I admit that I was surprised when I was asked to participate in the 2009 Vietnam Veterans Forum sponsored by the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Era Educational Center. I was asked to participate in a morning social issues panel. Later there would be panels on the diplomatic and military experiences of the Vietnam Era with both scholars and veterans participating. Everybody has their stereotypes, myself included, and there are always examples to reinforce stereotypes, as there were here, both for me and for those in attendance still deeply committed to either the ideology of the cold warriors who launched the war or simply to the kind of thinking that Randloph Bourne captured in his classic "WAR IS THE HEALTH OF THE STATE" writing during WWI, that when war comes, the nation becomes the state becomes the government and dissent becomes the enemy within.
But much more importantly, among both the teachers who were in the audience(since the forum is part of their educational enrichment, and there were lesson plans and teacher guides provided to those who attended) and the Veterans themselves, there was an understanding that those who plotted the war and sent a draft army to fight it did not understand the history of the region or the meaning of the war that they launched with their intervention for both the Vietnamese, the Americans, and the global community.
I led off my social issues panel with a presentation that looked at two wars, the war in Vietnam and the War on poverty, and contended that the first defeated the second, regardless of what was happening in the field in Vietnam, since those who were most committed to the war on poverty and necessary to its victory, the progressive activists of all social movements in the U.S. were most against the Vietnam War, and those who were most for the Vietnam War, the anti-labor, anti-civil rights "conservatives," were most strongly against the the war on poverty, and the more the Johnson administration relied on their support in Congress to escalate the war, the more it retreated on the war on poverty. As I looked at the audience, I saw some disapproval but more smiles and nods from working class Veterans, people my age and from the class that I had come. Later, a number came up and told me that they had liked what I had said and discussed their experiences in working class neighborhoods, one near my own in the Bronx
In my panel, Katherine Parkin, an associate professor of history at Monmouth University, gave a powerful presentation on women in the Vietnam War, both women in the service in the U.S. and Vietnamese women. Her treatment of mass prostitution in Vietnam made many in the audience uneasy. Hettie Williams, a lecturer at Monmouth University in African-American History also made many uneasy when she presented in clear and powerful terms the effects of the war on African-Americans, dealing with both the ghetto rebellions as she called the "riots" and the forms of discrimination that Blacks experienced in the war, especially the much higher casualty rates, which some questioners disputed. Ironically, many in the audience considered my presentation less radical, and those who questioned me were generally sympathetic, raising questions about the Great Society medicare program and its relationship to the present health care struggle, the role of the CIA in coups both in Vietnam and earlier in Guatemala.
The Second panel dealt with diplomacy. Here Christopher Fisher, an assistant Professor of History in the hisory and African-American studies departments at the College of New Jersey(and someone who I know and respect from his work as a student at Rutgers) gave an insightful presentation on Lyndon Johnson connecting both the personal and the political in trying to make sense of how the Vietnam war policy developed.
David Kaiser, a distinguished historian and author of American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson and the Vietnam War, presented a well reasoned analysis of the flaws in the strategic thinking of the Vietnam War policy planners. Jeffrey Kimball, a Professor Emeritus from the University of Miami, former President of the Society of Peace Historians and the author of many important works on the Vietnam War dealt with the Nixon policies and their destructive consequences. Here there were many questions about what might have been in Vietnam, some from those who believed that the war was avoidable had U.S. governments going back to Wilson at Verseilles to statements that "we" were "winning" the war under Nixon and could have won it iwth a more "aid" to Saigon. One questioner, a Veteran and teacher in a parochial school who I had in a generally friendly way crossed political swords with before the sessions began, made a general criticism of the panel and a general accusation that they were "glorifying Communism." When he was challenged on this, he said that he meant the first panel, which I took as a compliment
The third session was in many ways the most interesting. Major Jonathan Due, a West Point graduate, tank corps officer, Iraq War veteran, and currently an Assistant Professor of History at West Point(his scholarship deals with the army's reconstruction after the Vietnam War) presented an analysis of military realities which dealt in a realistic and insightful way with what the modern military is, namely a large bureaucratically organized institution, the thinking of its senior officers, and their relationship to political power. Frank Desanto, a draftee, veteran wounded in combat, who later used his GI benefits wisely to receive BA and MA degress in elementary education and educational administration respectively, becoming a public school teacher, spoke of his experiences, his bonding with his fellow soldiers, and like many working class vets, his conflicted views about the war which he thought somehow might have been won and also his views that class conflict, the struggle between the rich and the poor here especially had a lot to do with the war.
Howard Bryant, an African-American drafted out of the 11th grade and sent to Cambodia during the 1970 invasion was for me the most interesting story. Like Desanto he was very conflicted about the war, focusing on the way the soldiers were treated by their superiors during the war and by the general public afterward (which many took issue with) Although he worked at many jobs after the war, including a dozen years in the U.S. Postal Service, he was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and declared 100% disabled. He today which with Veterans groups and seeks to help veterans who still bear the physical and psycholigical scars of the Vietnam war to seek help.
There were people like Howard Bryant from my neighborhood in the South Bronx, working class and minority youth without either the college future or the criminal records that would exempt them from the draft. I know that that some didn't come back. I don't know how many experienced the postwar difficulties of Howard Bryant, but I suspect, given their class and ethnicity many did.
The forum ended with a keynote address by Howard Confora a leader of Kent State students during the May 4 1970 killings. Confora was himself wounded and spoke of the students who died, whom he knew. He spoke also of the hidden history of the protest, how he, the son of a factory worker, not the stereotypical "hard hat" of Nixon propaganda but a strong union man, had come to oppose the war. Confora waved the black flag in front of a national guardsmen before the shooting started. I had always been told that the flag represented anarchism. Confora explained that it was in honor of a working class friend who had been killed in Vietnam, whose death was a factor in the protests. Confora also relayed his suspicion that the ROTC building had not really been burned down by the protesters . They had tried and failed, only to discover later to their surprise that the building had burned (they believed that police agents had done that as a provocation, which did happen in other instances) Confora also related his view that the order to fire(in spite of massive evidence, the national guard denied that there was ever such an order) may have come directly from the governor with whom the commander were in contact and possibly from the Nixon White House, with whom the governor was in contact.
Confora, who has for nearly forty years been a leader of May 4 Movement for Truth and Justice, mentioned that his accounts of the events at Kent State have been sold to Hollywood and will be made into a movie, a movie which, by focusing on the working class character of both the protesters and the soldiers will hopefully help to dispel the myths long progagated about the Vietnam War.
The New Jersey Veterans Memorial at Holmcdel New Jersey is an excellent facility, open to the public. A facility that helps all of us understand a history that is still very much with us and, if we do not learn from it, will be with us for a long time.