Looking back from late twentieth century to the Vietnam era and its horrors, it is a miracle that the United States escaped the trap without more trauma and outrage than it suffered. By "trap" I mean an almost inescapable web spun by the passionate and, at face value, reasonable argument: "They killed ten . . ." or " . . . a thousand . . ." or " . . . ten thousand of our boys, and we can't let those deaths be for nothing!" Our Indochina trap had many strands forged of much death and suffering on all sides.

The logic behind our involvement slowly dissolved under the concerted pressures of a noisy, active handful of sometimes-enlightened individuals and groups. At the time, it outwardly appeared as though the only dissidents protesting our role in the conflict were young people, especially college youths and those of draftable age. The generation gap, already widened by rock 'n' roll, the growing popularity of freaky slang, clothing and hair styles, and a booming drug subculture, grew more precipitous.

What the media didn't pick up on, while actively and verbosely generating the "gap" explanation for protesters, was that some influential philosophical leaders of the time were definitely part of the older generation. Eminent examples were:


John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-1982), author of The New Industrial State;


Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), with his book Brave New World;


C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), writer of The Power Elite;


Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), who wrote Liberation from the Affluent Society;


George Orwell (pen name for Eric Blair), (1903-1950), creator of books Animal Farm and 1984;


B(urrhus) F(rederic) Skinner (1904-1990), who in 1971 wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

Prophets of the now and future, with a great list of others across the generations, effectively turned the societal spotlight onto the seedier aspects and tendencies of power summed as Authoritarianism. This goal to which power naturally strives was blamed by many as the basic reason for our continuing the "war." Some wrote out of their analyses of Hitler's Germany and attempted to expose the evils before they could take root again, this time in the United States. Others felt it was too late and that our freedoms were already being trampled upon. On the other side of the coin, there were those who believed there was only one problem with the modern generation. It had not been trained properly in ways designed to instill social conformity.

Anti-war sentiments emanated from a rich mixture of older intelligentsia and younger, passionate activists. Feeding the momentum were a widening assortment of isms, ologies, and ideals gradually becoming a quickening social and political force. The resulting direction gave rise to the Democratic Party's 1968 "stop the bombing" platform espoused by senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy. In 1972 it inspired the serious "George McGovern for President" campaign, also the less serious "Pat Paulsen for President." Yet the movement's publicized radicalism made it unpopular with the ruling silent majority, who mobilized against it with their opinions and their votes.

The more conservative element sponsored "Richard M. Nixon for President" in 1968 and 1972. Mr. Nixon was less controversial in his approach to the subject of Vietnam and could thus count on a larger share of silent majority votes. He had it the most difficult at the time of the 1968 Presidential election. His number one opponent in that race was Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat who in many ways had a similarly favorable standing with the silent majority.

President Nixon was not deaf to the call to get out of Vietnam as evidenced by his initiating the process called "vietnamization." This program began in 1969 and consisted of a gradual withdrawal from Vietnam by American troops to be replaced by Vietnamese soldiers. Yet he soon took the hotseat as the anti-war movement's number one villain. After all, he was in the White House, he insisted on America presenting a facade of conformity to the world, and most importantly he freely abused the IRS, FBI and CIA to further this insistence.

Meanwhile, Mr. Nixon worked hard to pull our troops out of Vietnam in a way that he felt would best save face, his and that of the United States. In the end it was not the Vietnam War but dirty tricks that caused him to leave office and lose face. It was his "appointed" presidential replacement, Gerald Ford, who brought the American involvement in Vietnam to an end on May 9, 1975.

I became a participant in this drama in 1968, at age 19, after joining the Navy. At the time I felt it was my patriotic duty to fight for the American Way of Life then in jeopardy. Of course, there were other considerations. Some of these were "Join the Navy and see the world," "Join the Navy and be a man," or more significantly, "Join the Navy or be drafted as cannon fodder for the Army or Marines." The proper choice seemed obvious at the time.

I never questioned the rightness or wrongness of the war during the early part of my enlistment. Instead, I adopted an attitude in proper and expected conformity with the lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's (1809-1892) poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade":


"Theirs not to make reply,



Theirs not to reason why,



Theirs but to do and die . . .."


Gradually I internalized a portion of anti-war unrest. Though my opinion turned against our involvement, I still felt committed to do the "honorable" thing, i.e., that which would result in an honorable discharge. Ironically, my integrity suffered for the choice. Still, I was not up to facing the consequences of making the decision many others had. These "others" were draft dodgers and deserters, who pitted themselves against The Establishment and thus became fair game for the many government agents moving about.

My time in the Navy was sometimes traumatic, especially towards the end, but was always interesting, and many things happened during those four years that enriched my life. A most amazing aspect of shipboard life was seeing the process work, where more than four thousand men of different races, and from many walks of life and backgrounds, got used to living and working collectively. Far from being a "given," the compressing together of so many variables required a major effort on everybody's part to succeed.

I was a young man from Michigan, never before having left that state, who suddenly found himself on an increasingly foreign and hostile globe. Stepping from provincial into macrocosmic took me far from home and required dealing with new and often conflicting realities. Yet my upbringing had not prepared me for effectively relating to belief structures and lifestyles variant to those allowed into my life by family, church and regional environment. As the world opened, all those things from which I was earlier sheltered lay patiently in wait.

Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige


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