Vietnam: A War Born in Controversy… A Peace Corps Memoir from the 60s

I was walking toward the first big Anti-Vietnam War protest on the Berkeley Campus in 1965 when a crazily painted bus drove up and stopped. Out piled a group of people who were dressed in outrageous outfits and had their faces painted. The bus was Further of hippie fame and the people were Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Like me, the ‘slightly’ aging bus now lives in Oregon. I’m in better shape.

The conflict in Vietnam dated back to 1946. It was born in controversy. France had lost her colonial empire in Indochina to Japan during World War II and Charles de Gaulle wanted it back. The Vietnamese Marxist Ho Chi Minh wanted independence. The Indo-China War was the result. In hope of expanding their influence, Russia and China sided with Ho Chi Minh. NATO and the US jumped in to thwart the Communist powers and support France.

In 1954 the Geneva Accords divided Indochina into four countries: North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Under President Eisenhower, the US replaced France in the fight against North Vietnam by providing ‘military advisors’ and financial aid to the politically corrupt regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Vietnam. Over the next ten years our support continued to grow. John Kennedy dramatically expanded the effort by increasing the number of military advisers from 700 to 15,000. 

By the time I was ready to graduate from Berkeley, Lyndon Johnson was ready to send in the troops. The Cold War was raging. America’s leaders saw Vietnam as a critical step in stopping the spread of communism. Lose Vietnam, the Domino Theory argued, and all of Southeast Asia would follow.

My political science professors in International Relations at UC Berkeley had a different perspective. Communism was changing. It was no longer monolithic in nature but had taken on nationalistic flavors. Communism in Russia was different from communism in China. The Russians were as fearful of Chinese massing on their border as they were of the US’s nuclear weapons.

One day I arrived at my class on Comparative Communism and learned my professor had been invited to Washington to provide advice on Vietnam. The message he carried was that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first and a Marxist second. He wanted to reunite North and South Vietnam. He was no more interested in being dominated by Russia or China than he had been in being dominated by France. Becoming involved in a full-scale war was not in the best interest of the United States and might prove to be a costly mistake.

Washington was not ready to listen. America’s leaders had grown up on a steady diet of Cold War rhetoric. Not even the insanity of McCarthyism had shaken their faith. Being ‘soft on communism’ was political suicide. When Khrushchev banged his shoe on his desk at the United Nations and said he would bury us, we banged back.

Lyndon Johnson and his closest advisers believed in the anti-communist threat but there was more. America was the leader of the Free World. Our image was involved. Lose Vietnam and we would lose prestige. Johnson took the matter personally. We would not lose Vietnam on his watch.

But I was convinced there was more to the fight in Vietnam than a communist grab for power. The focus of my studies on Africa in 1965 was about the struggle for independence from colonial powers.  I felt Ho Chi Minh was involved in a similar fight.

A huge rally was held on campus in May. It was one of the first major Anti-Vietnam protests in the nation. I went to listen. Dozens of speakers including Irving Stone, Dr. Spock of baby fame, Senator Gruening from Alaska and Norman Mailer spoke out against the war. Later the House Un-American Activities Committee targeted the event’s organizers. If Vietnam was part of a communist plot to take over the world, then dissent in the U.S. against the war was part of that plot. The same FBI agents who had prowled on the fringes of the earlier Free Speech Movement were undoubtedly prowling the edges of the protest, taking pictures and taking names. 

In some ways, the rally was like a circus. Over 30,000 students and anti-war activists participated. Folks from the throughout the Bay Area poured on to Union Field and there were lots of interesting people in the Bay Area. Haight Asbury and the hippie era was still a year off, but the elements were all in place. I was standing on Bancroft Avenue when a crazily painted bus drove up and stopped. Out piled a group of people who were dressed in outrageous outfits and had their faces painted. They danced by me, apparently high on something. 

“It’s Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, a more ‘with-it’ girl standing next to me explained. “Neal Cassidy drives the bus.” 

Cassidy had been part of the Beat Generation and a friend of Jack Kerouac. He had been immortalized as Dean Moriarty in “On the Road.” His connection with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters would introduce another type of trip to him: LSD. Tom Wolfe’s book, “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” chronicled the experience of the Merry Pranksters on their gaily-painted bus named Further as it made its psychedelic journey across the US.

What I had learned about Vietnam in my classes and at events like the protest created a dilemma for me, as it did for most young men of my generation. If drafted, I would go. I couldn’t imagine burning my draft card or moving to Canada. I actually believe we owe our country service. But fighting in a war I didn’t believe in was at the very bottom of the list of what I wanted to do when I graduated. And there was more. I am allergic to taking orders and can’t stand being yelled at. I’d make a lousy soldier. I saw a court-martial in my future.

Luckily, Peace Corps Recruiters were coming to Berkeley and Peace Corps was something I truly wanted to do. I could serve America in my own way. Peace Corps service would not eliminate my military obligation but it might buy time for the Vietnam conflict to end.

In my next post on the Peace Corps, I visit with the recruiters and fill out a long application. I even take a language test, in Kurdish. Go figure. But that is a story for this fall. Next Monday will be my last regular post for the summer. Peggy and I are going on vacation. 🙂 I’ll write about it on Monday.

FRIDAY’S TRAVEL BLOG: We are going on a walk up a trail I created in the forest behind our home. Am I a trail blazer, or what? A buck plays contortionist, poison oak lurks, and an old cave speaks to the area’s gold mining history.

26 thoughts on “Vietnam: A War Born in Controversy… A Peace Corps Memoir from the 60s

    • Very much so, AC. The Peace Corps allowed us to meet an obligation to our nation. I still could have been drafted when I returned home but got one of the high lottery numbers that made it unlikely. Now whether living in the middle of the African jungle might not qualify as a holiday (grin), it was endless fascinating. –Curt

  1. I am glad you and the Peace Corps found each other. I have met many former Peace Corps volunteers who relished the experience and no Vietnam vets who could say the same.
    You have made about the best explanation of the anti-war argument that I have seen. I wish the policy makers at the time could have had that point of view. However, I have some differences of opinion or at least emphasis. We now look back with 20 – 20 hindsight. The students of the day were not WW II veterans who had seen the totalitarian take-over of Eastern Europe. Most policy makers were. Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese nationalist who wanted independence, but he was also a totalitarian who never had majority support in Vietnam and whose totalitarian state was worse off by World Bank statistics in 1998 than they were in 1972. Finally, most of our “hind sight” today was influenced by a national media that invariably criticized U.S. actions while ignoring the atrocities of the North. I personally witnessed news media distortions and was in the area when NVA atrocities happened but were ignored. A good example was that the NVA’s principal target in our area were teachers. I wonder how your professors would have felt about teaching over there. But back to the original point, I wish we had never gone in.

    • Peggy’s brother was there after graduating from West Point, Ray, and has a strong background in history. I know that there are complexities on top of complexities. Once the war started, most rational thought went out the window, on both sides. And war is brutal. No doubt about it. Thanks for your input. –Curt

  2. I’ve been studying the Vietnam war a little more since reading the fantastic and very moving novel, “The Mountains Sing” by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. A truly excellent book on this conflict, the whole sweeping thing, from the Vietnamese perspective. A bit of a longer read, but worth the time! I’ll be looking forward to future posts on this for sure.

    • As you would, M.B., being the historian that you are. It seems to me that everyone at the time had a strong viewpoint that left little room for rational discussion. Not so much different than what we are living through now. The book sounds interesting. –Curt

    • And bitter. I felt for the soldiers who had to go there and then returned home to such bad treatment after risking their lives. That’s what my friends who went there remember about the war. Even now they resent being reminded of the historical reasons behind the war. –Curt

  3. I was just young enough to avoid being drafted. I too would have been a poor solder, or at least an unenthusiastic one.
    Just when I thought you were done with the historic name dropping, you’re rubbing elbows with the Merry Pranksters…

  4. Them were some crazy times, for sure. It’s easy to remember the angst felt by most young men back in that era living in fear of being drafted. I still remember marching in anti war protests in San Francisco. None of it made much sense. It still doesn’t. ☮️

  5. I was way to young to understand at the time. Thank you for some history that never made it to the allowed high school history books.
    I thought I heard the bus was restored? Do you know if it’s true? I would love to get a selfie next to it!

    • Thanks, Trish, for your comments regarding the history. The bitterness in the nation at the time of the war, left little room for background or rational thought.
      On the busses: They were going to, but I believe they modeled another one after the original and toured the country. I’m not sure that this is the latest information, but both busses now live side by side in a barn on the Kesey property outside of Eugene, Oregon. –Curt

  6. This post transported me to a time and place I didn’t get to experience myself. I’ve often wondered how I might have reacted to events in the 60’s if I’d been born a few years earlier. I think I would have loved to have joined the Peace Corps like you did, but am not sure I could have committed myself. When it came up for me in the 90’s, I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t ready to make a big commitment like that in my 20’s.

    • It’s definitely easier in your 20s, Juliann, no doubt about it. Older volunteers are recruited and do a marvelous job, however, partially because of their experience and partially because of the respect for older people in many cultures. When I was recruiting for Peace Corps after I returned home, I recruited a retired farmer who was one out greatest success stories overseas. –Curt

  7. Another fabulous and fascinating post Curt. Naturally the real reasons for the Vietnam War (not surprisingly known in Vietnam as the American War) were pretty thin on the ground at the time. Everyone talked about the domino theory but people of my generation assumed we were being bullshitted to by TPTB. All we knew was that Australia and Aussie boys should not be there. Did you know that there is a generation of American and Australian women who could have lost their fathers in WW I, their husbands in WW II, and their sons in Vietnam. And some did.
    I can’t believe you saw the Merry Pranksters! The bus, the group! An iconic piece of Hippie history.
    I’m glad you joined the Peace corps instead. I can’t imagine you as a soldier.
    Have a great summer!

  8. I always love the history you share and hearing your involvement and transformation moving from right to left. I love that you were right there and were experiencing history in the making. ❣️💖

  9. We remember this time in our lives fairly well. Bert was drafted but ultimately served in the States, never having to go to Vietnam. We counted our blessings daily. Glad you remember so much and can write about it.

    • The Peace Corps wasn’t a substitute, but by the time I got through with my service, I got one of those high numbers that just about guaranteed I wouldn’t be called. I was ever so glad that I got to serve our country in the way I did. I’m glad Bert got to serve his time in the US. –Curt

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