While I can’t claim to have experienced the war our soldiers experienced, the U.S. war in Vietnam had a profound and painful impact on my life. I grew up in the shadow of the glorified role played by the United States in World War II. I embraced that role and participated in Memorial Day marches and ceremonies as a young Boy Scout.
When I first attended Oberlin College as a freshman in 1964-65, I encountered a campus highly politicized in the aftermath of Mississippi Freedom Summer. I joined in idealistic campus activism. However, in February, 1965, when the United States announced that it had begun bombing North Vietnam, I encountered a very small group of dark-clad protesters against the war at Oberlin’s traditional protest site, the Memorial Arch. My instinctive reaction was: who were these few people who felt they knew more than the State Department about Southeast Asia? I acted on that instinct by standing as a counter-protester with a sign that read “Here’s one Young Democrat who supports the Johnson Administration.”
Like most Americans I hadn’t yet encountered anything that might contradict my naiveté, but I began to listen to classmates who read material I hadn’t been exposed to; I began to pay closer attention to the Vietnam “crisis” the media were now calling a “war.” Before long, I had become a skeptic, a “dove,” who believed U.S. intentions were good in the struggle with the Communist Soviet Union but had been misapplied in a Vietnam struggle where at best our nation’s efforts seemed counterproductive.
It wasn’t much longer before I had learned enough about the war to realize that the stated “intentions” were a cover for an immoral assault on the nation and peoples of Vietnam (and, soon, Laos and Cambodia). As my learning deepened about the war, it had three effects on me. One was that it shattered my earlier belief in my nation’s “noble” foreign policy; it shattered the world I had grown up in and left me feeling that my country now viewed me as “anti-American.” This was and is an enduring, painful part of my coming of age –like learning some terrible dark secret about a family member you have loved and looked up to as a child.
The second effect was that the war pushed me into activism –something that has characterized my life ever since—and into the difficult but profound decision that I was not going to serve in the U.S. military in what has been called my generation’s war. I was fortunate enough to be able to serve in hospitals for two years as a conscientious objector.
Finally, the war and the 60s era became a focal point for a significant part of my academic career. In addition to writing about the war and 60s-era social movements, for 34 years I taught a class on the 1960s that included a significant study of the war from a variety of perspectives, including those of visiting Vietnam Veterans. Watching the antiwar classic “Hearts and Minds” more than 37 times over the years, I repeatedly revisited the pain the war caused me. Rarely would I make it through the film without shedding tears.
So, as my career came to a close, I sought the opportunity to visit Vietnam. I know of many vets who have gone back to Vietnam years later who have felt themselves somehow forgiven for what their nation asked them to do; many have testified that they no longer have the nightmares that used to plague them. They have reconnected with the Vietnamese as people, rather than as enemy.
Much of my visit, with my wife and friends (including a vet), focused on seeing what Vietnam was like today and engaging with the people, culture, history, and beauty of that nation. I did visit the site of the infamous My Lai Massacre –a somber reminder of one of the many horrors of the war— and visited the Military History and Women’s History museums in Hanoi, both of which celebrated the Vietnamese war efforts as they struggled for their independence against, successively, the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. I was struck by the way the Vietnamese expressed gratitude for global support for their struggle, including several photographs and references to “peace intellectuals” and antiwar protests in the United States.
Most fundamentally, I think, what I have taken away from this visit is that “Vietnam” is no longer only a source of pain from those earlier years, but is a vibrant, fascinating society preserved in so many tangible pictures in my head, a society that has undergone a remarkable recovery from a war that wreaked incredible destruction on the Vietnamese people and their countryside. I found the Vietnamese people to be friendly, ceaselessly enterprising and on the move. Most gratifyingly, I am thankful they are now, finally, living in peace. I, too, feel at peace with this Vietnam.