Author's Name: Robert Wanager

Title: Vietnam: The Home Front

My best friend Dave and I were attending Southern Illinois University ─ SIU, Carbondale ─ in the fall of 1965 and there was a retired Sergeant as Dave’s Resident Advisor. This guy thought the dorm was a barracks and would get on the intercom every so often and yell out orders as if he thought the floor was his platoon. 

One night the Sgt found some beer cans in the trash and got on the intercom, reported his discovery, said he knew who it was and gave the guilty party 48 hours to give up. At 12 hours he got on the intercom again warned that there were only 36 hours left etc, like a countdown. To no one’s surprise, there were no takers. So, after the deadline passed, he got back on the intercom again and announced that he was giving the offender one more day but by then it had become a joke and some of the guys were getting pretty tired of it. 

At the same time all that was going on, the Sgt used to invite guys into his apartment, tell them about the joys of having sex in the dorm with his wife and then offer them a beer, just to see who would take him up on it. What a jerk. Eventually, someone emptied a bag of sugar into his gas tank…. 

Nevertheless, the sugar didn’t seem to slow the Sgt’s gung-ho approach much and he started another intercom campaign. This time it was in support of a petition he was circulating backing the Army in Vietnam. Of course, as these things usually go, Dave’s signature was the only one that kept it from being unanimous. 


Had the Sgt worded it differently, Dave probably would have signed but, since he was sort of lukewarm about the war to start with, he balked at signing because the petition specifically stated that we supported “everything that the Army did” in order to win. In response, the Sgt called him out in front of the entire dorm at dinner one night and laid some heavy duty shame on him calling him a sissy Commie coward and traitor for not signing….

After being pilloried, Dave did some thinking and had talked to other people about the war and become much more of an anti-war activist. In the meantime, I had been able finagle my way out of the high rise and move into Dave’s somewhat more “upscale”, off-campus complex. 

One day, I was eating lunch in the cafeteria as the Sergeant stood at a table near the door collecting signatures on yet another pro-war petition. Dave walked up, pointed at the table and said, “You aren’t going to sign that thing are you?” I was a bit surprised at the rather abrupt greeting and said “Well, hi to you, too.” 

“Look,” Dave said “this guy is pushing the war and the whole damn thing is a screwed up mess. We shouldn’t even be there.”

“Whoa,” I said “slow down. That’s a little heavy for lunch.”

But, Dave just kept on talking, “OK, Look. In supporting the war we’re supporting the killing: they’re killing our guys, we’re killing them and everybody’s killing anyone caught in between. It’s a civil war between a military dictatorship on one side and the Viet Cong who want to overthrow it on the other. Just where do we fit in? In fact, we wouldn’t have cared at all about the country except for the fact that the dictatorship was being challenged by the Commies.”

“But,” I said. “the South Vietnamese Government asked for our help and I believe it’s right to help people who are fighting to keep their chance for freedom. If we let the county go to the Commies then the Vietnamese will never get that chance.”

“True, but what if the people don’t care if they’re Communist or not? The people in Vietnam were going to vote on reunification and a Communist government in 1956 but we stopped the vote and that led to the current war. It’s their country and if they want to be Communist, we need to butt out. The government in the South is a corrupt dictatorship and the common people there don’t have any freedom in the first place. So, there is no reason for them to support the government and without the people the South will lose. It’s a no-win situation and if we do beat the Commies, the military dictatorship will still remain in power and people will still want to get rid of it.”

"Hold on, Dave," I said "the Communists are like a virus and we have to stop them or they’ll take over the whole of Southeast Asia.”
“Not necessarily,” he said “Vietnam is a civil war. The North wants to reunite the country, they’re not out to conquer a bunch of dominoes. Doesn’t it make more sense to cut our losses and make a stand in a country with a real democratic government and where we have a chance of winning?”

As Dave talked, I had to agree that maybe the American efforts were being “wasted” in the wrong place. At the time I was much more concerned with the fight for black rights and hadn’t really given the war much thought. However, Dave then suggested that if the war was bad, then people shouldn’t go to fight in it. 

At that, I had to say put on the brakes. “Come on, Dave, get real, how is ending up in jail such a good idea? What difference would it make? I’m just one guy. I can’t see how ruining my life would accomplish anything. No one will hire me after I get out and I don’t want to throw away my future just because I may not like the war. After all,” I said, “people like you excepted, I think that most of the guys who want to stop the war are nothing but hypocrites. They just want the war to end so they don’t have to go and fight; they’re not against the war out of principle and if they get drafted most of them will serve because they will go to jail if they don’t.”
 
In any case, before long I figured that by not saying anything my silence could be construed as consent and it became a choice just like it was in high school, conform and go with the flow or buck the system and take the consequences. Eventually, Dave took conscientious objector status while I ended up with a high draft number. However, had things had gone otherwise; it would have taken much more courage for me to face jail ― and the shame of being labeled a “coward” ― than to face combat. But, to America’s credit, had I been in Nazi Germany, I would have probably died for speaking out.

   

Title: Vietnam: Hey, Hey, LBJ....

In the fall of 1965 as my girlfriend, Julie, started college at Bloomington-Normal and Mike and I also started at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale ─ SIU ─ which was much cheaper than the University of Illinois. Majoring in Biology, I was still chasing my big dream of becoming a doctor and SIU had a medical school. Mike, naturally, had no idea what he wanted to do but he figured college, with its student deferment, had to be way better than the Army. 

Almost immediately, we were drawn into the ferment that was beginning to undo the nation’s universities from within. SIU was suffering the same growing pains as the U of I but for a somewhat different reason. It had a rather “charitable” approach to admissions in that, if you were still breathing, it was kinda guaranteed you’d get in. In addition, the fact that the tuition was the cheapest in the state, led to a lot of Chicago guys flocking there, especially with Vietnam heating up. 

For that reason, SIU was essentially just a monster high school with a similar social set-up, only this time it was a mass of in-crowd partiers on a thinner layer of working class kids just trying to get ahead. The smarter kids all went to the U of I, if they could afford it. And, as the majority partied, the university sucked up their tuition and, even though the classes were easy, when they flunked out and ended up in Nam anyway, their parents were left holding the bag…. 

Because most of the guys were of the sex and booze mindset, they would not be the ones who became the activists or "hippies". In fact, they could care less about the war ― aside from hoping that they escaped it. They also had very little interest in the fight for black rights ― except that they didn’t want any blacks thinking they had a “right” to date their sisters…. 

But, it was also time of change and even the partiers felt it. The 50's were over and the old constraints and ways of thinking were on the way out. There was going to be a new social contract with better rules and things were never going back to the way they were. And, our generation was going to contribute to that new way; we didn't yet know what it was going to be but I felt that it was inevitable. 

By that fall of ‘65 the beatniks had begun to move into the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco and a group of articles by Michael Fallon in the San Francisco Examiner described the lifestyle of the new residents, which included their acceptance of marijuana use and coined the term “hippies” for them. 

In 1966, Timothy Leary, a researcher and advocate of the use of psychoactive drugs in psychiatry and criminal rehabilitation, was interviewed by Playboy. The interview soon became famous for his positive assessment of the drugs’ potential for increasing a person’s awareness, that is, for their ability to “expand”, and even heal, one’s mind. That, combined with the fact that the beatniks and, by association, their imitators the hippies, were known for their drug use cast a powerful spell.

By the summer of 1967, thousands had flocked to San Francisco to take part in the beatnik/hippie experience and “getting high” was almost like a rite of passage into the hippie lifestyle. Many were drawn by the song San Francisco which popularized ─ and romanticized ─ the situation there. And I could understand the attraction. 
That fall, the booze and party crowd sank into the background and the campus seemed to undergo a transformation. It became cool to copy beatnik/hippie dress but, underneath, most of the “hippies” were still the same old hedonistic in-crowd. 

Also that fall, the antiwar movement hit SIU with a vengeance. As soon as school started, there were posters everywhere demanding an end to the war and on October 21, there was even a protest demonstration timed to coincide with the “March to the Pentagon” in Washington. The marchers were to walk down the center of Illinois Street and on into town. This would be a big deal as the town was in the southern part of the state and the people still had the conservative, traditional viewpoints that that implied. 

I felt like I needed to join in and stand up too and talked Mike into coming along. I marched because I believed in ending the war and Mike because he was hoping there would be some excitement ─ that is, a chance to blow off steam accompanied by billy clubs and riot gear. 

Some 2 or 3 hundred of us marched and as we walked along the march organizers keyed their bullhorns and chanted things like, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids you kill today?” or “What do we want?” “Peace!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” Some guys yelled along but to me it was just too childish. I figured just showing my face was enough. Much to Mike’s disappointment there were no rocks or verbal attacks and things went off without a hitch.

As we walked back to our building after the march, Mike had a few things to say, “I hate to tell you this, but I was as put off by the motivation of many of the demonstrators. It seemed like it was a social event for most with a few sincere individuals like you sprinkled in for authenticity. Of course, I don’t have room to talk” 

“Well,” I said, “you may be right but there were also people with their babies in strollers and figured that at least they had to be serious.”
“I’ll give you that,” Mike said, “but it did seem like the organizers were feeding on the power of it all, that is, there was too much self-aggrandizement and not enough integrity for my taste. Of course, I have always been leery of leaders until I knew they could be trusted and if people acted for honest reasons rather than hidden, often selfish, reasons it would be more rational to get involved.” 
I had to agree with that last, “Yeah, the leaders did seem to be your usual in-crowd types who were just taking advantage of other people’s idealism.” 

Mike continued, “I was talking with this one guy with a bullhorn and he said 'When the revolution comes there will not be any money and everyone will share.' And when I asked him why a farmer would share his hard earned crop with him since he didn't work, he got pissed and walked off. I got the feeling that he was just parroting what someone had told him and had no idea of how his Utopia would really work.”