Vietnam intensifies as America’s youth rebels against an unpopular war
■ Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter
While President Johnson was situating himself as commander in chief, wars and rumors of wars were thick in the air. Although not actually fighting the North Vietnamese, we were aware that at the flick of a straw we could be plunged into another Asian conflict. Although they disagreed on almost everything, in the interest of continuity, Johnson kept Robert Kennedy on as attorney general.
The unexpected invasion
Every teenager with a transistor radio awoke on Feb. 7, 1964 to an announcement that foretold a new kind of social revolution. The Beatles were boarding a plane for JFK Airport. Thousands of moppets besieged the tarmac as four young British lads stepped down at JFK; John Lennon 23, Paul McCartney,21, George Harrison, 21, and Ringo Starr, 23, with music and shaggy haircuts. This reporter had seen them at the Star Club in Hamburg the year before.
It was total bedlam that first weekend. For once it seemed that parents were asking their kids, “Who are these freaky looking boys?” They may have looked different, but they were anything but freaky. They brought to America the front lines of hordes of Brit kids, with their banjos, guitars and drums, and would change the American pop music scene forever.
Within weeks, English accents and boy groups coming across the pond seemed like a redux of European immigrants at Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th Century.
Not since the days of wrestler Gorgeous George who brought audacious outfits into the ring had anything caught sports fans like a young black man from Louisville who shouted to the world, “I am the greatest!” Cassius Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam, dominated the sports pages as he not only beat out all contenders but told them in what round they would fall. Everyone around in those days remembers “Archie Moore will fall in four.” And so he did. However, Ali would garner the public’s disrespect when he refused to enter the service during the Vietnam War and would have his world heavyweight boxing crown taken away because of his conscientious objection to war.
Here we go again
Lyndon Baines Johnson was re-elected president in November 1964 by a landslide, despite the escalation of forces in Vietnam. In 1965, Congress, by an almost unanimous vote, gave him carte blanche to do whatever he chose with our troops in Vietnam who were there theoretically to assist and train. Tales were coming back from Saigon that American troops were already fighting side by side with the South Vietnamese.
In January 1965, shortly after he took the oath of office, Johnson ordered U.S, Navy river patrols on South Vietnam’s 3000 nautical miles of inland waterways. It was obvious by then that the Soviet Union had given its support to the Communist North Vietnam. China had already begun supplying troops and material to the north. It would be the closest we would come to a full out World War III. The president’s advisors, primarily the secretary of defense, were urging him to increase troops which were already in the thousands.
After Viet Cong guerrillas attacked the U. S. military compound at Pleiku in the Central Highlands, killing eight and wounding 126, Johnson made a decision. “I’ve had enough of this,” he said. He authorized Operation Flaming Dart. U. S. military forces bombed a North Vietnamese army camp near Dong Hoi with planes from the U. S. Carrier Ranger. After that, U. S. military troops began to pour into South Vietnam under the command of General William Westmoreland.
By April 1965, we were officially at war in Vietnam, although Congress had never declared it so.
The natives grow restless
Back in the States, the public thinking was starting to split. Demonstrations popped up on college campuses and the streets of America coast to coast. Unrest with the war was hyped by two particular incidents: The Watts Riots in Los Angeles and the Kent State Massacre.
American youth rebelled against the Vietnam War through their antisocial attitudes, music, literature and outright defiance against “normal society.” The Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco became a headquarters for disruptions from the norm. Long hair, sandals, and anti-war music pervaded the area and spread across the country. America’s youth were in full thrust rebellion against their parents’ ethics and lifestyles. In a war they didn’t want or understood, it became an era of go to hell, get lost and I don’t care. Even those who supported our involvement in Vietnam were not all sure just why. Casualties were misstated by the government, as body bags began to accumulate and coffins arrived on a daily basis containing the bodies of fallen warriors. VA hospitals were soon overrun with the wounded.
This ain’t battery acid, kid
Enter Dr. Timothy Leary with a solution to all your problems. He offered trips you couldn’t afford and flashbacks that were nothing like last summer’s vacations at Yosemite. He offered LSD, the cure-all of all cure-alls. Take a trip, get high, and forget all about wars and other realities. Escape all your problems. Then came Woodstock with a theme of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan tried to wake people up, but a young generation trying to get its footing in life simply didn’t know what to believe, so they believed in nothing.
Assassinations were becoming common. President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X. It seemed to be open season on leadership.
It was like World War II all over again without any rewards. The draft returned since not enough young men and women were willing to go die for their country. “Hell no, I won’t go to Johnson’s war,” became a battle cry against conscription. Draft dodging became a reality. Someone issued a list of 10 ways to escape the draft:
1. Be a conscientious objector.
2. Create a medical condition (the military wasn’t interested in your health problems).
3. Have children who need you (families came first).
4. Be a homosexual (gays were not welcome to wear an American uniform).
5. Run away to Canada (draft dodging in the U. S. was not a crime in Canada).
6. Go to college (suddenly the longhairs were very interested in education).
7. Have a high lottery number (maybe the war will be over by the time your number comes up).
8. Hold an essential civilian job (reserved occupations – needed for the war effort).
9. Get married (you can always get divorced after the fighting ends.
10. Forge military ID or Reserve papers (use the name of someone already enlisted).
Number 5 was the most popular because Canada opened its arms and country to Americans against the war. It paid off because after hostilities ended, President Gerald Ford granted amnesty to those who skipped the war without harm—in Canada!
Hippies, afros and tats
Youthful living standards and styles of living were alien to anything we had ever seen before. Afro hairstyles, bell-bottom slacks, body tattoos—all became part of popular dress during the middle to late sixties. Flower children became a way of dressing to illustrate the loss of youthful naiveté.
Black Power came to the forefront with the Symbionese Liberation Army that brought rich kids like Patricia Hearst into its ranks. Civil rights was an issue won outside the war. When President Johnson signed a series of voting and other civil rights legislation, blacks began to get a foothold into the way of life that white folks enjoyed. Because of his civil and voting rights legislation, he remarked to a Georgia senator: “The Democrats have lost the solid south.” He was right. Until the recent election for senator from Alabama, in which a Democratic candidate beat out a two-time state chief justice, a democrat had not been elected there in almost two decades.
College ain’t just for education
College students led the way in demonstrations against the war. Everyday some college or university had its dose of national guards, smoke bombs, and tear gas. Examples were the University of California at Berkeley in California and the granddaddy of them all, Kent State, a small college in Kent Ohio.
On May 4, 1970, student rioting broke out on campus and continued to swell until the governor of Ohio sent in the Ohio National Guard to quell the disturbance. By the time it was over, M1 Garand Rifles, M1911 pistols, and 12 gauge shotguns were employed to create a national disgrace and disaster.
It began several days earlier, with an anti-Vietnam demonstrations scheduled by students to begin at noon on May 4. The university, in an attempt to halt the activities, handed out 12,000 leaflets declaring the gathering was cancelled. The leaflets were ignored, and 2000 students gathered on the school’s Commons near Taylor Hall.
As the first protester began to speak, several troops of Ohio’s National Guard attempted to break up the student rally. The Guard used tear gas at first, but due to a healthy wind, the gas dispersed quickly, and the students did not. A chorus of “pigs off campus!” merely incited the guards further as did the students tossing tear gas canisters back at the guard troops.
With bayonets fixed, one company advanced on the unarmed students. And so it went until a sergeant withdrew his .45 and began firing into the crowd. Bullets were coming fast and furious as others joined the fray. When it was over, four students lay dead with nine others wounded.
Every newspaper in the country displayed headline stories and front page photos of the dead and wounded as they lay where they fell. A Gallup poll taken shortly after the massacre blamed the students. That all changed, however, and soon much of the country was outraged that such a tragedy could happen on a college campus.
A commission formed in June of that year found that the shootings were unjustified.
We are people, too
Feminists and their followers raised a subject many weren’t interested in hearing, especially men who leaned toward the right and male dominance. What had begun back in the early Twentieth Century would not be lost, and women would not be denied their rights. As is happening around the country today, America’s mothers, wives, and sisters began a crusade that is likely to go on into the foreseeable future when sexual harassment, fair wages, and equal opportunity in the workplace actually exist for one and all.
While women were up in arms, in the early hours of Nov. 28, 1969 a neighborhood gay bar in Greenwich Village was set upon by one of a number of regularly expected police raids. Instead of flinching and taking it as they always had, the customers did something different; they fought back. The police weren’t used to having that kind of response when raiding a gay bar. It was the beginning of yet another civil rights issue.