[Over the next several posts, I plan to serialize a lecture, “Growing Up With Vietnam,” that played a very important part in my life and in my teaching career. It took a long time to write, as you will learn, but, once finished, I used it almost annually for the next twenty years, first in what my school called the “Senior Lecture Series”; after that forum expired, I switched to using the lecture each spring, along with a growing number of “artifacts” I passed around during my talk, in my Advanced Placement American History senior classes; and, now and then, I also gave the thing, when invited, to other classes. Student reactions to the presentation were always interesting to me, and it soon became clear that most students were not used to having their teachers put so much of themselves, for better or worse, into classroom presentations. This first segment carries the story through my high school years. For a list of sources, see Part IV.]
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In any war story, but especially in a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. . . .In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, pp.78-79
I was a child of the Cold War, and, though I didn’t realize it at the time, so was our involvement in Vietnam. In 1950, when President Harry S Truman agreed to supply aid, including 35 American “advisers,” to bolster France’s effort to regain her colony of Vietnam from the Communist Viet Minh, I was a 6 year-old in an industrial suburb of Baltimore, Maryland.
The context for our first steps into the Vietnam morass was the Cold War and the doctrine of containment adopted by the Truman Administration in hopes of halting Soviet expansion in Central and Eastern Europe. Despite the terrifying fact that the Russians somehow had developed their own atomic bomb by 1949, the Cold War in Europe soon reached a stalemate. By that time, however, we perceived a similar Communist threat orchestrated, we were sure, from the Kremlin, in Asia. China “fell” to Mao Zedong’s Red Army in 1949; tensions between Communist North Korea and anti-Communist South Korea were about to explode. Meanwhile, the U.S. itself was in the throes of a second “Red Scare” that would produce a Commie-hunting, demagogic Republican Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy.
Vietnam was definitely a Cold War sideshow when I was growing up in the 1950s, or so it seemed, just another effort by the U.S. to stem the creeping Red tide of godless, monolithic Communism. The ’50s were, after all, the decade of the Korean War and the Army-McCarthy hearings. Vietnam might have been an exotic locale for the battle between freedom and slavery, but I was less aware of events there than I was of the Eisenhower Administration’s efforts to defeat Communism in Guatemala, Iran, Lebanon, and off the coast of what all of us Cold Warriors referred to as “Red China.”
Then, too, the stakes in such places didn’t seem very high when measured against heated Cold War rhetoric that made the prospect of nuclear holocaust a nightmarish possibility. The Eisenhower Administration developed a policy of “massive retaliation” that promised “more bang for the buck.” A Soviet leader promised to bury us. I practiced “duck and cover” drills at school and watched helpful public service announcements on TV that showed me what to do if the Russians dropped an A-bomb on my neighborhood.
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By the time the first Americans were wounded in Vietnam, in 1957, I was a 13 year-old seventh-grader. I was a high school freshman in 1959, when the first Americans were killed there. By the end of Eisenhower’s second term, in 1961, there were 700 American military advisers in South Vietnam. Again, I must admit that all of this went by me and, I suspect, most other Americans as well.
Eisenhower’s successor, Democrat John F. Kennedy, brought a new defense policy with him, called “flexible response.” Rather than focus exclusively on nuclear weaponry, JFK built up our conventional forces and introduced a new type of soldier, the “counter-insurgency” specialist, who was trained to fight, and of course to win, “wars of national liberation” like the one being waged by the Communist Viet Cong against the American-backed government of South Vietnam. The symbol of Kennedy’s commitment to counter-guerrilla warfare was a newly-formed Army unit, the Special Forces, popularly known as the “Green Berets” for their distinctive headgear. The popularity of the Green Berets briefly gave our involvement in Vietnam a much higher profile, helped along by such cultural signposts as a hit song, “Ballad of the Green Berets,” and John Wayne’s epic (in length, anyway) film, “The Green Berets.”
I was not a Kennedy fan, nor was I particularly concerned by events in Vietnam in 1962. College beckoned, and my friends and I worried only about proving ourselves well-rounded high school seniors. A bunch of us decided that what we needed to fill out our brag sheets was athletic experience. So we–are you ready for this?–we started a soccer team.
We conned a rookie math teacher into being our coach, bought him a book about soccer, and went on to compile one of the worst records of any team in the history of our school. Since most of us were seniors, we didn’t care, but it must have been tough on the younger members of the team, especially on one of them, a kid named Larry, who already had a reputation as a kind of super nerd (a term we didn’t have then, by the way) and didn’t need anything else to apologize for. Physically, Larry and I resembled one another: we were overweight, wore our dark hair in very short burr cuts, and peered at the world through horn-rimmed glasses. Despite the fact that I avoided two of Larry’s more nerdish affectations, carrying a brief case and wearing a slide rule in a holster on his belt, we could easily have been mistaken for one another at a distance, and sometimes were.
[End of Part I]
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: