There was a cloud that hung over many of our lives growing up in the Youngstown of the 1960’s and 1970’s. No, it is not the clouds from the mills. It was the ongoing war in Vietnam (which was actually good for industry). Many of our young men would go there, some would die, and others would return, some wounded, and some bearing mental wounds they carry to this day.
While our involvement began in the Eisenhower era, and John Kennedy sent a growing number of “advisors,” it was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that I became aware of the war. I was in about fifth grade when I first started reading daily news stories in The Vindicator of “body counts” and plans to send more troops there. We were told with more troops and bombing, we were winning the war. We would see nightly news coverage of embedded journalists and footage of battle action in our living rooms.
For many, the turning point seemed to be the Tet offensive of 1968, a major reversal despite a half million troops and extensive bombing. We began to wonder if this was a different kind of war and if we were being told the truth. It helped bring Richard Nixon to office in 1968, on promises to get us out of the war with our dignity intact. Around this time, I was a paper boy. One of my customers was a returning veteran. He offered to tell me the real story of the war. I regret I never took him up on it.
In 1970, I was a high school sophomore at Chaney. Richard Nixon decided to extend bombing campaigns into Cambodia where enemy troops took refuge. To many college students facing the draft, this was a betrayal of the promise to end the war and demonstrations and riots broke out on many campuses. At nearby Kent State, May 4 was the terrible day when four students died and thirteen others were wounded by the Ohio National Guard troops. All of us at school the next day walked around stunned. Stunned shifted to scared when we heard some adults say, “they should have killed more.”
It made me wonder how they looked at me, with my longish hair. It told me how deeply we were divided, and I think this gave everyone pause as campuses suspended classes early. Somehow, we walked back from the abyss as a nation. In 1972, I registered for the draft, hoping I wouldn’t be called and that I would get a high lottery number. Mine was 12, but I dodged a bullet in more ways than one. Nixon was winding the war down and bringing troops home. The last men drafted were those a year older than I was.
The most difficult thing perhaps was that we lumped our soldiers in with our politicians who lied to us about the war, not explaining the kind of conflict we were in honestly. I know there are lots of arguments about whether we could have achieved victory in Vietnam. I don’t want to re-fight that war. Rather, I want to acknowledge that the men and women who served deserve all the honor as heroes they have only belatedly received. Many were just like me–hoping it wouldn’t come down to them–but doing what their country asked of them as their fathers did in World War II.
Vietnam was a lesson for us as a nation of how important it was that our leaders tell us the truth, particularly when making the case for sending our young men and women into harm’s way. While deceiving the nation cost Lyndon Johnson another presidential term, it cost thousands of young men their lives. It has marked our life as a nation ever since. It is always the case that when our leaders lie, it will be our people, and especially our working classes that will bear the brunt. To paraphrase an old protest song, “when will we ever learn?”