The Vietnam War

On a cold dark morning in the winter of 1967, I stood outside the induction center on Whitehall Street in lower Manhattan handing out draft facts cards to the arriving inductees. These were folded cardboard cards the size of draft cards, with information on the rights and alternatives still available to these young guys as they entered the building to face induction into the army. I had been showing up here every morning for the past few weeks as part of my organizing work as a member of the New York Draft Resistance. I was a twenty year old college dropout. On this day I was with three slightly older organizers—two women and a man—all of them local graduate students. In the early morning darkness, as despondent draftees shuffled by, accepting the cards and entering the building, a car with five or six men in it cruised slowly by, looking at us. After it circled again and pulled around the corner out of sight we began to get nervous. Suddenly we were attacked by a gang of men in plain clothes. I stood my ground, maybe foolishly, but I had recently decided to become a full-fledged pacifist and to renounce violence. It was bad timing. The others scattered and I got beat up as I refused to raise a hand in defense and, passively resisting, I crumpled to the side walk. The attackers fled and I was helped up by my returning friends and taken home on the subway to nurse my wounds. A few days later I was back again, but we now had a larger contingent of draft resisters each morning outside the induction center.

US Soldiers Moving in a Skirmish Line Through Rice Paddies. National Archives.

I, like other Americans who came of age during the Vietnam War, was a child of the World War II generation, the generation that was understood to have sacrificed so much to defeat the Nazis and their Japanese allies. A working-class kid from Brooklyn raised in the 1950s in the shadow of that war, I grew up playing war games with toy soldiers along with my brothers reenacting battles like the landing at Normandy every time my family would spend a day at the beach at Reis Park. I grew up yearning to become a soldier, to relive the glory of war and “to play my own part in the patriot game.” The route that led me from that to draft resistance might have been uncommon—few from my Borough Park neighborhood or my Catholic high school became draft resisters—but we were all swept up in the same events. However, I was not the only one, as I later roomed with another working-class guy from Borough Park in the Brooklyn Draft Resistance commune.

In 1966, when I was nineteen, despite knowing I would lose my student deferment, I left Manhattan College in my sophomore year. I was rebelling against my strict Catholic upbringing. Under the influence of a growing alternative culture I had already come to oppose the war. Like many of my contemporaries I found myself in a moral bind. I was facing the draft and the possibility of being sent to fight in Vietnam. I found it impossible to justify killing or getting killed in a war I thought was morally indefensible. Opposition to the war was common among my fellow workers at the NY Public Library on 42nd Street, where I had worked part-time as a page since high school. In a copy of the underground newspaper the East Village Other, I saw an ad for draft counseling at the Draft Resistance office on Beekman Street. I met with a draft counselor who outlined my options for avoiding getting drafted. I decided to apply for conscientious objector status but, having recently decided I was an atheist, I was unable to fulfill an essential requirement for a CO: explaining how a belief in God prevented me from fighting in a war. Objecting to a particular war on the grounds that it is not morally justified is not permissible under Selective Service law. I resolved this difficulty after talking to a fellow page at the library. He told me about Pantheism, the idea that God is everything—the universe itself and everything in it is God. If I believed in the universe then I believed in God. He advised me to read an introduction to Spinoza and based on that I wrote an essay explaining my pantheistic beliefs to my Brooklyn draft board. They rejected my request. I was classified 1A and draft eligible. After another draft counseling session my options came down to going into the army or leaving the country—or refusing induction, an act of civil disobedience and a political protest against the war for which I would face a possible ten year jail sentence. I chose draft resistance. It was an agonizing decision; almost everybody I knew tried to talk me out of it. I was spurned by some of my relatives and many people I knew. My father was ashamed of me. He slapped me in the face and called me a communist.

Within weeks I received an induction notice in the mail and in January 1967 I entered the induction center at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn where I went through the pre-induction process and physical. In a room full of draftees I remained standing still with my arms folded when we were asked to raise our hands and step forward to be sworn in. The soldiers running the induction were expecting this. My action had been publicized in advance. There was a small demonstration of support for me outside the induction center that consisted of draft-resistance activists, anti-war protesters, my brother, and a few friends from the neighborhood. One friend, George, had just completed boot camp and was home on leave before getting shipped out to Vietnam but was there to support me. At one point he left the demonstration to duck under the highway to relieve himself. Some construction workers watched him leave, followed him and beat him up out of sight of the crowd. I was sent home at the end of the day and soon after indicted for violation of the Selective Service law.

I was lucky. I never had to do jail time. When my case came up in federal court, I came before Judge Jack Weinstein who, unlike the old Irish Catholic draft board that had reviewed my case, seemed to be quite familiar with Spinoza. He cross-examined the draft board members, questioning them in the witness stand, and in the end dismissed the case, finding that the board had no basis in fact for denying me a CO. The draft board, however, was defiant and they reclassified me 1A. I was drafted again in 1969 and again refused induction. I went home and awaited another indictment but it never came. What I didn’t realize then was that by this time there was so much draft refusal and draft avoidance that the government could not keep up with all the cases. I continued to participate in anti-war activities until the end of the war in 1975.

Those days were recently brought home to me by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s PBS documentary The Vietnam War. The film provides a beautifully rendered tutorial on the war in the classic Ken Burn’s style, complete with heartfelt personal accounts, graphic military history, the machinations of the main political actors and the material and cultural fallout that it caused on all sides of American and Vietnamese life. It seems, however, to be missing stories like mine and those of many others who felt a moral obligation to oppose the war in any way possible. In the process we educated ourselves and those around us about the failings of U.S. policy in Vietnam and its causes.  Because the filmmakers strove to cover every angle and to view the war through all eyes, almost everyone who watches it can come away having learned something new.   I lived through many of the related events as a draft resister and an anti-war activist, but I realized watching the film how much of the actual military history was unfamiliar to me. The filmmakers attempted to shed light on viewpoints that many viewers may have been unfamiliar with, especially those of the Vietnamese, both north and south. They portrayed the experiences of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities in the military and at home. They traced the pain and suffering of the soldiers, their families, and, most importantly, the agonies of conscience that tormented many of those caught up in the war as more and more came to question its purpose, its justification, its methods, and its leadership. And yet, in the effort to present a balanced account, they dull many of the points they make by attempting to present an opposing view for every view expressed, even for those already discredited by the narrative.  

The eighteen-hour length of the film makes watching it a commitment of time and attention. It also makes the broadcast itself a national event. If one of the intentions of Burns and Novick was to open a national conversation about the war, they largely succeeded. For a generation that was in many ways defined by that war, it has been a subject honored more in its absence from public discourse and private conversation than in memoirs or critical analysis. For those of us who actively opposed the war as well as those who served in it, such conversations tended to be avoided in the years after the war had ended and the anti-war movement had fractured and dissolved. We are thus provided with an opportunity to examine the questions raised in the film as well as those not raised and to look at the effects tof the war on American life and politics since then.

A Marine from 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, moves a Viet Cong suspect to the rear during a search and clear operation held by the battalion 15 miles west of Da Nang Air Base. 1965.

The film does a good job of following the arc of the war from the first occupation of Vietnam by the French in the nineteenth century, through the Japanese occupation in 1945, to the American withdrawal and the fall of Saigon in 1975. We watch how the scale of the war grew as time went by, how the tactics of both sides changed, how American support for the war waned and opposition swelled, and how the army itself changed over the course of the war. The war and the events surrounding it are thus correctly seen as a process and not just a singular event. The American army in Vietnam in 1965, when troop levels were drastically increased, was a different army from that in 1971, when, with morale at an all-time low and drug use at an all-time high, General Creighton Abrams said that he had to “get this army home in order to save it.” This is an important and often overlooked point. Vietnam veterans themselves had widely differing experiences depending on the year they served, the area they served in, and their assignment. The peace movement also evolved significantly over the same time, from a small group of activists protesting an unjust war, inspired by the example of the Civil Rights Movement, to a mass movement that affected every facet of American life and by the end of the war had largely self-destructed into sectarian factions.

The series follows the planning and strategies of the political leaders on all sides of the war and returns often to the general theme that the war was a mistake conducted by honorable men. “It was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” we hear in both the opening minutes and again in the concluding scenes. Like many of the major themes of the film, however, this misunderstands the misunderstandings themselves. Like the news media of the time, the film fails to offer a viable analysis of the policies that shaped not only the Vietnam War but the entire Cold War strategy of the US. The reason for fighting, the great justification for the war, we are told, was to stop the spread of International Communism, a cause that Americans had been pursuing since the end of World War II. The domino theory conjured up during the Eisenhower administration required the USA to intervene in Vietnam after the French withdrew from their former colony following their defeat at Bien Dien Phu. America intervened, divided the country, and set up an American-friendly regime in the south rather than allow an election that had been mandated by the Geneva Accords of 1954, in which the Vietnamese were to decide the fate of their country and whether or not it would be communist.

While the film often repeats the idea of stemming the tide of international communism, as the justification for the war, it lacks a critical analysis of Cold War policies. While history is mined in the first episode, tracing the roots of the conflict back to the French conquest of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, the origins of American intervention is explained with less historical depth as resultiung from a combination of mistakes, French and British insistence on re-imposing colonial rule in the region, and a reaction to the communist victory in China. (Truman, the film claims, was under political pressure at home to stand up to communism.)

How had communists gone from being Bolshevik enemies before the Second World War, to trusted allies during the war, and then back again to mortal enemies after the war? Similaely, the idea that a unified America existed before the Vietnam War opened a huge rift in American society, only repeats the myth of post-war 1950s bliss. There was a lack of visible opposition to the foreign policies of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, but this was the result of a great purging of left-leaning intellectuals, civil rights leaders, teachers, and union leaders in the McCarthy witch hunts of the early fifties. Critical analysis of Cold War policy was pushed out of the mainstream and left largely inaccessible to the American public, where it waited to be rediscovered by the New Left in their search for answers to the injustices of the war, the persistence of racism, and the lack of true democracy.

Once I had refused induction, I had placed myself in opposition to the government and to the supporters of the war. I was considered to be aiding the enemy and could be marked a traitor to my country. It was an eye-opening experience for me, a look into the true nature of nationalism. Although many in the anti-war movement believed they were doing the right thing by attempting to steer their nation away from an immoral war, they were regarded as betraying the troops and considered disloyal and unworthy Americans. Whereas the social conditions prevailing within the country may not be of benefit to large segments of the nation, nationalism equates the interests of the portion that benefits most with the interests of the entire population and brings them all together in defense of the status quo. The more threatened the nation is from without, the stronger the bond to defend it and to overlook the inequalities that may exist. When a nation is at war national feelings among the citizens are strongest. So while many were torn by doubts about going off to a war they could not support, they faced incredible social pressure to conform.

Burns and Novick cover this well anecdotally, as for example in the interview with the novelist Tim O’Brien who talks about the pressure that led him to submit to the draft rather than go to Canada even though he knew that what he was doing was morally unconscionable. He asked himself if he should go to war and kill people when he didn’t think it was right. He thought of deserting to Canada from boot camp but the pressure to go and fight he felt from the whole society, his family, his girlfriend, his neighbors, and strangers, his fear of being ostracized and labeled a coward, was too great to overcome and so he went and he lived the rest of his life with the shame of failing to follow his conscience. He was not unusual in feeling these contradictory pressures as the opposition to the war increased. He was uncommon, however, in his ability both to be self-critical and to express this experience.

As the anti-war movement grew, along with the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the other social justice movements of the sixties, they developed alternative analyses to explain the injustices they were witnessing. Old critics of American imperialism, of militarism and capitalism were rediscovered and read. Movement schools and study groups were formed so that young radicals could learn to analyse the problems they recognized in society and make sense of political and economic reality. Burns and Novick cover the growth of the anti-war movement but they never seem to take it very seriously. Protests are shown, the most violent actions are highlighted, leaders appear at rallies and press conferences, but the serious work of organizing opposition and developing a theoretical understanding of the nature of American foreign policy and of the class structure of the society is never alluded to. Scenes are juxtaposed to emphasize division and reinforce prejudices that were hyped in the press, as when scenes of Woodstock are interposed with GIs under fire in Vietnam, implying that young people having fun at a massive music festival somehow dishonored the soldiers suffering for their country in Vietnam.

The film covers the spread of the peace movement into the military in the same half-hearted way. The demonstration by Vietnam Veterans Against the War during which they threw their medals onto the steps of Congress is given significant treatment, but the network of GI coffee houses in cities and surrounding army bases across the country is hardly mentioned. These centers of support for soldiers played an important role in developing anti-war sentiment within the military, which—as the film shows—played a critical part in ending the war. Instead, the film insists on recycling myths that have been thoroughly discredited long ago, such as the tale that returning veterans were spit at and called baby killers as they got off the planes from Vietnam. Jerry Lembcke completely refuted this myth in his book The Spitting Image of 1998, showing that it only arose years after the war was over. Yet Burns and Novick have Karl Marlantes, recounting his arrival at Travis Air Force Base, remembering being cursed at and called a baby killer by a bunch of raggedy hippies who pounded his car with their signs. Because no one has ever produced a film clip or photo of returning vets being spit at or harassed like this, the film can only accompany Marlantes’s account with stills of peaceful demonstrators outside Travis: These vintage photos show protestors wearing shirts identifying them as soldiers holding signs saying “Travis GIs and WAF Against the War.”

The final segment of the long film recounts the slow and agonizing end of the war and the ways in which the war has been remembered in subsequent years. Many in the anti-war movement were frustrated that the movement led not to revolutionary changes but to sectarian divisions, violent splinter groups, and the collapse of the movement. Burns and Novick never discuss how much of this destructive activity was perpetrated by government agents, though it is well known that the FBI and the other intelligence agencies devoted enormous resources to the destruction of the movement. Of the hundreds of thousands who considered themselves revolutionaries for a short time in the sixties, many gained real insights about the true nature of their society from their experiences, and the knowledge they acquired helped them to understand subsequent events and to act more effectively in fighting against the injustices of capitalism and militarism. They remain proud of the role they played. Many maintained a radical critique of the society they live in and continue to do what they can to bring about needed change, and many have transmitted their ideas to a younger generation. Their history can hopefully inspire others to take action against the reactionary policies of today.

Many more became absorbed back into the main currents of society and erased their radical past from their memory. Nationalism pressures us to allay past criticism of the war and the system, to support America’s ongoing wars, and to take part in honoring America and the veterans who served. This is especially true for the many GIs who protested the Vietnam War both in and out of the service but now are honored as Vietnam Veterans. The movement of anti-war veterans continues today, however, in Veterans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War.

After all these years, I hope The Vietnam War will stimulate a public discussion of all the issues it raises, above all the immorality of targeting civilians and the very concept of collateral damage, the dehumanization of foreign enemies, great-power imperialism, and the evil of warfare.

Contributor

Peter St. Clair

PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.

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