‘All for Nothing’ : Longest War Clings to U.S. Conscience
It has been half a generation since the last helicopters pulled away from Vietnam. But across the United States, the struggle is still going on, to reconcile feelings and families, to come to terms with the nettling notion that somehow, this time, in its longest war, America got it wrong.
Americans, a straightforward people used to seeing the world as stop-and-go, either-or, have been left with a complex array of feelings--subtle, contradictory, troubling and unresolved.
They feel dismay that their countrymen went to Vietnam at all, and conviction that the United States had a duty to be there; disgust that the Americans made a muddle of it, embarrassment that the rest of the world saw the mistake. They feel guilt that they often ignored the distant war, and they still feel some disenchantment with a government that led a crusade into Vietnam and then got mired in apathy and finally, defeat.
What is clear after visits to dozens of communities all over the United States is that, after 10 years of letting it drift from memory, Vietnam is with us, as faint and as disconcerting as an old tombstone.
On Easter Sunday, the sweet gum tree outside the First United Methodist Church in Holden, Mo., was just beginning to leaf. Russell Raber noticed it when he came out of church. Fifteen years ago, he planted it there, in memoriam, after his youngest boy, Joe, 19, was killed by “friendly fire” in Vietnam while celebrating his safe return from Cambodia.
Joe was to have come home soon, and he sent ahead some new suits. The suits arrived on a Monday morning; Russell and Mattie Raber got the word of Joe’s death Monday afternoon.
For the Rabers, conviction runs deep: the family, once pacifist Mennonites, left Bismarck’s Germany to avoid military service. A great-uncle married hatchet-toting teetotaler Carrie Nation. “My boys heard all down through the years, when their country called them, they thought they oughta go,” said Raber, 79.
The Rabers made a pencil mark on the kitchen wall when Joe left. He was 5 feet 10 and he promised he’d be 6 feet tall when he came back.
Now, to Raber, “it looks to me like it was all for nothing--but they were saving the country. I think a lot of protesters like Jane Fonda were just responsible for a lot of our boys getting killed. You don’t think Hanoi wasn’t gonna keep going if they saw our country divided like that.” A lot of people “think you’re an old fogey if you mention communism, but it’s still our biggest threat.”
Jeff Sallot was phoning in notes on the first anniversary of the 1970 Kent State University shootings when his editor congratulated him--the staff of the Akron Beacon Journal had won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the slayings of four students by Ohio national guardsmen.
Sallot’s frustration had been building for a year, and that phone call “just seemed to be so inappropriate, all these things coming together at the same time,” he recalled recently. “I realized there was not going to be a serious effort to investigate what was going on; no one was going to be culpable.”
It was the last push he needed. Less than a month later, Sallot was working in Canada. He is still there, in Ottawa, a reporter with Canadian citizenship, a wife, two children and no regrets. He still wears his 1970 Kent State alumni ring, but 14 years ago, when the polarization among people he knew “didn’t let up, when the war didn’t let up,” he had to leave.
“When you’re young, you think you can do a lot more than you can,” he said. “I think I got to the point (of) you’ve got to be able to save your own soul before you could go out and save the world.
“Initially,” he said, “I came up here looking for some breathing room, but I just got hooked on the country,” a country “that didn’t feel it had a mandate to be policeman of the world.”
Robert M. Lundeen was president of Dow Chemical’s Pacific operation at a time when Dow’s recruiters were being chased off U.S. college campuses by students, irate that the company that made Saran Wrap also made napalm, the flammable jelly that stuck to and burned anything and anyone it touched.
The night Saigon fell, Lundeen--now chairman of the board--was flying back to Hong Kong from a Bangkok business trip.
“Always before, we went over Cam Ranh Bay or Da Nang, and could see the artillery firing below . . . but now the North Vietnamese were in control. We had to fly around the south end of South Vietnam. . . . The Mekong Delta was black as the ace of spades.”
The war, and public reaction to napalm and Agent Orange, changed Dow, too, he said, making public affairs as important as research.
“We agreed to do napalm because we felt that we were doing our duty . . . to provide weapons that the armed forces said they needed.” Now, Dow “may be somewhat less enchanted with the results of stepping up to the plate as a red, white and blue patriot when it looked like the right thing to do. Those experiences, which were not pleasant ones, would, I’m sure, weigh heavily in any decision we’d make.”
Their truck had just stopped running. Their rat terrier, Skippy, had a broken leg and a cold. And Michael and Pat Rushing, brother and sister, sat disconsolately on a picnic bench in Maysville, Okla., waiting for a ride home. They didn’t learn much about Vietnam in school, so there’s not much they can say about it.
“It was a civil war, wasn’t it?” asked Michael. “I think they ought to fight their own problems out.”
Incidentally, they say, their Air Force pilot father is still missing in action over there. They are the youngest of 10 children, 22 and 21 now, and haven’t seen their father since they were toddlers.
The older kids don’t talk much about the war or their father. “It’s hard to get them talking about it because it reminds them of Dad,” said Pat.
Michael, toying with his Marlboros, is “just sorry how we treated ‘em when they came back, . . . spit on ‘em and called ‘em baby burners.” He spun around on the wooden bench; their ride had arrived. “My Dad was in the Air Force for something like 20 years. He knew what he was getting into. And if he’d come back, they’d’ve spit on him, too.”
He lived down the street, and he used to help Sue Ruddy with her homework--one of those guys nothing ever went right for, and it persisted to the end.
At Thanksgiving, 1966, before he had even received the Playboy magazines and cookies Sue and her mother had sent from their Tennessee town, Donald Rankin was killed in Vietnam.
Ruddy, now 39, brought her husband and three sons to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington to find Don Rankin’s name on the wall.
“I appreciate what they did, but why in the world did we just piddle around?” Ruddy wondered. “I don’t want my sons getting into a war like that--fighting is one thing, but not to die for something like that. We’re all still paying for this.”
She stopped. On panel 12E was the name she was looking for. She knelt and ran her fingers over it two or three times. “It makes it more real just to see his name there,” she said. Then she stood up. She turned to her 8-year-old, Brent, and hugged him fiercely. Her tears dropped onto his upturned, puzzled face.
On a night that Berkeley students took over Sproul Hall, graduate student Kent Bales was with them in spirit--on the way home from an Army reserve meeting. He had joined up “to keep from being drafted--very simple,” but it didn’t stop him from going to protest marches.
After graduate school at UC Berkeley, he went to the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, where he now heads the English department.
The war “changed the way I taught,” said Bales, 48. “I used to have very clean classes where I laid things out and we talked about them. Now I lay out as little as possible and try to have the students define a good deal of what we’re talking about,” making them responsible for their own thinking.
“That used to work beautifully, but it’s not true any more. Students almost resent that freedom. They want things to be a lot cleaner and crisper again . . . authoritarian centralization"--even in his own home, he added quietly.
The son born to him and his wife, a 1956 Hungarian refugee, in the turmoil of Berkeley 1965, now “is jumping out of airplanes in the U.S. Army,” Bales said. Vietnam “is unreal to him; we’ve tried to talk to him about it.” Even the prospect of combat in places like Nicaragua doesn’t change his mind. On the contrary, sighed Bales, “he almost looks forward to it.”
Everything Adell Kinard knows about Vietnam, she learned from sitting at the front desk when veterans came into the counseling center in Spokane, Wash., angry or tearful or looking to talk.
It wasn’t the 9-to-5 secretarial job she expected. “I’ve been educated,” Kinard, 29, said wryly.
She has figured out why she and the veterans, who call her their “sweetheart,” understand one another. “To me, their problems, coming back from the war and dealing with society--I thought being black, every day they were dealing with the same problem, discrimination, as I’m dealing with. I can’t say I’ve fought that war, but I’ve fought a different kind of war.”
Listening to the veterans’ stories was “scary” at first, she said. “I even catch myself going home and having other people’s flashbacks,” like the time she saw two Vietnamese next door, and had to remember they were her neighbors. She also has picked up the vets’ swearing, she laughs, and has to be careful around her mother.
Her discoveries have steered her toward a new career, in social work, so she can really help them. “I never knew what was going on there (in Vietnam) till I started working here.”
Navy Lt. Robert Chamberlain is forever grateful to the commanding officer who turned him down every day, when every day Chamberlain volunteered to go to Vietnam.
“In retrospect I could kiss him; what a foolish young man I was, . . . but I wanted to support my country, which is not foolish.”
Now Chamberlain, a true-blue Navy man for 15 of his 32 years, heads the Naval Reserve Center in Jackson, Miss., where the eager new kids--and there are many--"don’t think about Vietnam, they don’t understand that Nicaragua is closer to Jackson than L.A. is.”
The kids who sign up “are the kids of the parents who fought so drastically against the Vietnam War,” Chamberlain said. “Parents are supposed to have a great influence on their children--it makes you wonder.”
The violence was not confined to Vietnam. Robert E. Fassnacht, a physics graduate student, was working late at the University of Wisconsin on Aug. 24, 1970, when an anti-war protester’s bomb went off, destroying several laboratories in the Army research center and killing the 33-year-old Fassnacht, father of three.
Angry wives of Berkeley physicists raised several thousand dollars to help his family.
Fassnacht’s own wife, Stephanie, speaking reluctantly from her Madison home, said that 15 years later, the war’s impact was, for her, “not more than (for) anyone else” with a family member who died. “That it was unexpected because he wasn’t in uniform, . . . in a way, didn’t make too much difference,” she said. “Gone is gone.”
Around Petersburg, Va., where “the war” still means the Civil War, Brian Smith was strolling where dogwood blossoms glittered through new green leaves. By the next day, Smith, 30, would be dead--but no big deal. He’s fought four battles before, Civil War re-enactments, and “I’ve died in all of ‘em.”
The civil engineer, who plays a private in the 5th New Hampshire Regiment, knows how they used to fight a war, and as far as Vietnam goes, “I thought it was a bad war, especially tactically. In the Civil War, there were definite objectives, a definite sense of what was right or wrong. No one over there knew what they were doing.”
But 20 years from now, perhaps, people will “remember it more fondly,” he observed. The Civil War was horrible, too, but people like Smith himself now organize to recall, even revel in the perceived glory days. “The memories of the bad parts fade.”
In April, 1864, a Bardstown, Ky., man, John McCarthy, advertised in the paper for a Civil War draft substitute to go fight in his place: “I am paying the highest prices.”
Exactly 104 years later, the Nelson County National Guard unit--106 men, brothers, uncles and nephews--were called up out of the blue and sent to Vietnam.
On June 19, 1969, the unit was overrun at Fire Base Tomahawk, and five Bardstown men died. (Two more from that unit would die later, a few miles away).
As one man hauled in another body, he told Don Parrish, now a Bardstown businessman, “This is gonna kill the people in Bardstown.”
It didn’t, of course. The area with the highest per capita casualty rate of the war--14 of its 6,000 people eventually died in Vietnam--"attends its day-to-day business without yelling about the war,” Parrish said.
For all its sin crops--whiskey, tobacco, hemp fields left over from the days of sailing ships--Bardstown did its duty. There was a drive among some survivors to file a lawsuit against the government for calling the men to active duty, but “it never got anywhere,” Parrish said.
So Bardstown has honored and buried its dead with two granite and marble monuments outside the courthouse.
All these years later, said another local businessman, there is still “a hollow feeling"--not that Bardstown’s soldiers died in vain, but that perhaps the government let them down. Over at Nelson County High School, with a plaque of the Ten Commandments in the foyer, Vietnam might as well be the Punic Wars for all that 17-year-old Robert Wicker can remember of it. “They were just names,” he said of the men killed when he was a year old. “I didn’t know any of them.”
From the beginning, Horace Champney was bound to turn out different. Champney is his mother’s name; his parents, who were anti-communist “philosophical anarchists,” never married because that would acknowledge government control of their lives.
Now, at 79, Champney, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, can look back on a life of what he calls “radical Quaker pacifist” protest. Every day of the war, he sent a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, enclosing $1 for the victims of American bombs and a scrap of sackcloth for L.B.J.'s conscience.
In 1967, he and others sailed “in defiance of the 7th Fleet” into North Vietnam’s Haiphong harbor with medical supplies. Two years later, he was fasting outside the White House, hoping that President Richard M. Nixon would listen to a fellow Quaker.
Champney is proud of his Vietnam protest, proud that it might have had a hand in the “gradual turning around of American public opinion. . . . The reaction now is ‘no more Vietnams.’ ”
“I think we need a whole new definition of patriotism: to be proud of my country being a responsible member of the world community, not as a big bully but in a helpful way.”
On their Vermont dairy farm one evening in 1967, William and Vera Vanderlaan decided they were fed up--not with the Vietnam War, but with the people protesting it.
“We were just tired of all the stuff across the country,” said William, now 55, and living in Fort Garland, Colo., “and wanted to do something different.”
Vera played the guitar and sang a bit like Joan Baez, so with neighbors’ help, they made their first record. The first pressing of 500 copies of “America Awake” was made on the kitchen table in their farm.
For about three years, they hired girls to milk the Ayrshires, and they toured, singing their songs and lecturing at high schools and hospitals.
For Vanderlaan, who now has a different wife, a new baby and a roadside antique shop, all that was long ago. (The last he knew, Vera was looking for work as a singer in Las Vegas). But some things don’t change.
“We were fighting for a reason, the Communist conspiracy, and it hasn’t gotten any better.” The dusty old 45 records, he says, still tell the truth: “We’re still combatting the Communist way of life, and we’re still losing.”
The war meant nothing to J. Chris Helopoulos until the basketball star at his Kankakee, Ill., high school came home with both legs missing. Until then, “It was all pretty vague. You knew it was going on but it was all just ‘over there.’ ”
When the nationwide draft lottery began in December, 1969, “everybody sat around listening to the radio--you didn’t think about the guys who were drawing 80s, you just thought about yourself,” said Helopoulos, now a photographer in his wife’s hometown, Birch Run, Mich.
Before he drew No. 331, he said, “I do remember thinking of running off to Canada. I remember mentioning it to my father and he was livid. I told him that if I’d lived in the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, I’d have signed up, too, but (Vietnam) was different.”
After the war, when the draft dodgers were pardoned, “I think it was pretty exciting--it said other people must have thought there was something wrong with the war.” Even in Birch Run, 10 years later, the wartime turmoil has an effect. “You don’t automatically assume everything’s right in Washington, D.C., anymore.”
One March in Washington, Veterans of Foreign Wars stalwart James H. Willis, of Carthage, Mo., was walking with Rep. James W. Symington, who asked, “What do we have to do to get you to believe in the amnesty?”
Willis pointed to a vet with an eyepatch, a vet in a wheelchair, and said, “The day you give that man an eye, and that man a leg, I’ll believe.”
Only God, said Symington, can grant that.
“That’s right,” Willis said, “and only God can grant amnesty.”
On V-J day 40 years ago, farmers celebrated by driving their trucks around and around the ornate Carthage courthouse where Willis, 59, now is county assessor. It galls him that Vietnam was any different.
The boys “didn’t think we looked up to them, but the only ones we didn’t look up to were the ones that got dishonorable discharges or went to Canada. We used to call them traitors, and we used to shoot traitors.”
It pains him to think of us losing a war, but that’s about the size of it.
“We should have dropped the atomic bomb over there and ended it like Truman did--it’d take guts,” said the staunch Democrat. The lesson he got from Vietnam was simple--"I don’t want no more American boys to die in no no-win wars--it’s a disgrace.”
During the seven years Jerry Driscoll was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, he heard a lot about Berkeley--about the protests, the flag-burnings, “all the bad things” from his captors.
And last year, when he told Air Force friends that he would head the Air Force ROTC program at Berkeley, they agreed drolly that it would be “interesting.”
It has been. Driscoll--now a 44-year-old colonel--heads the thriving Berkeley program and finds things have changed. Last October, when a passing student called out “no war” as Driscoll walked by, a woman student smiled at him and said, “Boy, they sure got some kooks on campus here, don’t they?”
ROTC students listen raptly to him, among them Pamela Kramer, 19, a bright, intense freshman who would like to see the Air Force lift the women-in-combat restriction so that if war ever came, she could fly jet fighters, too.
To her, Vietnam “was a victory but psychologically, it was not technically, when everyone in the U.S. was against it.”
As the chants of a rally--an anti-apartheid one this time--drifted across the campus, Driscoll nodded at Kramer. As he said in his Christmas newsletter, “the future of our country is in good hands. These are smart kids with their heads screwed on right.”
On Victory Road, a garish strip of bars and topless joints outside Ft. Benning, Ga., is Sailor Bill’s place (“I tattooed your daddy--50 years’ experience),” where Tazarr Forbes is waiting to get his homemade tattoo, “FREE AND EZ,” sparked up with a little color.
He is barely 18, from Alexandria, La., and the first time he was ever in an airplane was coming to Ft. Benning. He figured he’d have a military future; his father named him Tazarr, he says, after Attila the Hun’s eldest son. Until her dying day, his grandmother couldn’t get the hang of it and called him “Tarzan.”
What he knows of Vietnam, he knows from an uncle who came back from there so full of shrapnel he can’t go through a metal detector naked.
“He believes we were doing some good but it was done wrong,” Forbes said. “I believe we ought to go anywhere Communists are taking over. We should be in Afghanistan right now--I’d go myself. A ragtag army holding off the whole Soviet Union--kind of like us when we started out, a ragtag army against the British.”
Some high school history books are so old that they still list Gerald Ford as President. Alert to such things, Houghton Mifflin Co. of Boston is publishing a new 11th-grade American history book this year, “America the Glorious Republic.”
Vietnam gets more pages than Korea but fewer than World War II. “We went to a great effort to show there were differences of opinion” about Vietnam, said Houghton Mifflin’s executive editor, Geraldine Welbourne. “The Vietnam War to a kid coming into high school may come not long after the Civil War.”
The author, Henry F. Graff, a Columbia University professor who met with President Johnson during the war, and once had to brush aside radical Mark Rudd to get into his Columbia office, said he “wrote as I remember the issue emerging in the conscience of the American people.”
Graff hopes students who were still teething when Vietnam ended can conclude from the book that “we entered the war with considered high purpose, with the support of the leading journals of opinion; that the war didn’t turn out as we planned, that you don’t enter war lightly, and we must be on guard against exposing American lives and treasure without considered thought.”
When the Vietnam Memorial in Washington opened in 1982, Victor Westphall’s memorial in Eagle Pass, N.M., had been a going concern for 11 years.
His son David was killed in Vietnam in 1968, and from that moment, Westphall isolated himself from everything but the peace chapel, a winged monument that sits lightly, like a moth, on a windy hillside below the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
To the Taos Pueblo Indians, this was a sacred place; to Vietnam veterans, “this is literally sacred soil” too, said Westphall.
During all those years when people thought he was obsessed, he stood his ground. And now, the nation’s attitude is moving his way, he said. Thanks to money from a Disabled American Veterans group, there will be a new visitors’ center and funds for upkeep, which is good, because Westphall, at 71, wants to make sure this does not end with him.
In the tiny, triangular chapel, people leave mementos, so many things that Westphall has to store them away to make room for new tokens. Sometimes, their emotions catch them unprepared, and they scribble notes on bank deposit slips or paper towels. Someone tied a jaunty red bandanna around the base of the 13-foot cross. Someone left a yellow Frisbee, a box of rifle cartridges, a snapshot of a man and a child and a note: “We did what we could.”
In Columbus, Ga., a company town outside Ft. Benning, nearly everyone has a war story--but not everyone will tell it.
Former Army Lt. William L. Calley, who was convicted of killing 22 Vietnamese civilians in the 1968 My Lai massacre, lives there and manages his in-laws’ jewelry store. He walks away when anyone mentions the subject of the war or the massacre.
The name doesn’t ring an immediate bell for two 19-year-old soldiers from New York City washing out their GI greens in a motel laundry room.
James Collins Jr. just got his “blood wings” at airborne school. His proud father pinned them into his son’s skin, as tradition demands, said Collins, showing the red marks on his chest. He signed up five months ago for “college and career opportunities, to do something different and to serve our country.”
His buddy, John Taddeo, signed up partly because he was “tired of seeing our ass kicked by everyone else.”
In high school, they spent “three weeks studying the American Revolution and a couple of days on Vietnam. We didn’t get much out of that war, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have,” said Collins. “This might not be the greatest country, but I live here and we’re supposed to be the good guys and spread democracy.”
Collins’ visiting father, James Sr., poked his head in the laundry room. A “little war” would be good business, he says. “Not a big one, a small one. You need a war for the economy’s sake. Not like Vietnam, just a little skirmish.”
Sylvia Meno’s son, furious that four of his best friends had been killed, volunteered five times before he finally got sent to Vietnam, where he was killed in 1970.
Emily Wright’s son dropped out of his senior year of college with mononucleosis, was drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he was killed in 1968.
Both mothers now find solace in the Gold Star Mothers group, meeting in Tacoma, Wash., and wish more Vietnam mothers would, too.
Meno, 60, of Seattle, said she had told her son, Army Capt. George Meno Jr., “I’d rather you were a living coward than a dead hero, and he said, ‘Mom, never say that again.’ ” She last saw him in 1970, when he returned to bury his father in Arlington National Cemetery.
“I said, ‘Why do you want to go back, now that your father is dead and I need you?’ He said, ‘No, Mom, my country needs me more.’ ”
Six months later, he was back in Arlington, for burial alongside his father.
Cpl. Darryl Wright, born on Armistice Day, 1944, was “such a pacifist, one to help the underdog,” smiled his mother, Emily, 67, of Mercer Island, Wash. “It was such a horrible thing for him; he tried to do the best he could each day.”
He was killed in Vietnam eight months after he got there.
Both women were picketed on Memorial Day two years ago as they laid wreaths. “I think we feel we’ve lost our sons and the loss wasn’t appreciated,” said Wright. “I wish it had been a declared war; maybe I could be more at peace.” But both are prouder, more patriotic now.
“I didn’t want him to go,” said Meno, “but now I have to stand behind his belief.”
The impact of TV on Vietnam is discussed in Calendar series.