|The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968
Will Thomas: Where and when were you born, and where did you grow up?
Glen Rolofson: Well, I was born on a farm in Lincoln, Nebraska in July of 1941. So that was a family farm since the turn of the century and still is. And so, I lived on that farm until I, until I left home after college.
WT: What year did you graduate from high school?
WT: Could you briefly describe your family and your neighborhood, like ethnicity, religion, parents' occupations, pretty much just farmers?
GR: Yeah, I'll try to be brief about that. My mother's family and my father's family were the two families in this small community that we lived outside of. That two families that were the energy of that community. And so I grew up, even though I grew up on a farm, I grew up in, in two families that were very community oriented and church oriented. So, so it was, it was a interesting childhood for the 1940's and 1950's, not only because of the farm aspect but also the community involvement.
WT: Alright, well did your mother work outside the home or just like running the farm?
GR: Well, in kind of the same it is today. In those days, in order to make ends meet, most people that worked on farms, also worked in town. And so that's what my mom and dad did. My dad was rural mail carrier and my mom worked in a grocery store, and they both worked hard on the farm and uh, that's how that went.
WT: Now do you have any brothers or sisters?
GR: Yeah, three sisters and a brother, one younger sister and the other was older. And we all lived at home and went to the University of Nebraska and we all graduated from the University of Nebraska. And that was my parents' dream, which was to see all of their kids graduate from college. And so we did that.
WT: Being from a fairly normal size family, how were the household chores and duties in your family distributed, like, did that change over time, when everybody got older, did they, like?
GR: Well, on a family farm like that the chores are endless. So, every night after grade school and high school and college my brother and I and dad did about three or four hours worth of chores, seven nights a week. And so that's one of the reasons I am not a farmer. It's just a huge amount of work. And so it, usually went the women did the inside work and the men did the outside work, and lots of times during the harvest season while the women were milking cows while the men out in the fields and it was a, whatever needed to be done, whoever is around to do it. That's who did the job.
WT: Do you think, like, living on a farm your whole younger life, like, does that affect you now, like, your work ethic?
GR: Yeah, it does. It affects my child raising, for example. Even though we don't live on a farm here, I make sure that all the kids have chores because I think that kids who grow up doing grunt work, realize that, that there's a lot about life that just needs to get done, whether it's fun or whether it's interesting or whether it's colorful. It's just work needs to get done and I think wherever that lesson is learned it needs to be learned.
WT: Alright, well being from Nebraska and everything, were you aware of discrimination against people in your, well there probably wasn't much discrimination in your neighborhood, but were you aware of what was going on with the Civil Rights Movement, but that sorta didn't happen until you were older?
GR: The Civil Rights Movement , when I was about eight or nine years old, President Truman integrated the Armed Forces, and that would have been about, I think that was about 1948 or 1949. And I remember hearing about that on the radio and I, that was really the first time it occurred to me that there was something larger in our society than I was aware of.
At the grade school that I went to had about two or three black students and actually my best friend was an American Indian. And I remember seeing that kid wince whenever somebody cracked a joke about Indians. And I could figure out why anybody would joke about Frankie Phillips because he was, he was one of the smartest kids in class, one of the most athletic. He had, I still have a book up there on my shelf that has his handwriting in it. And for a fourth grader, he had just unbelievable penmanship. He was just an amazing kid.
When kids made jokes about him being an Indian I could never figure out why anybody would even think about doing that. So, as the years rolled on it became pretty clear and obvious that, that kind of thing was going on in other places other than Lincoln, Nebraska.
WT: Well, I guess go on to your college years so. You attended college at the University of Nebraska. Did your education shape you as a person, like, after college? You graduated when?
GR: Yeah I graduated in 1965. I did uh, I did something during something during my college years that was a little unusual. A lot of kids go to school and don't have a real strong idea of what they want to do. I was one of those kids.
I had a really good friend who in the same frame of mind. He didn't know what he wanted to major in either. So, after our sophomore year we, we decided to drop out of school and go live in a log cabin up in Northern Idaho for a year. And we went around to our favorite professors at the University of Nebraska and we asked them to write down a list of their ten favorite books of their entire lives. Whether it had anything to do with their course work or didn't make any difference. Just write top ten books of their lives. So we gathered those lists up and we went to the Nebraska book store and into the used book section, and we bought those books and we compiled a library of about two hundred fifty books and we packed that in trunk of a `52 Chevy and took off for Idaho.
And took off for Idaho and uh, that was a probably the single most influential year in my life, because the, the purpose of doing that was to read whatever interested us. And the assumption was that, if we found something that interested us, than we would read more about those things. And things that didn't interest us we would forget about that. And the theory was, that coming out the other end of that year was that we would know what we were interested in, and it worked.
WT: So, what did you find?
GR: I wanted to become a teacher, yeah. So I went back to the University if Nebraska and went through the School of Education and, uh, became a history teacher.
WT: Do you remember which professor it was that gave you his top ten list that, which book was it?
GR: Well, a number of them. A lot of the books I still have. There were, was really a wide array of books of philosophy and sociology, and also lots of literature of course, and history. I had spent two years in science, I knew that I was not interested in, in science. So I didn't seek out biology professors but uh, oh, a lot of the classics like Melville, Hawthorne, and Emerson, and Thoreau and a lot of those were in the library. But other things, Albert Schwietzer, I think, probably was a one of the most enjoyable men I ever met through reading.
WT: Growing up, like, did you read a lot as a kid?
GR: No, didn't have time.
WT: Oh, you were just doing farm work and stuff.
GR: I read two, from, except for the required reading through high school and college, I read two books up until that year in the woods. It was awful, but I didn't have time. We were milking cows and slopping hogs.
WT: Could you briefly describe any extra-curricular activities you did during college, like any sororities, did you take part in any?
GR: No, I was, I was in a uh, oh I don't know, I was in kind of a cranky mood in college. And I had zero interest in fraternities and campus life and, I was more interested in, having discussions with close friends and reading.
WT: Who were your close friends? That one kid, that you described, that you were hanging out with when you were a kid, did you hang with, like, was he a friend all through out your life?
GR: He was a friend from junior high. The way I met him was a, my dad and I loaded up a pet lamb into the back of a `46 Ford and because it needed to be sheered, and so we took it to a friend of my dad's to have that sheep sheared. And this kid sheared it. And he cut it a number of times. And we got that sheep back; it was just red with blood. I mean it wasn't cut badly but it was nicked a lot, and so that's how I met that kid and we became lifelong friends.
WT: Interesting, what did you, what were you, like, was he a neighbor?
GR: He was a farm kid. He lived about ten miles away on another farm. So, we were farm kids, and the reason that we figured that we live on our own, basically, off the land in the, in that log cabin was because we hunted a lot and we grew up with not getting everything that we wanted. So we figured we could make a go of it on our own.
WT: Is he the kid that you went to Idaho with?
GR: Yeah, yeah, and in fact, he and I volunteered for Vietnam and we were in Vietnam together.
WT: Yeah I was just going to ask you if you went to Vietnam with him?
GR: Yeah, sure did. It was coincidence but we got assigned to the same outfit, but we did.
WT: So you guys both with the Sea Bees then?
WT: We will get to that in a minute. Now when you were a kid did you have any influential favorite musical groups, movies, books, and you were talking about your books, but like TV, like TV was a big thing?
GR: Well, TV wasn't big in our house because we didn't have one. When we got an inside bathroom and running water, we figured we figured that uh, we were part of the middle class.
The music group that I grew up with was my brother and sister. My older brother and sister played steel guitars and uh, my sister still does that she, I mean, nobody knew then but she was a musical genius. So she was teaching guitar, piano, and accordion when she was eleven years old, and uh, it just so happened that we grew up with a real musical prodigy in our home and uh, and so, our entertainment was to have my brother and sister pull out those guitars and the accordion, and I had two other sisters that sang real well and my mother played the piano. We would have, on Sundays we would have a room full of relatives and friends come out to listen to the music and that's kind of how our Sunday afternoon went .
WT: Did you ever learn to play the guitar or?
GR: No, I took piano lessons for three years and, and you could play better than I can if you've never seen a piano.
WT: I guess. Back to college. After you found out that you wanted to be a teacher, like, I don't know, what instructor, like, what teacher, I don't know, was most influential once you started your classes to be a teacher? Like, who helped you out the most?
GR: There was a American history professor at the University of Nebraska named Robert Manly, and he was an interesting guy. He was an ex-, semi-pro ballplayer out of Chicago. And uh, he played a folk guitar. So at various times through his teaching of American history he would, he would bring in the guitar and play folk songs from those various periods. That was just amazing to me that a guy could make history on the edge of your chair interesting, and he could do that. He did that. And I don't know how many other students, people he had inspired to become teachers but he sure did me. He was a phenomenal teacher.
WT: When you were a kid during your history classes, do you remember was your teacher at all, I mean, when you were a kid were interested in history?
GR: Well my dad was, and my dad read a lot. And so through him, since we didn't have television. Sunday afternoon dinner would last three or four hours and usually somebody was out for dinner whether it was the preacher or some uncle or something. And, so I grew up with a house of storytellers and every story that my dad ever told went back to the beginning. I mean not as far back as Jesus, but it went back, I'll tell you. And so, and so my dad's stories were vignettes of history, and it just kind of became ingrained in me that stories go way back. And in order to appreciate them, you kind of have to some background. And I think, I think just kind of developed an appreciation for history through story telling, probably.
WT: Being from Nebraska, I don't know, how involved were you in the Cold War. I mean, not having a TV, did you know about the Cold War and?
GR: Well, I remember, whenever the air raid siren blew every Monday afternoon on top of the school while that reminded me that somebody was serious about it. And uh, there was talk about bomb shelters, you know private bomb shelters in homes and in neighborhoods. And uh, when I was like ten or eleven years old why Joseph McCarthy out of Wisconsin. You ever heard of him?
WT: Yeah, the guy who accused all those people of communism.
GR: That's right. Well, McCarthy really got revved up. And so, on the radio on every news broadcast for it seemed like years and actually I think it was years, two or three years at least, McCarthy and related stories had everybody believing, or had a lot of people believing that there was real danger of wide spread subversity of activity in the government and then schools and universities, and so forth. And it's taken, some of what he said turned out to be true, most of what he said turned out to be false. But it was a huge story for years. And, as a matter of fact the subject of this interview is 1968? That experience the country had with McCarthyism, 1968 has roots in that. It was a real turning point in this country's social and political history.
WT: Hearing a lot about Joseph McCarthy, him being in the news a lot were you, like, agreeing with him or did you think he was just going on feelings? Did you think he was telling the truth?
GR: Well, I was pretty young then I was ten, eleven, twelve years old and so I was still under the assumption that if you heard something on the news it was probably true, and which is the case for most people. It took a long time for people to catch on that McCarthy was waving around a piece of paper that said he had a list with names, the assumption was he actually had a list of names. And journalism and the art of criticism has come a long way since McCarthy. I don't know if it 's fair to say that critical has it roots in the flailing of McCarthyism. but some of them would of them would be rooted there I'll bet. That was a big deal and when [General Douglas] MacArthur came home from Korea and was fired by President before and he stood before Congress, it was hard to figure out what to figure it seemed like there was a real threat from coming from lots of different directions from those times.
WT: Let's get going. It's 1960 now and John F. Kennedy was elected President, did you feel this was an important turning point? How did you respond to his assassination?
GR: Well, John Kennedy was a, his public life had an amazing influence on lots and lots of young people, including me. I joined the Peace Corps because of John Kennedy. When he started, now, you know, lots of years later when you have access to information that you didn't have access to at that time and now it's possible for me to fill in some blanks and read between the lines. Well it wasn't possible then. I took Kennedy at face value, and, I mean, I wasn't the only one. When he said that he wanted to generate a service called the Peace Corps to help people upgrade their lives around the world, man oh man, that was, that sounded like a great idea. So when I graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1965 I joined the Peace Corps.
WT: You say finding out later did you feel you were deceived by John F. Kennedy in admission into Peace Corps?
GR: Well not deceived, I won't say that. But my Peace Corps experience kind of resulted in my stepping back a little bit from my initial enthusiasm. I had a friend graduate from college a year before me and he joined the Peace Corps. And he got assigned to raise chickens in India. And the theory was to get some protein in the Indian diet through cheap poultry. And ah, he wrote a letter back, lots of letters back saying it wasn't working because the Indian government was so corrupt that whatever funds were appropriated for the chicken projects were being siphoned off through layers of bureaucracy before they ever got to the Peace Corps project. And the other problem was that the Hindus didn't eat chicken.
So a year later, when I graduated from the University of Nebraska, I applied to the Peace Corps. And of all Peace Corps projects that were available all over the world, I got assigned to raise chickens in India. So when I went to training at St. Johns College, in Annapolis, Maryland, I said listen, "I've got a friend over there and he says that isn't working out so what I want to do is transfer. I want to go anyplace else, any other project." And they said I couldn't . So I wasn't going to waste two years trying to raise chickens in India, so I left the Peace Corps.
WT: What year did you leave the Peace Corps?
WT: 1965. Did that lead up to your, what year did you join the Sea Bees?
GR: Well, I taught high school in a small town in Idaho, near, very close to where we stayed in that cabin. I taught there for a year, so I had an exemption from the service. At that point in time the draft was really picking up, and if you didn't have an exemption and you didn't have some pull on a draft board, chances were pretty good that you were going to get drafted. So lots of people, especially college students, were scrambling for exemption status of some kind: graduate school, the priesthood, anything to stay out of that draft. I had an exemption as a teacher. This was the school year 1965-1966 and by spring of `66, I couldn't, in my own conscience, I couldn't square having people get drafted into that war and have their lives influenced in some way or even lost, and me sitting there with an exemption, so I volunteered for the service.
WT: Did you agree, I take it you, was this personal or did you strongly disagree with the people struggling for exemption, like?
GR: No. I wasn't painting that picture with a very broad brush at that time. I was doing what I thought was right for me. And I knew that when I was fifty years old, I didn't want to be standing by another fifty year old that got drafted into that 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, good parents and a loving home and everything, and go merrily along without somehow paying my dues. So I volunteered. I was older then, I was twenty-five, I think. Yeah, I was twenty-five.
WT: Twenty five when you decided to?
GR: Yeah, when I volunteered.
WT: It was true that they were mainly trying to, like draft younger people like eighteen year olds?
GR: Yeah that's right. Yeah, so, I talked to, I was teaching high school up there in Idaho, and there was a Navy recruiter that used to come into the faculty room during breaks. So, I started talking with him and, in private, I told him that I was thinking about enlisting, and he said, "What do you want to do that for? You're a teacher, you're twenty-five years old." And I said, "Just tell me about enlisting." He said, "Well, when you go in the Army you go in for four year, two years. And those look like pretty thick glasses to me. So, at twenty-five, with a college education you're going to end up at a desk somewhere." I said, "What about the Navy?" He said, "That's four years and your glasses are still thick." So that was that conversation.
A couple weeks later he was in and he said, "You know, the Navy has a program that, if you want to learn about it you can." I said, "What's that?" He said, "The Navy Sea Bees." He said, "The military is just starting a huge construction build up in Vietnam. They're getting serious about bases and airstrips and they need construction skills." He said, "The Navy is offering advanced rates to people who have construction skills." And he said, "Do you have any construction skills?" And I said, "What kind of skills do you need?" He said, "Well, there's an organization called the Navy See Bees. Have you ever heard of them? And I said, "No," He said, "It's a self contained construction company, basically. They have plumbers, electricians and carpenters, equipment operators, mechanics, cooks, divers. They have everything to build anything." I said, "Let me think about that."
The next time I saw him I said, "I'm an equipment operator. I'm a heavy equipment operator." He said, "Well, if your an equipment operator and if your pretty good at it, with a college education you could probably get a pretty good advanced rate." So that's what happened. I went in as an E5. That's an enlisted 5. There are nine ratings for enlisted guys and nine ratings for officers, like an admiral is an E9. Well, they were handing out admirals. I went in as an E5 heavy equipment operator in the Navy See Bees for two years.
WT: Do you want to describe the most, like, the high points of being in Vietnam and low points?
GR: Well, so, I went to Vietnam in 1967, April of 1967. And back in 1964, I was listening to the radio when President Johnson, in August of `64, when President Johnson said some North Vietnamese torpedo boats had attacked an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. He said, because of that we were going to retaliate and bomb North Vietnam.
And I kept a journal during those years. I started keeping a journal when I went to that cabin in Idaho and I maintained that journal for a long time. I remember that night I wrote in my journal, something to the effect that I hope the United States thinks about this real carefully, about getting involved in a land war in Asia.
I compared it to building sand castles on the beach. As long as you're there to tend to that sand castle, you can keep it pretty shaped up. As soon as you walk away, that water's right back at it. The point I was trying to make in my journal, I wasn't doing it very well, but the point I was trying to make, that a land war in Asia, I couldn't figure out how in the world the United States could. I thought they could win a land war in Asia, but I couldn't figure out how they could keep it won. I didn't think they could. So that was in 1964.
Well, by 1967 the Vietnam War had been going on for a number of years, and it was becoming clearer and clearer that winning a war in that terrain was going to be a real task, a big time task. And I remember writing in my journal just about a month before we left, and by that time I was kind of depressed about the whole situation. But, I remember writing in my journal that, and this may not be right, but I said I think the only way to win this war is to kill everybody because by that time I had seen lots of civilians trying to grow rice and I had seen North Vietnamese and North Vietcong prisoners and you couldn't tell them apart. There was no way you could tell them apart.
So when I wrote in my journal that the only sure way to win this war was to kill everybody, I thought, I wonder if that's true. It was sad. I didn't know if it was true or not but I knew it was sad. So I came out of Vietnam real discouraged about guys losing their lives over there and about what we were doing there.
WT: This was after you came back?
GR: No, while I was over there but especially when I came back. So the topic of this project is 1968, and I just happened to be, I just happened to live through 1967 in Vietnam because it was, 1967 was, I think, a watershed year in that war because the degree of effort was incredible. By that time there were over five hundred thousand American troops over there. A huge effort. And the amount of money and the amount of equipment going into that war and the tonnage of bombs being dropped in that war was just incredible by that time.
And, the American people were being told not only was it worth while but that it was working. All through those years and all through 1967 and now I know from the reading that I'm doing that privately, McNamara, Johnson and almost all of them knew it wasn't working. They knew it wasn't working, but they weren't saying that. They were still funneling guys into that meat grinder.
So we left Vietnam, I think, October, November of 1967. In January 1968 during the Tet Offensive, everything that we built over there had been destroyed. Some of my friends went over there on a second tour and they were in the middle of that . The Tet Offensive blew the cover. I mean it did, it had ramifications for everybody. It blew the lid off of what the American people had been told for years about what we were accomplishing in Vietnam. And so 1968 was a turning point in lots of ways. That's one of the major reasons why it became a turning point was the Tet Offensive.
WT: When you were in Vietnam, when you were over there, did you realize it wasn't working?
GR: Yes. You could tell. It was obvious that in order to win that war, well I really don't know of anyway that war could have been won except to kill everybody. I mean, that's a horrible thing to say but anything short of that wasn't going to work and the reason it wasn't going to work was because the United States' decision makers didn't do 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 position for themselves. They didn't do their homework on the individuals who were in charge of the other side, and the didn't do their homework on the force of nationalism in that war.
WT: During '66 and '67 Lyndon Johnson was President. Is that correct?
WT: I take it the Tet Offensive is one of the main things that got criticism for the War?
GR: Oh, huge.
WT: That led up to his saying he wasn't going up for re-election. What was your reaction to that speech, any?
GR: I was sitting there watching that speech. That was in, I think that was in March of '68, and by that time Gene McCarthy had announced that he was going to run for President. Gene McCarthy was a Democrat and Lyndon Johnson was a Democrat and that was an unusual situation for somebody else in the same political party to go against the president of that party. But, when the Tet Offensive blew the lid completely off the conduct of that war and the progress, lack of progress, the hope, the lack of hope on ever accomplishing any objectives, that broke Johnson. He was done. And so when he announced, when he announced he wasn't going to run for President, it was really a stunning moment because, in effect, the American people were sitting there watching their President walk away from a situation that he had been telling them all along was worthwhile.
WT: A thing that he had built up to that point, I guess.
GR: It was amazing. It was also, do you know what chumming the water means? Where did you move from?
GR: Do you know what chumming means? That means if your chumming for sharks you throw a bunch of bloody old junk in the water and it will attract them. Well, Lyndon Johnson's statement that he wasn't going to run for President again , chummed the waters because all of the antiwar protest and all of the Antiwar Movement energy and the set backs and the progress and the organization and the disorganization of the Antiwar Movement, when Johnson announced that he wasn't going to run for President, it was a victory, a huge victory. In effect, they got the President of the United States to step aside. I haven't heard an historian say that but that's the way I see that. It was a huge impetus for the antiwar forces to put that movement into a high gear because it generated a huge momentum.
WT: This was in 1968, and you had come back from Vietnam?
GR: I was still in the service. I was in the service until July of '68.
WT: Oh so you, I was just gonna ask, like, you weren't, we read the book Born on the Fourth of July. He came back from Vietnam and you became a VVAW, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. When, since you were against the War, no, you weren't against the War, but saw that it wasn't working, were you happy that he wasn't going to run again? Just because you felt it would somehow, did you feel that they should be coming home or did you feel that they should keep fighting?
GR: That's a good question. I wouldn't portray myself as happy about anything at that point in time because it was a horrible situation. There were guys losing their lives. And, when I went over there I was a college educated, I wasn't privileged, but in relation to most of the guys over there, I was very privileged. I had a happy home and a degree. And most of the guys that got tangled up in that war were not college kids.
There were kids, a lot of those kids were kids who believed in their President, believed in their government, their fathers had served in World War II, they believed in stopping communism, they believed that if the government said this was a war to fight, by God, they were going to fight it. So, I wasn't comfortable, I did not become a war protester, for example. I didn't hit the streets. I just couldn't. I couldn't do that and think of those guys. I felt that way, but I couldn't hit the streets.
WT: So, can I get some more on 1968?
GR: Yeah. 1968 was a whirlwind year. Tet Offensive blew the lid off the War, Johnson backed off. McCarthy was running for President.
WT: Gene McCarthy, did he have any relationship to?
GR: No, no relationship to Joseph McCarthy. No, Gene McCarthy was out of Wisconsin I think and he was really a good man, as far I know. He had a very academic approach, a very soft spoken approach. Really attractive. Not a firebrand at all. And, just the way politics, especially at the national level, if you don't have any firebrand in you, it's tough to generate excitement for you.
So Robert Kennedy stood there watching Gene McCarthy gain momentum, and I don't know what he said or what he thought, but he did was to run, to state his candidacy. Well he was a firebrand and he did have money and he did have a huge legacy. He had a bottomless well of political wealth to draw from, and so his candidacy picked up steam by the hour because he was known and he was wanted by lots of people. So when he was, then, Martin Luther King, that's March, April, Martin Luther King was shot.
WT: Um, he was, when you came back from Vietnam did you openly see the Civil Rights Movement , like, picking up steam? Like, Martin Luther King before he got shot, all the protests, I don't know, the Million Man March?
GR: That was in 1963. That was before. What happened in 1968 was the Civil Rights Movement and the Antiwar Movement, in effect, joined, and that's where the power came from. It was a confluence of social upheaval based on the Civil Rights and based upon the Antiwar Movement , and when all those people and all that energy combined, I'm telling you there were some waves growing in front of that group.
And so when King was shot dead and a couple of months later Kennedy was shot dead, it just seemed like that gloves were coming off, as far as the intensity of people being upset, upset about a lot of stuff. You know, the two big issues were the War and Civil Rights, but there were all kinds of other stuff tangled up in there in those, students trying to loosen up university rules and regulations, you know, in various ways.
There was in a vast way to all kinds of activity that was coming together, and it came together in the Democratic National Political Convention in Chicago. And some people say that it was a result of that convention and what we saw on the streets and on television and the streets of Chicago, that there was a major turning point toward conservatism. Because of what people saw on their television screens throughout that year, but especially at that convention, it looked like things were becoming unraveled.
WT: Did you see a sort of bit, like, irony, like them showing the convention going on inside, people cheering for the candidates being, Nixon, was it? No, no.
GR: No, this was.
WT: That was much later? Them cheering for, like, political offices and cheering, like, giving the [the War a moment - ? ed.]. Like, people inside were mainly people who, like, were for the War, then TV cameras, videotape, showing that on the TV, and then going from that to the outside world where the antiwar people were, like the riots and the demonstrators, is you see the sorta, bit of irony that just shows them coming together, just like?
GR: It was huge irony that a political convention was taking place, and through all the years political conventions were suppose to be placed where major decisions where being made about government leadership. And right outside, right outside the doors basically anarchy was taking place. So when people saw, people saw that sitting in their living rooms watching that take place, the Democrats were dead as far as that election was concerned. And as it turned out they really weren't dead, because it was a close election. But the momentum and American politics swung that week toward not only Republicans, but towards conservative Republicans toward conservatism and that's lasted basically since.
WT: Wow. This is kind of a, I don't know if you'll be able to decide, but if you were in Chicago in 1968 and at the convention, would you want to be inside or would you be on the outside? Or would you be with the silent majority?
GR: [Laughs]. I would have been with the silent majority. I am a product of my youth. The house that I grew up in, there wasn't a lot of screaming and shouting. And to, and anyway you cut it that a pretty big decision to take to the streets and that wasn't the style that I was raised with. It just wasn't there.
WT: What else probably had to do with, you couldn't, like what you said earlier, I mean, about not being able to protest and think of all the people you knew from Vietnam, I guess it has to do with that.
GR: Yeah. Actually, the first, the day we got back from Vietnam, there was a protest at the gates of Davisville. Davisville is the Sea Bee base here in North Kingstown. The day we got back there was a war protest taking place right there at the gates. And I was fresh out of Vietnam and that was upsetting. And the reason it was upsetting is because what was being shouted was directly at us, and, at us guys.
And I took issue with that and I still do, big time. Because it wasn't us that made the decisions that were made. It wasn't us. And I think, I didn't see, as far horrible stuff in Vietnam, I didn't see anything compared to what a lot of guys saw over there. And I didn't get involved in anything compared to what a lot of guys got involved as far as the gore of war.
And some the, whatever at that time and since, whatever since then, clear up until now, whatever is directed to the Vietnam veterans themselves, I really take issue at. If they want to, the guys that were making the decisions, all the way from World War II. Truman and John Foster Dellis all those guys that were making these decisions all the way through John Kennedy and Dean Rusk and George Bundy and William Bundy, those are the guys that desire the wrath there is, to be given, but it isn't the Vietnam vets.
WT: Yeah, I don't know, I read, studying up on 1968, I read all that, I didn't exactly see how, like, I guess a lot of antiwar protesters directed it towards the Vietnam vets.
GR: Sure did.
WT: I mean, considering there was a draft, I can't see how they could point any blame. I mean, just `cause they were able to get away from it and avoid going, I mean I can't see how they could put any blame on anyone that went there.
GR: Well, they did. And, and that was such a, that war was and continues to be such a miserable experience, miserable experience for this country that the Vietnam, the men and women who served in Vietnam, lepers is a pretty strong word, you know, as in leprosy? Leprosy is a pretty strong word to bring into this conversation or this subject, but even people who didn't point there fingers at Vietnam veterans, I think still participated in the lack of differentiation, the lack of distinction between the veterans and the, the misery of that war.
And, so and also the way the War, the way the tours of duty were conducted, in World War II if you got drafted you were in there and if you get two or three or five years later that's when you got home, as far as getting out, you were in for the duration, the most part.
The Kennedy administration and the Johnson administration , in order to keep the profile of what was going on as low as they could, they didn't have, for the most part, they didn't have units go in at one time and units come out at one time. They were rotating individuals so it was less noticeable what was going on. If eighteen divisions disembarked from the ports of Long Beach that would be noticeable, but a planeload of one hundred and fifty guys leave, that's not noticeable. There were individuals that would get out of that war today, and you know, you've probably read about this, they'd be in the War yesterday packing around an M-16 with blood on his sleeves and then they'd be home today. It was incredible.
WT: We heard a speaker the other day who told us that. I don't know if you're familiar with Bill Babcock. He came in, he had been leading a group. He was telling the class how, like, one day you'd have a whole bunch of people, you'd have a crew, and everyone would be working well together, and then the helicopter would come in and fly three guys out, bring three new people. You'd have to totally retrain. It was never just groups, it was always, like, take these guys, they're done, their year's over, bring in three new ones. I thought that that was not such a good idea, I guess `cause you lose, you never gain experience, you're always losing it.
GR: Well, if you're a politician and you want to keep the noise level down, that's one of the things you would do. You gotta kinda look at it that way.
WT: Yeah. During that presidential election coming up with Gene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy were you on McCarthy's side? Like, his side, like, he sounded like he sort of, I don't know, almost really wanted to end the War, kind of.
GR: That, 1968 for me, politically, was a disturbing year in a lot of ways. One of them was that Richard Nixon was running for President, and I hated him.
WT: Yeah. I guess a lot of people.
GR: Well, a lot of people loved him, a lot of people hated him, and a lot of people would've just assumed that
WT: Yeah, got to flip this tape over.
GR: Okay, is it going again?
WT: Yeah. It's fine.
GR: And the word hate, I suppose, maybe I could find another word, instead of using that. I'll say I distrusted as much as any politician I could ever distrust because I saw the he operated. When he ran for Congress in California, he was running against a lady and he was trying to figure out how to get elected. So, that was 1946, right after the end of World War II, and he figured, by golly, this communism deal that is a pretty good ticket. I think, you know, if I just rant and rave about communism, what I'll do is just bank on the theory that most people that vote don't take the time to learn anything, so I think I'll just scare `em. I'll call the lady, I'll imply that the lady, that the lady I'm running against is very soft on communism and that is about all I'll say for the whole election.
And it worked because his meal ticket all the way through life was communism because it worked, because most people, if they say, you know, most people don't take time to inspect what you're saying, to get a little, to do their homework. So he was real successful with that, until finally enough reporters started peeling back the second and third layer and exposed him for what he was, and then he quit winning elections.
WT: Now when he was coming up through his elections, being on TV and everything, you were seeing him on the news, did you see him, did you already know that you didn't like him?
GR: Oh, I knew I didn't like him.
WT: How is that different from when you were a kid? You were talking about hearing about McCarthy, now, growing up, did you learn how to see through the political, just, like, somebody putting on a show?
GR: My dad was real good at seeing through things.
WT: Did your dad see through McCarthy?
GR: Yes. Dad, the earliest seeing through stuff story that I can remember was when, in 1936, when Dad was employed by the WPA, the Works Progress Administration that was during the depression, it was on of those programs that Franklin Roosevelt started to get money into people's hands because there weren't any jobs. There were no jobs. And he knew that Roosevelt knew that if he didn't do some out of the ordinary things to get people to work and get some money flowing, that the radicals that were getting some steam during those times, Huey Long out of Louisiana and Father Coflin out of wherever he was, Detroit or somewhere. And, there were, was some Nazi guy, I don't know where he was, can't remember where he was. But there were some radicals gaining becoming more attractive because it looked like the American system was breaking down.
And so people really were looking for alternatives they were looking for different directions.
So Roosevelt was not only shrewd enough to understand that, but to actually do something about it. So, he got elected in `32, and needed to get reelected in `36. So Dad was working for the Works Products, WPA, building little dams to stop erosion. And on Election Day, the word came down to the workers there that they had the day off to go vote with pay. And Dad said, "Who do you suppose we were suppose to vote for? A day off with pay!" [Laughs].
So that was 1936 and I grew up with a father who wasn't bashful about trying figuring out what people's motives were. And so Nixon said that he had a secret plan to end the War. He had a secret What's your plan? Oh, I can't tell you cause it is secret.
GR: And people believed him again. It was amazing. So, the sad thing was.
WT: Oh, on television, he was a good speaker, I guess?
GR: He was a lousy speaker and, ah man, what a piece of work he was. But anyway, there was so many people that could not stand the idea of another Democrat being President because Nixon had a secret plan to end the War and he was saying all the right things: you know, we had to bring the country together and we had to solve the Civil Rights deal, he said all the right things, and he got elected.
WT: Who was it Nixon was running against that year?
GR: Humphrey, Hubert Humphrey.
WT: Do you remember , what were his political views? Did you agree with him a lot more than you did with Nixon? When you voted that year, did you vote for Humphrey or I take it you didn't vote for Nixon?
GR: I was hoping you wouldn't ask that question, I voted for Nixon. I about threw up while I was doing it, but I did it. The reason I did it was, I don't know if it was right or wrong, I thought that if Humphrey got elected that we really would have, we would really have problems because I thought that all that steam that was generated in this society by the end of 1968, if Humphrey got elected, I saw no way that he was going to turn that. He was Vice-President during the Vietnam War.
Now, as I've learned later, he objected to the War very early on and Johnson cut him from the meetings. For the last three or four years, Humphrey never went to a meeting where decisions were made because Johnson wouldn't let him come because he was critical of the War. I mean, I liked Humphrey a lot. I mean, I liked him a lot. I really liked him. But I didn't see where, I didn't think he had a ghost of chance of defusing what was taking place. And so, when Nixon said, it was, you know, now it was the worst vote I ever cast as far as my conscious goes.
WT: Now, it's kinda another question, like, if you could do it all over again, would you vote for Humphrey or would you chose to not vote?
GR: I'd vote for Nixon. Choosing to not vote is a chicken way out. You gotta vote. And I wouldn't change that.
WT: Alright, `68, when you got back, on your sheet it says, first half, Sea Bees, Davistown, Rhode Island, the second half of 1968 for you was spent for you in Scarborough Beach, Rhode Island.
GR: Yeah, so I got out of the service in 1968 and I was going to go back to my teaching job in Idaho. And I thought, you know, just for, just out of curiosity I'm going to find my way down to the University of Rhode Island, because at the University of Nebraska they had a list of job openings at the teachers college, they had a list of job openings, so I figured, the University of Rhode Island must have the same thing.
So I drove down to, found Kingston, got lost. Finally, found Kingston. Went to the University of Rhode Island and asked if I could see the teacher's job listings. Because I thought it would be really interesting to teach one year on the East Coast, then go back to Idaho. And so I went to whatever that department was in URI and asked to see the listings, and they said, "Well did you graduate from URI?" And I said, "No." And they said, "Well, you can't see them." [Laughs]. So that made me mad and that was it, I was going back West.
So I was driving out of Kingston and, you haven't been here long enough, but there's a light right where 138 goes onto Rte. 1 or you can turn right and go into Peacedale and Wakefield. So, the light was green and I was gunning for it, then it turned yellow and I thought, nah, I'll run it, but then it turned red, and I thought, oops, so I stopped.
So I was sitting there waiting for the light to turn green so I could go back to Idaho and there was a sign over there that said Peacedale and Wakefield. And I thought, well, I think I'll go see what Peacedale looks like, so I turned right, went into Peacefied, finally got into Wakefield and I drove past Kenyon's department store. And there were two old codgers sitting on a bench in front of the store, right in the middle of the day. And I thought, well this is a kind of an interesting looking town. And that's pretty neat when two old men can sit on a bench in the middle of the day and feel comfortable about it. So, I found the, stopped at the Narragansett Times and asked were the school department was and I interviewed for a job at South Kingstown and got it.
WT: So, you taught at South Kingstown High School?
GR: Yeah. I taught there for seven years.
WT: From, you know what years?
GR: From '68 to '75.
WT: Oh wow. So I take it you taught in the history department?
GR: Yeah, I did.
WT: Um, did you live on Scarborough?
GR: Yeah, at a, down in, ah, you know where that is Scarborough Beach?
WT: Yeah, Scarborough Beach.
GR: That area.
WT: Yeah I was wondering, the way you have it listed here, I was just wondering if it was a base area or something? I guess it just ended up being a place where you worked.
GR: Scarborough? No, that was when I came out of the service. So, I was just living in a rental house down there.
WT: Okay. I just wanted to clear that up. How were your years as a teacher in Rhode Island?
GR: Oh, South Kingstown was a great place to teach in those years. It was a, it was invigorating because of all the things that were going on in the country and in the school. Students were sensitized to a lot of the forces in society, and classes were lively, and they were interested in discussing things, and arguing about things, and researching things. It was a great time to teach, it really was. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there in South Kingstown.
WT: Now, being a history teacher, usually, I know in my classes we usually have to be discussing a topic that is going on, it has to be a current events thing, like something people'll get into. Now, did you, the topics that you discussed in classes, were they usually based around Vietnam, Civil Rights?
GR: No, not really. My job was to, my job was to teach, you know I had to cover a certain amount of history, so we did that. But we also had, and I tried to make time for, and I did. I made time for, you know, discussions of current things because there were, well, in some cases, protests right across the street. And you know, it was a lively time. So I tried to mix up the normal chronological history with, I tried to tie it in to where we were in 1968, `69, `70, `71, and so forth.
WT: So, that's interesting. So, you basically just decided to move here just by a chance that you happened to turn right, instead of going straight at a light?
GR: That was it.
WT: Pretty interesting.
GR: That was it. It was funny, how.
WT: It had that, like, being around that area, just like going to the school and seeing that, had that much influence? Just, like, spur of the moment?
GR: Spur of the moment. I wanted to teach one year on the East Coast. Now, I had heard about the dark East Coast. It was a mystery to me growing up on a farm in Nebraska it was a mystery. Boston, New York, Colonial history it was just an amazing opportunity for me to see some of this back here. I never dreamed I'd stay here more then one year.
WT: Did you ever go back to Idaho?
GR: Yeah, I did. In fact, in 1975 my family and I moved back to the same area and I taught for two more years before I went into business.
WT: What business did you go into?
GR: I was a, food manufacturing.
WT: And, I take it, you brought that back here?
GR: No. I was in food manufacturing for about seven years and then I went into financial services, and that is what I do now.
WT: Well, is there anything else you want to, anymore details, anything you want to say about your years at South Kingstown, 1968, the years leading up to your college?
GR: Well, let's see, not in any particular order. South Kingstown, the reason I stayed at South Kingstown as long as I did is because I found, I don't know what the school is like now, well, I have some idea because I have children at the school. But at that time, South Kingstown, I couldn't conceive of a better place to teach and the reason why was because of the influences in that school. There were lots of different types of kids, lots of social strata, the influence of the University of Rhode Island, and the influence of the old timers here, the swamp Yankees. It just had a cross section of students that made teaching there just a thrill. It really was. In fact, when I went back to Idaho in 1977 and taught for two year. I couldn't stand it because it was so boring.
WT: Yeah, actually, I'm going through the same thing right now, kind of. My old school in Pennsylvania, in the middle of Lancaster, Amish country. My school had probably no ethnic diversity, we had probably, like two, three black people. I move here, and there's a lot more ethnicity to it. Like, it makes it, a lot more interesting now. My old, like, Pennsylvania was, like, the same thing, a hundred kids, you know everybody. Now, you got all levels of society.
GR: Not necessarily easier, but more interesting.
WT: Yeah, it , definitely makes for a more interesting day.
GR: Sure does. So, I'm glad to hear you say that because that's good. As a teacher, it was a great time to be teaching, it was just phenomenal. And, of course, all through those years, from 1968 to 1975, that war was still going on. It's amazing when you think about.
WT: Now your last year was 1975, right? That was the year the War ended and they brought everybody home. Did the War end while you were still teaching , like, I forget what happened during the summer, or?
GR: Let's see. I can't remember exactly.
WT: It was drawing to a close at least. Now, did you, was it major topic that you discussed in class? Did you ever?
GR: Probably. I don't recall that. The, there was a curious thing, a curious thing even among high school students during that time. High school students during `68, `69, `70, `71, `72, `73 all through those years, they really weren't really comfortable, I think, discussing that war.
So, a few minutes ago we were talking about how I think, it's just a matter of fact that guys, men and women who fought in Vietnam, basically have been shunned and very seldom did I have an adult ask me anything about Vietnam, very, very seldom.
WT: Put it on the back burner, I guess.
GR: It was something, well don't know what the explanation was. If you said, "What do you think the explanation was?" I would say something like this: that war was such a miserable, conflicting experience for people, whether they were in it or out of it, that to actually talk to somebody face to face that served there, it was a, it raised questions , it was a problem because how could you say, "Well, that was a lousy war, wasn't it?" to somebody who either suffered personally or lost buddies.
WT: Actually, last year, or, it was probably in seventh grade ,I did an interview with my uncle who was in the War in Vietnam, actually, he was fighting. I asked some pretty personal questions, it ended up, well, he never really liked talking about it. He never really talked about it with anybody, other than like, I don't know, my mom or something. But, I don't know, it got pretty, touchy subject, I guess.
GR: It's a touchy subject and the reason it's touchy is because, at least what part of it boils down to, is young Americans were told to put their bodies in the way of bullets when the guys who were telling them to do that had other priorities.
WT: They were sitting in an office.
GR: You're doggone right, protecting there positions. And so, and so, when you talk to somebody who served, whether it was in 1968 or 1998 it's still uncomfortable because you don't know what to say. You don't know what to say. You don't know how to ask a question because you have no idea what that person feels to have served there, you have no idea how they came out of that. In World War II, at least you could assume that people were served did an important thing, so they probably felt they did an important thing.
WT: So, they were more comfortable with it.
GR: No, maybe, there were individuals who didn't feel that way at all. But, there was a general assumption that that was the case. There wasn't a general assumption about Vietnam. There never was and there never will be. So, it continued to be uncomfortable and vets continued to be, basically shunned.
WT: I'm sure you know a lot of people who fought in Vietnam did you ever talk to them about it?
GR: No, I never joined a group.
WT: They have group that go and talk about it.
GR: Apparently not wanted to do that. It's a touchy subject and it continues to be a touchy subject because what I'm watching now are a bunch of guys who avoided the War by getting into the Reserves, avoided serving by getting into the Reserves. And, so now they are retiring from the Reserves, basically making out like a bandit.
But I've never, I have friends who joined the Reserves in order to avoid the War and are retiring now, making out like a bandit. I don't hold any of that against any of them. It's a decision they made and it was decision I made. That was time when people were making individual decisions about a national military involvement. That was an odd deal.
And so, when a guy like President Clinton tries to have it both ways; he probably had real reservations about the War, real reservations about serving, but when he tries to cover both bases, I object to that. When there are politicians my age that continue to gloss over how they avoided serving, I object to that. If they would say I didn't want to go to that war and so I went to the reserves. I don't object to that. Just tell me what your decision was and why, but don't gloss it over, don't fudge, it's just a, an embarrassment.
WT: Do you find it almost, sort of, like, offensive?
GR: Oh real offensive. When Dan Quail ran for, was trying to run for Vice-President with George Bush and he got out of the draft because of pull in the draft board. And he went all the way around the world in his explanation about how that really wasn't the case. But it was the case. I mean, just say it I'll deal with what ever your answer is, just lay it out the way it was. And if I don't like that I won't vote for you, if that's a minor issue, maybe I will. But when you fudge on that, I think of all those guys that drafted into that, and had no pull and no deferment and it is annoying. I'll tell you.
WT: Alright, well, I don't know, we sorta, pretty much covered everything.
GR: I don't know if we covered everything, but we covered a bunch, didn't we? Well, that's interesting, an interesting project. I'll be curious to know, I'll be curious to hear how this project finally gets edited out and how you finally pull it together.
WT: Yeah. I'm sure you'll probably get a, as far as I know, I guess we, this stuff gets put on the Internet. We got this equipment through Brown, actually. I think we.