Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
During the past two weekends Kay and I “binge watched” the PBS documentary special on the Vietnam War. It is factual, well produced and is necessary for all Americans to view and take to heart. Caution: If you remember the Vietnam days like I do, it will be strong medicine to take. It showed that our leadership (elected officials) is not a thing of perfection. In fact, it is as faulty as humanity can be.
I recall the wisdom of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”
Obviously, his warning at the end of his presidency virtually fell on “deaf ears.” We ignored his wisdom and “waltzed” into a colonial quagmire that was developing in Indo-China. France had lost its colonial grip on the nations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand during the Imperial Japanese invasion of the land in the early stages of World War II. As the war ended and these former colonies were starting to stand for independence, the French military returned and reclaimed their former colonies. Within Vietnam, a strong movement, headed by local hero Ho Chi Minh, rebelled. They pushed out the Japanese and now felt strong enough to take on France and anyone else who wanted claim to them.
The following struggle was intense. It caught the interest of American politicians. One such “up and comer” was Senator John F. Kennedy. He visited Vietnam and interviewed the French press which was covering the war. They convinced him that France was going to lose this war and the rebelling Vietnamese leadership would eventually drive out the colonialists and side with the growing communistic philosophy coming out of China and the Soviet Union. Vietnam was destined for communism.
Despite the prudent advice given to him during his trips to Indo-China, the young JFK kept his strong interest in finding a way to exert political leadership into the Vietnam situation. The French would eventually flat out lose to the Vietnamese leadership under Ho Chi Minh. As a condition of surrender, they would agree to dividing Vietnam into two nations. The North would be headed by Ho Chi Minh and the communist order and the South would be headed by a more moderate (and corrupt) group. That’s the how France got out of the situation and the ambitious American politicians who couldn’t wait to exert influence got into it.
During the election of 1960 it became an item of interest. “How do we stop the communist influence in Indo-China?” Presidential candidates Senator John F. Kennedy and Rich- ard A. Nixon sort of danced around the topic. Unbeknownst to American voters, it was about to become the biggest issue of our lives for decades. Capitol Hill seemed to have forgotten the warning given to them by President Eisenhower. Kennedy won the election and that seemed to delay any direct involvement by our military but the CIA and other tactics of engagement started to increase. That “Military Industrial Complex” Eisenhower was warning us about was becoming a lobbying cesspool. The pressure to engage against the North component of Vietnam was working up into a frenzy. Soon, in November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and the “Hawkish” environment stirring on both sides of the political table was reaching a frenzy. The 1964 presidential campaign involving Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater was about one certain thing: who was going to be the toughest concerning the Vietnam issue?
The Civil Rights Movement with the superb leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King was becoming a more pressing issue. Goldwater, in his bombast, opposed the Civil Rights Act while Johnson indicated he would embrace it. At the same time the Military Industrial Complex went on the “down low.” They were safe – it didn’t matter who was going to win. Both political camps were going to do something about the “communist threat.” Johnson played on the sadness about JFK and played the “race sympathy card” to the maximum. He won in a landslide. He would have to appease the “Complex.”
This is where it all started to affect me in a personal sense – along with all the souls consisting of my generation.
One Sunday morning I walked into Bethel AME Church in my beloved hometown of Oxnard, CA. I went to the restroom and ran into my first cousin Fred Brown Jr. Fred was one of the first of my relatives who would play college athletics. He played guard for Pepperdine College basketball. He had been away for a few years and I asked him, “Where have you been?” He looked stern and replied, “I just got back from Vietnam.” “What’s a Vietnam,” I asked. He looked me stern in my eyes and said, “Stay away from there! They got us killing people. We are blowing civilians away!”
Fred never seemed the same to me. It took a while but I would find out why.