes of the Vietnam era behind us. And I am concerned about this.
A revised sixties marginalizes millions of Americans who, like me, stood firm against the war. A revised Vietnam War era alters the way contemporary Americans perceive democratic mobilization. Post-modern sixties’ revisionism threatens future acts of protest against social or state regulation and even oppression or violence.
President Richard Nixon called us bums. Vice President Spiro Agnew called us “an effete corps of impudent snobs who call themselves intellectuals.” Social psychologist Bruno Bettelheim castigated youthful protests as lacking any serious political content. And, to concisely frame this revised sixties, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Yardley wrote a searing denunciation in a 1987 op-ed column: “The sixties had almost nothing to do with genuine ideological commitment or sense of purpose, but instead consisted of adolescent rebellion masquerading as a political movement.”
As a student activist who today carries vivid memories of the Kent State Massacre, I defy this tendency to denigrate the sixties’ antiwar movement, to symbolize its purpose as wholly destructive. On the contrary, the majority in our movement consciously embraced a philosophy of non-violence while opposing the horrific violence of racism, poverty, and the American bombardment of Vietnam; we were motivated by a sense of obligation to others far more than self-gratification.
What many Americans have chosen to forget is the human impact of this undeclared war. Yes, most remember that Vietnam meant the death of 52,000 American men and women and over 300,000 wounded. But the body count and suffering did not end with our victims.
Americans killed over one million Vietnamese, both military and civilian, and wounded over 500,000. The Vietnamese countryside, home to an ancient way of life, became the earth’s most heavily bombed landscape, having more high explosives dropped on it than all countries involved in World War II. The 1972 Christmas bombing campaign ordered by Nixon made Hanoi the most heavily bombed city in the history of warfare.
And I remember the turning point as if it was today.
On Monday, May 4, 1970, at 12:25 p.m., 28 National Guardsmen equipped with loaded M-1 rifles, fired from the crest of Blanket Hill near Taylor Hall on the campus of Kent State University. They shot into a crowd of students gathered in the Prentice Hall parking lot. Many students were simply passing from class to class during the lunch hour. Guardsmen fired sixty-one shots in thirteen seconds. They killed four students and injured nine others. To me, this unprecedented violence by the US military against unarmed students was as symbolically significant as the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
I am concerned that America has forgotten about what we accomplished as a consequence of these assassinations.
Following the Kent State Massacre and a nationwide strike by more than 500,000 students, Congress lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, giving young people a chance to vote on the policies and politicians that may influence their survival. Congress enacted the War Powers Act, which substantially limited the authority of the US president to usher America into an undeclared war. The invasion of Cambodia ended. And, according to President Nixon’s aide, H.R. Halderman, Kent State was the beginning of Nixon’s downhill slide to a disgraced resignation.
Baby boomers who stood firm against the tide of popular public opinion influenced major social changes that endure today. Never again will a million US citizens be whisked away 10,000 miles to fight in an undeclared war. Never again will women live in this society as second-class citizens. Never again will racial minorities suffer segregation and discrimination sponsored by sectors of our own government and its institutions. Never again will companies dump poisons unabated into the natural environment.
And it’s incredibly important for society to remember how we constructively changed the social contract. Why? Because policy makers always use a selective reading of history to frame the debate on current domestic and foreign public policy. As philosopher Milan Kundera observed: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
If we are to preserve our democratic ideals for future generations, we can never forget that Vietnam was not just a foreign war. It was a domestic moral war, and many baby boomers today carry post-traumatic emotional scars emblematic of personal sacrifices they made to stand against US government oppression and domination.
I am angry that my generation is being misrepresented in a revised history and popular culture. I am concerned that future oppressors may use this selective reading of history to dominate with their self-serving agendas. I fear that my generation’s noble commitment to democratic mobilization, as we expressed it in the sixties, has become tantamount to social chaos.