The following are recollections from several members of the ThisCantBeHappening! about their anti-war movement struggles and the day of final triumph in Vietnam 45 years ago.
A Day in the Park Like No Other
When the US war on Vietnam ended on April 30 with the Vietnamese liberation forces marching into Saigon, a victory celebration was called in New York City, where I and my wife Joyce were living and working at the time. The massive festivity was held in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow on a beautiful May 11. Hundreds of thousands of people who for almost a decade had marched, protested, blocked streets, occupied university buildings, rioted during “days of rage,” maybe even bombed banks or a Congressional bathroom at night, jammed into the grassy expanse to celebrate.
Protest singers like Joan Baez and Phil Ochs were on hand to sing songs of peace and victory. People finally felt safe bringing along their little children to a political action. There was laughter and tears, often mixed together. Vietnamese flags appeared and were being waved. It was an amazing, magical event.
Of course, it was also tinged with sadness and anger that the Vietnamese victory and the end to that interminable bloody conflict had been so long in coming.
From 1954, when Vietnamese guerrillas led by Ho Chi Minh called the Viet Minh decisively defeated the US-supplied French army at Dien Bien Phu which gave up their effort to reclaim the colony France had ruled for almost a century, until the final victory and independence of the whole of the long divided nation in 1975, the Vietnamese had found themselves, first indirectly and then directly, fighting the US and its monstrous war machine. They finally triumphed that last day of April.
Some three million Indochinese people — Cambodians, Laotians and especially Vietnamese, died as a result of the US war on them and their countries, a horrific genocidal war in which more tonnage of bombs were dropped than in both the European and Pacific theaters in all of World War II. Appalling quantities of carcinogenic defoliant were dropped on southern Vietnam to defoliate the jungles and to destroy rice crops that were feeding the guerrilla forces and to also to force peasants into “strategic hamlets” that were actually little more than detention camps.
I always get annoyed when I watch or hear a newscast or read an article or just hear someone talk about “the fall of Saigon.”
So let’s get this straight: The US official history says that the so-called Vietnam War ended on May 7, which is when then President-by-corrupt-appointment Gerald Ford announced it was ended. But it actually ended a week earlier when largely unopposed Vietnamese liberation forces rolled and marched into Saigon, the capital city of the southern part of Vietnam that had for decades been a puppet of the United States and, to cheering throngs of local residents, declared victory over the mighty US empire.
Saigon did not “fall,” it was liberated.
There are still efforts by the US media, even today, to try and differentiate between military and civilian casualties but the truth is, everyone in Vietnam who was resisting the US, whether in mufti, black PJs or a military uniform, was a patriot fighting for their nation. The Viet Cong were peasants and urban volunteers who were citizens by day and fighters by night. The soldiers who came down to the south on the Ho Chi Minh trail as “North Vietnamese regulars” were citizen soldiers fighting for their same country, not invaders from some other country. It was the people of Vietnam, of Laos, and of Cambodia that the US military was slaughtering with its modern weapons.
Happy as I was that April 30 though, the celebratory moment was a comma, not a period or exclamation point to the struggle for world peace and liberation that I have so long felt a part of.
In 1967, a few months before my 18th birthday as a senior in high school, I first began to look seriously at the war going on in Vietnam, a war I had given barely a thought to as a kid. That April I would turn 18 and have to register for the draft, though. That reality led me to begin to poring through magazines I hadn’t heard of before, which I found in the rack of the local book store in Storrs, CT: The Realist, Ramparts and the UConn student paper with its Liberation News Service articles told the Vietnamese side of the story that I hadn’t heard, of how the US was using napalm on villages, incinerating women, children and elders, of how soldiers were cutting of ears of “enemy” bodies as trophies, and torturing captives, and of how some soldiers were rebelling, refusing orders to fight and even “fragging” commanding officers. Reading all this, I made what I think was the most formative decision in my life: I determined that I would not fight in that war, or even participate in the military or a diversionary alternative service conscientious objector job. I would refuse induction — even if it meant jail.
When I went away to college that fall, I skipped the table for filling out a student deferment form to my draft board, and so received a 1-A draft-ready classification, because I didn’t want to push the issue back when classmates not going to college were being drafted. (I had an 81 lottery number, but ended up not going to jail, but the story of my draft resistance, something of an Alice’s Restaurant-like experience, is for another day and another article.)
On October 21, just weeks into my college year, I went to Washington to join a rally on the National Mall protesting the war. It was the MOBE Protest, which turned into a march by hundreds of thousands of us on the Pentagon, across the Potomac from the Mall. I ended up at the front of the mass of protesters who crowded up towards the main entrance to the command center of the war machine, where we were blocked by a phalanx of armed troops. After spending a night sitting at the feet of these young soldiers, I was yanked by military police through the line along with a determined and courageous young woman I had met, and we, along with hundreds of other protesters, were beaten and carted off in buses and vans to be held at the federal prison at Occoquan. Eventually, after a couple of days and nights spent in a dormatory cell awaiting arraignment with perhaps a hundred other guys, some of them veterans of the Civil Rights struggle in the South, I emerged committed to fighting to end the war and to change America.
I’ve been engaged in that struggle, in the streets, and as a journalist, ever since.
It’s easy to get depressed after those years of our struggle when one sees things going backwards, as they are today in the US, with Donald Trump, a neo-fascist president who claims the support of almost 45% of the country even as he advises them to inject Clorox bleach or Lysol disinfectant, and who repeatedly threatens war against Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and other countries. Depressing too to see Trump’s likely Democratic rival, Joe Biden, who stands credibly accused of sexually assaulting a young aide, who enthusiastically supported the US invasion of Iraq, who concocted the scheme for incarcerating millions of young black and brown men while heading the Senate Judiciary Committee, and who has been an shill for the banking industry through his whole political career.
In the face of such a grim nightmare, I value being able to recall that moment of pure joy when we were able to celebrate an unalloyed victory by the people of Vietnam: The Liberation, not the “Fall” of Saigon.
We need more such victories, and when we get them, we need to celebrate them!
John Grant: My Vietnam War 45 Years Later
Forty-five years ago today the Vietnamese took control of Saigon away from the United States. The 30-year bloody struggle that had begun in 1945 when the United States refused to accept Vietnamese independence and chose to support the French desire to re-colonize Vietnam was over, and the Vietnamese prevailed. I was a kid in Vietnam in 1966-67, and it was the most pivotal year of my life. Looking back from age 72, I see my history with that war in the context of ideas, books and writing.
I was raised by a conservative WWII PT boat captain who told his three sons there would be a war every 20 years and we boys would go. As a high school student in south Dade County, Florida, I read Hemingway, Steinbeck and Dreiser. I bought a dog-eared blue paperback copy of what became a bible for me, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, at Grampa’s Trading Post on US1 in Homestead. I read novels like Jean Larteguy’s The Centurions about the French experience in Indochina. I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and the exoticism and sense of adventure in that book made me want to go to Vietnam. Greene no doubt rolls over in his grave every time I say this.
When I got there my brother Dick was already in Vietnam as an ROTC infantry platoon leader in the mountains west of Pleiku. Both of us volunteered for Vietnam. When my radio-intelligence company was shipped there by troop ship, I ended up at the 25th Division HQ in Pleiku. A meeting with my brother, who I had not seen in two years, was arranged and he was flown back to the base camp in Pleiku, where I saw him my second day in Vietnam. One of us could have gone home, but that was up to my brother who was in the more dangerous job. We were both fulfilling our father’s mission order.
I was young and very lucky. Looking back, my Vietnam experience seems charmed in the sense of life’s forbearance for innocence and youth. As a tactical radio direction finder I moved around a lot from firebase to firebase. I witnessed a lot of different situations for short periods; I seemed to avoid the traumatic events that many of my friends experienced. I think I was too trusting and naïve to really understand the terror that was just around the next bend.
I was a horny 19-year-old in Vietnam with a lot of independence and access to a jeep. While I was sending my salary to a bank, I still had money burning a hole in my pocket and Vietnamese prostitution was operating on an epidemic scale. I’ve confessed this part of my young life in a documentary film on the subject and in fiction and other writing I’ve done. All the very real elements of exploitation and oppression implicit in GI whoring aside, my “innocent” youth and the very real longings of exotic foreign adventure established by books like Greene’s The Quite American had a profound effect on me. It took me a long time to realized it, but as a kid I didn’t want to kill Vietnamese at all; I wanted to get to know them better and, as corny as it may sound, I didn’t want to hate them; I wanted to love them as a dignified foreign people living beyond my familiar comfort zone.
I now realize, beyond all the Kill! Kill! Kill! stuff of basic training, my instinct was less focused on machismo, glory or conquest than on what the US Army was actually pushing then as its recruitment line: See The World. As I look back, in some misguided way due to my youthful luck, Vietnam for me was more anthropology than it was combat or dangerous intrigue.
Understanding what the Vietnam War as history was really about came later when I was “back in the world.” I attended Florida State on the GI Bill and got a degree in English and Creative Writing. After graduation, for three years I took up residence with a novelist and writing workshop instructor named Janet Burroway along with her two small boys. This period was as profound for me as the war itself. From Janet I intimately learned what it was like, for good or ill, to be doomed to be a “writer” — someone who can’t help seeing his or her unfolding life experience as fodder for some kind of meaning establishment and story-telling.
I moved to Philadelphia and worked through a masters degree in journalism at Temple University. I lived and worked in a mixed-race inner city neighborhood at the height of the racist Rizzo years in Philly. I began a personal history of haunting used book stores, where I began to accumulate a large library on The Vietnam War beginning with the major works of Bernard Fall. I re-read The Quiet American and Catch 22 for the third time. I published short stories about GIs and Vietnamese prostitution in Penthouse Magazine. My reading and research into the Vietnam War influenced everything I did. I taught myself photography and began to make short trips into Central America where I saw evidence of the same “crimes” of imperialism I’d come to see the US committing during the Vietnam War. Without realizing it, I became a member of the leftist anti-war movement. I latched onto a few lines of poetry by Claudia Lars from Central America that I saw as the core of my story:
I saw the masked men
Throwing truth into a well.
When I began to weep for it
I found it everywhere.
Now I write for This Can’t Be Happening and other venues; I co-host a weekly radio talk show with a friend in Kansas; I have hit the streets for countless anti-war demonstrations and been arrested for occupying a senator’s office during the Iraq War; I’m a lifetime member of Veterans For Peace and of Full Disclosure, a dedicated group with a tiny budget. In the face of a well-funded Pentagon media and cultural campaign to portray the war as noble, Full Disclosure works to make sure the record is correct and the story is told truthfully about our unnecessary and cruel war against the poor people of Vietnam. The point is to face up to why the US lost that war.
The Vietnam War as history and narrative remains profound background to the daily life of this nation as it now maneuvers through the COVID19 pandemic. For me, it’s not ideological. It’s an on-going, perennial struggle in the political realm of Guns vs. Butter. It’s the struggle between Life-Enhancing Arts vs. Killing Arts. Or to use Freud’s pre-WWII construction, it’s The Life Principle vs. the Death Principle — Eros vs. Thanatos. Thanks to the COVID19 virus, Eros is gaining ground at the moment over Thanatos with the wide-spread hero-worshipping of emergency medical workers — versus the post-9/11 hero-worshipping of Seal Team Six killers.
It’s ironic for me that the crew of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt may have gotten its dosage of COVID19 from a liberty port docking in Vietnam, in which sailors and marines left the ship and enjoyed the rich cultural offerings from the ever resourceful and entrepreneurial Vietnamese people. Borrowing Freud again, the 2020 Vietnam visit by one of our grandest nuclear aircraft carriers was about Eros and cooperation and the sharing of life’s joys and problems — rather than about Thanatos and the misguided use of a nation’s lethal tools of violence to dominate and control.
The Vietnam War I was a tiny part of was a clear example of the misguided use of lethal violence by my country. The pro-war mantra from the 1960s was ironically correct: “My Country Right or Wrong.” It’s past time more of us face the fact this is my country and it was wrong in Vietnam. The Vietnamese never did anything to Americans that justified that terrible war.
Ron Ridenour: Remembering a Lifetime of Struggle and Vietnam’s Heroic Victory
My father, an Air Force officer, and I sat glued to the radio. The Ruskies were invading Hungary, October 23, 1956. I just turned 17, a high school senior. The next day, I joined the United States Air Force, with my Dad’s permission, to fight and kill the Commies.
Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Air Force Strategic Command, got his rocks off strategically bombing everywhere when it came to mass murdering “gooks”: Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese. He was my father’s hero.
Four years in the imperialist military taught me the US governments were the bad guys. When my tour ended, I threw my uniform at the gate as I left the base and engaged in the early actions against the Vietnam War. One step forward into the radical-revolutionary movement. My priority was always to fight against the war, and concomitantly fight for equal-civil rights. This path I have eagerly tread for six decades. I would have fought in arms with my brothers and sisters in Indo-China — so many millions murdered and tortured by my father and his superiors: Wall Street, the weapons industry war barons. Hate, sweat, tears, jailings, beatings, treachery, secret spies saturated my life.
As an anti-war activist and radical journalist, I strove to be where the action was. I immersed my indignation into my body and soul. I fought. There was no other way. Not to fight leaves me complicit and guilty.
We were together in action, in music, in passion, in enlightened-leery outer-space, in pain, in joy, in orgasms. We were one David — a gigantic multi-varied movement struggling for justice. It was real. Entwining humanity and facing down elitist profiteer-murderers liberated us from contemplating our navels, forming us into one whole.
Once coordinating a peace fundraiser at a hot-spot jazz club in L.A., a music producer approached me and handed me a pre-recorded song entitled, “The War Is Over If You Want it To Be”. Beatles style. He wanted me to play it at our event. I looked at it, and said no, no I can’t. I feel it makes too light of the horrendous bloodbath against a good people, who did the US no harm, and they are forced to fight onward until they win. No, it must wait to be heard until the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians win and retake their sovereignty with the help of our massive solidarity activism in the streets and halls of rotten politics across the world.
When that day came, May Day 1975, I was at home alone and ecstatic. Hallelujah! My people have won! I jumped up and down and cried out loud. I took the record out of its hiding place and played, “The War Is Over!” And I played it over and over all afternoon, and I cried over and over until I was dried out.
Today, other peoples are suffering under American Exceptionalism’s omnipotent hand. That ludicrous world of delusion and deception disgusts decent beings.
Today, I miss those years of activism, the comradeship, even the violent discussions and intra-contradictions. We were alive; we were all trying to be morally just.
We have wandered the deserts and the seas. We have been hungry and thirsty. We have been murdered and tortured. We are of the working class, of the castes; we are of many colors and nationalities. We share a common vision: freedom and equality; shelter, bread, water for all. We fight together, in order to live in peace and harmony.
The heroic Vietnamese people showed us the way.
Laurie Dobson: Saigon’s Liberation, My Father’s War on Vietnam and My War at Home
Today is the 45th Anniversary of the “fall” of Saigon. April 30, 1975 was the day the last remaining personnel along with hordes of terrified Vietnamese who had worked with the Americans, were airlifted off the US Embassy roof by helicopter, in video footage I still see in my mind, these many years later.
At the time, growing up in an Air Force family, and as a freshman at UNH, I had not yet processed how to deal with my father’s direct involvement in the US war on that country. My dad, Major Al Goodrich, was an Air Force Major, crew commander and pilot of B-52 aircraft. He flew over 100 missions, carpet-bombing swaths of North Vietnam and most likely also Cambodia with explosives and the defoliant Agent Orange.
My dad deployed twice to Guam in the early 70’s, while I attended high school. I still trusted the Strategic Air Command motto: “Peace is Our Profession.” He assured us he flew “too high up to see his targets” and said he was in “no danger of being hit,” he “only hit military buildings,” and would come home no worse for wear.
The day would come when these lies I was told, and implicitly believed, would unravel, but in high school, with my father deployed, I felt the superiority unique to non-civilians. They fought for our “civilian” rights — what they saw as our entitled anti-war attitudes, and our freedom to protest war at their expense.
To my father, “they” were the ones who allegedly spit on returning veterans, making it hard for them to adjust, as they struggled to move on without the deserved support of a country, sick of them and a war fought on their behalf. The motto I recall about that was: “These things we do, that others may live.”
My father became demoralized and resented the war protestors. He initially had trouble adapting to civilian life, as his twenty years in the military expired on his return. He was convinced that the war could have been won had the “peaceniks” not made it impossible to escalate and end the war with victory. He was not fond-a “Hanoi Jane.” She and the vocal opposition worked to prevent their “return with honor.” It took years for him to work through the bitterness.
Eventually, we moved back to his hometown. He flew for Bar Harbor Airlines and built and flew his own planes from the family’s homemade airstrip and hanger. He and my mother also built a ranch, raised cattle and pigs, and regrouped. If there were unresolved issues remaining, I was not aware of them, since we were a family that faced forward, nose first (like flying a plane) and our strength was resourcefulness, not self-examination. That came later, for me.
Despite the war’s conclusion, my Dad was proud of his military achievements, growing up poor, as the son of a lobster fisherman, “for the free world’s largest and greatest flight organization.” He was in the last class of cadets, which made it possible to enter officer training and enable him to move through the ranks.
He would later say that he went from a two-room schoolhouse in Cape Porpoise to an 8 million-dollar corporation, (the cost of a B-52), responsible for an aircraft equipped with nuclear capabilities.
He was taught the expression “idle gear, six and SWESS (special weapons emergency separation system),” which was the emergency direction for idling, pointing the bomber to six o’clock (straight down) detaching the bombs in order to explode them (and the plane) in mid-air, thus assuring their non-survival if there was risk of enemy capture.
Even through his later Alzheimers years, he remembered his death requirement. “Aim high,” but “Win or die.”
Military personnel and their families were expected to accept this fatalistic mindset as a matter of course. As the eldest, I earnestly undertook to live up to my role as an example setter and chief loyalist, a role I eventually had to abandon. Ultimately, I disappointed, and moved to New York City to acquire independence and assert free will.
Now that I can accurately say that I have lived nearly my entire adult life as an ardent anti-war activist, I try to recall the significance of those days, when I was just beginning to wake up to the devastating consequences of the war policy of Nixon/Kissinger and Johnson before them. It required my abandonment of the allegiances I forged out of family loyalty.
No one escapes the effects of war, nor of the mental conditioning it took “to accept death, loss and disappointment, as it were straws upon the tide of life,” to quote Stephen Foster. I still grapple with the necessity to come to terms with these conflicting themes in my life, a practice that I must continue to consciously undertake, because denial is the most useful survival tool of a military family.
One cannot fully make “peace” when there is a war still raging in my head. A certain amount of PTSD perhaps, but nothing near what those who served have had to work through.
How could the vile Deathmonger, Kissinger, have succeeded in continuing the war for so long, simply to secure a second term for Nixon? How could he have made the mass murder in Indochina an acceptable cost for his personal political gain?
How can he — or any war profiteer — live with himself, being instrumental in provoking the Pol Pot regime that killed millions of Cambodians? Compare his dishonor with those who kept faith, at incalculable personal cost. I do not speak just of our counry’s losses.
How can anyone fulfill their country’s demand that you engage in slaughter, then return home and bury your mental anguish?
As a dutiful first daughter, the eldest of four, I could not fail: my mission was to try to help my father deal with the sacrifice he made to manage his conflicts of conscience, and this prevailed, despite the cost to my own need for autonomy of thought.
As I listened to the inner struggle playing itself out after my father had returned, I was growing up outside the house in an anti-war culture, where the Woodstock generation was planting flowers in the guns of the soldiers guarding the Pentagon and other places around the country.
I fought hard to keep a sane mind, and marvel, looking back, at my determination. I fought off the countervailing reasons, often delivered to me by smug “townie” friends (I grew up in Portsmouth, NH) to maintain my pride in our military family and our mission for justice, against the growing awareness of the truth that my people, the warrior class, who were required to carry out the dictates of war, had been and were being cruelly deceived.
Thinking on it, I liken this sickness of enlightenment, as if I were a trusting Native, coming to the realization that we were being systematically and mortifyingly abused. Back then, it just hit with a blow to my psyche. We were seen as the perpetrators, not those for whom we were expected to fight to defend. I had thoroughly imbibed the imperative that we daughters must be brave and honorable in equal measure to my father, so he would have the strength to fight.
I have carried this fight with me to this very day, 45 years later. This is not simply the “fall” of Saigon that I am writing to memorialize today: it is the “fall” from grace and of my pride, dignity, hope and innocence. It is lost honor, but not loss of mission. “Liberty We Defend.”
This anniversary encapsulates all other struggles going on for which I fight to support. The war is over, but my “civilian” mission continues. I am on permanent alert.
Gary Lindorff: By the Time Vietnam Won the War I was Sick of My Country
By the time the Vietnam War was finally over on April 30, 1975, I was one foot out of this country so to speak. I had filed for my CO deferment at my local draft board the summer I graduated High School, in 1969. That summer and through October, I worked at a wire factory to earn enough money to head for the Navajo Reservation where I tutored Navajos students at Navajo Community College located in the middle of the desert (it’s now a four-year school called Diné College) until January 1970. While sequestering in Navajo Country I wrote my manifesto, giving myself permission to “breathe my own air”. I titled it “Man Behind the Waterfall”.
Until I wrote that manifesto, I felt like a cow hanging her head over the fence, waiting for slaughter. After my sojourn in the desert I felt more like a free swallow, after Thoreau’s verse:
“E’en though I no wings do wear
through this solid seeming air
I can skim with any swallow
who so dareth, let her follow
and we’ll be a jovial pair.”
Needless to say, I was transformed by my self-exile from the United States, or maybe a better word would be renewed. I was much relieved and jubilant when the US lost the war and was driven out of Indochina. And who can forget that footage of frantic Vietnamese who had served the Americans invaders being indecorously evacuated along with some last embassy staff by helicopter from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon? But by that time I was a sober young warrior-poet of sorts and my intuition told me worse days were ahead.
Since then there has been no indication that the United States has learned anything from such interventions. If I had owned a crystal ball then, one that worked to show exactly what the future would bring, I don’t think I would have been surprised or shocked. The United States, the land of my birth, still thinks it has a free pass to behave the way it behaved in Vietnam and I do not think much will change in how it perceives its role on the world stage in the time that remains for me on Earth.
Thankfully, I have learned how to live my life somewhat soulfully, finding meaning and purpose by sinking my roots much deeper than the foundations of the “Homeland.” I think of myself as a human being or a world citizen, not as an American.
Of course one can’t escape one’s place in history, so I will just end this little confession by saying that, if anyone asks me if I was ever in the service, I say: I am a Vietnam Era Peace Veteran and am very proud of it.
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