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Vietnam and the Sixties

A Personal History

Vietnamese woman with a gun to her head, Vietnam War, 1969 (Keystone / Hulton Images / Getty)

W. D. Ehrhart teaches history and English at the Haverford School in Pennsylvania, and is the author or editor of twenty-one books of poetry and nonfiction.

This and the following article are part of a continuing MR series on the legacy of the U.S. war in Vietnam. An earlier version of this essay was presented at a conference sponsored by the Chester County Historical Society of Pennsylvania in April 2016.

In early 1970, Vice President Spiro Agnew had this to say about the so-called ’60s Generation: “As for these deserters, malcontents, radicals, incendiaries, the civil and the uncivil disobedients among our youth, SDS, PLP, Weathermen I and Weathermen II, the revolutionary action movement, the Black United Front, Yippies, Hippies, Yahoos, Black Panthers, Lions, and Tigers alike—I would swap the whole damn zoo for a single platoon of the kind of young Americans I saw in Vietnam.” This is a fascinating statement for multiple reasons and on multiple levels. To begin with, a single platoon of the kind of young Americans he saw in Vietnam went into a village we remember as My Lai and murdered 407 unarmed men, women, and children. On the same day, in the nearby village of My Khe, another unit of the same division murdered an estimated 97 additional Vietnamese civilians. While I personally did not participate in or witness killing on that scale, I and my fellow Marines routinely killed, maimed, and abused Vietnamese on a near-daily basis, destroying homes, fields, crops, and livestock with every weapon available to us, from rifles and grenades to heavy artillery and napalm. We thought it was funny to run Vietnamese off the roads with our vehicles and throw cans of C-rations at children, as if we were hurling baseballs for strike-outs. We called the Vietnamese slopes, dinks, slants, zipperheads, and gooks. It is no wonder, it turns out, that Agnew should be so fond of “the kind of young Americans” he saw in Vietnam, since he himself turned out to be a criminal who was forced to resign from his office in public disgrace.

Meanwhile, a great many of these young Americans became the deserters he excoriated (most military desertions occurred after service in Vietnam, not before). Many other soldiers and former soldiers—motivated by feelings of shame, anger, betrayal, conscience, patriotism, decency, honesty, and every conceivable combination thereof—joined the malcontents, radicals, incendiaries, and civil and uncivil disobedients to become heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, through organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the Concerned Officers Movement, and the American Servicemen’s Union.

As for the Black United Front, the Black Panthers, and other groups agitating for African American liberation, one wonders if Agnew ever asked why no one was prosecuted for the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, though the FBI knew who had done it by 1965, or ever pondered the impact on black Americans of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., or ever noticed that in 1970 the infant mortality rate among white Americans was 13.8 while for black Americans it was 22.8.1

But how did such a large portion of my generation become “deserters, malcontents, radicals, incendiaries”? How did Students for a Democratic Society become the Weather Underground? How did “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” turn into “We Gotta Get out of This Place”?

We were, after all, raised by the Greatest Generation, were not we? They had survived the Great Depression and defeated the Nazis and imperial Japan. They had given us Levittowns and McDonald’s and drive-in movies and fluoride and “one nation under God.”2 We had grown up watching wholesome American families on shows like Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet, learned about good and evil from shows like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and come to understand the insidious, ever-present threat of communism through shows like I Led Three Lives.

In my hometown of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, as far back as I can remember, we had a parade every Memorial Day that included the Pennridge High School and Junior High School marching bands, complete with majorettes and color guards, uniformed members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars marching in formation, the trucks of Perkasie Volunteer Fire Company No. 1, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownie Scouts, and assorted kids on bicycles decorated with red, white, and blue crepe paper. Every school day started with a reading from the Bible (at least until 1963, when a suspiciously liberal Supreme Court ruled the practice an unconstitutional mixing of church and state) followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. “I Liked Ike,” and when John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” I was old enough to be inspired, and inspired enough to enlist in the Marines only a few years later.

College could wait. I had watched with growing alarm as communism spread its tentacles over the globe: the violent repression of the Hungarian uprising, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, communist insurgency in Laos (China had already been lost before I was old enough to remember), and Khrushchev shouting, “We will bury you!” Kennedy was dead, killed by a traitorous defector who had lived in the Soviet Union before returning with a Russian wife to murder the hero who had created the Peace Corps. And now his successor was saying that if we did not fight the communists in Vietnam, we would one day have to fight them on the sands of Waikiki.

I was not naïve, or I did not think I was. I knew the United States was not perfect. By the early 1960s, I could see on television young black Americans being beaten for trying to ride a bus, having ketchup and mustard poured over their heads while sitting at segregated lunch counters, being attacked with firehoses and vicious dogs while singing the same hymns I sang in church. George Wallace might declare, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” but that was the South, the Old Confederacy, the sore losers. It was a wrong that would be righted, was even now in the process of being righted before our eyes.

But as the 1960s progressed, the luster began to fade. The change, or perhaps I should say decline, was gradual, slower for some than for others, but it was steady. As the televised images of white violence against peaceful black protestors asking only for the right to vote and to be treated as human beings went on and on, year after year, with the gains incremental and often hard to see, and with racial tensions erupting not just in the Old Confederacy, but in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and New York, “liberty and justice for all” seemed increasingly like empty words.

Meanwhile, with my generation’s shining knight struck down in his prime, his replacement, an aging Texan with big ears and a ponderous drawl, kept insisting the United States wanted only peace and not a “wider war,” while he took the nation deeper and deeper into a nightmare where Buddhist monks incinerated themselves in public, supersonic jets dropped jellied gasoline on fields plowed by water buffalo, and American boys came home in body bags in ever-increasing numbers, with nothing to show for it but the empty words of generals and politicians.

Perhaps most frustrating, it did not seem as if either our government or our elders cared in the least what we thought or felt. Twenty-five hundred antiwar demonstrators became 25,000 antiwar demonstrators, who became 250,000 antiwar demonstrators, but it did not matter. An exhausted Johnson chose not to run in 1968, and another president who promised to end the war was elected, but the war dragged on and on. Meanwhile, programs designed to help the poor and advance civil rights were crippled by a lack of commitment and gutted by the need to fund the war in Southeast Asia.

That black struggles to achieve equal rights became more militant and angry as the decade progressed, that the antiwar movement transformed from peaceful marchers wearing jackets and ties and skirts and blouses into chanting protestors in tie-dyed t-shirts and love beads are to me measures of my generation’s increasingly frantic efforts to push back against the insane behavior of my parents’ generation.

I am generalizing broadly here, but I think my experience accords with that of a broad swath of my generation. I was raised to believe absolutely that the United States was the pinnacle of civilization, the epitome of freedom, the greatest nation that had ever existed. We were truly the land of the free and the home of the brave, a nation of the people by the people and for the people, the country that most stood for equal opportunity, goodness, and decency, the hope of oppressed peoples everywhere.

I wanted my country to be what I had believed all my life that it was. When I went off to Vietnam, I honestly believed that John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln were smiling down at me from on high, that I was going to save the Vietnamese from the scourge of communism, that my country needed me to preserve all those freedoms we hold so dear. What evidence I already had that might shake those beliefs, I was able to hold at bay, because it takes a lot of force to undo a lifetime of conditioning. A week traveling through the Deep South when I was sixteen, an English teacher who tried to show me a wider world, a Quaker friend who told me just before I left for Vietnam, “Please try not to kill anyone,” could hardly begin to make a dent in the certitude I had been raised to think was truth.

And then I ran headlong into reality in the rice fields and villages of Vietnam. It was a bewildering, horrifying, shattering awakening. I cannot begin to detail here all that happened over the course of my thirteen months in Vietnam, or the path those experiences set me on, but suffice it to say that I finally had to confront the reality that the things my parents’ generation had taught me about who and what my country was were all lies, delusions, hypocrisy, fiction. And when I finally began to understand that, it made me angry.

Other members of my generation have different stories to tell, different paths they followed, different experiences that shaped them. But I think most of us ended up at the same conclusion: that our country was not what we had been taught to believe it was. That our parents’ generation, the Greatest Generation, was not so great after all. The generation gap did not just invent itself. We did not start saying—and believing—that you could not trust anyone over thirty just because it was a catchy slogan. Our elders might blame our behavior and dress and beliefs on Dr. Spock and too little application of the belt, but Dr. Spock did not raise us; their generation did—the generation that criticized us for enjoying the materialism they had created for us, that was now sending so many of us off to die on the other side of the world, that had lived their entire lives complacently ignoring the plight of black Americans south and north, that mocked us as “Yippies, Hippies, and Yahoos.”

Long before the 1960s painfully rolled over into the ’70s—which brought the invasion of Cambodia, the murders at Kent State and Jackson State, the Pentagon Papers, and the invasion of Laos—we had decided that if long hair and colorful clothes and marijuana pissed off the older generation, hurray for that. If amped-up drums and screeching guitars and protest lyrics upset our elders, we had to be doing something right. If women and gays and Latinos and Native Americans were demanding equality, it was about damned time.

There was, of course, no shortage of people in my generation who did not fit my sweeping generalizations. There were some who hated people like Bayard Rustin, Tom Hayden, Dick Gregory, Abbie Hoffman, and Phil Ochs. Dick Cheney and John Negroponte, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, John Boehner and Robert Zoellick are all more or less my contemporaries. And as the late Paul Lyons amply demonstrated in his book Class of ’66: Living in Suburban Middle America, a large portion of the ’60s generation neither fought in Vietnam nor protested the war, but merely sidestepped it all and went on with their lives. That is why they had no problem with draft-dodging Dan Quayle as vice president and draft-dodging George W. Bush as president; in these men, who avoided risking their lives in Vietnam without personal or political consequence, much of my generation saw themselves and their own choices during the ’60s.

But a lot of us did find unavoidable the contradictions between what we had been taught and what we could see, and chose not to stay silent. We wanted our country to be what we had been taught to believe that it was. For a time, many of us believed we could make it so. And for all my discouragement about the reactionary backlash that has consumed the United States since the rise of Ronald Reagan, with huge numbers of citizens voting against their own self-interests in election after election, the removal of the consequences of U.S. foreign policy from domestic politics, the terrifying rise of the national security state, and the most obscene maldistribution of wealth since the Gilded Age, the ’60s generation—my generation—has had a lasting impact.

Who would have thought we would live to see a black president? (Even if he has disappointed many of us who had actually believed “Yes He Could,” the mere fact of his election was something I never thought I would live to see.) Who would have thought the Supreme Court of the United States—this Supreme Court in particular—would ever rule that banning gay marriage is unconstitutional? Who would have imagined Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at a U.S.-hosted Olympic Games, or a gold-medal Olympic decathlete living publicly as a trans woman? Or the legalization or decriminalization of marijuana in twenty-six states and counting? Or a woman as a viable candidate for president? Or a self-described socialist making a serious bid for the White House?

I am well aware that these developments do not challenge the fundamental tenets of the military-industrial-security state. But tell the gay couple who are finally being treated with equality under the law that the Supreme Court decision is of no real importance. Tell the thousands of transgender Americans that cultural acceptance of Caitlin Jenner means nothing. Tell black Americans that electing a black president is not progress. Tell American girls it does not matter that a woman might finally become president (even if, alas, this one happens to be a warmongering Wall Street toady, the very fact of her sex would have been unthinkable to previous generations).

One only needs to look at how the Democratic Party and the mainstream media stacked the deck against Bernie Sanders to realize that the system is still so deeply entrenched as to seem invulnerable, unassailable, impervious to change or improvement, let alone to being dismantled. But what do you do with that conclusion? Jump off a bridge? Drink yourself under the table? I prefer to take satisfaction in the things progressives and leftists have accomplished since I was a young man, to live my life as if real change is still possible.

Not long ago, in my own fair city of Philadelphia, as the Democratic National Convention was anointing the Wicked Witch of the West as their candidate for president and Sanders was breaking the hearts of his most ardent supporters by proving himself to be, in the end, just another politician, I took to the streets with thousands of others whose heads were not up their backsides. The official theme of our march was “Clean Energy,” but I marched with members of Philadelphia Chapter 31 of Veterans for Peace, and many other causes and issues were represented, from Black Lives Matter to Code Pink to the Granny Peace Brigade. Moreover, it was not only aging hippies and peaceniks. A huge number of the participants were of a younger generation, men and women in their thirties and twenties. And in the midst of that raucous, high-spirited, good-natured crowd of people who refuse to accept the status quo, I found myself thinking that maybe, just maybe, the ’60s are not over yet. Poor Spiro Agnew must be turning in his grave. I certainly hope so.

Notes

  1. One man was finally charged in 1977, and two others in 2001 and 2002, respectively; a fourth died without ever being charged.
  2. “Under God” was not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.
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