I can remember watching Walter Cronkite on the nightly CBS news reporting on the Vietnam War, probably from 1968, the summer it seems that the world was crashing around our shoulders. The Tet Offensive launched by the North Vietnamese and their allies the Vietcong in the South was underway and all South Viet Nam appeared to be exploding with bomb, bullets, napalm, artillery, and every kind of man killing inventions known to man, from land mines to B-52s destroying whole swaths of land and people with their carpet bombing.
It was also one of the heights—or lows depending upon your politics–of the antiwar movement here in the U. S. and it was turning our country into a battleground itself, as it fed off the civil rights battle for right and justice.
Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s new ten-part, eighteen-hour PBS documentary, The Vietnam War, has almost created as much controversy as the war itself did. I’ve read some of the criticisms—some from veterans, some from South Vietnamese who fell under the heel and rule of the Communist from the North in 1975, some from who opposed or supported the war—and I find it strangely congruent with the bitter political battles—some symbolic and some real from Baltimore to Berkeley—today.
Journalists and pundits from across the board are analyzing the Burns documentary, more than ten years in the making, and I’ll leave that to them. I’ll simply share some of my memories of that war.
One of my best high school friends, Jim Egan, was killed in the war, early in 1965 and I’ve written about Jim, a Marine officer, before. He actually is still officially “missing in action,” his remains never found. I took my son Carlton, then about eight or nine, to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and have a picture of him and me at the Wall pointing to Jim’s name. Are wars ever truly forgotten? I don’t know, but as long as I live, that war will be imbedded in my heart and memory through my friend.
Just as I was finishing my two years in the Navy as Gunnery Officer on the USS Donner (LSD 20) I was asked if I wanted to continue on active duty, especially since I had small boat experience from the amphibious fleet I served on. This was the summer of 1966 and I had been reading and/or listening about the growing American commitment in Vietnam. I thought the war was a lousy conflict in which we were pitted defending some corrupt war lords against the Communist regime of North Viet Nam, and their allies in the South, the Vietcong guerillas. I had no sympathy for Communists. This was right in the middle of the Cold War which could, and did, get hot sometime. Think Cuba, Bay of Pigs.
I had voted in the first election I was eligible to in 1964, and had voted for Barry Goldwater, Senator from Arizona.
I really had no idea who Barry Goldwater was, but I couldn’t bring myself to vote for Lyndon Johnson who I thought of as a wheeling, dealing, fast talking, obnoxious Texan (sorry you Texans; I have a lot of great Texas friends; LBJ wasn’t one of them) who lied and was lying about how good it was for us to be in Vietnam.
I told the Navy I wasn’t interested in being a small boat commander in the growing “river” fleet in the Mekong Delta (wherever that was), and since my ship was in the Mediterranean, I got my separation in Naples, Italy. I bought a month long Eurail pass and headed north into the heart of Europe to see a world that had always fascinated me instead of heading to South Vietnam.
Once in graduate school in New Orleans I became more conscious of the war and I helped organize a committee in the city to support the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy for the Democratic nomination for president.
As I watched the Burns documentary over the past month I started to compare what I knew then about the war and what the documentary was showing me. The documentary is superb, BTW.
I picketed a few times in the streets of New Orleans for McCarthy, being sure to wear some button indicating I was a veteran. Many of the antiwar activists were avoiding the draft in graduate schools, joining the National Guard (then hardly ever deployed overseas), or escaping to Canada. I thought of most of them as shirkers, or worse. I had served my country, was my thinking, and had damn well earned the right to question, loud and publicly, policies that put us into the middle of a lousy, stinking war.
By the summer of 1968, McCarthy’s bid had been crushed by the entry of Bobby Kennedy into the campaign, and so did my short political career in New Orleans. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated April 4 and on June 5 Kennedy was assassinated and turmoil and riots and fire and hatred engulfed many cities.
When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, he promised an end to the war, but it lasted seven more years until the Americans abandoned Vietnam, the defeat marked by the iconic image of a helicopter lifting off the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon with people still scrambling to get on board.
By then I had also more or less “abandoned” Vietnam, preoccupied with my own budding career as an historian, working in places like Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, Guayaquil, Ecuador and in 1970-71 researching and writing my dissertation in in Seville, Spain.
This new documentary by Ken Burns brought a lot back, but I think it serves another purpose, much higher than just stirring memories among my generation.
It teaches us about another time when we were divided and passed through traumatic times in our modern history. Nobody is perfect, and nobody is perfectly right all the time, and we certainly proved that in the 1960s and early 1970s. Nobody has all the perfect and correct answers to the perils and challenges of our times today either.
Published Sunday Oct. 8, 2017 as “Vietnam was another era when nation was divided” in The Tuscaloosa News.