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  Revisiting Vietnam
     
  The War Against the War
By Sandy Tolan
    Listen | How to listen
25 Years From VietnamThe Movie in Our HeadsThe Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski  

Announcer at Woodstock: Ladies and gentlemen...Country Joe...McDonald....

Oh, come on all of you big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again,
Got himself in a terrible jam,
Way down yonder in Vietnam,
Put down your books, pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lot of fun,

And it’s one, two three, what are we fightin for,
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.

The protesters and proponents of US involvement in Vietnam have had three decades to reflect on what they were fighting for.

McDonald: Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.

  National Guardsmen stand guard on the other side of a steel mesh fence erected May 15, 1969 by University of California officials around a "People's Park" at Berkeley, Calif., while some of the thousands who marched in protest pass by. The fencing precipitated a riot in which police fired shotguns at demonstrators and one person was wounded fatally. Governor Reagan then ordered the guardsmen into the city. (AP Photo/files)

For the children born during that time and after, the war, and the war at home over Vietnam, is as distant as World War II was for their parents.

Student: When I first got to Berkeley and walked around, I was like, this is where it all happened, this is so cool.

Four students sit on a cement cube at the University of California campus, a cradle of the antiwar movement. As I wait here for a veteran of the movement, these students from the school of public health try to imagine what the campus was like before they were born.

Student 2: The first images that come to my mind are rallies, people standing on podiums, big posters saying "Out of Vietnam," and flashing images of Kennedy and Nixon and young boys going away. These are things I've seen in movies, this is what I've seen growing up. Forrest Gump, yeah, movies. I mean, my parents.

Student 3: And I think our generation doesn't know what war is anymore. We have no conception of what it is to have random people killed anymore.

I hear a voice behind me, turn around. It’s the guy I’ve been waiting for. He smiles at the students.

Rossman: You are all students here? But you didn't know anything about this place? I didn't know anything about it.

It’s so striking: deep lines carve into Michael Rossman’s face; the students look suddenly shiny, faces smooth, eyes clear. They consider this man with the gray pony tail.

Rossman: We divided the nation and we expressed the division in a way that was in people's face.

Later, in an off campus coffee house, we go over some of the history. In 1964, many students returned from Mississippi summer and the civil rights movement. The next year, in Berkeley, Vietnam day and campus-wide teach-ins kicked off years of protest. By 1967, frustration and rage at President Johnson’s policies brought more radical protest. Activists tried to shut down the draft process at the Oakland induction center. Violent conflict filled the streets, and the television screens.

Rossman: It wasn't polite protest. Thousands of people were getting beat and gassed in the streets. And the numbers increased and then they started shooting the kids dead. From the perspective of those who wanted to persecute the war successfully it fatally divided America's will. If there had not been an opposition galvanized by the young people then there would not have been the slowly gathering social force that kept them from going out in the madness.

Phil Ochs (Music Lyrics):
It’s always the old who lead us to the wars;
Always the young to fall.
Now look at all we won
With the saber and the gun,
But tell me is it worth it all?

The official history of the antiwar movement reads something like this: the protests in the street helped slow the war, end the war, end the government’s resolve to continue fighting it.

Phil Ochs (Music Lyrics):
Yes I even killed my brother
And so many others
But I ain't marching any more.

But was it really that effective?

Garfinkle: Anti-war protesters had a higher negative public-favor quotient, according to all the polls, than the John Birch Society and the KKK. Antiwar protesters was the most hated group in American society.

Adam Garfinkle is author of a book examining what he calls the myths of the antiwar movement.

  Protest flyer.

Even people who were very concerned about the wisdom of the war were not prepared to oppose it because of the company that they would be seen to be keeping. People flying the Viet Cong flag, people using obscenity and vulgarity. People doing things that were blatantly anti-patriotic.

Still, by 1968, the protests appeared to be making an impact. In March, in the wake of a strong showing by antiwar presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in New Hampshire, President Lyndon Johnson stunned the nation.

President Johnson: I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your president.

Yet if antiwar protesters took the credit for toppling LBJ – and many say their role was inflated – they would soon be assigned blame for what followed.

Chicago, August, 1968. It had already been perhaps the most divisive year in America since the Civil War – in January, the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive had shattered American illusions about a quick end to the war. Two months later, Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis. Two months after that, Bobby Kennedy was shot down after winning the California Democratic primary and then, at summer’s end, came the Democratic convention.

Announcer at Convention: And so ladies and gentlemen, I am proud to present to this convention the name of Hubert Humphrey as nominee for president of the United States.

Demonstrators: Heil Humphrey! Humphrey’s a fascist pig! Dump the hump, dump the hump!

Journalist: The truck is spraying a gas, the kids are now moving back into the street, they’re fighting and shoving.

 

Chicago Police come at crowds with nightsticks and tear gas as they try to break up protests during the the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. (AP Photo/Chicago Daily News, Paul Sequeira, file)

The indelible image from Chicago was not Hubert Humphrey accepting the Democratic nomination, nor the efforts to insert an antiwar plank in the party platform. It was the picture of enraged young people coming up against the defenders of law and order. As some youths taunted the police, the cops waded into the crowds, clubbing some demonstrators into unconsciousness.

Journalist: I’m trying to get far enough back so I can see what’s happening, but it’s almost impossible to be able to give you a report as my eyes begin to burn, cough.

A fact-finding commission called it a police riot. Yet, soon, bumper stickers began to appear: We Support Mayor Daley and His Chicago Police. The backlash was in full swing.

Gitlin: No doubt the precipitation of the confrontation in Chicago in August, 1968, had very bad political consequences.

Todd Gitlin, former leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and now a sociology professor at New York University, says the backlash helped elect Richard Nixon. Gitlin believes Hubert Humphrey, as president, would have been under far more pressure within his party to end American involvement quickly.

Gitlin: Among those who bear the blame for that turn of events, the ’68 default, are those militants in the anti-war movement who didn’t vote for Humphrey. I don’t exempt myself. Most people I know, including myself, didn’t vote for president that year. That was a big mistake.

Nixon: And so tonight, to you, the great silent majority, I ask for your support.

During his campaign, Richard Nixon indicated he had a secret plan to end the war. A year after his election, he told America the negotiations in Paris were moving forward. He called for unity.

Nixon: Let us understand, North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.

Nixon’s strategy was to divide domestic dissent from the great political middle. For a time, the message played well.

Gloucester, Massachusetts, on the seacoast north of Boston. Here, like in many American communities, the antiwar movement was made up of middle-class parents who’d grown increasingly alarmed at their country’s behavior. In Gloucester, they were dogged by the radical images of the national movement.

Gabin: We were constantly battling those kinds of images here.

Ellen Gabin has been an activist for 35 years – marching in Selma in 1965, joining an American citizen’s delegation to Cuba last year, and, in the '60s, organizing against the war.

Gabin: Locally people talked about it and said, "We told you so, look at that. Look at those crazies." And began putting us in the same camp. So not only were we part of the drug camp, the flower children camp, now we were part of the bombings and the hysteria that was happening. And those things made people afraid to be part of the movement.

Afraid, also, because people knew the government was watching. This was at the height of an extensive US domestic spying campaign, when the FBI, the CIA, the Army, and the National Security Agency infiltrated and kept watch over a vast range of antiwar groups and individuals - from the Yippies and the Weathermen to Dr. Martin Luther King to the Concerned Mothers of Calumet High School. In Chicago alone, of the several thousand demonstrators at the convention, an estimated five hundred of them were government agents, informants, and provocateurs.

Gabin: We were much closer to the McCarthy era than we are now. Joe McCarthy. In a way a lot of us joked about it. But every one of us had a feeling of terror. Even though we were doing perfectly legal things, what our constitution said we could do. But yet there was that element of fear that they could come for us at any time. That’s really how we lived.

But in the conservative core of the town, among the sons and daughters of the fishermen, the call for honor and duty was answered.

Amero: I was in high school during the '60s, and we knew that our neighborhood friends, once graduated from Gloucester High , were going to Vietnam.

Lucia Amero was born and raised in Gloucester. At Good Harbor Beach, we sit on a dune on a cold, windy April day.

Amero: Close friends, friends you grew up with, next-door neighbors. It just seemed as though neighborhoods were clearing out of all these young guys that we played with, played basketball with, played kick-the-can in the middle of granite street with.

Eleven Gloucester families lost men in Vietnam. Lucia knew ten of them. Sammy Piscatello lived two doors down. And Frank D’amico. And her best friend, Matty Amiro.

Amero: He went into the army, and he didn’t come back.

As 1968 came, and the protests built, Lucia watched. And stayed away.

Amero: I was never a supporter of the war. And I never objected to the war. My stand was to support my brother, to support my cousin. We were brought up at home doing dishes in the kitchen, singing Kate Smith, "God Bless America," flag waving. My mother would have never thought to keep her son home from Vietnam.

She had friends who demonstrated; friends who went to Canada. But Lucia, who now works with veterans for the city of Gloucester, also recalls how some people reacted to the men who did come home: men like her brother Anthony and her cousin Ricky, who were now ridiculed for wearing their uniforms.

  "Q: And Babies? A: And Babies." Photographer, R. L. Haeberle; Designer, Peter Brandt. Art Workers Coalition, 1970, offset lithograph, 25" x 38".

Amero: And to hear people calling them baby killers and hear that on the news; it was very, very difficult, because that was my brother, that was Ricky. They were young guys, and they were family, and I love them, and how could they be doing this to them?

But if the excesses of the anti-war movement turned so many people off, so did the response.

In May, 1970, blood spilled on a college campus in middle America.

Student: People started throwing rocks, and then they started kneeling. We knew they were going to shoot. So we started running.

Student 2: Somebody call for an ambulance? Get another ambulance up here!!! Two more ambulance! There’s people dying up here, get an ambulance up here!!!

The four students shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State in Ohio was, for many, the ultimate sign of the war at home.

Walt Russell: I don’t know why they had live ammunition.

Colonel Walt Russell and his wife Nancy had long been part of the silent majority. But, sitting poolside on a visit with the grandkids in Phoenix, they recall their anguish, watching the country come apart.

Nancy Russell: When those four kids got killed was out of line and inexcusable and it really tore my heart out.

In 1965, Colonel Russell was shot in the head in Vietnam, while on a helicopter mission. He lost part of his brain – and the use of the left side of his body – and spent years in rehab, with Mrs. Russell and his kids at his side. Then he won a seat in the Georgia House. As national disillusionment deepened, and the release of the Pentagon Papers revealed official lies the government had long been telling about Vietnam, the colonel introduced a resolution urging the US to get out of Vietnam. Walt Russell, West Point grad, decorated veteran of Korea and Vietnam, and a man who had little time for protesters, was fed up.

Walt Russell: My feeling was that the internal fight about Vietnam was doing internal damage to the country. It said, "win or withdraw."

Nancy Russell kept her silence. She resented the kids who avoided service; hated Jane Fonda for going to Hanoi. But she and Colonel Russell, raised in the time of the Good War in Europe, came to believe that Vietnam was not the kind of war their country should fight. Like so many other Americans, Walt and Nancy Russell grew exhausted with war.

Nancy Russell: I was against the war from the get-go. And of course, when Walt got shot, that didn't make me feel better. I felt my feelings and somebody's got to get this war over pretty fast.

Fifty-eight thousand deaths were a lot. That little naked girl coming down the road. Horrible pictures, but all that was part of it. Americans don't think for themselves as doing that. But we did it. It's so bizarre. Not funny.

I’m Sandy Tolan for NPR news and American RadioWorks.