St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
The word Vietnam was a litmus test. It was a great divide. Either you supported our adventure overseas or you opposed. Maybe 85% of the American public declined to share its feelings openly. But the other 15% was vocal in its feelings, and sometimes people were in your face. In sheer numbers the people who supported the war carried the field at home. The cannons were at their backs. The pro-war voice saw itself as a cheering section for their boys at the front.
Our print media portrayed fighting the enemy as a great rattlesnake hunt or as exterminating vermin. Vietcong body counts were the staple of our daily newspaper accounts. On or about the day of the Tet offensive in early 1968 when professional military cadre from the North joined irregulars from the South to infiltrate Saigon, our local newspaper featured a story about baseball hero Joe DiMaggio's foot injury. There was a complete disconnect between the truly apocalytic struggle fought in someone else's backyard and business-as-usual over here.
I was embarrassed by what was being done overseasd in my name. I was scared for me and for my family. I could not imagine anything more stupid than my country of a couple of hundred million people pulverizing a country of 20 million. I could not concieve what a country of largely illiterate peasants, for whom no likely outcome of the war would make any difference, had done to provoke my mighty nation. I could not ignore our politicians who controlled the levers of power, but I disregarded their moral authority. I regarded Marx' observation that all power flows from the barrel of a gun. I was no longer a naif.
In 1965 I was 18 years old and still in high school. My parents enrolled me at my request in a Jesuit boarding school in Austria. I came to see my country's role in Southeast Asia with the same skepticism that Austrian pundits reflected in their newspaper headlines. Presto! How did we go from saving Europe from fascism in 1945 to posting a quarter-million troops in one of France's former colonies?
After I lost confidence in the wisdom of my elders, it was a downward spiral. "Gee," I thought, "If our leaders extol the righteousness of a war that I believe to be a farce or worse, what does it say about the bias in history books that I read in high school?" I understood for the first time a quote attributed to Henry Ford: "History is bunk." Victors write history books, losers do not.
In the spring of 1967 I marched on the Pentagon with thousands of other anti-war demonstrators. "America, Love it or leave it" was a mantra whose logic had a certain appeal in the late 1960s. In 1968 I crossed the border at Winnipeg, but Canadian authorities deported me back to the US. For the next decade I joined the ranks of the silently desperate in America.
I particularly remember 25 years ago on April 30, 1975. It was the
day on which North Vietnamese regulars swept into Saigon. I was
sharing a house on an island off Florida with a recently discharged
Vietnam veteran, a machine gunner from Massachusetts who had seen
action on the front lines. The machine gunner and I smoked pot and
we generally got along like two peas in a pod. I was both relieved
and anxious on April 30, 1975. On the one hand I was happy that
the whole sordid affair was over, but I was anxious that our DoD
would take some desperate military measure to reverse our exit from
Before the mid-term national US elections in 1982, the air owas particularly acrimonious. One after another men who been subject to the draft in the 1960s emerged from silence to announce on the pages of the Wall Street Journal and New York Times that they regretted having eluded military conscription and having not served their country. As badly as I wanted to protest historical revisionism, I maintained my silence. I vaguely remembered that J. Edgar Hoover once had declined Nixon's request that Hoover put Nixon's enemies in jail. Throughout the early 1970s I half-expected to be picked up in a police dragnet.
When I read in 1996 former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's memoirs in which he opined that we wrongly prosecuted the war that sometimes is referred to as "McNamara's war," I felt vindicated. Maybe after all I was not the whiner, which revisionists made peaceniks out to be.