Vietnam Veterans Memorial Essay
Vietnam Veterans Memorial
I can get no satisfaction …
Now here we are, standing near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Fashioned from stark slabs of black granite, this memorial perfectly represents America’s collective memory of its longest war and first defeat. The memorial, like the memory, is both somber and ambiguous. On the polished face of the memorial appear the names of some 58,000 U.S. military personnel who died in Indochina. My friend’s name is one of those names. This was the greatest cost of the war of our country.
There were others as well: the bitterness of over 3 million Vietnam veterans who returned to more scorn than gratitude from their fellow citizens; the inflation that followed years of deficit financing to help cover more than $150 billion in war expenses; bruising divisions within American society about responsibility for the nation’s defeat and the devastation of the peoples and lands of Indochina; and a public cynicism about government, reinforced by the Watergate scandal, that was to mark U.S. politics for many years.
However, I wouldn’t like to put the card before the horse and thus I’ll try to tell you the whole story about the America of those days in all possible details. I’ll tell you how everything started and where it ended; about our youth and our epoch, which nowadays one can easily call the Vietnam War Era.
We had had very poor knowledge of Vietnam by July 27, 1964. On that exact day the news reported that 5,000 US military advisors were ordered to South Vietnam to join other American militaries and support the government of South Vietnam in its struggle against the Communists of the North. Today I say that day marked the beginning of new era for all of us.
How it started
I should tell that the very beginning of the Vietnam War had contained much controversy that later generated negative attitude of our society towards that military campaign. Now I understand that the initial problem lay in following. Congress passed the resolution in 1964 to support Johnson in taking measures to protect U.S. armed forces in Indochina. As requested by Johnson, Congress passed the resolution in response to incidents between U.S. naval destroyers and North Vietnamese gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the coast of North Vietnam.
But this resolution was not the official declaration of the war against North Vietnam however served for Johnson as justification for sending 500,000 troops into South Vietnam. The President’s administration to avoid disquieting people did not use word “war” and invented a devious substitute for it: the “functional equivalent” of a declaration of war. We started discussion as regards the appropriateness of treating that resolution as declaration of the war. And as time went by our society split up into two camps: the supporters and detractors of war.
Political division of society
Moreover, we felt that not only Americans are dubious of their attitude towards the war. The whole world was also divided into two hostile camps: supporters of American invasion into Vietnam (capitalistic democratic countries) and opponents of the military actions (communistic totalitarian countries). You must know that America has always been the proponent of democratic principles.
What should you also keep in mind is that it was the time of the Cold War development. I must admit that the existence of external foe (the Communism) was permanently felt by every American. We witnessed of the development of the Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis when the Third World War nearly started, we watched how the nuclear power of the Soviet Union was rising. The fear of nuclear war haunted our country throughout the decade.
Increase of social well-being
The threat of war had impacted all spheres of our life. We witnessed how police spent much time training for the very real possibility of nuclear attack. You would not believe but it is a fact that the threat of war was the reason for building of the Interstate Highway System during the 1960s. Our highways and roads expended quickly. Consequently, automobile became a common thing at the end of World War II and the demand for it was continuously growing. In the 1960s I and almost all my friends had a car and the number of young people driving a car reached an unprecedented level.
At the same time our every day life contained the events not related to the Vietnam War. First of all it was a time of the unprecedented change in U.S. society. For the first time for the whole history we felt what the prosperity is! Technological advances in electronics, telecommunications and transportation changed the American lifestyle. A car became an affordable luxury for every American and since that time we could freely travel around the country.
The changes in our material well-being caused the drastic changes in the social order of our nation. I and my peers were born during the American first wave of the “baby boom” caused our young adult moms who followed the open rebel against society and those who represented its authority. To my view it was one of the implications of prosperity of American society. Only the prosperous people have courage to express their ideas freely.
Nevertheless, even well-being could not shield the upheaval rising within our nation. As U.S. troops and hardware poured into Vietnam, the casualty figures mounted and domestic unease intensified. Here I have to mention the anti-war movements of the Vietnam War Era. So, in the 1960s The New Left movement appeared. At those days the mass media treated them as parasites rejecting American values. But today I understand that they were young people with radical standpoints who attempted to change our society for better. The New Left was a movement of self-understood radicals, mostly students.
Most of the central figures were my peers in their twenties during that decade, and were born during or just before World War II; most of the rank and file were born after the war and too were part of the mentioned baby boom, which filled the expanding colleges and universities. Although the central figures began as student activists, the New Left grew into an intellectual tendency that included academics, principally in the social sciences and humanities; professionals (doctors, lawyers, social workers, etc.) who shared its concern for the rights of helpless and victimized people.
So where did they spring from, you wonder. Seeking intellectual coherence, student activists borrowed the term New Left from British intellectuals who had left the Communist Party and helped form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (it was in 1957). Unlike the Britons, most of the U.S. New Left were not Marxists. They hoped to find other social constituencies with the social commitment to transform society in an egalitarian and democratic direction.
I cannot help but describe the activity of this organization in details as my view of them has changed since then. We were continuously informed through TV, radio and newspapers on communist threat. We were told the communists had allegedly penetrated all spheres of our life and due to this the New Left made a noise in our society. From 1965 on, the main force that swelled the New Left was the Vietnam War.
Gathering strength, the New Left spun off a movement against the war, and in the popular mind became principally identified with that movement. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had nine chapters and some 600 members in 1963, grew to some 300 chapters and 100,000 members in 1969. National demonstrations against the war grew from 25,000 people (April 1965) to 500,000 (November 1969). As the war escalated, the New Left (or what increasingly called itself “the movement”) became not only larger but more militant.
During this time, however, the core of New Left organizers came to regard themselves as more than a protest movement. They increasingly saw themselves as committed to a radical transformation with an antiauthoritarian spirit. Pragmatic, many were reluctant to call themselves “socialist” or “anarchist”; they borrowed elements from both traditions, as well as from liberalism.
Toward that end, they experimented with community organizing among the poor; with projects in student-centered education; with attempts to radicalize factory workers. But their principal base was the university campuses. Best represented among elite universities at the beginning of their movement, their class base later moved progressively downward. By 1970, demonstrations against the draft, against military education, against corporate recruiters, against disciplinary rules, and in favor of ethnic studies departments took place on hundreds of campuses and turned into a real trouble for authorities.
By 1967, most of my friends in the New Left had moved (in the words of their own slogan) “from protest to resistance.” We, observing the massive disaffection of college-educated youth – as signaled in drug use, popular music, hippie clothing, long hair, and so forth – came to feel that a radical transformation of the society was necessary, although they had little conception of a new order. By 1968, we saw institutions from university administrations to the Democratic Party as hopelessly oppressive.
Opposition to draft
In relation to the protests of the young generation I want to stress upon such phenomenon of those days as draft evasion. Some of those who opposed the war were driven by the fact that as Johnson’s policy escalated, more and more young people were drafted into the armed services and sent to Vietnam. By 1967, half of the military servants were draftees. By 1969, more than the half of all combat deaths were draftees. These were extremely discouraging data.
I cannot but stress that no other war produced so much opposition to the draft. This fear was partially caused by its unfairness. Until 1968 senior students were entitled to defer military service by the time they finished their study. Another fact that evoked our rejection was the class injustice; many young middle-class men joined the National Guard and Reserves on the likely gamble that they would not be called up for duty in Southeast Asia.
Consequently, the Vietnam War appeared to many to be a working-class war. There was a disproportion in numbers of draftees and enlisted men who mostly came from blue-collar class. During the war a lot of my male contemporaries preferred exile to Canada and Sweden to avoid the draft. The prospect of the draft also served as impetus for eligible guys to start family and have children, or continue their education.
As it could have been expected increasing draft resistance took form of civil disobedience and severe discipline problems. The poorly motivated behavior of militants in the field made the government think of dramatic reform. The president Nixon established a lottery system trying to make the draft system at least a little fairer. But we took it as a cynical joke. In September 1971, Nixon’s proposal for All-Volunteer Force was passed by Congress, and in July 1973, Nixon terminated the draft.
Fight for you right
There is one important figure whom I cannot skip in my story of public protests. I am speaking about Martin Luther King. King started his social discussion attacking segregation as he hopscotched the nation. Later King attempted not only to achieve civil rights, but also to stop the Vietnam War and to eliminate American poverty. On 4 April 1968, an assassin’s bullet killed Martin Luther King Jr.; riots exploded in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Another horrible assassination occurred the same year. In June, Robert Kennedy, John Kennedy’s brother and a presidential candidate in his own right, was shot and killed in Los Angeles. These terrifying events considerably undermine government’s credibility in our minds.
Nonetheless, no assassinations could stop public protests which did their job gradually. The antiwar movement dramatically affected our national domestic policy. After 35,000 mostly young people besieged the Pentagon on 21–22 October 1967, Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was going.
When the Communists of the North Vietnam launched their seemingly successful nationwide Tet Offensive on 30 January 1968, most of us felt that we had been deceived by our own government. It caused even more severe protests. That widespread public disaffection led to Johnson’s decision on 31 March 1968 not to escalate further and not to stand for reelection. We carried our point and finally a man who had initiated war in Vietnam stopped being our president.
As I already mentioned at the beginning our society was split in terms of political views. The divisions were cultural and generational too. A youthful counterculture expressed its alienation in more open sexuality, free love; long hair, and cast-off clothing; rock music, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Doors and Rolling Stones; and marijuana and other consciousness-altering substances. At Woodstock, New York, in August 1969 I witnessed the greatest youth gathering. About half a million of young people stayed there for a three-day music festival, laced with political and cultural protest.
What we may conclude
As you can see from my story the Vietnam War Era was a complicated period for our society from which I hope it had derived correct conclusions. In my point of view these conclusions can be expressed by one sentence: “Win quickly or stay out”. Regardless of the camp to which you belong to those emphasizing the former or to those emphasizing the latter, you should feel that you are a part of one nation. I believe that the memorial near which we are staying now will help us remember this simple principle.
George C. Herring, America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975, 2nd ed. New York, 1986.