Vietnam Wall—58,318 plus one
The most recent Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War is a much-acclaimed history of an event that most Americans may never fully understand. Unlike recent controversies about Civil War memorials, a war with which no one alive today has personal experience, there are millions who lived through the several decades when Vietnam evolved from a place vaguely known as French Indochina to an epic tragedy for hundreds of thousands of Americans, and for those who fought against us.
For most, Vietnam began in the mid-1960s when our military presence grew from a few Special Forces and advisors to hundreds of thousands of soldiers. But the roots of that conflict trace back to 1954 when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. Most of us took little notice, for we were just getting over the Korean War.
But not long after, the name Vietnam became better known, thanks to an ex- Navy doctor-turned-medical missionary named Tom Dooley. Dooley wrote and spoke of Vietnam in terms of savage communists versus persecuted Catholics. He was a Catholic product of Notre Dame (although he never graduated), and he toured many colleges in the U.S. pleading his cause, which we now know was exaggerated and controlled by the CIA. College girls, in their knee socks and saddle shoes, loved the good-looking, eloquent Dooley. They did not know he did not fancy girls.
Dooley’s influence, largely forgotten today, was strong. He had a powerful friend in New York, Francis Cardinal Spellman, who in turn was close to the Kennedys and other prominent American Catholic families. Working with the CIA, he managed to seed our Vietnam involvement with the first of the distortions that would characterize our government line for the next 15 years. He made an anti-colonial nationalist movement seem to be a communist assault on western values, including the Catholic church.
Dooley did not live to see the results of his work. He died at 34 in 1961, at a time when the U.S. was barely involved in Vietnam. President Kennedy was much more focused on a nearer problem: Cuba. But we now know that even as he sent military aid, JFK was wary of a larger U.S. involvement in what he perceived as part of an anti-colonial movement that had swept Southeast Asia since World War II.
Initially, most Americans, myself included, supported U.S. policy. We were all brainwashed. I was also in the military, sort of. I had been commissioned through ROTC in the late 1950s at a time when the Army had too many junior officers and no war for them to fight. Many of us were given six months active duty and eight years in the reserves. Although trained in artillery, I was in a civil affairs unit. Our job would be to rebuild cities after we destroyed them. We were a wonderful group of screw offs, useless in peacetime. I wrote stories about our annual summer camps with titles such as “The General’s Martini,” “The Night We Boiled the Major” and “Can’t Anybody Here Hit That Deer?” We had so much fun that nobody ever quit our outfit.
Still, we would have made an effective active duty unit. We were heavy with brass. Our commanding officer was a state senator and we had abundant political connections, with lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, a college professor, a du Pont engineer, a labor relations specialist, service station owners and two journalists who would wind up in the magazine business together in Florida. Some of the older guys had combat experience in Korea. We thought Vietnam could use our myriad talents in pacifying all those Viet Cong villages. The army thought otherwise. When the war was getting hottest, they threw our whole unit out of the army. But my reserve obligation was up by then.
I had left sports writing for the real world, and in the next few years wrote about the growing war, even as my opinions subtly shifted. “War Boom” was a column about the Boeing Vertol plant near Chester, Pennsylvania, that was building the big Chinook helicopters still used today. One day a proud father came to the newspaper with his son who was a devout Christian and was joining the army despite all the noise being made by un-patriots whose protests were growing every year. The kid was no John Wayne; he seemed on the frail side and not intellectually gifted, but I wrote that the father wanted the world to know that his boy was doing his duty. Only years later did I learn the kid had been killed in Vietnam.
By then I was at Philadelphia magazine, where I went to Toronto on a story called “The Exiles” about local young men who had left the country to avoid the draft. Another piece, “A Welcome to Arms,” described the induction center where dozens of fresh-faced draftees gathered to begin their journeys to boot camp at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I also did a piece about the status of our military reserves, which ranged from screw off units such as ours, to Air Force reservists who left jobs on a Friday afternoon, flew giant transports 8,000 miles to Nam, and were back in the office Monday morning.
By 1967 it was clear that most Americans were barely touched by a war that was affecting more and more families in a terrible way. We decided to do a short moody piece on the caskets coming home from the war. It turned out they did not come to the Philadelphia airport, but rather to the Air Force base at Dover, Delaware. The idea enlarged to covering a Vietnam funeral. We checked the papers for the daily casualty reports. After being coldly rejected by the first few families we called, we found a father who seemed to think he had an obligation to accommodate the media. And it turned out, the dead soldier was a friend of the younger brother of one of my college buddies. He and a dozen friends had enlisted together in various services. Four of them got to Vietnam and three came home without a scratch. The fourth, Pvt. Leonard Martin Jr. was killed in a mortar attack at an artillery post called Gio Linh.
We followed the process all the way from sitting in on the instructions they gave at Dover Air Force base to “escorts”—the soldiers assigned to accompany the casket to the funeral. They were told to be respectful and not tell any war stories. You were not there. Keep your mouth shut. Lenny Martin’s escort was a kid from Kansas. He did a great job.
The remains were delayed returning from Vietnam. We hung around, waiting with the family for a week. The magazine was mostly printed by the time of the funeral. It had not seemed a terribly sad event until that afternoon when people, many of them young, who had all seemed stoic, suddenly broke down en masse when the honor guard, including several of the friends who had enlisted with Lenny Martin, fired the 21-gun salute, and the young escort from Kansas presented the carefully folded flag to Martin’s mother with the reverent words “On behalf of a grateful nation.” It had been drizzling all day, but as the mourners returned to their cars to leave and the gravediggers began to lower the casket, the sun suddenly burst forth and the gray day turned freshly green and reborn.
“Back From Vietnam” was a first of its kind. Philadelphia magazine had a dramatic flag draped casket on its cover. Within weeks, publications around the country were covering Vietnam funerals. A war, which had for years seemed as distant as the names Tom Dooley and Indochina, had finally come home.
We visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall to make sure Lenny Martin was on it. He was, along with 58,318 others, most of who were barely born when Tom Dooley first made his misguided case in the 1950s.
There is one other name that should be added to that memorial. John F. Kennedy. There are numerous testaments by sources close to JFK that he thought Vietnam was a losing proposition and intended to withdraw American forces after the election of 1964, an election he did not live to see. Few recall that Kennedy had seen Vietnam first hand as a young congressman. In 1951 he visited the country and came home convinced that “in Indochina we have allied ourselves to the desperate effort of a French regime to hang onto the remnants of empire…”
JFK, his distrust of the CIA growing from the 1961 Bay of Pigs disaster until his murder in 1963, also sought to ease tensions with the Soviet Union over Cuba. Elements of our government, including powerful military and industrial figures, wanted just the opposite. They wanted, and eventually got, a bigger war in Vietnam. Some were willing to risk a nuclear war at a time when we could still win it. They saw President Kennedy as a traitor.
There is a growing body of opinion, of which this writer is a committed advocate, that it cost JFK his life. He is every bit as much a war casualty as those 58,318 names etched on that cold black granite memorial.