Chapter 13—"Cruel War"
Vietnam was a civil war—mothers against children, workers against workers, students against students, a war for the soul of the country. Society continued to fragment. The endless hostile undeclared war in an unknown land split the country apart and spilled its blood. This bitter war also held a generation together. Cemented by Kennedy’s assassination, we became the tasters and seekers of a new world, a powerless powerful majority.
Protests continued all winter, not only of an illegal war but of an inequitable and immoral government policy. A policy gone awry, a disenchantment, authority viewed as illegitimate, arbitrary. My country ’tis of thee sweet land of misery. Sweet land of tyranny.
By Becky Jamison
The presidential election, eight months away, is swinging into high gear. Senator Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota has announced his candidacy, challenging President Lyndon Johnson. In his announcement, McCarthy said “The entire history of this war in Vietnam, no matter what we call it, has been one of continued error and misjudgment.”
The Lake Forest College Students Against the War has endorsed Senator McCarthy. Jake Stedman, the leader of the group, said, “McCarthy has a clear vision about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He was correct when he said ‘Our country right or wrong – when right, to be kept right, when wrong, to be put right.’ We support McCarthy’s efforts to put this country back on the right course.”
Thousands of young folks have become “Clean for Gene.” They are cutting their hair, shaving their beards, taking off their bellbottoms and knocking on doors for McCarthy.
If you want to become involved, join the LFC Students Against the War. Wednesdays at 7:00. Bradley Hall.
Early March we heard McCarthy’s radio message for the New Hampshire primary. “Four years ago. America had 3,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. Two years ago, we had 100,000 men in Vietnam, and we were told we were winning the war. Today, we have 550,000 men in Vietnam and we’re told we’re winning the war. There’s got to be a better way than death, double talk and taxes. On March 12, stand up with McCarthy and say so.” When the results came in, McCarthy got 42% of the vote and came close to beating a seated President.
Four days after the New Hampshire primary, Bobby Kennedy entered the race. In his announcement he said, “At stake is not simply the leadership of our country. It is our right to moral leadership of this planet.”
I wanted someone to restore order to the chaos. Our disillusionment peaked. The war was out of control. In one week five hundred and forty-seven Americans were killed. I thought of the black asphalt, the smell of fifty-five gallon drums of oil, the heat, the humidity, five hundred and forty-seven black body bags with white nametags.
All spring I campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, addressing envelopes at the campaign office in Chicago, looking up telephone numbers for pollsters. I put a McCarthy bumper sticker on my dorm room door, and wore my McCarthy button.
But truth-truth. I loved Bobby Kennedy. I loved him when he was Attorney General and played football on the White House lawn with his brothers. I loved the way he rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. I loved the way he talked with his thick Boston accent. I loved his hair and the way he pushed it back with the palm of his hand. Reminded me of Marty. I loved the Kennedys. But I campaigned for McCarthy. How could I face my friends if I did otherwise?
On the last day of March, 1968, Ginger called. “President Johnson is about to make an important speech. Come watch with us.”
“I’ve got an article due tomorrow, Ginger. Tell me what happens.”
Ginger said, “You can’t miss it. Everything we’ve been doing all year has led up to this.”
“Tell her I bought Oreos,” I heard someone yell from the background.
“Was that Marty and did he say Oreos?” I asked.
“Yes. And Jeff just got here.”
I was convinced. I arrived at Bradley Hall with my guitar. Jeff was on a couch chatting with Jake. Hook paced back and forth. I walked up to him. “Hook, there are plenty of couches,” I said.
He gave me the hug I was looking for. “I can’t sit. Studying all day and too much coffee.”
I walked over to Marty who was on the couch, his elbows on his knees, hands on his face, telling Hook to get out of the way of the TV every time he wandered in front of it. “I bet Hook is driving you crazy,” I said to Marty.
“Completely. Hook, get the hell away from the television set,” Marty called out.
Hook grinned and raised his hook to Marty.
Ginger and I played our guitars and sang until the speech started.
Jake had a notebook in front of him to write down every important thing LBJ said even though we knew the entire speech would be in the paper tomorrow. I put my guitar away and joined Jeff on the couch. He fed me Oreos.
Oreos reminded me of summer evenings at the elderly couple’s house across the street from where I grew up. Their grandchildren came every summer, all seven of them, and every summer we became best of friends again. My siblings and I challenged them to hour-long games of croquet at the field next to their house and when it was too dark to play, bowls of Oreos and glasses of milk appeared on their front porch. We chased fireflies and put them in jars with pierced lids. Life was easy then, in 1960, when I was ten going on eleven. Oreos, milk, croquet, fireflies in jars. It was the best of times. That was before all this. Back before the fireflies all died.
“Whatever happened to fireflies?” I asked Jeff as we sat there on the couch in Bradley Hall waiting for Johnson’s speech to begin.
“What?” he asked.
“I was thinking about how when I was ten we used to catch fireflies. I haven’t seen a firefly in a long time. Where did they go?”
“Maybe you caught them all. Oreo?”
I took an Oreo and wondered what happened to those times when the world was easy to understand.
Johnson started by telling us what we already knew. They attack. We attack. “Alright, LBJ. Tell us something we don’t know.” Marty talked to the TV. Jake wrote everything down. I ate Oreos.
Johnson announced a unilateral bombing halt on North Vietnam. We were skeptical, his motives suspect. A decrease in bombing had to mean something else.
“What the fuck do you mean?” Marty asked the TV. “You’re going to decrease bombing and increase napalm? Hey man, if you pretend you care about ending the war you might win the nomination.”
Jeff turned to me, “Be back in a second.” He got up to leave. As he passed Marty he patted his shoulder. “Hey man. You’re talking to the TV. People are going to think you’re crazy.” Marty didn’t even look at him.
Jeff walked out the front door. I had no idea where he was going. Ginger glanced my way and gave me a questioning look. I looked at Hook. He looked back. I shrugged my shoulders.
The speech droned on. LBJ told us how noble our country was because we wanted to end the war if only Hanoi would talk to us. Marty said, “It would be noble to get out.” Hook kept pacing. Jake said, “Marty, hush,” and kept writing.
He talked about the budget, taxes and prosperity. I couldn’t follow his train of thought. Must have been all the Oreos I was eating or the fact that Jeff was back and while he was feeding me Oreos with one hand the other was moving up and down my leg. It was hard to listen.
LBJ said one day there would be peace in Southeast Asia but they had to want it. “It will come if we get the hell out of there.” Marty stood and gestured towards the TV.
“Sit down, Marty. You’re blocking the TV,” Jake said. He stopped writing
LBJ told us to quit being so divisive. If we would just unite.
“Fuck you, Johnson,” Hook said gesturing with his hook towards the TV.
“We aren’t the ones being divisive,” Marty said.
“We are united, Johnson. You’re the one who isn’t,” Ginger said.
“Hush,” said Jake, “He’s not finished.”
Jeff didn’t say anything. He was watching the TV with a grin on his face and rubbing my leg. I didn’t say anything. I had a mouthful of Oreos.
I was only half listening when at the end of his speech President Johnson said, “Accordingly, I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party for another term as your President.”
“No way,” Marty said. That summed it up. That was the end of his talking to the TV. We just won our first battle.
During this whole time, the military was covering up the slaughter of close to five hundred innocent South Vietnamese civilians in the town of My Lai. It would take more than a year and a half for the story to break. Don’t let anyone tell you war is about national honor. It’s not. It’s about despair, helplessness and ugly senseless murder.
U.S. Soldier Body Count: 24,942