Boomers and the Vietnam Shrug

Back in 1963, when I was a junior in high school, summer jobs were not so easy to come by -- the negative aspect of Baby Boomer demographics. Finally, a friend managed to line me up with a job busing tables at a local Catholic retreat house. I served breakfast, lunch, and dinner, washed dishes, and did my best to keep a  low profile. It wasn't much, but the start of my career of gainful employment.

A strict rule of silence was enforced then on Catholic retreats. The participants, entirely male, did not speak to each other, and particularly at meal time. Instead, they listened to a tapes on a variety of thematic topics.  These were not all religious talks, which might surprise some. There was a considerable amount of diversity. There were not all that many, and so I heard the same speech over and over again that summer. One of the most striking, so striking that it has stayed with me these 45 years, was a speech that Dr. Thomas Dooley had given to a group of nuns, reporting on his experiences in Southeast Asia between 1954 and 1960.
The Kingston Trio had made the name famous back in 1958, with a superb arrangement of an old Civil War song. But the flesh-and-blood Tom Dooley was well known before that. He was the author of three solid books about conditions there, the most well-known being 'Deliver Us From Evil', published in 1956. He'd been dead prematurely dead two years (of cancer) when I did that repetitive listening. So what I was hearing dated back to 1961 at the latest, probably earlier, long before there was any political baggage attached to discussions of Southeast Asia.
If you did have to listen to a talk over and over, that was a good one to hear - light and entertaining (though the subject was very serious), and leavened with a lot of humor. The subject was the same as the books, Dooley's first-hand impressions of the refugee camps in Haiphong  and the repulsive cruelty of the the Stalinist regime from  which they fled. I still remember him describing the exact meaning of the title 'Deliver Us from Evil' , which only indirectly referenced the Scriptural passage.  The direct reference had to to do with an incident which Dooley had personally witnessed and in which he even participated.

Three young Vietnamese children had been brought to the border by the  police of the North Vietnam. Their vocal cords had been cut  (or tongues cut out, I forget which) as punishment for treasonable speech. When Dooley asked the guard how children so young could possibly have committed treason, the guard asked him, Dooley, to recite the Lord's Prayer. When Dooley reached the phrase, 'And deliver us from evil', the guard stopped him.
"That is the treason", he declared, "for there is no evil in the People's Republic of Vietnam."

The Vietnam debacle was the second greatest trauma in the history of the United States. (First is the Civil War, without any serious contender, and we may all hope to God that it remains unrivaled on the list.)  One respect in which it was not a disaster, however, was the moral perspective. The Vietnam War was colossally unwise. It was never immoral. Anyone who heard Tom Dooley once, let alone all summer long, knew -- or should have known --  that reality. At base, after all the heat, after all the millions of words, after all the sound and fury, what the war was about was a frightened, even terrified, people resisting the imposition of a relentlessly tyrannical and inhumane regime. The moral judgment should always have been weighed in their favor, and to their allies by association.  

But as the 60's lengthened, and Vietnam became more controversial with each passing year, that base insight was lost. There is no question that the tactics and posturing of the Johnson Administration had much to do with this. The War should never have been fought primarily by the American military. The rationale should never have been expressed in the Cold War grandiosity language of the Kennedy inaugural address. Vietnam was a sideshow to the major East-West conflict, if it was a part of it at all. The issues were local, Vietnamese resistance to Vietnamese oppression.  But as South Vietnam came to be perceived as an American client state, awareness of the elementary justice of the basic cause -- small, but anything but trivial -- became obscured by the superheated rhetoric.

The war was fought by the wrong army. It was also fought by the wrong type of army. If it was to be fought by the US, it should have been fought by a professional military, and not sullen and discontented draftees. (Popular armies perform wonderfully well in wars of national survival, or great causes, as Victor Hanson Davis has convincingly pointed out. But the Vietnam War was neither.) The military tactics were the wrong tactics. The war was sold to the public on the wrong basis, duplicitous if not outright fallacious. But none of this accounts for the complete reversal in the moral polarity that occurred in the late 60's and early 70's, in which the Stalinist thug Ho Chi Minh was somehow transformed into the a native Populist, the actually elected South Vietnamese government perceived as a repressive state, and the assistance of the United States as some sort of imperial venture. It does not account for the vehemence, the shrill, shrieking hysteria that became the dominant tone of war opposition. The reasons for that lie elsewhere.
They have to do with the determination of the New Left and its fellow traveler draft resisters to characterize the opposition as a moral issue, a crusade, a matter of good versus evil. It was not sufficient simply to question the practicality, the wisdom, the sensibility of the military approach to Vietnam. To wax philosophical for a moment, arguments of that type address the means only and leave the end intact. Accepting the justice of the end (resisting the tyranny of North Vietnam) would not do for the war opponents, and particularly not for draft opponents. Success on that limited basis would not lead to an end to the war, but only an alteration in the manner in which it was conducted. Above all, it would not lead to an end to the draft.   
Full disclosure must be made here. I did not serve in Vietnam or in fact in the military at any time. When I began college in 1964, I enrolled in ROTC, fully expecting to complete the course and do my service as a ROTC officer. I was not particularly looking forward to it. I am not militaristic. I did think it would be a valuable maturing experience. But fate intervened in 1965, in the form of the first episode of mild rheumatoid arthritis with which I have coped without too much difficulty my entire adult life. Almost the first words out of the mouth of the internist who diagnosed it  was, "at least you won't be going into the Army." 

So when I opposed the War in those years -- and I most certainly did -- it was not because I had anything personal at stake. I believed the war was foolish because it was wasteful. I did not buy completely into the New Left dogma, with its endless misquotation of Eisenhower about Ho Chi Minh's likely success in a referendum in 1956. But it was also the case that my memory of Tom Dooley and all he had seen and reported was a long time in the past.   

But even for a fervent war opponent, the extent to which the war opposition had at base the self-serving interests of the Boomer generation was unsettling. Everyone mouthed the sentiments -- moral language is as easy to mimic as any other -- but the bottom line for a huge percentage of resisters, maybe the majority, was a resentment of being inconvenienced by two years military service, with kp, field drill, and master sergeants with their own view of the world. Simply insisting the war was badly conducted would not do -- it didn't avoid that inconvenient two years. So the war became an impassioned moral cause, a crusade. 'Hell, No, I Won't Go' became a slogan that was chanted with blazing eyes and an even more blazing self-righteous indignation. The United States Army was recast as an invading army, and the defense of South Vietnam as an imperialist venture, a Western power imposing its will on a Third World people, as so often in the past. America thus became Amerika in those years of mass insanity.

Insisting that the issue was a moral one, rather than simply a matter of political alternatives, neatly linked draft resistance to war opposition. Obviously, if the war was evil and immoral, to participate in any form was to become complicit in the immorality. That inconvenient two year obligation thus disappeared. Consistency with that transparent rationalization is also the reason why Vietnam soldiers were treated so disgracefully shabbily in those years. To the extent that one acknowledged that the troops in Vietnam were not acting immorally, one had to acknowledge that maybe the righteousness of war opposition was in some doubt. Maybe -- perish the thought -- some of the protest was motivated by selfishness and moral cowardice. That was not a notion that could even be entertained as a thought at that time, let alone spoken aloud. So the troops were vilified and the motives of the protesters never questioned.

This transformation of the dialog from a limited political issue to a great, sweeping moral condemnation that was absurdly blind to the actual facts of Vietnam has had huge repercussions. It was catastrophic for the people of Southeast Asia.

Persuaded by all the inflamed rhetoric that the United States was interfering with the popular will of a distant people, Congress not only withdrew troops, but cut off aid to South Vietnam, at a time in 1974 when many military historians believe that nation might have been able to withstand the assault with reasonable support. The successors to Ho Chi Minh, as Stalinist as he was, overran Saigon in 1975 and imposed the same brutality as they had in Hanoi two decades earlier. Deliver us from evil.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge took advantage of the power vacuum the West had left behind to perpetrate the most appalling genocide since World War II, maybe in history, in the killing fields. (In 2005, filmmakers trying to make a documentary about the massacre found too few survivors to contribute.     
In the United States, the war protest gave birth to the Great Sacred Cow of the demented Left -- that it had taken to the streets and, by heroic measures, brought an unjust and immoral war to its knees. For many Boomers, participation in the anti-war movement is the most significant moral action of their lives. For many, these are life episodes too precious to rethink critically -- and they don't. But the protests didn't stop the war. What it brought to a halt was the draft, which ended in 1971, as did the protests -- for it is hard to deny that had been the real point all along.  The war went on until 1975.  And the events that followed? The repugnant atrocities of Pol Pot and the concrete demonstration that North Vietnam had intended all along a ferociously tyrannical Communist regime? 

In one of the great acts of collective rationalization in recorded history, the Baby Boomers -- my generation -- shrug their shoulders. Not our problem. 

But the fact was that Tom Dooley had been telling the plain, unvarnished truth.  The Vietnamese people -- the real flesh-and-blood kind, that live and die, suffer and hope (not the mythic 'People' of immemorial Leftist cant) -- began running from Ho Chi Minh in 1955. They kept running for the next two decades, as far south as the land would take them, then into boats and the open sea when the land ran out. The war was a dumb war, unwisely formulated, stupidly communicated, even more stupidly fought. But it was a just cause and a moral undertaking. It was the protest, with its utter contempt for the actual human reality, that was immoral.

Tom Dooley had it right. I heard him clearly enough back in 1963. But by 1968, I'd stopped listening. So had everybody else.

Frank Dudley Berry, Jr is the author/editor of Wordplay, a weblog dedicated to an on-going examination of language and attitudes in political speech.