Learning Vietnam

Sam Smith

I am more tolerant of Ken Burns’ Vietnam series than some because I lived through that period with some of the same confusion the TV series recounts. Shortly before I left the Coast Guard in June 1964, the cutter Spar’s crewmembers were presented the Defense Service ribbon in delayed recognition of the fact that at some point whatever had been going on in Vietnam had turned into a war. We were now officially — although the actual phrase had yet to be born — Vietnam era veterans.

What I knew about the war for which I had been given a ribbon was slight. I knew my friend Lou Walling had been one of the first forty Americans killed in it. He died when the CIA helicopter in which he was flying was shot down. But in Bristol, RI, it did not feel like a war and it did not feel, whatever it was, that it was about me.

Besides, I was leaving the military behind me and had decided to start a small journal called the Idler. I initially saw myself more as an unconventional member of the establishment rather than its opponent. Early on, I tried to explain to readers who I suspected were considerably more traditional than myself some of the remarkable changes that were occurring in America and how they might best adapt to them. If anything, my view of American radicalism was that of a sympathetic, albeit sometimes patronizing, observer. Among other things, The Idler in its three short years of existence, tracked my sometimes awkward, equivocating, and even pompous pilgrimage away from what I had been taught and still in many ways believed I was. In June 1965, for example, I wrote:

There is a new radical spirit. It has drawn much of its strength from the civil rights movement, but it goes far beyond that. challenging not just America’s racial attitudes but some of her most cherished and smug assumptions,

It protests the whole humdrum, humbug world of white urban American sophistication with its self-serving definition of success, its indifference towards the socially and economically disenfranchised of the country, its phony values and its 8 oz. drip-dry culture.

It is as purposeful as a March on Montgomery and as pointless as an obscene sign on the University of California campus.

But when it came to applying such principles to our increasing involvement in Vietnam, I found myself on far less certain ground. For example, from a piece in September 1965:

President Johnson is faced with two major dangers. He must not let this war expand beyond reasonable limits and he must not negotiate a phony and ignominious settlement. The president is fully aware of these dangers and, no doubt, personally confident that he can avoid them.

At present our strategy appears to be based on. the concept of holding Saigon and selected areas along the east coast, then moving out into the countryside as conditions permit. According to news reports, we have also determined not to waste American troops in missions with high ambush potential, and instead will reserve them for battalion-size action. This is a realistic strategy. It makes much more sense than one based on the false hope of negotiation or false faith in expansion. It implies a lengthy stay in Vietnam and it means, for perhaps years to come, something less than total victory against the V.C. But it also represents our best hope of saving what is left of South Vietnam without paying an unreasonable price . . .

But the public must be conditioned to the realities of the situation. They must be made to understand the necessity of the undramatic, sufficient, and lengthy application of American force in South Vietnam.

This was written by a 27-year-old barely a year out of the military, raised in the bosom of cold war liberalism, conscious of my responsibility to realpolitik and influenced by friends and media to whom even such cautious words bordered on questionable.

It may provide some perspective to quote a small item that appeared in a box in the same issue:

We sent a classified ad up to the Saturday Review not so long ago and got back a reply which said, in part, “After careful consideration, our Acceptability Board came to the conclusion that it would prefer not to run your ad.” …. Nothing wrong with the ad, the lady told us. “The board just decided your magazine was a little too liberal.”

It was not the harshest view. Among the notes received was a subscription blank that read: “You all go to hell as Reds. We’re on to you and we’ll fight you to the death.” The subscription form was made out for “Martin Luther Coon”

Further expiation may be found in the fact that I wrote those words only months after the anti-war movement had begun. Howard Zinn remembers because he was there:

The movement against the war in Vietnam started with isolated actions in 1965. Black civil rights activists in the South were among the first to resist the draft. SNNC’s Bob Moses joined historian Staughton Lynd and veteran pacifist Dave Dellinger to march in Washington against the war, and Life Magazine had a dramatic photo of the three of them walking abreast, being splattered with red paint by angry super patriots.

In the spring of 1965 I spoke at what was to be the first of many anti-war rallies on the Boston Common. It was a discouragingly small crowd – perhaps a hundred people. . .

Over the next year, my views, like those of many others would undergo major transformation. By March 1966 I was still writing things such as:

We must learn the limits of a realistic American role and not exceed them. The specific extent of this role is hard for one sitting at a desk half a world away to suggest. But it would seem to include defense of major South Vietnamese population centers and areas of strategic importance, including all or part of the Mekong Delta. It includes the presence of large numbers of American troops, the provision of technical assistance and supplies to the South Vietnamese army and a far higher level of economic assistance than that at present.

But I was also suggesting limits and alternatives:

[The proper role] does not include bombing North Vietnam, ravishing South Vietnam’s villages in order to flush out a few Vietcong. or wasting American lives in battle for ground not worth the powder to blow it to hell.

We may have to stay in Vietnam a long time. The American public will accept this if it feels the course we pursue there is reasonable, just as the public has accepted the large number of American troops in Europe for over two decades. But if we repeatedly engage in actions that are neither moral nor productive, the public at home and the nations abroad will reject our role. The Americans in Vietnam will become lonely, hated men fighting a lonely, hated war.

As I write, the big peace offensive is still underway. I hope it will be by the time this reaches the reader. For we have not, until recently, been as diligent in escalating the peace as we have been in escalating the war. We could too easily slip back into the old ways of battle. The big lesson of the Cold War is that careful, conscientious escalation of the peace works to the benefit of everyone, despite the minor immediate losses of face and compromised ideological goals. We can always risk taking a few halting steps away from disaster.

Then in April 1966:

Perhaps it is not too late to salvage our position in Vietnam, but if we are to do it there are going to have to be some fairly dramatic changes made,. . . .The overriding fact of the Vietnamese war is that neither we nor the South Vietnamese are doing a good job at it. One does not improve a bad situation by enlarging its scope.

Finally in June 1966:

[LBJ’s] Vietnam escapade has been an abject failure.

April 1967:

If we pursue the war to ultimate military victory, which appears the present goal of our government, we shall have surrendered reason and justice to the temptations of brazen power. We may defeat the communists, but we shall have also defeated ourselves.

And November 67:

Some, including myself, are not psychologically inclined to have their heads bashed in by a US Marshall guarding the Pentagon. Still it seems almost inevitable that extraction from the mess of SE Asia or of our cities will not come without vehement, even violent, confrontation, Those willing to risk that confrontation on behalf of those less bold are more to be honored than censured.

The same issue contained an article by Howard Zinn defending radical protests against the napalm-maker, Dow Chemical. I had become a full-winged dove.

The story came from Liberation News Service, which I described as a “news service for the so-called underground press.” That month I turned thirty, the age at which, according to the values of time, one could no longer be trusted. In fact, most of those on the streets were younger than I; those condemning and suppressing them were older. I had wandered into a generational no-man’s land and never would have guessed that fifty years later, I would be one of the few members of the “so-called underground press” still at it.

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