Friday, February 01, 2008

40 years ago

(An occasional reminiscence on the events of 1968)

By the beginning of February, the war in Vietnam was becoming even more of a disaster. The marines at Khe Sahn were suffering constant bombardment by mortar and rockets from North Vietnamese infantry, a hellish episode that would last 77 days.

The end-of-January Tet celebrations in the ancient capital city of Hue erupted into a series of early morning attacks from Viet Cong and NVA in several locations around South Vietnam. The next day, Viet Cong attacked the US Embassy in Saigon. The battles around Hue would continue for a month.

On February 1, Eddie Adams took this photo on a Saigon street.(On the same day, former vice president Richard Nixon announced his candidacy for president.)

Every setback in Vietnam, every television report, every dead American was a painful reminder of how terribly things had gone wrong.

We had strong feelings about the war, everyone did, one way or another. I’d studied the history of Vietnam starting around the time the escalation began in 1965, the year I went to study in London. I was convinced that we had no reason to be involved in this essentially internal civil war. By the time I graduated in 1967 it was a much different – and much bigger -- war.

That spring I attended a military funeral, fortunately the only one I went to during the war, at West Point. The brother of my classmate, who had graduated in the class of ’66 along with the classmate’s fiancé, was killed near Saigon as he patrolled with his men. Young Lt. Frank Rybicki got stuck in the mud and handed a buddy his rifle stock to pull him out: It went off. The story of his passing ran in Newsweek. We were devastated at the waste of life. And the military pomp of a West Point funeral, with the glory of the Hudson River valley around it, only reinforced my feelings that the war was taking an unnecessary toll on the military.

It was winter, we didn’t really know anyone in Washington, so we must have spent a lot of time at home, reading the newspapers. In those days we’d always read a morning and an afternoon paper, so here we subscribed to both the Washington Post and the Evening Star (we occasionally saw the third DC paper, the tabloid Daily News).

I don’t remember much about television, but least in those pre-cable days we would have had a small set receiving the three networks. We certainly would have watched the evening news, since Walter Cronkite was a regular at home, along with some of the Sunday news analyses.

So we were aware of what was going on with the war, or at least what was being reported, even if it didn’t affect our lives.

We met a group of young men one day in a park; they were military, from various forces, in DC for some sort of training, maybe languages, since I think later they went to the language school at Monterey. For awhile they were someone to spend time with, go to movies.

We hadn’t really known anyone in the military – aside from some of my college contacts at West Point -- before this. Soon our younger brothers would have to face the draft. With the negativity about ‘hippies’ and the past year’s ‘Summer of Love’, growing drug use, and increased frustration with the slowness of improving civil rights and ghetto poverty (on Feb 8, in Orangeburg SC -- the ‘Orangeburg Massacre’ -- 3 college students would be killed and 27 wounded when troops fired into a crowd protesting segregation there), living in the US was depressing. But exciting things were happening, too.

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