Vietnam: Comments related to Burns/Novick’s Vietnam War Series on PBS.

During the time of the Burns/Novick Vietnam series I had a number of conversations, and also invited comments. Below are those who were willing to say something about the time that was around the Vietnam era, (1961-75). As you’ll note, even among these ten or so, there is a variety of opinions about, and engagement in, the issue of the Vietnam War. This was also true amongst those who chose not to write any comments. Even today there remain a range of strong opinions, but most have no opinions, and even during the time period most were minimally engaged. (The vast majority of citizens then, and certainly even more so now, were neither actively in the military, nor in the ranks of protestors. War was an abstraction, rather than preoccupation. Not a healthy attitude, in my opinion, neither then, nor now.)

My previous posts on this topic are accessible here. My summary thoughts will be entitled “Morning Report” on Vietnam, and I’ll publish probably on Friday of this week.


from Dan, Sep 13: HI Dick, I too volunteered for the draft. I served from Oct. of ’55 to Jul. of ’57. Basic training at Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas with the 2nd 8 weeks training as an artillery surveyor at Ft. Sill, OK. My Dad died unexpectedly while I was on my way to Chaffee. I started my military career with a 10 day emergency leave. After training at Ft. Sill we received orders to ship out to Korea. I assumed I would be stationed in the “Boonies” with an artillery battery for the duration of my 15 mo. tour. We left the ship at Inchon. Many of us from Ft. Sill were sent to 8th Army HQ in Seoul for duty other than the artillery surveying that we were trained for. I was sent to a sedan company which provided transportation for the 8th Army brass. Lt. Col. and up. My 1st job was driving for the 8th Army Dental Surgeon. A “Bird” Colonel [full Colonel]. I then worked as night dispatcher for our 40 some sedans. I did that until an opening on the staff of the 8th Army Commanding Gen. (4 stars) came up. I applied and got the job. One of 3 drivers on his staff. He was in Japan most of the time so we did a lot of V.I.P. stuff and spent much time at the pool. It was a pretty soft job but also very interesting. Also had a chance to see some of the country and get a feel for what the troops went through during the war. Hostilities ended in ’53 but the country was a mess. Seoul was just beginning to rebuild. They have done an amazing job. Can’t believe what I see today remembering what it was like when I was there. I had my 81st.birthday in June and we are still enjoying life. Summer has returned to the TC. Hope all is well on your end. Take care.

from Flo Sep 24: We watched The Vietnam War, tonight, part 4 of Ken Burns nine-part series on a war that I didn’t like, but really never knew much about. There’s no doubt it was a very turbulent time for the United States, to say nothing of Viet Nam and the countries directly affected by that “conflict”. I graduated from NDSU in 1966, went into Peace Corps in August that year, and came home in October 1968. The Dominican Republic had just ousted their dictator Trujillo with lots of covert US military assistance and anti-American graffiti was everywhere in Santo Domingo. I was in rural areas and was never bothered for my nationality, just loved! It was a great experience, but most of the guys with whom I was serving (we were two women out of a group of 24 in training!) were very much actively avoiding the war by doing alternative service with the Peace Corps. I was glad to have served with them as Peace Corps Volunteers. Most have gone on to serve in ways that continue to build peace here and around the world.

from Anonymous, Sep 19: [Husband] Dan was in the Army from about 58- ?63 and was a paratrooper in the top unit. Kennedy put his unit “on call to go to Cuba” and then the war was settled and Dan didn’t have to go. Being in the First Call Unit meant they had to be flight ready in 5 min. Dan was not the student you were / are. He was quite rebellious.

from Bob Sep 20: I am watching the Vietnam series, though it is depressing to learn how we were sucked into the abyss. Didn’t know you served in the Army, though not in combat. Thanks for your service. I was too young for Korea and too old with too many kids for Vietnam, so just plodded along as a civilian.

I will be interested in your end of series observations/comments.

Dave Sep 22: Good stuff Dick,

I served in Vietnam as a Naval Intelligence Officer. One day I will write about my experience and it will not be pretty for the South Vietnamese. The dismal manner in which our political leaders allowed us to fight the war is well documented. We were told we should not have gone… some of us were spit on. So we shut up. My brother a few years ago asked me why I never spoke about it. I am 75 and ready to write what I “lived and observed.” Not read about or something someone told me.”

from Jeff, Sep 25: The returning soldiers being spit on has been described as an urban legend. I don’t claim to know if it is true or not. I have read some articles suggesting this never ever happened. I would not doubt it if it did happen though, the divisions were so strong.

I think the doubters always seem to say that the phenomenon is always ascribed to someone else experiencing it.

I think the current issue of African American players protesting racism by kneeling during the National Anthem is related to this.

Most of the people who say it is wrong, including Steve Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary on CNN yesterday, who said it was disrespecting our military.

I believe our veterans need to be honored for their service. But I also believe the military worship gets taken too far and its always at its utmost at NFL games. (and always has been)…. This allows Americans to never question why there are troops in over 180 countries around the world. Or why taking a small % of the Defense budget would pay off all our student debt.

To Jeff Sep 25:

Amen to all you say.

The Vietnam era was 1961-75, during which time I was 21 to 35 years old. So, for me, with all the personal complications (death of wife, etc), it is a riveting time in history, so I’m watching every minute of every segment. I’ll do a summary post sometime later, after it is all over. I’ll include your comment there, probably modifying the “urban legend” piece. I have no doubt it (being spit upon) happened. When you have a country with several hundred million people, stupid stuff does happen, and it only takes one!

from Jeff: (As you know)…. I would not disagree it probably happened, but it is one of those things referred to in the 3rd person usually by those who say it did.

Even your poster doesn’t specifically say it happened to him. Which once again means as a vet, his saying “some of us” gives credence to it when in fact, IMHO, if it did happen, it was not often.

Now, there was spitting on police during the protests. Then again a lot of peaceful protesters got more than spit on.

More from Dick Sep 30: in 1970 the population of the U.S. was about 200,000,000. The odds that someone was “spit on” or otherwise mistreated is 100%, but my read is that such mistreatment was very uncommon. Indeed, my two brothers were in the thick of things in the late 60s and early 70s. One of them came home as a burn victim and he was with us for a time at our home in late 1969. It did not occur to me until I was at the Vietnam Memorial the weekend it was dedicated, Nov. 14, 1982, that I had not welcomed either of my brothers home, and I wrote them both letters on my airline flight home. There was no slight intended. I just didn’t….

from Bruce, Sep 29: It’s too much to ask for that Americans learn from their history. One of the truths I’ve learned from Burns doc. is that the big difference between Vietnam war and all the other wars of aggression is the American soldier wasn’t respected for their part in the horror. Burns is trying to rectify that in order for it to be like all the rest of them. Support the troops that fight America’s wars of aggression is explicit.

Response from Dick, Sep 30: I think you have to “walk in the shoes….” I was one of the lucky ones. I went in (without knowing it) at the very beginning, when all we did was to “play war” out in the country: Colorado, eastern Washington, North and South Carolina. We were practicing for the big event. It wasn’t a vacation, but neither did we have to live with the possibility that someone was out to kill us. Not so in Vietnam, or in any war, with any soldier or civilian. Their worry is survival; they experienced it every day. It is up the line that the responsibility lies. It is customary to blame the President (Johnson, Nixon….) but it is deeper than that. Politicians need to get re-elected, and war and division is a good seller, and thus leveraged in any election. This was said often in the series. Want to blame somebody for the killing in Vietnam? Start with every one of us, collectively.

from Jermitt, Sep 29:
I, also have been reflecting on the lessons of that terrible war and wonder what is it that I can do to assure something like is will never happen again. Are we on the verge of another bloody mistake?

from Norm, Oct 2:
My Story
I served as a photo/radar/air intelligence officer in the USAF from 2/1965-11/1968 assigned to the Minot AFB (NoDaK) and Utapao AFB (Thailand) with the Strategic Air Command (SAC) following a 28-week initial training at a joint air force/marine/ navy intelligence training course in Denver. I received my commission as a second lieutenant in the spring of 1963 upon my graduation from UMD and completion of the AFROTC program at that facility along with nine other men, two of whom became pilots and were killed in Viet Nam. I joined the AFROTC program as a freshman and remained in it for four years until I was declared an officer and a gentleman upon the awarding of my commission. I had always been impressed with the idea of being a “citizen soldier” if you will by going on active duty for the four years required of an officer and then returning to civilian life. I had no intentions of making a career out of the USAF as did one of my brothers. I later received an educational deferment to pursue more education before going on active duty in February 1965 in Colorado.

After serving as a photo/radar/air intelligence officer with the B-52’s at Minot AFB for eighteen-months where my team and I evaluated training missions and assisted in the development of target related information, I was sent to Utapao AFB located about ninety-miles south of Bangkok, Thailand on the Gulf of Siam (Thailand). My duties at Utapao were to supervise a team of highly trained photo/radar interpreters who had taken similar training in Denver in the evaluation or “scoring” of the B-52 bombing runs, i.e. BUFFs or Big Ugly Flying Fellows, following their missions over the SEA area theater of operations. BUFFs flew similar missions out of Kadena AFB (Okinawa) and Andersen AFB (Guam), both places of which I spent time at while in SEA.

We had three such teams that worked 12-hour shifts, i.e. days, nights and then off and then repeat. Shifts ran from midnight to midnight. We would usually have one or two or more missions to “score” during each shift after the film had been developed and sent to us from the photo lab. The results of the bombing mission would be scored using visual photography taken from the bomb bays of the BUFFs using the negatives scrolled across a large light table. We would look for the first and last impact of the 108 500 and 750 pounders that were carried internally and externally by the BUFFs, i.e. they showed up as easily identifiable black spots on the negative, and then transferred that information to a special map and determined the relationship of the long train of bomb impacts to the intended target area.

More often than not, the target areas were covered by clouds and we had to evaluate the results of the mission by reviewing 35mm film of the radar scope of the cross-hairs at the time of bomb release. We had a mechanical device where we could “blow-up” the film, i.e. enlarge it, where we could then take a very close look at where the cross-hairs were positioned at bomb release compared to where they were supposed to be. We would then take that information and with the use of a special slide rule with which we could plug in altitude, air speed, and wind, we would then transfer that information to a special map just as noted above when we had regular photos to work with.

Our work required great precision as the results determined by our teams (they were three of them by the time that I left with the rank of captain) with lots of pressure to make sure that the results were correct before being forwarded to the appropriate parties who were anxiously waiting for them.

I was discharged in San Francisco from the USAF as a captain upon my return to the United States just short of having served for four-years due to having less than six-months of retainability.

I am very proud to have been able to serve as a reserve officer in the USAF and also very happy that I had the chance to spend that time as an intelligence officer which was the area to which I had always wanted to be assigned.

I went back into the “real world” following my discharge, got divorced (cannot blame it on the war necessarily as was often the case), got re-married, had a beautiful daughter and found employment in health care in the private sector and later for over 34-years with the state public health department as a regulator before retiring in early 2013.

from Larry, Oct. 2:
Though I think “Vietnam” is an amazing production, I have watched diligently for the pieces left out, especially when I noted Bank of America and David Koch as major sponsors. I will send you separately the MSNBC piece from a few years back when we organized veterans to stand in support of Vietnam Veterans being foreclosed on by Bank of America, and others. We won, and I in fact just saw [a veteran] (the non-foreclosed Vietnam veteran celebrity) at the Line 3 March at the Capitol last Thursday. Am copying [other vets for peace] on this, as they are doing a lot of the organizing of people to pay attention to the film. Also [a newspaper columnist], because he is writing, or has written a column, and has reached out to VFP types, as he often does.

Despite the constant refrain to present a balance, I saw Gulf of Tonkin stated as retaliation for North Vietnamese attacks on American ships. I saw no reference to the immediate questioning, as reported in the Pentagon Papers and elsewhere, of whether that attack ever happened. Even if people want to argue about it or discuss it, as they do, that’s a significant piece of information that should not have been left out.

And then, there’s the piece(s) I had zero expectation of seeing in the film. The concept we affectionately refer to as “war profiteering”; the concept no one really wants to address (except maybe us). I own an amazing book I found reviewed in the Strib business pages some time ago. It is THE PROFITEERS – Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World, by Sally Denton. I had never heard of her. I read it first from the library over a year ago, and then bought it, something I only do these days if it is someone I know, or if the book is so amazing I don’t want to stand in line at the library to read it a second or third time.

I looked up Vietnam in the index and got, among other things, the pages to read about John McCone, a businessperson/founder of Bechtel-McCone. He was a “revolving door” specialist, not unlike Dick Cheney of Halliburton fame. For a while he was Director of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Bechtel has built a majority of the nuclear power plants in the country. Then Kennedy appointed him CIA Director, even though McCone was Republican, because JFK wanted intense nuclear experience and someone willing to deal with the cold war nuclear power threats. Turns out McCone preferred LBS’s [LBJ’s?] more aggressive style over JFK’s questioning and considering pulling everyone out, strategically, right after the 1964 election (this little detail was not reported either in the film). Anyway, after JFK was killed and the war ramped up big time, McCone left in 1965 and Bechtel got enormous (I would guess no-bid) contracts to build much of the infrastructure in wartime Vietnam. And the list goes on.

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