|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Nebraska Farm Boy Goes to War
I came from a farm in Lincoln, Nebraska where I learned the meaning of a hard day's work. I went to the University of Nebraska and not knowing what to do with my life. I decided to take a year off with a good friend to figure out what we wanted and what we were looking for in life. We decided to get a list of the top ten best books that our favorite professors had ever read and go to a quiet cabin in Idaho to spend one year reading, just trying to find our interests. I found teaching as my calling. I went back to school and received my teaching degree and started teaching in Idaho.
During this time, the war in Vietnam escalated, and I felt I had to do my part. When I first was thinking about volunteering for the war in Vietnam, I was in school watching the recruiter come in and convince kids that the war effort was a noble one. This caught my interest so I asked him about it. He said, "You are a teacher, you are 25 years old." I asked him to just tell me about enlisting and he then said, "When you go in the Army, you go in for two years, and those glasses seem pretty thick to me. So at 25 with a college education, you're going to end up at a desk somewhere." I then followed up by asking about the Navy. The recruiter said, "That's four years and your glasses are still thick."
The next time we next spoke, he said he found some information on a program conduted by the Navy [called] the Seabees, a group that went to Vietnam and did construction type jobs like building bunkers and air strips. I couldn't square having people getting drafted into that war, and having their lives influenced in some way, or even lost, and me sitting there with an exemption, so I volunteered for the service. I was an E5, equipment operator for two years. I was doing what I thought was right for me. I knew that when I was 50 years old, I didn't want to be standing next to another 50 year who had gotten drafted into the war and had his life changed somehow by it, and me, with my college education and all of the breaks I had in my life. I had good parents and a loving home. I couldn't just go merrily along without somehow paying my dues. So I volunteered.
Earlier when I was in my cabin in Idaho, I kept a journal about Vietnam. I remember the day Johnson said we were going to retaliate against the North Vietnamese with a bombing. I remember that night I wrote in my journal that I hope that the US thinks about this really carefully before getting into a land war in Asia. I compared it to building sandcastles on the beach. As long as you are there to tend to that sandcastle you can keep it pretty shaped up. As soon as you walk away, that water is right back at it. The point I was trying to make in my journal, I wasn't doing it very well, was that I could see how we could win a land war in Asia, but the hard part was keeping it won.
I went to Vietnam in April of 1967; the War been going on for four years, and at that point, it was becoming clearer and clearer that winning a terrain war was going to be a big time task. About one month before we left, I recall writing in my journal that about the only way to win over there, and this may not be right, was to kill everybody. I had seen civilian rice growers, and I had also seen North Vietnamese soldiers, and the main problem was that they looked exactly alike. I didn't know if this was true or not, but the only thing I could come to a definite conclusion on is that the situation was very sad.
When I came homefrom Vietnam I was real discouraged about guys losing their lives over there and about what we were doing there. The day I got back from Vietnam there was a protest against the war at the gates of Davisville. Being fresh out of Vietnam I found this quite upsetting, because what was being shouted was directly at us. I took issue with this quite a bit and I still do today. Even though I didn't even see any fighting, those boys who did fight only did what their country had asked them to do. As far as I was concerned, if there was blame to be put on anybody, it was the country's decision makers, all the way up through JFK.
I know from the reading I am doing that Johnson knew privately that it was not going at all well in Vietnam. By 1967 there were over 500,000 soldiers over there. It wasn't going to work because the United States decision makers hadn't done their homework on the enemy. They did their homework on domestic politics; they did their homework on personal careers; they did their homework on maintaining positions for themselves. They did not do their homework on the individuals who were in charge of the other side, and they did not do their homework on the force of nationalism in that war.
The Tet Offensive blew the cover. I mean, it had ramifications for everybody. It blew the lid off what the American people had been told for years about what we were accomplishing in Vietnam, 1968 was a turning point in a lot of ways. After the Tet Offensive there was the realization of what Americans were really fighting for. Once people started to see what was really going on, the antiwar protesters started coming on stronger than they ever. When Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election, his decision was like a victory, a huge victory for antiwar people. Many other people saw it as a good, but shocking, thing. I haven't heard a historian say this, but in effect, the antiwar people and the rest of the nation's people were sick of watching our nation go down so [that] one man could live in the White House for four more years. His announcement really chummed the water for antiwar protesters and gave the whole group a lot of energy.
Although I was in a way not agreeing with the war, I could not protest and become a Vietnam Veteran Against the War. I had a happy home and a degree, and most guys who got tangled up in the war were not college kids. A lot of those kids were kids who believed in their President, and believed in their government. Their fathers had served in World War II, and their fathers believed in stopping communism. They believed that if the government said that this was a war worth fighting then, by god, they were going to fight it. So I did not become a war protester. I did not hit the streets. I could not do that.
A lot of stuff happened in 1968. It was a whirlwind year. The Chicago Convention of 1968 is a prime example of the way people thought at both extremes. Inside the political convention, major decisions were being made about government leadership, and right outside there was anarchy [and] riots by antiwar protesters. If I had to be there at the Chicago Convention in 1968, I would definitely have chosen to be a member of the silent majority; I am a product of my youth. In the house I grew up in there wasn't a lot of screaming and shouting, and anyway you cut it, that was a pretty big decision to take [to] the streets. That was not the style I was raised with; it just wasn't there.
Lepers is a pretty strong word, but even people who didn't point fingers at Vietnam vets didn't acknowledge the [vets'] miserable situation. The mystery of the war has a lot to do with the way the tours [in Vietnam] were conducted. In order to keep the profile as low as it could, the Kennedy/Johnson Administration didn't have units go in at one time, and come out at one time. [Instead] they were rotating [tours]. If 18 divisions were to disembark the shores of Long Beach that would be noticeable, but if a 150 guys leave on a plane, that is not noticeable. There were individuals who got out of that war who yesterday were packing around an M-16 and [who had] blood all over their shirts, and then they'd be home the next day. It was incredible.
When my Vietnam time was over, I decided to go back to teaching. As I finally found my way out of Kingston, I saw a sign that said Peacedale and Wakefield. I found myself driving through a beautiful part of town. I saw two old men sitting on a bench in the middle of the day relaxing. I decided, well this is kind of a neat little town here. I made my way down to South Kingstown High School and applied for a job. I really had only planned to stay there for a year and then go back to Idaho. I ended up teaching in for seven years. While I was there it was during one of the most interesting times of my life. There was big stuff going on, the war was still going in Vietnam, and I was signing letters of exemption for students who were eligible. The most important thing about my time at South Kingstown was the lively discussions and how aware the kids were to their environment. It was a great time to teach.