Bringing a voice to the vietnam war

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr.

Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the most distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation. And of course it’s always good to come back to Riverside Church.

Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it’s always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this great pulpit.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.

I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization that brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam.

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war.

Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world.

Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.

And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us.

If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.

At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask.

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.

In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church—the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate—leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia.

Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam.

Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem.

While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Speeches of the Vietnam War

Grades 9-12 | Historical Analysis | Source-BasedSource Lexile®: 1110L-1350L | Learning Standards

Prompt

The Vietnam War, a war pitting Communist North Vietnam and its allies against South Vietnam and its allies, including the United States, lasted from 1955-1975, spanning four different presidents.

During that time, each president (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon) made many speeches to the citizens of the United States, attempting to both keep them updated on the situation and assure them that peace was on the horizon.

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Read each of the passages below, consisting of one speech per president during that time period. The first speech is from a press conference in 1954, in which President Eisenhower explains his “Domino Theory”. The second speech was given by then Senator John F.

Kennedy in 1956 regarding the conflict in Vietnam. The third speech was given during a press conference in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, regarding the rationale for keeping America in the conflict in Vietnam.

The final speech was given by President Richard Nixon in 1973, informing the nation that peace had been found in Vietnam.

After reading each speech, write an essay analyzing the progression to peace in Vietnam from president to president. In your analysis, consider how each president viewed the conflict in Vietnam and what steps each was enacting to begin to bring peace to that nation and bring American soldiers back to the United States. Include support from each passage in your analysis.

Source 1

President Eisenhower Explains the Domino Theory, Press Conference, April 7, 1954 (excerpt) (Primary Source)

Q. Robert Richards, Copley Press: Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been across the country some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.

  • The President: You have of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things.
  • First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.
  • Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

Now, with respect to the first one, two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on.

Then with respect to more people passing under this domination, Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship, and we simply can't afford greater losses.

But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking about millions and millions and millions of people.

Finally, the geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.

It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go – that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.

So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.

https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~ebolt/history398/DominoTheory.html

Source 2

Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy at the Conference on Vietnam Luncheon in Washington, D.C., June 1, 1956 (Primary Source)

It is a genuine pleasure to be here today at this vital Conference on the future of Vietnam, and America's stake in that new nation, sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam, an organization of which I am proud to be a member.

Your meeting today at a time when political events concerning Vietnam are approaching a climax, both in that country and in our own Congress, is most timely. Your topic and deliberations, which emphasize the promise of the future more than the failures of the past, are most constructive.

I can assure you that the Congress of the United States will give considerable weight to your findings and recommendations; and I extend to all of you who have made the effort to participate in this Conference my congratulations and best wishes.

It is an ironic and tragic fact that this Conference is being held at a time when the news about Vietnam has virtually disappeared from the front pages of the American press, and the American people have all but forgotten the tiny nation for which we are in large measure responsible. This decline in public attention is due, I believe, to three factors:

  1. First, it is due in part to the amazing success of President Diem in meeting firmly and with determination the major political and economic crises which had heretofore continually plagued Vietnam. (I shall say more about this point later, for it deserves more consideration from all Americans interested in the future of Asia).
  2. Secondly, it is due in part to the traditional role of American journalism, including readers as well as writers, to be more interested in crises than in accomplishments, to give more space to the threat of wars than the need for works, and to write larger headlines on the sensational omissions of the past than the creative missions of the future.
  3. Third and finally, our neglect of Vietnam is the result of one of the most serious weaknesses that has hampered the long-range effectiveness of American foreign policy over the past several years – and that is the overemphasis upon our role as “volunteer fire department” for the world. Whenever and wherever fire breaks out — in Indochina, in the Middle East, in Guatemala, in Cyprus, in the Formosan Straits — our firemen rush in, wheeling up all their heavy equipment, and resorting to every known method of containing and extinguishing the blaze. The crowd gathers — the usually successful efforts of our able volunteers are heartily applauded — and then the firemen rush off to the next conflagration, leaving the grateful but still stunned inhabitants to clean up the rubble, pick up the pieces, and rebuild their homes with whatever resources are available.  
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The role, to be sure, is a necessary one; but it is not the only role to be played, and the others cannot be ignored. A volunteer fire department halts, but rarely prevents, fires.

It repels but rarely rebuilds; it meets the problems of the present but not of the future.

And while we are devoting our attention to the Communist arson in Korea, there is smoldering in Indochina; we turn our efforts to Indochina until the alarm sounds in Algeria — and so it goes.

Bringing a Voice to the Vietnam War

QDT: Although you served in the military, you've been careful to say that you did not serve in Vietnam. What compelled you to explore Vietnam from a human perspective rather than focusing on things like weaponry and military strategy?

I enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1957, at age 17, and served for three years. I was never in Vietnam until I spent some time there in 2014 researching Enduring Vietnam.

But the Vietnam War in the 1960s and after was an important and powerful part of my experience.

I came to be critical of the war in the late 60s, but critical of the leaders who sent finally over two and a half million Americans there and not of those who served.

It is a story that needs, that deserves, to be known.

Over the years, I became concerned that we had neglected the story of this generation. In 2009, I spoke on Veterans Day at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall. I told the gathering that we had an obligation to ensure that those who served and sacrificed in Vietnam would be remembered. 

I said, “Casualties of war cry out to be known—as persons, not as abstractions called casualties nor as numbers entered into the books, and not only as names chiseled into marble or granite …We need to ensure that here, in this place of memory, lives as well as names are recorded.” 

Reminding people of the human face of war became my focus for the next decade, in two books, a dozen op-eds, and many public presentations. 

When my wife, Susan, and I saw Hamilton on Broadway several years ago, one of Eliza Hamilton's lines stayed with me. She asked, “Who lives, who dies, who tells the story?”

Those who serve in war directly confront the first two of her questions. The third question is about the responsibility that remains after the war. Without the story being told, the personal story, we fail to understand the nature of war.

When I wrote Those Who Have Borne the Battle in 2012, I had a chapter on Vietnam. I knew then that I needed to do more to tell the story of the generation who served in Vietnam and came home to an ungrateful nation. This book aims to do that.

 

It was hard then, and has been hard since to look at [photos of the dead] without confronting the human face of sacrifice.

I have often turned back to a Life Magazine issue of June 1969 that deeply affected me then—and still does as it sits on a table five feet away.

The magazine had 12 pages of photographs, listing the 242 Americans whose deaths had been announced by the Department of Defense for the week of May 28-June 3, 1969.

  In yearbook style, the photos, provided by families of the dead, largely were high school graduation pictures or Basic Training/Boot Camp photos. So many looked so young. They were. It was hard then and has been hard since, to look at it without confronting the human face of sacrifice.

QDT: This book gives a face and a voice to the Vietnam War. How did you go about making the war relatable to generations who weren't alive when it took place?

Historians must be able to make past experiences real, relevant. And if we can’t do that with war, it becomes too easy to romanticize wars, and far too easy to engage in new ones.

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I have written elsewhere that deploying troops involves far more than the metaphorical “boots on the ground.” Combat involves the flesh and blood of our young, who wear those boots.

And some of those boots will sit empty next to an inverted rifle and a helmet forming a battlefield memorial for the lost.

In writing Enduring Vietnam, I interviewed those who had served in combat in Vietnam. We talked about their experiences and about friends they lost there. I also interviewed some family members who faced the knock on the door. Their memories reach out to any generation, any time.

I knew then that I needed to do more to tell the story of the generation who served in Vietnam and came home to an ungrateful nation.

QDT: When you discuss or get feedback on Enduring Vietnam, what seems to surprise audiences the most about the war? What are the most common misconceptions?

We often think of the Baby Boomer generation, the 60s generation, as being the anti-war generation. And, of course, many were. But some 40 percent of the young men of that generation served in the military. Many people seem surprised to learn that, particularly in those early years, many volunteered to serve.

We need to understand the mood, the sense of mission and impending conflict with international communism that had been part of the education of that generation.  Children raised in the 1950s participated in “duck and cover” drills in schools, which prepared them for a nuclear attack. They were raised with reminders of their obligation.

And so many who served told me that their father had served in World War II and they felt it was now their turn to fulfill their duty to their country. The country’s leaders misled them, simplified and misstated the conflict, and sent them to war. Finally, perhaps more tragically, many of them in those early war years eagerly went to serve.

I have been especially gratified by the feedback and commentary I have received from those who served in Vietnam. They have appreciated my effort to tell their story and to frame it as a central part of the history of this war.

QDT: In your research for Enduring Vietnam, you met with Vietnamese veterans, as well. How did those interviews affect the course of the book?

I was not able to interview enough Vietnamese veterans to get a sample of their attitudes. While I aimed to tell the story of the American generation who served there, it is important to note that the Vietnamese experience, with all of its tragic suffering, is essential to understanding more fully the story of the war. 

It is important to note that the Vietnamese experience, with all of its tragic suffering, is essential to understanding more fully the story of the war.

I was able to identify and interview some Vietnamese who fought against the Americans on Hamburger Hill in May 1969. This was a crucial, symbolic battle. It is the one I described in greatest detail in the book. 

I asked these North Vietnamese veterans to climb Hamburger Hill (Dong Ap Bia) with me. It was a powerful experience. At the end of our trek, I asked them what they learned there 45 years earlier.

They said that after the battle, they had greater confidence that they could stand and fight the Americans for an extended time.

But they also continued to marvel at the way these young Americans kept renewing the assault on their well-fortified positions on the top of a steep hill. For ten days, the U.S. soldiers came back up the hill.

QDT: Did interviewing 160 people for the book give you a picture of the typical soldier? Can you describe the men who fought there in broad strokes?

I am not certain there is a simple way to describe them. While they were disproportionately blue-collar in background, they did represent more or less a cross-section of American society.  By 1966 or 1967, many came to the war with a negative view of the conflict. And very few left Vietnam without a critical view of the war. 

But nonetheless, while in the field, they largely shut out all of the politics and tried to look after themselves and their “buddies.” I found them an admirable group. I dedicated the book to those who served and sacrificed. I wrote:

The difficulty of this American generation’s war and the controversies it engendered made their willingness to serve, and the sacrifices that they made, the greater and not the lesser.

James Wright, Enduring Vietnam

There was as much heroism on the part of those who fought in Vietnam as there has been in any of our wars. But perhaps it is harder culturally to salute heroes in an unpopular war. It is unfortunate that in the 1970s, more Americans would have known Lt.

William Calley, the commander of the unit that massacred Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, than would have known anyone else who fought there. I surely acknowledge, critically, Lt. Calley. But I seek to tell the story of the others.

It is a story that needs, that deserves, to be known.

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