Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Our Nation Divided

By Mark W. Danielson

Currently, our nation is divided over our wars, health care, and the economy, and yet there is little vocal opposition. Compared to the citizens of the Vietnam era, we seem apathetic. As someone who grew up observing anti-war protests while working in Berkeley, I have spent countless hours wondering why the difference between then and now. My best determination is our concerns ended with the draft.

Today’s soldier/veterans receive far more support than those returning from Vietnam. However, few tears are shed over those who have died or were injured in the Middle East because these soldiers “knew the risks” when they volunteered their service. The death toll from our eight years in Vietnam was 58,159, another 2,000 missing, and 303,635 seriously wounded. The September 2009 Middle East Wars Report states that 4,343 lives have been lost and 31,156 seriously wounded in Iraq, and 746 lost lives and 2,238 seriously wounded in Afghanistan. Sadly, these numbers rise daily.

Since I’m targeting the change in our selective service policy as the key to our nation’s apathy, here are some notable facts to back up my claim. While one might believe a citizen’s call to duty dates back to the Revolutionary War, the draft for involuntary military service didn’t come about until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940. The newly formed Selective Service Agency was tasked with filling armed forces vacancies that could not be filled through voluntary means. Local draft boards determined who in the 19-26 year old age group was to serve, and allowed deferments for college, special industry employment, and medical qualification. Conscientious objectors were permitted to opt for non-combat assignments. Little has changed in this regard.

The use of the involuntary two year service has varied since World War II. The draft ramped up when the United States became involved in the Korean War, and once again for the Vietnam conflict. On December 1, 1969, the Selective Service Agency changed the system to a lottery using birth dates to draft eligible people. The lottery gave advanced notice to those likely to be drafted so they could enlist in any of the services, or wait to be drafted. There is a misperception that minorities were drafted at a higher rate than non-minorities. According to Richard Kolb, editor of VFW Magazine, only 12% of those drafted were black, and the same percentage was killed in Vietnam. Of all service members drafted, only 50% served in Vietnam. Two thirds of the service members serving in Vietnam were volunteers. 92% of the draftees served in the Army. The remaining 8% served in the Marine Corps.

Anti-Vietnam sentiment dates back to 1945 when US Merchant Marines condemned the US government for using their ships to transport French troops into Vietnam. In September 1950, the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group to Vietnam was established in Saigon to supervise the issuance and employment of US military equipment to support French legionnaires in their effort to combat Viet Minh forces. By 1953, U.S. military aid had leaped from $10 million to over $350 million.

The 1954 Geneva Conference divided Vietnam into two countries. Senator John F. Kennedy later said in a speech to the American Friends of Vietnam that, "Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism Overflowed into Vietnam." When Kennedy won the 1960 presidential election, his inaugural address included a pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.” However, Kennedy's 1961 policy was that South Vietnamese forces must ultimately defeat their insurgent communist guerrillas on their own. He opposed the deployment of American combat troops to Vietnam, observing that "to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.”
America’s military involvement escalated in August, 1964, after the intelligence gathering ship, USS Maddox, was fired upon by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. After the USS Turner Joy was allegedly fired upon two days later, Congress was prompted to approve the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which gave President Johnson the power to conduct military operations in Southeast Asia without declaring war. Between 1961 and 1964, the North Vietnamese Army's strength rose from about 850,000 to nearly a million men. By comparrison, in 1961, the US had deployed 2,000 men, which rose to 16,500 in 1964. The March 2, 1965 attack on a US Marine barracks at Pleiku provoked a three year bombing campaign of North Vietnam.

1965 not only emersed the United States in the Vietnam War, it saw the first organized Anti-War protests with 2500 Students for a Democratic Society attending a teach-in at the University of Michigan with similar protests following at 35 universities. On November 27, several student activist groups led some 40,000 protesters to the White House, calling for an end to the war, and then marched to the Washington Monument. On that same day, President Johnson announced a significant escalation of US involvement in Indochina, from 120,000 to 400,000 troops.

In February 1966, some 100 veterans attempted to return their decorations to the White House in protest of the war, but were turned back. By March, 20,000 people protested in New York City. A Gallup poll showed that 59% approved of sending troops to Vietnam. Interestingly, 71% of those between 21-29 years old approved of the war compared to 48% of those over 50. On May 15, 10,000 anti-war protesters picketed the White House and Washington Monument.
On January 14, 1967, 20,000-30,000 people staged a “Human Be-In” anti-war event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. On March 12, a three page anti-war ad appeared in The New York Times bearing the signatures of 6,766 teachers and professors. March 17 saw an anti-war group march on the Pentagon. Martin Luther King then led a 5,000 strong anti-war protest in Chicago on March 25th. On April 15, 400,000 people marched from Central Park to the UN building in New York City and 100,000 protested in San Francisco. A July 30 Gallup poll reported that 52% of Americans disapproved of President Johnson's handling of the war; 41% thought the US made a mistake in sending troops; over 56% thought US was losing the war or was at an impasse. On August 28, 1967, US Representative Tim Lee Carter (R-KY) stated before congress, "Let us now, while we are yet strong, bring our men home . . . The Vietcong fight fiercely and tenaciously because it is their land and we are foreigners intervening in their civil war. If we must fight, let us fight in defense of our homeland and our own hemisphere." 100,000 demonstrators protested at the Lincoln Memorial on October 21, 1967. Later that day, an estimated 30,000 marched to the Pentagon for a second rally followed by an all-night vigil. When undercover agents foiled a plot to airdrop 10,000 flowers on the Pentagon, the flowers were placed in the barrels of MP's rifles.

By February, 1968, Johnson’s handling of the war had fallen to 35% approval with 50% disapproving. The national media filmed the April 17 anti-war riot that broke out in Berkeley, California. The filmed response by Berkeley Police sparked reactions in Berlin and Paris. Anti-war protests taunted the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Tensions between police and protesters quickly escalated, resulting in a “police riot”. In August, the Gallup poll now showed that 53% believed it was a mistake to send troops to Vietnam. By November 1968, the 2 ½ year bombing campaign that had deluged the north with a million tons of missiles, rockets and bombs still failed to end the war.

By March 1969, polls indicated that only 19% of Americans favored the war policy, and 26% wanted South Vietnam to take over responsibility for the war. On October 15, millions of Americans took the day off from school and work to participate in the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Crowds estimated up to half a million people participated in an anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C.. The latest Gallup poll showed that 58% of the respondents believed the US entry into the war was a mistake.

In 1970, National Guard troops fired upon anti-war protestors at Kent State University killing four students and injuring nine others. A week later, anti-war demonstrators converged on Washington, D.C. to protest the shootings and the Nixon administration's incursion into Cambodia. Police ringed the White House with buses to block the demonstrators. On August 24, a van filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil mixture was detonated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then on August 29th, some 25,000 Mexican-Americans protested in the Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles.

By 1971, avoiding service in the Vietnam War had become an issue in American politics. Politicians later criticized for this includes Vice Presidents Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. On April 23, Vietnam veterans threw away over 700 medals on the West Steps of the Capitol building. Antiwar organizers claimed that 500,000 marched, making this the largest demonstration since the November, 1969 march. On May 5, 1971, 1,146 people were arrested on the Capitol grounds trying to shut down Congress. In August, 28 people raided the Camden, New Jersey draft board offices. Of the 28, five or more were members of the clergy.

On April 19, 1972, in response to the renewed escalation of bombing North Vietnam, students at many colleges and universities around the country broke into campus buildings and threatened strikes. The following weekend, protests were held in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. By mid May, protests had spread across the country in response to President Nixon's decision to mine North Vietnamese harbors and renewed bombing. The December 24 Hanoi bombing drew harsh criticism from Sweden Prime-Minister Olof Palme, who compared it to Nazi Germany’s and the Soviet Union’s worst deeds, and froze diplomatic relations between the United States and Sweden until March 1974 after the war ended.

Involuntary military service ended with the Vietnam War. This war changed America in too many ways to count. Anti-War protests took place throughout the United States; many of them violent. National Guard members found themselves in the middle; trying to maintain peace and not let their personal feelings get in the middle. Music carried political and thought provoking messages. Many believed we were on the eve of destruction.

Readers can draw their own comparisons between Vietnam and our war in the Middle East. As a Vietnam Era Veteran and having retired from the military, I feel I’ve earned the privilege to state my opposition to our current war. I’m particularly disturbed by our administration’s plan to deploy an additional thirty-thousand troops to Afghanistan. But while I’m not alone in my opposition, few seem willing to speak out. How can our country survive an economic meltdown from this war and a proposed national health program?

Words persuade and stir emotion. I do not advocate violent protests or destroying property, but I do encourage people to send their voices to Washington in writing. Enough letters can influence. To our service members; I am honored to salute and support you. May you have a safe journey home.


Bill Kirton said...

What a thoughtful, beautifully written and well-researched posting, Mark. Thanks very much for that. I happen to support your stance on the current conflicts (from my UK perspective) but that's not a factor in my appreciation. All too often, these emotive topics are coloured by gut reactions, knee-jerk responses. It's about time we looked seriously at alternatives to war before rushing in. After the recent armistice ceremonies and the annual remembrance of what our forbears did for us, one would have hoped that we'd learned something over the past century.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree with Bill. The article is comprehensive and beautifully written, Mark. I was editor of my college newspaper during the Vietnam War and clearly remember student unrest and the SDS. What a tragedy that the military was treated so badly upon return to this country. A black mark on U.S. history!

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks Bill and Jean. As they say, those who fail to remember their past are doomed to repeat their mistakes. Clearly, we are slow learners.

Sheila Deeth said...

Thank you. I really learned a lot from this post.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating history, Mark. Some old memories surfaced about JFK's role in the assassination of Vietnam's president, Ngo Dinh Diemn, in 1963.

A quick Google search turned up this tidbit:

Secretary of State Dean Rusk cabled Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge Aug. 24 to encourage SV generals planning coup to overthrow Diem. JFK approved on Oct 5 the selective suspension of aid to Diem.

Rusk cable to Lodge Oct. 6 "while we do not wish to stimulate a coup," the U.S. would support a more popular government.
In a CIA-backed coup d’etat Diem was assassinated Nov. 2

JFK approved on Nov 20 McNamara's Plan 34A, covert operations in NV including commando raids, kidnapping, mercenaries, parachute sabotage teams, U.S. Navy intelligence-gathering DeSoto patrols.

JFK was assassinated in Dallas Nov. 22.

How involved JFK was I can't say, but the rumors have been around for years.

It was an ugly time!

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, thanks for adding your piece of history. The Vietnam era was truly an ugly time in politics, but little has changed since then. Both Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and President Saddam Hussein were empowered with US backing. In 1979, upon seeing that his rein was ending, the Shah sent his son to the United States to attend pilot training where I was a flight instructor. The prince already knew how to fly, but this was a way of getting him out of the country. During his time there, the Shah was overthrown and the prince never returned to Iran. Rather than be viewed as a puppet of the United States, Saddam Hussein distanced himself, took control of the oil, and established a strong economy while ruling with an iron fist.

I don’t recall anyone nominating the United States as the world’s police force, and it is evident that our meddling has not made the world any safer. Perhaps it’s time that we grew more concerned with defending our borders and less with other country’s affairs.

Mark W. Danielson said...

A friend sent this concerning our current political situation, and I thought it was worth posting as it offers some keen insight from a rural area. Mark

"This is very simplistic overview but it is what I have been observing. It seems to me that some protesting the war in Vietnam (organizing the marches, etc.) primarily were young and had a liberal viewpoint. Now young people with a liberal viewpoint primarily support Obama. Obama and a liberal Congress are in power and young people with a liberal viewpoint are following their direction. The people I see really mad about the Middle East, health care reform and similar issues have a conservative viewpoint. And they aren't the ones who are going to stage marches and protests. I think the conservatives attended the town hall meetings and tea party events to express their opinions. But those who are really upset with the direction of the country are business owners, full time workers and others who do not have the time to stage a lot of protests in public places. I hear lots of comments about how they will be very involved in future elections and plan to vote out of office those officials who they feel are harming our country. I know I am from a very strange little rural area. But a majority of people here are upset that we are sending soldiers to battle without a solid plan (fight to win or get out) and they are very worried about the massive health care bill, the cap and trade bill, etc. And they are writing e-mail to members of Congress and supporting candidates with views they support."

Chester Campbell said...

Interesting post and interesting comments, Mark. I agree the U.S. has made an appalling number of foreign policy blunders, the Vietnam War being one of the most flagrant. Based on what we knew at the time, I supported the move into Iraq. After the fact, we learned that Saddam was not currently involved in work on a nuclear weapon, but he led us to believe he was. My major complaint is that we went in with no real plan for what to do after Saddam was overthrown, no definable exit strategy. Now we're stuck with how to get out without destroying what we've worked so hard to achieve, a stable Iraq that should lead to a more stable Middle East.

As for Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden used it to launch the 9/11 attack. Going in to clear out Al Qaeda was an action directly in support of U.S. security. Has it been handled effectively? Again, we apparently went in with no clear plan for what we wanted to accomplish and how to end it.

I, too, would like to see means other than military action to accomplish our foreign policy goals, but things are not always as simple as they sound at first. I think we're going about the Iranian problem in the right way, joining with our allies to put on the pressure. Hopefully it will work, but when religious fanaics are running the show, who knows?

Mark W. Danielson said...

The best part of this particular post is it has provoked thought. There are no easy solutions to international policy. Blunders, regardless of what conflict we are discussing, are not easily corrected or erased. I thank you all for your contributions and viewpoints. They all have significant value.

As we head full-speed into the holiday season, may we all pray for peace on earth, and good will toward men.