Bill McCloud was sitting at his desk in front of the chalkboard when Principal Rick Elliott walked in. By his look, he wanted something.
McCloud glanced up. It was quiet, the hour before first period. Most of the youngsters in Pryor Junior High were still at home. Bill McCloud liked to use this hour, in the early hush, to go over his material for social studies one more time.
But his principal had a request. Come fall, he said, he wanted Bill to teach two classes of American history. More important, he said, it might be a good idea to use these classes to pay special attention to some history that seemed to be getting short shrift: the Vietnam War.
McCloud was surprised.
Students Not Born
American troops had left Vietnam in 1973. That was before most of his students were born. Bill McCloud, 39, had served in Vietnam. Nonetheless, the war, without a doubt, was history.
He would teach it.
But then it struck him: Beyond his own wartime experience--a year’s worth--he knew very little about the country, or the war, or its context. Worse, at times sentiments about these things still ran deep.
He felt uncomfortable. For a long moment, he stared at the beige walls of his classroom. Then, in a notebook, one he had salvaged from a wastebasket where it had been thrown, half-used, by a student, he wrote the only word that occurred to him as he considered the prospect of teaching about Vietnam:
Over the next year, he answered the question in a unique way. Quietly, in this little-noticed corner of Oklahoma, he triggered an extraordinary outpouring of national conscience. And in his endeavor, Bill McCloud created a remarkable historical record, one that will be of value to scholars for years to come.
Bill McCloud was born in Ponca City, 120 miles west of here, a town of 28,200 mostly humble, hard-working people. His father was a Baptist minister who could not feed five children on a preacher’s pay--so he wrestled drill pipe in the oil patch as well. He and Bill’s mother taught their youngsters to be hard-working, creative and open-minded.
Although Bill paid just enough attention in school to pass, if he found something that interested him, he worked at it prodigiously--until he mastered it. Baseball: He didn’t play much, but he read every baseball book he could find. Custom cars: He didn’t own one, but he paged through every hot rod magazine around. He read one Sherlock Holmes; then he read them all. He read one play by Shakespeare--then all the rest.
In a young, round hand, he filled notebooks: all he could find out about Dracula; everything he could discover about 20th-Century presidents; all he could learn about astronauts.
If he wanted to know something that was not readily available, he went straight to the main source. When he got curious about the novel “Black Stallion,” for instance, he wrote to Walter Farley, who authored it--and got a reply. When his father took him to St. Louis to watch the Cardinals play, he wrote to Harry Caray, then the team broadcaster--and got recommendations for the best seats.
At 18, he went to Northern Oklahoma College in Tonkawa. When lectures grew boring, he skipped them--and got the material on his own. He passed exams with A’s and Bs; but since Tonkawa graded on attendance, he got Cs and Ds for the semester. President John F. Kennedy and the Green Berets seemed more interesting. So he joined the Army--for the sheer adventure of it. It seemed like the Steve McQueen thing to do.
After basic training, he was sent to Vietnam. He was assigned to a helicopter company at Vung Tau, 50 miles southeast of Saigon, where he became a flight operations coordinator. From a shack with a tin roof, he dispatched double-rotor Chinooks on combat support. He heard anxious gunners say they had taken hits. He listened to one crewman radio that his pilot had been wounded, and he heard the pilot of another helicopter talk the crewman down. He volunteered for chopper missions. Wind burned his face as he leaned into open portholes with an M-14. He was not certain he hit anyone; but he won an air medal.
He wasn’t married. He didn’t have children. Becoming a helicopter gunner would be a lot more exciting than talking into a microphone in a tin shack. He spoke to one gunner about it. Then another. A third. A fourth. Each told him he was crazy.
“I came that close,” he wrote his mother. To show her, he drew two lines a sixteenth of an inch apart.
When he returned to Ponca City, Bill McCloud got a warm welcome. People shook his hand and hugged him. “We’re glad you’re back,” they said, but “we’re proud that you went.” Still, he did not resent draft dodgers or deserters or war resisters. He did not think other people should have gone to Vietnam just because he did. That had been his choice, and they had made theirs.
He went back to college, got a bachelor’s degree in social studies education from Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, then a master’s degree in education with a certificate in history from Northeastern State University of Oklahoma at Tahlequah. To accept his first teaching job, he moved to Pryor, a town of 9,000 people and six stoplights--where cars still park diagonally, old-timers sit on their front porches and the time to rob a bank is when the Tigers play Claremore in football, because the whole town goes to the game.
His job was teaching social studies at Pryor Junior High. He married an English teacher. They had a daughter and a son and settled into a gray brick house with a shingle roof and a black mailbox with a red flag. He drove a middle-aged car. He tended toward the slightly stocky and grew a mustache. In time, his black hair picked up some gray.
He got along well with his junior high charges. He accepted the ones with burr haircuts and outlooks to match. But he was just as accepting of the youngsters who wore long hair and, now and then, an earring--even if they were boys.
In 12 years at Pryor, he came close to forgetting Vietnam.
And now he had to teach about it.
“What?” It was understatement.
He stared at his salvaged notebook.
Then, somewhere, the ghosts of Walter Farley and Harry Caray stirred.
Bill McCloud wrote for help: From 10 universities, he asked for reading lists--he got six; from dozens of publishers, he asked for books--he got more than 100.
He wrote to 60 principals in Oklahoma with questions about how they handled Vietnam at their junior high schools. Forty-eight replied. More than a third said their schools did not teach anything about Vietnam.
Finally, he wrote questionnaires to 702 junior high students in Pryor, Ponca City and Claremore. What did they know about the war? One said: “It wasn’t really a war!?” Another said: “It’s really us against ourselves.” Another: “It took place in the Philippines.” Still another: “Great Britain started it when someone shot the duke.”
What did they want to know about Vietnam? “Which countries fought in the war?” “Who won?” “Why were there so many pacifists and idiots at that time?”
For all that, Bill McCloud still did not know what to teach. So he sat down with his black, felt-tip pen and wrote for more help--this time to everybody who was anybody during Vietnam. Presidents, vice presidents, presidential advisers, members of Congress, generals, secretaries of state, secretaries of defense, war protesters, scholars, novelists, prisoners of war, journalists.
He wrote in a strong, bold hand. Except for each addressee’s name and the salutation, every letter was the same. “Sir, I am a Vietnam veteran and junior high history teacher. . . . If you could find the time, please send me your response to the following question: ‘What do you think are the most important things for today’s junior high students to understand about the Vietnam War?’ Even a very brief reply would be most helpful. Thank you. Sincerely, Bill McCloud.”
He mailed 150 of these letters to addresses he found in “Who’s Who in America,” as well as in other reference books.
Deep down, he feared that nothing would happen.
Because schoolteachers do not get paid much, Bill McCloud worked as usual that summer as a checkout supervisor at Wal-Mart. His wife, Tracy, picked him up after work, and they drove to Pryor Junior High to check the mail. Nothing.
But then, after several weeks, in the letter bin he found an envelope addressed to him.
He pulled it out and ripped it open.
Dear Mr. McCloud:
I am writing you from a committee meeting in the California Legislature, a position I never imagined holding in the 1960s--a time when most students couldn’t vote. . . . I don’t want to preach about the losses of Vietnam. Each generation somehow discovers its own lessons. I only hope that your students demand to know the full truth about a conflict before they make a personal decision on whether to risk their lives. The government unfortunately did not tell us the truth about Vietnam, and they are not telling the truth about Central America today.
I wish you a more peaceful world than that of my generation.
Hayden, now a California assemblyman, had been a founder of Students for a Democratic Society and was one of the Chicago Seven war protesters convicted of breaking anti-riot laws at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. His letter was the beginning of a deluge of mail. More letters came, in twos, threes, eights, tens--until they totaled nearly a hundred.
McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser during the war, who had helped convince President Lyndon B. Johnson to bomb North Vietnam:
I would put first the very hard problem of deciding when your support to an ally should be held back. We should have let South Vietnam be taken over before we did -- but that was a choice each President rejected, for powerful reasons. How do you keep out of that bind without losing more than makes sense?
George Bush, Republican candidate for President and a wartime congressman and ambassador to the United Nations, who had said the United States must win in Vietnam “no matter what weapons we use” because the Red Chinese were the real enemy:
--We must ensure that any major foreign policy commitment has the full support and understanding of the American people. . . . Without such support , a protracted U.S. involvement cannot succeed.
--The United States must have a clear understanding of the historical processes at work. . . . The U . S . viewed the Vietnam War as the first step in China’s drive to expand its influence throughout Southeast Asia, forgetting the long history of fighting between China and Vietnam. . . .
--The United States entered the Vietnam War viewing it as another Korea. In fact, the causes for the war, the topography and the methods used by the enemy were very different . . . .
--The United States essentially fought the war for the South Vietnamese. In future conflicts of this type, every effort must be made to encourage the beleaguered people of a country to fight for their own survival as is being done in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.
Our participation in Vietnam was right, albeit poorly conducted.
Jimmy Carter, the first President after Vietnam:
This war had a devastating impact on the American public, creating a sense of confusion over purpose and a buildup of mistrust in our high government officials.
Clark Clifford, close friend of President Johnson, an early champion of the war, then later, as Johnson’s secretary of defense, a proponent of de-escalation and disengagement:
My generation of leaders believed in the 1960s that there was a joint understanding between the Soviet Union and Red China to spread the philosophy of communism throughout Southeast Asia, so that they would have no trouble controlling that area of the world. . . . We felt that aggression in Southeast Asia must be stopped at its inception or it would spread into the Pacific, to the Philippines, and even as far as Australia and New Zealand.
As the war in Vietnam progressed and as we poured more and more men into the morass of Southeast Asia it became clear to some of us that the original calculation was erroneous. Our motivations for becoming involved were moral and highly ethical and humane, but the basic reasoning was fallacious. It is clear to me that we should not have sent American troops to fight in this war and that a final decision to withdraw our participation was correct and should not have been delayed so long.
J. William Fulbright, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman during the war and manager of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which gave President Johnson power to commit American forces in Vietnam, later a leading critic of the war:
The principal lesson from Vietnam is that the United States should not intervene in other countries with military forces unless that country is a serious threat to our own security.
Arthur J. Goldberg, also a wartime ambassador to the United Nations, who had defended American intervention in Vietnam:
One, America should never be involved in a war where its vital national interests are not at stake. Two, our country should never engage in a war which is not declared by Congress in a formal declaration, as required by our Constitution.
Barry Goldwater, a U.S. senator and Republican presidential candidate during the war, who had urged bombing Vietnam “back to the Stone Age:”
The best thing I could tell your students, is that when you decide to go to war, you at the same instant, decide to win it. It’s just like having a fight with another fellow, if you go into it halfheartedly, you’re going to get the daylights beat out of you.
Graham Greene, author of “The Quiet American,” which warned 10 years before the war that Vietnam could be quicksand:
I hope that a future generation of American students will realise the impossibility of a Foreign Office which involves itself in a war which does not concern them thousands of miles away. . . .
Richard Holbrooke, U.S. foreign service officer in Vietnam, a member of the White House staff under President Johnson, finally on the U.S. staff at the Paris peace talks:
Our strategy was flawed, our Saigon ally corrupt and incompetent. . . . It has become a cliche to say that we lost the Vietnam War at home. This is not true. The war was lost on the ground in Vietnam. Many of the dissenters and opponents of the war raised legitimate questions. The cost of the war--in lives and our national treasure, and in the effect it had on our souls--was enormous. Even if we had been able to achieve our objective, it would not have been worth it. . . .
Capt. John S. McCain III, Vietnam prisoner of war, now a U.S. senator:
Following the end of U.S. involvement in Indochina, Gen. Maxwell Taylor stated the conditions under which he thought it was appropriate to commit U.S. troops overseas. I subscribe to Gen. Taylor’s criteria and believe these maxims must be adhered to in the wake of our misfortunes in Vietnam. First, the objectives of the commitment must be explainable to the man in the street in one or two sentences. Second, there must be clear support of the President by Congress. Third, there must be a reasonable expectation of success. Finally, there must be a clear American interest at stake.
Robert S. McNamara, secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and such a forceful promoter of the Vietnam War that it became known as “McNamara’s War:”
The United States must be careful not to interpret events occurring in a different land in terms of its own history, politics, culture and morals.
Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, wartime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:
Tell your junior high students that when they grow up, never to permit politicians to enter a war which they do not intend to win.
Maj. Gen. George S. Patton, son of the World War II commander, leader of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam:
1. There was an absence, almost total, of a national strategy. . . .
2. All . . . Principles of War were violated from time to time. . . . I would add . . . (the principle) of Cultural Understanding. It was also violated because in most cases, it simply did not exist.
3. LBJ failed to mobilize either the Armed Forces or the people at home. . . .
4. In 1962-65, the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) and the embassy lied to the press and hence alienated them. They failed to realize the mobility of the press in that war, through the use of helicopters.
5. The most important point your students must obtain, is the fact that because of our defeat in so-called limited warfare by an 8th-rate power (if that high), our enemies have discovered an Achilles’ heel and are putting it to us in Central America today.
John Clark Pratt, professor at Colorado State University, renowned for its library collection on Vietnam; author of “Vietnam Voices: Perspectives on the War Years, 1941-1982":
Two Administrations kept the public in the dark about what was really going on and the Oliver Norths of those days were allowed to do their own things. . . . The American public could have known, if people had cared enough to read and think. . . . Find out for yourself. . . . Work at being a member of a free society. If you don’t, someone else may well cause you to lose your freedom. . . .
The parallels to Central America should be obvious. I’m definitely against covert wars, believing as I do that if it’s good enough to fight for, it’s worth telling the truth about.
Nicholas Profitt, Newsweek bureau chief in Saigon during the war:
War is not glamorous. Junior high school students are of an age when young boys (girls seem to have much more sense) are inclined to see glory in war. They play war. They watch war movies on television. They spend hours drawing pictures of tanks and airplanes and bloody battles. Try this instead: First draw a picture of your father lying dead on the ground; then draw a picture of your mother burying your baby brother or sister. Does war still look glamorous. . . . ?
There was, and is, no Rambo.
Ronald Reagan, California governor known for his opposition to war resisters, now President of the United States:
Those Americans who went to Vietnam fought for freedom, a truly noble cause. It is a cause that continues. You and your comrades-in-arms who faced danger and death in Vietnam fought as well as any Americans have fought in our Nation’s history. Vietnam was not so much a war as it was one long battle in an ongoing war--the war in defense of freedom which is still under assault. This battle was lost not by those brave American and South Vietnamese troops who were waging it but by political misjudgments and strategic failure at the highest levels of government.
The tragedy--indeed, the immorality--of those years was that for the first time in our history our country and its government failed to match the heroic sacrifice of our men in the field. This must never happen again. . . .
Paul Warnke, assistant secretary of defense who ultimately helped persuade McNamara and then Clifford to curb American military involvement in Vietnam; more recently chief strategic arms negotiator for President Reagan:
The fact is that the Government of Vietnam in Saigon was an artificial contrivance that enjoyed no significant popular support. The nationalist drive was centered in Hanoi and the Viet Cong. We became involved because we viewed the Indochinese conflict as part of a global struggle with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. It was, instead, an indigenous revolution in which we had no legitimate role.
Gen. William C. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam:
The Vietnam War . . . was a limited war, with limited objectives, prosecuted by limited means, with limited public support. Therefore, it was destined to be (and was) a long war . A war so long that public support waned and political decisions by the Congress terminated our involvement, resulting in a military victory by the North Vietnamese Communists. . .
The military did not lose a battle of consequence and did not lose the war. The war was lost by congressional actions withdrawing support to the South Vietnamese government despite commitments by President Nixon.
Slowly, Bill McCloud sorted out what he perceived to be the lessons contained in these letters.
Among them were:
- “Our cause was just, maybe even noble, because we entered into the war for moral, unselfish reasons.
- “Overall, the United States never fielded better armies.
- “Nevertheless, the war was probably a mistake.
- “The United States should not intervene in another country with military force unless that country is a serious threat to our own security.
- “The United States ended up fighting an ‘unwinnable war’ because of (a) broad popular support for the Viet Cong, (b) the corruption of the South Vietnamese government and (c) the limits the United States imposed upon itself.
- “We must not engage in war without a total commitment to win. The United States should never engage in a war not formally declared by Congress.
- “The United States learned there are limits to its power in a nuclear age.
- “Stay informed about world affairs and what our government is doing.
- “All wars are an enormous waste of life.”
The historical journal American Heritage published excerpts from the letters--which, as a body of documents, held scholarly interest. And the University of Oklahoma Press commissioned a book to collect them all.
Bill McCloud found that he had changed--and he did a most un-Steve McQueen thing.
He cautioned his students:
Never fight in a war for the sheer adventure of it.