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The Vietnam War: 1954 to 2017

Vietnam’s Relevance

We typically think of historical events as just that – history.  Sure, there are those sayings, “if we do not understand and learn history we are doomed to repeat it,” and “history repeats itself,” but we rarely spend time linking events together or looking for patterns.  Personally, I am not convinced that history necessarily repeats itself, rather, humans tend to react consistently to events.   More a function of “group-think” than the inevitability of providence.

I think what is more important is to recognize how historical events impact current events.  Americans do very little of this.  Consider the events in Charlottesville last August.  The blogosphere was ripe with support for Confederate statues in an effort to preserve history with very little recognition of the history those statues represented.  In fact, there was a lot of effort in making up that history, I suspect to make ourselves feel better over our past racial wrongs.  On one hand, this is understandable given the way we teach history and the importance we place on patriotism and symbols.  But on the other, accepting historical events as simple names dates and places short circuits the lessons that we really should learn and more importantly, forces us to recognize that America is like every other world power throughout the millennia.  She is prone to hubris and overconfidence.  And despite the best of intentions, she can make horrible mistakes; mistakes that continue to reverberate today.

This section is meant to begin that discussion and to set the stage for Vietnam’s linkage to today.

Vietnam’s Impact on Social Cohesion

I was born in 1972.  By then, the counter-culture was in full swing.  The United States was still bombing the hell out of North Vietnam and the worst burglars in the history of burglarizing had just bungled the Watergate break-in.  I have read many books and watched a lot of documentaries about the 60s and 70s; it is true – the protests and the violence must have been frightening for my parents and others of their generation.  In the larger cities, between the civil rights movement and the war protests, the world looked like it might be imploding.

But did I appreciate how scary and threatening this period was to the cohort of people belonging to “traditional, middle America?”  And who were they?  My parents, my aunts and uncles, my Sunday School teachers and all of my friends’ parents (Except for Melanie.  I am pretty sure that Melanie’s parents were hippies.  But I could be wrong on that too!)  It is important to recognize, that of that huge generation called “the Baby Boom,” (Wikipedia says there are 76 million of them still alive, currently about 25% of the total U.S. population) there were millions that did not charge the barricades or dodge the draft.  They went to college and actually showed up for class.  Alternatively, they got a job and worked hard all day.  My Dad was a farmer; he was in the fields all day and at times, into the evening.  The point is, that while many of their generation fought and resisted – a lot of them did not.  Those that followed the rules and adhered to law and order, were first taken back by the protests of the 60s and later, terrified.

This is America?  The Sixties in Lawrence, Kansas by Rusty L. Monhollon is the best book I have read on the period and not only because it is set in my hometown (or a town near my hometown).   Monhollon ascribes to Lawrence, Kansas the social and cultural norms of post-war, Mid-Western, regular America.  In defining Lawrence as a microcosm of that world, he explains how all of traditional America felt and responded to the three primary protest movements in the 60s and 70s:  civil rights, anti-war, and the women’s movement.  What started as relatively peaceful protests and civil disobedience, progressed to more violent acts as the establishment refused to act or slow-walked efforts to reform.  As the body count grew, the anti-war agitation electrified.

Lawrence, Kansas During the Vietnam Era

Traditional conservatives in and around Lawrence initially responded to the social breakdown, by claiming that it was outside agitators and communists that were to blame for the violence; that if blacks and the students would just “wait,” and “calm down,” that reforms would eventually come.  Contrary to those assumptions, most protesters, particularly in the early years were Kansans;  small town white kids that came to the University of Kansas and had never interacted with blacks.  Those same kids had been raised to understand the history of Kansas in the Civil War, anti-slavery movement.  They did not understand why black kids had to sit at different tables, and in special sections.  Later, sure – outside influences descended on the town and merged with the local movements.  But not in the beginning.  In the beginning, it was Kansans sticking up for other Kansans.

Images of Lawrence, Kansas 1970

My father does not remember how he proposed to my mother.  But he remembers the national events of 1968, the night that the K.U. Union was set on fire and burned to the ground and the drama of Watergate.  He remembers what he read in the paper and what he watched on the black-white television set in the living room of our old farmhouse.  He remembers the marches and when the campus ROTC was firebombed in February 1969 (The month he and my Mom got married).  My Mom and my aunts (my Mom’s sisters) all worked at the University of Kansas during those years.  My Mom’s memory has changed a bit, not of the events per se, but how she interpreted them.  But all three remember working on campus and being concerned about their own personal safety.  One of those perceptions that my Mom had years ago was around “who instigated” the violence; locals or outside communists.  I think as the years have gone by, and we have learned more about that period, her perceptions changed, but the immediate aftermath, or at least when I first asked her about what she remembered, she recalled it differently.

Lawrence was not a hotbed of political activity.  We gave all that up during Bleeding Kansas, in the years prior to the Civil War.  We had our fill of attention when John Brown came to town and killed several pro-slavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek.  And if that was not enough, Confederate William Quantrill and his merry band of raiders sacked the town in August 1863 burning down key buildings and killing several citizens.  Lawrence did not want to be in the national spotlight.  I suspect most of my “readership” (I know, that is funny!!), have never been to Lawrence and if you have heard of it, it is because of the University or the Kansas Jayhawk men’s basketball team.  Today, it is almost a suburb of Kansas City with a population just shy of 100,000.  Now that may not seem like a lot.  But to those of us who have watched the city grow and expand in the last 35 years, the number does not do the city justice.

But in 1970, Lawrence was like a lot of small and rural towns.  And it went from tranquil and family oriented – to a war zone.   A month after the Union burned (authorities ruled it as arson), the Ohio National Guard shot into a crowd of Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War.  Four were killed and nine were wounded.  The civil rights movement had gone from peaceful protest to violent insurrection.  Why?  Because black activists had tired of white leaders telling them to “wait” for equality.  The decision in  Brown vs the Topeka Board of Education was handed down in 1954.  But schools were still segregated.  Not by law, but by neighborhood.  In Lawrence, public facilities were still segregated.  Public housing segregated, making it incredibly difficult for African-Americans to find housing in the city.  And the University, what we now think of as bastions of liberal and progressive thought, was anything but forward thinking.  Life was still segregated.

Then the bodies started to come back from Vietnam.  The anti-war protests continued with support from professors and other university staff members, people that were likely not from Kansas.  Outsiders.

Senator Robert Kennedy, having had announced his candidacy for president only two days before, spoke at both K.U. and Kansas State University in Manhattan.  He quoted William Allen White, a University of Kansas alumni and famous author in his speech:

If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come out of our college campuses the better the world for tomorrow.   William Allen White

He went on to speak of the endemic and cyclical poverty he had witnessed across the country:

I have seen children in Mississippi starving, their bodies so crippled from hunger and their minds have been so destroyed for their whole life that they will have no future. I have seen children in Mississippi – here in the United States – with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars – I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven’t developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don’t think that’s acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change. I have seen Indians living on their bare and meager reservations, with no jobs, with an unemployment rate of 80 percent, and with so little hope for the future, so little hope for the future that for young people, for young men and women in their teens, the greatest cause of death amongst them is suicide.   Senator Robert Kennedy

Here was the brother of President John F. Kennedy, who since his assassination, had been martyred and had his reputation glorified in our national culture, pointing out the need for students to riot, protest and seek a better world for the next generation.  Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese communists had only months before launched a major offensive against the south.  Tet, while technically a failure for the North, led to Johnson’s withdrawal from the presidential race and made it clear that the war was far from over and far from won.

Violence Begets Violence

In a few months, Democrats would descend on Chicago to nominate a presidential candidate.  The convention itself was fractured.  It was an absolute mess.  But the video and images from the streets of Chicago were destructive to our political discourse.  Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT), in his speech to nominate Senator George McGovern,  (D-SD), attacked Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for the “Gestapo tactics” that his police officers were inflicting on anti-war protesters outside the convention hall,  Daley did not respond well.  Nor did the delegates.  Ribicoff said simply, “How hard it is to accept the truth.”

You have likely seen the famous video from outside the Chicago convention hall.   It depicts thousands of young, angry war protesters upset at the likely nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey who had pledged to continue Johnson’s Vietnam policy, being beaten and gassed by members of the Chicago Police Department.  These images, likely in black and white, were beamed into American homes every night of the convention.  This was the Democratic Party – the Party of Roosevelt – collapsing in front of the world over a tiny piece of land on the other side of the world.  The political party that had saved capitalism through the New Deal and won World War II was now fractured and paralyzed.

This was the American Experience during the Vietnam Era and it does not even consider what was actually happening on the battlefield.  Despite what government leaders said (including the President), America was losing the war.  Tens of thousands of American soldiers had died for a small piece of land on the other side of the world.  The government rationale for our presence shifted.  A generation of Americans who had never imagined that their government might lie to them discovered that it did.

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