I don’t normally hear the two words “Vietnam celebration” used together, but I did when my American Legion color guard captain called last week to see whether I was available for that Saturday’s 40th anniversary of the war’s ending ceremonies in Kingston.
“Why would anyone want to celebrate the Vietnam War?” I asked.
He explained the event was meant to honor those who had served from Ulster County, especially the 41 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen whose names are on the Vietnam memorial in Kingston erected in 1989. Braving windy, bone-chilling weather, several hundred people attended the Saturday services at the memorial.
During my service time in the Navy Seabees (1963-65), American involvement in what we called either Indo China or Viet Nam (two words) increased from 15,000 “military advisors” to more than 100,000 combat personnel. A few months after I was discharged, my outfit shipped to Southeast Asia to build bases. Who knew?
Woodstock Councilman Jay Wenk, an infantryman in World War II and an anti-war advocate, questions this “anniversary” date. Wenk traces our involvement in Vietnam to the Truman administration. For membership purposes, the American Legion dates the war from February 1961 to May 1975.
Given the proximity of Woodstock and college campuses in New Paltz and Stone Ridge, I remember war protests starting sooner here and lasting longer than in some other places. I remember covering a story about a 40-something World War II vet who offered to serve in place of his drafted teenage son. Refused, the angry father threw a brick through a draft-board office window. Charges were dropped.
Dissension over the war surfaced even in American Legion posts. The Port Ewen Legion Post 1298 I joined in the late summer of 1966 was built by vets returning from World War II. The post home on Legion Court overlooking the Hudson River had an active social life and a busy bar in those days.
Bob Graves, for whom an elementary school in Port Ewen was named after he died shoveling his sidewalk one winter, was my first Legion commander. (I transferred to Post 150 in Kingston a few years later.) An easygoing guy, Bob had a gift for handling unruly people, be it children, parents, teachers or veterans. On this occasion, five of us “Vietnam vets” were introduced at our first Legion meeting. Most of the active members were veterans of World War II and Korea. There were even a few World War I vets.
Three of the newcomers were sporting shoulder-length hair. “Don’t tell me we’re letting longhairs in this outfit,” one of the oldtimers protested from the audience. Muttered mumbles indicated he wasn’t alone.
Commander Graves held up a hand. “Listen, boys,” he said. “These men are veterans. They served their country honorably. Just like us. And I don’t care how they wear their hair.”
The Viet Nam vets had heard it all before. There had been no parades when they came home. Some were warned not to wear their uniforms for fear of abuse from civilians. Subsequent history has confirmed what many then believed. It had been a futile war, waged to such extreme sacrifice, home and abroad.
Blame Lyndon Johnson
The late Barbara W. Tuchman (Guns of August), one of our most eminent historians, put it this way about Mr. All The Way in her 1984 The March to Folly: From Troy to Vietnam: “In the nervous tension of his sudden accession, Johnson felt he had to be ‘strong,’ to show himself in command, especially to overshadow the aura of the Kennedys, both the dead and the living. He did not feel a comparable impulse to be wise, to examine options before he spoke. He lacked Kennedy’s ambivalence (which literally means to feel strongly both ways), born of a certain historical sense and at least some capacity for reflective thinking.”
Tuchman had a talent for understatement. “Forceful and domineering, a man infatuated with himself, Johnson was affected in his conduct of Vietnam policy by three elements of his character: an ego that was insatiable and never secure; a bottomless capacity to use and impose the powers of office without inhibition; a profound aversion once fixed upon a course of action, to any contra-indication.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
Let us remember the millions of Americans who served during the Vietnam era.
Celebrate that war? Forget it.
War of words
Given the murky nature of politics, we deal with a lot of he-said, she-said situations, often with sources whose memories are at best faulty or at worst self-serving. Even the horse’s mouth can be suspect, since the horse usually has a horse in whatever race we’re writing about. Invariably, these stories, if they get print or airtime, devolve to half-truth, innuendo or just plain bullshit.
I’ll confess I found veterans’ advocate Rick Olrud’s e-mail last week to fellow veterans intriguing at first blush. Olrud attacked County Executive Mike Hein for allegedly threatening and bullying veterans at a closed-door meeting with him and staff. Further examination and input from other sources, however, lead to serious skepticism.