By Fred Branfman
It is also true of course that the war in Indochina included sizable military combat between armies. But one cannot seriously explore the ‘60s while ignoring the single most important factor that produced its social convulsions:
America’s murder of Indochinese civilians caused millions of idealistic young people to protest, at first decorously, and then with mounting fury and deepening despair as their protests were ignored and the killing increased—day by day, month by month, year by year, for more than a decade. “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” was not merely a slogan chanted by draft dodgers. It was a cry from the heart from millions of decent people—of whom those of draft age were but a small minority—who could not bear that their government was engaged in such wholesale slaughter of innocents, and that it was doing so in their name.
The undeclared and illegal war created massive resistance to the draft as those subject to it, horrified by the killing, objected to being forced to fight a war in which they did not believe and for ends they did not approve.
The war turned children against parents, a massive “inter-generation gap” as idealistic young people felt betrayed by, and then rebelled against, the elders of “the greatest generation,” whom they had grown up believing in; sought to create alternative institutions; and ultimately failed because they were too angry, young, psychologically unaware, inexperienced, confused and undone by the drugs they had partly embraced to kill their pain.
The war ripped a generation apart from within, as many who believed in their elders and government, and either fought in Vietnam and/or joined conservative movements at home, were infuriated that their courage, sacrifice, morality and belief in nation were denigrated by the protesters.
The war tore apart the entire nation as a “Silent Majority” of Americans—men and women much like Brokaw himself—with “other priorities” than actively opposing the war in Vietnam, became furious at being regarded as immoral by people whom they saw as arrogant, self-righteous, filthy, narcissistic, anti-American and violent.
How Brokaw could write an entire book devoted to the ‘60s and ignore what was most toxic about the country’s aggression against Vietnam and the many ways our involvement in Indochina more generally deformed and shaped our political culture—not to mention Vietnam’s—is bewildering, to say the least.
Since Brokaw’s book consists mainly of more than 80 interviews with veterans of the ‘60s, his biases are primarily revealed through his choice of interviewees. Democratic Party activist and businessman Sam Brown is cited twice in the book, but a seminal ‘60s figure like Tom Hayden is ignored. Sen. James Webb’s portrayal of the war as solely a military battle, and of antiwar protesters as cowardly and unpatriotic, receives five or six times as much space as anyone else interviewed. The experiences of brave anti-draft leaders like David Harris, who went to jail out of moral opposition to the war, and courageous people like former volunteer chief Don Luce, who risked his life for years to bring civilian suffering to public attention—including exposing the “tiger cages” and other torture of tens of thousands of political prisoners—are not included.
Veterans like Colin Powell, Bob Kerrey, Wayne Downing and John McCain, who do not mention U.S. murder of civilians, are interviewed at length. The views of equally well-known veterans who bravely exposed and opposed the murder—like John Kerry, Bobby Muller (whose organization won a Nobel Prize for the land mines treaty) and Ron Kovic (author of “Born on the Fourth of July”)—are written out of Brokaw’s history. Les Gelb, a former Department of Defense official who worked on the Pentagon Papers but kept silent, is interviewed. But Daniel Ellsberg, the former government official who bravely copied the papers and leaked them to the press, is not even mentioned, much less interviewed. War opponents like George McGovern, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton are only quoted about the war’s aftermath—not the crimes that led them to oppose it.
Brokaw peppers his book with disparaging comments about the leftist “extremists” who did not play by the rules. Many of his criticisms are justified, particularly the way in which radicals made themselves rather than the war the issue. But it is hardly justifiable to only criticize the extremism while ignoring the far more objectionable—and criminal—behavior by U.S. leaders that produced it.
One wishes that Brokaw had seen fit to interview John Kerry about his charge made nearly 40 years ago that U.S. leaders were war criminals. For it is this issue that goes to the heart of what triggered the upheavals of the ‘60s. If a hero like Kerry had the courage to tell the truth in 1971, jeopardizing his political career and potentially angering millions of Americans and fellow vets, why is Tom Brokaw so afraid to even raise the issue today? It is said that journalism is a rough draft of history. Alas, Brokaw’s disappointing book is neither good reporting nor trustworthy history.
Fred Branfman, the editor of “Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War” (Harper & Row, 1972), exposed the U.S. secret air war in Laos while living there from 1967 to 1971 and went on to develop solar, educational and Information Age initiatives for California Gov. Jerry Brown and national policymakers.