The Whole World Was Watching
an oral history of 1968

Kate Dunnigan

In August 1968, as protestors in the streets of Chicago chanted, "The whole world is watching," American troops in Vietnam endured what has been judged the bloodiest year of the war. The astonishing Tet Offensive, when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces overran the South and even threatened to capture the American Embassy in Saigon, is seen by most historians of the war as a turning point in America's Vietnam experience.

"Tet blew the lid off what the American people had been told for years about what we were accomplishing in Vietnam," according to Glen Rolofson, who volunteered for the Navy Seabees and went to Vietnam in 1967. Rolofson is one of several Rhode Islanders who shared their recollections of the Vietnam Era with students from South Kingstown High School. Together they have collaborated on an oral history of those dramatic years in recent American history when the very foundations of our national purpose were re-examined in light of our experience in Vietnam. Although the legacies of the War continue to be revealed it is clear that, at the time, patriots of all stripes were prompted to reaffirm, perhaps redefine their convictions concerning not only America's role in the world, but also their individual responsibility as citizens in shaping policy at home and abroad.

These stories are representative of what it meant to be a part of the Vietnam generation, the Cold War's children. They are testaments to duty, honor, and social conscience. They are also what one historian was labeled sagas of lost innocence. By war's end, the myth of American global stewardship was forever shattered. People of all ages, ethnic, racial and income groups shared in a realization that American intervention in the world was not always benevolent, nor disinterested, and it was most certainly not always welcome.

Although much has been written in the wake of Vietnam about the arrogance of American power, there is little evidence of that from these stories. Most wholeheartedly subscribed to the Domino Theory and believed they were delivering freedom to those threatened by communism. Although many disclaim Eisenhower's doctrine today, few questioned it thirty years ago. Hopkington resident Ed Wood was a Marine officer who, "bought into the whole Domino theory, that is, if we allowed South Vietnam to fall to the Communists, they could sweep through the peninsula of Southeast Asia and go into Japan." Providence Journal columnist, Bob Kerr, who enlisted in the Marines and arrived in Vietnam in 1968, believed that, "it was a civil war that we were coming in on, on the side of democracy, and it was us against them. It was freedom against communism."

Vietnam challenged assumptions upon which U.S. Cold War policy has been based, specifically the tendency to globalize legitimate nationalist struggles, creating out of them contests between the superpowers. Military leaders, career diplomats, and politicians alike adopted Containment as fundamental to U.S. interests. In the climate of Cold War hostilities, their response to Vietnam seemed entirely appropriate. Glen Rolofson, with the benefit of hindsight, states, "Now I know . . . It wasn't going to work 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 positions for themselves. They didn't 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 initial U.S. commitment to South Vietnam's government was made by Eisenhower, but the Democrats inherited the war, which ultimately fractured their party and drove them from the White House. Cold Warriors abounded in both parties, but by Tet, the Democrats had been directing policy in Vietnam for nearly a decade, meeting each new offensive with one consistent response: escalation. When Kennedy assumed office in 1961, there were a little over 3,000 American troops in Vietnam; when Johnson left office in 1969, there were well over half a million troops in Southeast Asia. Rhode Island sent 31,010 to the war; 180 died there, nearly a third of those in 1968 alone.

Local politicians from both parties such as Republican Lincoln Almond, who ran for Congress in 1968, and J. Joseph Garrahy, who served as Rhode Island Democratic Chairman in Chicago, were critical of escalating the war. The '68 presidential election became a single-issue campaign. Eugene McCarthy's "Children Crusade" attracted optimistic college students like Brown University undergraduate Kathryn Troyer, who campaigned for "Clean Gene" in the New Hampshire primary. Robert Kennedy's candidacy sparked hope, too quickly dashed in California that June. RFK's appeal went beyond a rekindled longing for Camelot and the Kennedy magic. In truth, Robert Kennedy's views in 1968 on domestic and foreign policy were dramatically different from those of John Kennedy; history was not repeating itself. The conviction of JFK's anticommunism belonged in 1968 to the Hawks. Robert Kennedy had been pushed to the left by political assassination, race wars at home, and an increasingly indefensible presence n Southeast Asia. The central issue for RFK was the war, the costs of which he believed exacerbated social problems like racism and poverty at home. URI History Professor, Frank Costigliola was studying at Cornell in 1968, and speculates that if Kennedy had lived, the course of history might have been very different. "He had a lot of broad appeal. He appealed to the hardhats, the Black Americans, the Native Americans, even to rich people. He had an excellent social agenda. He talked about quality of life, which no one else talked about." Kennedy's assassination was for some a final despair, separating them from political activism altogether. Daniel Prentiss, a student in college when Kennedy was killed, admits that "The shooting of Bobby Kennedy caused me to drop out of political involvement ... made me feel like I had been robbed of what I was standing up for."

Resistance to the war intensified in official circles as well as in the public at large. Rhode Island Senators Pastore and Pell spoke against escalation as early as 1966. J. Joseph Garrahy "started to question American policy in Vietnam. What were we gaining by all this bombing? We were committing more troops, and people were getting killed. I think a lot of people felt we were in a no win situation. What were we doing there?"

A few, like attorney Seth Gifford who joined the Quakers, questioned the morality of the war. Frank Costigliola, whose father left Italy in the thirties rather than be drafted into the Ethiopian war, became a conscientious objector. His experience, though atypical, perhaps best illustrates how personal resistance to the war was not born of cowardice or apathy, but of individual moral fortitude. Draft resistance was the path chosen by some, like East Providence native Tony Ramos, who returned to Providence from Canada, was arrested by the FBI, and sent to prison for two and a half years: "I decided that I was going to come back to the United States, and I wasn't going to let evil rule the country."

Most men who were called did report, however, and even if they questioned the war, felt a greater obligation to those already serving or to those who had no opportunity to avoid the draft on which the government relied for most of its manpower. Glen Rolofson volunteered because " ... I felt I had to do my part. I couldn't square having people getting drafted into the war ... and me sitting there with an exemption."

The Johnson Administration refused to activate the Reserves, fearing that type of traditional wartime mobilization might influence the Soviets or the Chinese, and alarm the American people. Reserve duty or college exemption kept you out of the war, and thousands of young men exercised those options. Draftees were drawn disproportionately from low-income families and had fewer opportunities for exemption or deferment, even if they attended college part time. Many African Americans and other young men of color found themselves in this predicament.

For many, it was difficult to separate the fate of these draftees from the political and racial issues dividing American society. The armed forces, aware of the high proportion of Black casualties, initiated policies by 1967 to reduce the percentage of black soldiers in the most hazardous combat duty, but it did little to change the perception that the war was being waged primarily by America's poor black young men.

Race relations among the troops reflected growing tensions. Bob Kerr's recollection of the penalty paid by a white Marine who made an inappropriate remark about Martin Luther King, Jr. testifies to the heightened consciousness concerning racism at home and "in country."

Despite Pentagon efforts, draftees continued to be taken from the least advantaged groups in American society. Once inducted, they were at the bottom of the service hierarchy as well. Their status all but guaranteed them a ticket to Vietnam. Defense Department data for 1969 revealed that a draftee was more likely to draw dangerous duty, twice as likely to die in combat.

Enlistment increased one's options slightly in terms of training, type of duty, and location. Cleveland Kurtz remembers, "In Rhode Island, once you got your draft notice you had until your date of induction to enlist. Mine was for the tenth of July; I went and looked to see if I could get the best deal that I could before the tenth, so I joined the Seabees. I thought that United States Seabees didn't go to Vietnam. Within six months of my enlistment, I was in Vietnam and I was one surprised dude." One's feelings about the war itself, whether you were for it or against it, often seemed less important than negotiating the best terms under which you would serve and come home alive.

Death tolls staggered those at home who were bewildered in the face of America's seeming inability to defeat the enemy. After Tet, public outcry against committing additional troops requested by commanders in Vietnam forced the Administration to send only a small portion of the 206,000 originally requested. Most Americans who opposed the war by 1968 did so because they believed that it could not be won. A common criticism, represented in these testimonies, was that the government would not allow the military to do its job, using whatever force was necessary to end the conflict. Generals were being restrained by politicians in Washington, and GIs were paying the ultimate price. Brown University President, E. Gordon Gee, a student at Columbia University in 1968, believes, "The impact on the American psyche was absolutely clear cut, the fact that we were clearly not winning the war. Americans always have the belief that winning is everything."

In Vietnam, conventional military strategies and tactics were less effective. One historian of Vietnam combat refers to the experience as a "dialogue with the other," in which American troops were forced to adapt to another style of warmaking consisting of piecemeal offensives and rapid disengagements which did not conform to Western models of strategy and combat. Objectives were invested with only temporary significance; territory taken was very often quickly abandoned. Even if American troops could win the battle, they never seemed to get closer to winning the war. Theodore Gatchel, a Marine lieutenant who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, believes "we strategically and tactically made a lot of mistakes ... which contributed to our defeat. I think we allowed the enemy to have the initiative and instead of having some kind of coherent strategy that we were following, we just found ourselves constantly reacting to what the enemy was doing."

One difficulty for troops was the absence of a standard measure for combat success. Usually, to "see action" was to encounter random attacks; the huge decisive battle was rare. This was part of the NLF's strategy and it worked to confound troops who wondered what actual objectives were. Theodore Gatchel's recollection is of "... days and days of nothing happening. You're just marching through the jungle and living in the swamps. All of a sudden something explodes. An hour, a day or two of just complete chaos ... And then it all is over and you go back to just hours of largely nothing." Bob Kerr's unit engaged in some frightening combat, but "We would go out on missions sometimes and nothing would happen, and we'd sit and realize what a beautiful place it was. I'd sit up on a mountain at night and look out, and it's a stunning country, and I'd think, why is this happening?" American GIs, who as boys watched John Wayne or Audie Murphy take the strategic hill, capture the city, or even round up enemy troops, had few opportunities to affect a decisive victory which contributed to their sense of a larger plan. Historian Herman Rapaport points out that part of North Vietnam's strategy was to make the war an endless series of plateaus where one was always in the middle, never at the beginning or at the end. The nature of the type of war led to feelings of futility, frustration, and even anger. Bob Kerr remembers "One great night in Dong Hoi, they showed the Green Berets, the John Wayne movie. It's hideous; it's a joke. They tried to glamorize Vietnam and make it this great cause. I think the first beer can hit the screen about twenty minutes into it, and then they just tore it down."

In the absence of critical progress in the war, most who served congratulated themselves on managing to survive despite surprise attacks, booby traps, and the assorted perils of a guerrilla war fought on unfamiliar turf. For officers, the satisfaction came from keeping those in your command alive in an unpredictable combat situation. Army Senior Lieutenant, William Babcock, who found himself replacing a Company Commander who had been captured states, "I was never ashamed of what I did in Vietnam. I just look at it on a more personal level and hope that I was able to keep people under my command from being killed or hurt. I don't look at it in the sense of whether we won or lost the war."

More wounded soldiers survived in Vietnam than did in Korea or World War Two largely due to improved health care and more efficient, better equipped medical facilities. Aero medical evacuation, introduced during the Vietnam conflict, was responsible for a dramatic increase in survival. Pilots and crew took enormous risks to locate and retrieve wounded on the ground; their casualties far exceeded those of other personnel. Narragansett native, Rick Wilson commanded a Medevac helicopter: "I was shot at every time I went out there. I feel very lucky ... I flew hard core, to the max, all out every time." Those who were saved by these "dust-off" crews could be at hospital usually within twenty minutes anywhere in country.

Not so fortunate were those taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese. No more compelling account of the Vietnam experience can be found than that related by those who survived capture and imprisonment. Porter and Marty Halyburton are splendid examples of the courage and endurance of the human spirit.

Vietnam transformed American society and culture in ways we have perhaps just begun to understand. Mike Kaprielian, who served on a Navy patrol boat, sums up those years and reminds us that, "It wasn't just about guys who were wounded or killed; not just those who died from Agent Orange or post-traumatic stress. Include in that number the people who protested against the war to try and bring the war to an end. A guy who is an artist today who took a severe beating to the head with a club and hasn't been the same since. The pregnant librarian who was tear-gassed cradling someone in her arms who was leaving for Vietnam or leaving for Canada. Whether or not people wanted to admit it, many more people were involved with the conflict in Vietnam than most realized."

If, as someone has suggested, patriotism is another word for hope, then the patriots of the Vietnam generation, those who struggled to preserve their ideal of Americanism, and those who worked to redefine it, shared a unique historical moment in American history, one that is complex and often difficult to revisit. As Kaprielian says, "It was like there was a candid picture taken of us back then, and somehow nobody really wanted to put that in the family album, but it was really America. The picture is finally being taken and put in the family album, where it should be."

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