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.