Nearly four decades after my return to the United States I still recall the feelings of disgust I experienced upon my reception at Travis Air Force Base in 1969 when I was carried on a litter from the rear ramp of a C-141 Medical Evacuation Flight returning wounded soldiers from Vietnam. The tarmac was lined with anti-war protestors carrying signs that read, “BABY KILLERS” and “MURDERERS.” They were dressed in rags, the remnants of Army uniforms. They shouted curses and insults at each of us as we were carried one at a time down the ramp to waiting busses and ambulances parked on the tarmac to receive the wounded.
We were shocked. We knew there was opposition to the war in America, but we were totally unprepared to be greeted with profane taunts and curses. We had given our country our most precious possessions – our lives, our youth, our health, and our buddies. And in return we were vilified by the only Americans who cared enough to show up and greet American soldiers the country and its elected leaders had sent off to war. And in that moment our priceless gift of service to our country was spat upon and cursed.
Had we been warned of the personal attacks and insults, we could have prepared ourselves psychologically for what was to come. But we were totally unaware. On the contrary we were elated to he home once more and in our joy we were vulnerable. And in those crazy moments our joy turned to confusion, numbness, and anger. There is a lesson to be learned from our humiliation. Soldiers need to know what they are to face when returning home, just as in combat.
There were other lessons learned in the hectic days of protest, when recruiters and Army ROTC instructors were picketed and accused of being murderers. Those lessons were that those of us wearing the uniform with pride had to be prepared to be spat upon. We had to learn to turn the other cheek when flower children placed flowers in the weapons of soldiers under arms, while others threw human waste upon uniforms worn with pride. We had to remain calm and step over the inert bodies of demonstrators who physically blocked the entrances to office buildings and teaching facilities. We had to find the moral courage to do our duty under circumstances that can only be described as humiliating and inexcusable.
I was there and I bore witness. We found that recruiting was rejected by many in the academic community, who no longer felt the pride that had sustained our country during World War II. We learned that some universities would no longer tolerate the presence of ROTC Programs. They were bitter lessons, but they were important to understand so that we could do our duty on the Home Front. Most important of all was the lesson that when confronted by misguided protestors we must not retaliate. We must exercise self-control and continue to do our duty with honor and dignity.
The Vietnam Conflict touched virtually all Americans. It set in motion a cultural upheaval that formed a chasm within and between generations. From a political perspective it created bitter opposition between political parties, leaving a legacy of animosity not seen since the end of the Civil War. Efforts to put the bitterness behind us have achieved little. On the contrary, the legacy of the War yet casts its shadow over the political landscape, creating sharp differences between those who participated in the great events of the period. At the center of the controversy were the veterans seeking the meaning of their shared sacrifices and the significance of our service in Southeast Asia launched by the splendid appeal of John F. Kennedy to bear any burden in the defense of liberty.
Forty years after students and professors took to the streets to protest the War, the political culture remains fractured by contrasting values held by liberals and conservatives. The opposing values yielded a bitter harvest in the political culture, destroying bipartisan support for national defense. What the anti-war movement saw as courageous their opponents viewed as outrageous. Labels of heroes and turncoats were ascribed to the selfsame actors revealing the depth of the deep split in the culture – a split that still touches the souls of our generation over a War that ended in tragedy.
To military professionals the courage of self-sacrifice epitomizes virtue – the love of duty and honor beyond self-love – and entails living for a noble cause and dying in an act of selfless service. We observe the nobility of total self-sacrifice in the deeds of the NYPD and the NYFD during the horrifying events of 9/11, laying down their lives to save those in desperate need. We see the same self-sacrifice in the actions of men and women in uniform fighting to protect their fellow citizens from terrorism. Such deeds have historically become an example to all generations through the power of self-sacrifice, enshrining the memory of the dead for the ages. Tragically that grandeur of courage has a hidden side that resides in the shadows of our ideals – self-gratification and self-service – too often now the hallmarks of anti-American intellectuals. The intellectuals who led the anti-war movement rejected traditional values and what conservatives viewed as civic virtue.
The dichotomy between deeply held beliefs in duty, honor, and country by those serving in uniform juxtaposed the rejection of God and Country by intellectuals who profess anti-American beliefs deeply disturbs many Americans. Those professing beliefs in traditional American values readily take
the lead in the most dangerous situations, whereas those rejecting traditional American values and embracing socialism have acted as role models of civil disobedience, which military professionals see as cowardice.
One of the impressive leaders in the mobilization of the anti-war movement was John Kerry, a Yale graduate and former naval officer, who served in the brown water navy in the coastal waters of South Vietnam. Following his return to the United States and discharge from active duty, Kerry acted as co-founder of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Vietnam (VVAW). The group organized protests and conducted an investigation into the conduct of the War, which led to allegations of torture and war crimes committed by Americans in Vietnam. Naval investigations of the charges found them to be without merit. Despite official denials of their claims the VVAW descended on Washington in 1971 to conduct anti-war demonstrations that received extensive media coverage. John Kerry appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on April 23, 1971. In his testimony Kerry repeated the VVAW claims of “…crimes committed on a day to day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He went on to detail alleged war crimes committed “…in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan.” The televised testimony had a chilling impact upon support for the War, while galvanizing support for the anti-war movement.
How did it all go wrong? And how did John Kerry’s academic studies influence his actions? Was the role of John Kerry, the anti-war crusader, predestined by defiance of the establishment that shaped opinion on the Yale Campus during the Sixties – a defiance that ultimately confronted us all? These questions call attention to events at Yale four decades ago.
Yale University served as a leader in the formation of anti-establishment attitudes over the last half century that challenged American foreign policy. William F. Buckley, Jr. produced a study that identified the trends that existed as early as 1951, which revealed that socialism was taught in virtually all relevant courses offered by the University making Yale a bastion of left liberal opinion. Established as a Christian seminary, Yale University had become agnostic or atheistic in outlook by the time Buckley attended the University in the late 1940s.
The liberal philosophy of the University was tested during the early days of the Cold War, which pitted the strength of the United States to halt the expansion of the Soviet Union, without creating an open breach between American foreign policy and the academic community. The modus vivendi between Cold War foreign policy and American intellectuals functioned during the early years of KingmanBrewster’s tenure as President of Yale University. However, his support for national policy collapsed during the Vietnam War, leading to Brewster’s denunciation of the War and his leadership of opposition to the War in the academic community. Yale University had become a center of resistance to the War.
The events that led to the breach between the University and White House policy reflected a gradual escalation in active measures taken by the Yale Faculty to encourage civil disobedience and opposition to the War, as well as measures taken by the Yale Administration to shield the student body from legal actions to enforce laws broken by student radicals in the course of opposition to the War. The principal Faculty leaders in galvanizing the anti-war movement on the Campus included Philosophy Professor Josiah Thompson, Professor of History Staughton Lynd, and University Chaplin William Sloan Coffin, Jr.
The encouragement provided by the three Faculty leaders of the anti-war movement took diverse forms, but all three were outspoken critics of the war who took their convictions into the classroom, politicizing their role in the University. Thompson employed a document written by student radicals and entitled “Declaration of Conscience Against the War in Vietnam” as a teaching vehicle for eliciting student declarations of conscience regarding the use of force in Vietnam. The academic exercise served as a teaching tool to focus student opposition on national policy and to foster support for radical opposition to the War.
Advocating opposition to the War and questioning the legality of the national policy, Lynd spoke at anti-war meetings on the Yale Campus, as well as at the first large anti-war rally in Washington. In 1965 Lynd joined Tom Hayden, founder of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and veteran Communist Thomas Aptheker on a fact-finding mission to Hanoi in violation of the existing State Department ban on travel to North Vietnam. Speaking in Hanoi, Lynd accused President Johnson of lying and waging an immoral war.
The third member of the Faculty Troika against the War, William Sloan Coffin, Jr., organized the National Emergency Committee of Clergy Concerned about Viet Nam. Coffin employed his position as University Chaplin to advocate civil disobedience and challenge foreign policy. An effective, if inflammatory, speaker, Coffin likened the American Government to the Nazis. Coffin declared Battell Chapel a sanctuary for resisters to the draft and actively encouraged civil disobedience to discourage military presence on the campus, prevent the recruitment of ROTC students, and defy the draft.
The actions taken by the Faculty leaders of the anti-war movement at Yale made headlines in the national media. Coupled with the activities of student radicals, who had commenced strident attacks upon the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), the combination of student and faculty joined in opposition to the war attracted national attention. The SDS picketed ROTC classes, distributed anti-war literature, conducted teach-ins, and carried out disruptive attacks of draft board offices and university facilities associated with military training and Defense contracts. At the University of Wisconsin, where I taught ROTC from 1965 through 1968, the activities of the student radicals escalated from picketing and distributing anti-war literature to bombing of University facilities, which took the lives of two faculty members on the Madison Campus.
Yale’s Bruster came out against the War in 1969, declaring his opposition to the war at a rally of some 50,000 protestors on the New Haven Green. Under his leadership, Yale University opposed FBI investigation of civil disobedience. The University Administration fired the head of the Campus Police for cooperation with FBI investigators. By creating a University sanctuary for anti-war activists Bruster encouraged actions aimed at creating a second front against the War in America, a stated objective of the student radicals and SDS.
In his final act, in 1969 Brewster closed the ROTC program at Yale and put the finishing touch on efforts to segregate the Campus from Federal support for the Vietnam War. Yale became, in a sense officially, a center of anti-war agitation, propagation of anti-war literature, and organization of opposition to the War among clergy and student radicals across the county. On behalf of opposition to the War in the academic community, Kingman Brewster declared the War immoral in October 1969. In so doing he condemned the War to failure, branding as war criminals those of us who waged the bloody battles of the conflict,producing a stain of guilt and recrimination that would haunt returning veterans for years to come.
From my perspective as an Army ROTC instructor with previous combat experience in Vietnam, Brewster’s actions amounted to a cheap shot. The scions of the establishment – the most favored sons – teed off on the draft Army, the scions of working families and middle class Americans. Those who served out of great need with aspirations for a better tomorrow were utterly defenseless – inarticulate, unlettered, and without comprehension of the words as the curse that was spoken – and without an advocate before the court of public opinion, which had been prejudiced by a liberal media without concern for those who bore the burdens of national defense.
The strong cursed the weak, and the weak were defenseless and uncomprehending. Powerless to respond, I read the reports of Brewster’s denunciation of the War. I nevertheless knew from my combat service in Vietnam that his was an undeserved curse and that resisting the ruthless attacks by North Vietnam upon the South Vietnamese population was truly a just cause as President Kennedy had made clear in his Inaugural Address. The media – champions of the radical opposition to the war – belonged to the liberal left dominating journalism and the publishing business. More importantly, the media concurred in the verdict of the immoral war, an opinion long held by the liberal elite of the profession. So it was that the curse became the collective wisdom of the liberal establishment. And it challenged all who publicly wore the uniform in America.
Who caused the My Lai massacre? Many blame the Army for that 1968 massacre in South Vietnam. In the wake of the denunciations of the war and the military that followed disclosure of the massacre, the Roman Catholic Church and the American Council of Churches declared the war immoral. And the media savaged those of us in uniform at the time and our elected leaders in the White House. Looking back with the advantage of hindsight, it is apparent that the indictment that tarnished all of the men and women in the military was hasty. The Massacre resulted from poor leadership on the part of a young lieutenant, serving in a responsible leadership position without the education needed to succeed in a very tough situation. He failed when he directed his platoon to conduct reprisals against the civilian population for comrades slain in the hamlet of My Lai. By taking criminal actions in direct contravention of standing orders – the rules of engagement – Lieutenant Calley failed himself, his platoon, and his country by his unlawful actions for which he was tried, convicted and sentenced to incarceration in punishment for his crime.
In fairness, we should ask did his country fail Lieutenant Calley when it called upon a young enlisted man without a college degree to take an officer’s commission in combat – a commission not filled in the face of the dramatic decline in officer accessions resulting from student opposition to ROTC recruitment and ultimately the closing of ROTC programs across the country? Does the Yale Faculty bear some responsibility for the outcome of their actions that curtailed recruiting and eventually forced the closing of ROTC programs? And do the individual Faculty members who led the protest against the War have the blood of innocent Vietnamese civilians on their hands as a result of actions that inflamed youths to commit crimes of violence, and more significantly in the long run, severely reduced the capacity of officer training programs across the country? And finally would John Kerry have turned against the war, helping to form the VVAW, if not for the Yale Faculty having radicalized student opinion and acted as the vanguard in organizing domestic opposition to American foreign policy?
John Kerry assumed a leading role in the anti-war movement following his discharge from active duty. Were his actions responsible, or did the “Curse of Yale” prejudice his judgment to the point that his service in Vietnam, in the minds of some, constituted nothing more than a four month fishing expedition for dirt with which to galvanize the protest movement in America? Kerry did not complete one campaign in Vietnam. His observations were limited in scope. And upon his limited observations he judged all Vietnam Veterans to be war criminals. He filed no charges against men under his command for war crimes; despite the fact that he acknowledged that they were responsible for carrying out atrocities. And he asked for early release from combat for wounds that required no medical treatment at a medical facility.
Did all Vietnam Veterans commit war crimes as John Kerry alleged in his testimony before Congress in 1971? The answer is no. A junior naval officer, John Kerry never understood the situation on the ground in South Vietnam. The Free Fire Zones that Kerry labeled a method of command sanctioned genocide were part of a system to protect the civilian population, an ethical and effective method of protecting the civilian population from friendly fires. Villages and populated regions in the rural countryside constituted No Fire Zones. Restricted Fire Zones consisted of regions of isolated population centers. Free Fire Zones were unpopulated regions – e.g., mangrove swamps, mountainous regions and virgin rain forests. The rules of engagement prohibited use of direct support artillery fire in No Fire Zones. District chiefs could give clearance to fire in Restricted Fire Zones after making certain the requested fire would not endanger the populace. Free Fire Zones were unpopulated regions used by the Viet Cong to establish bases for their units. Viet Cong or North Vietnamese Army units encountered in the Free Fire Zones were legitimate targets and could be immediately engaged by American or South Vietnamese Forces without clearance from the nearest district chief. The fact is that John Kerry did not understand the rules of engagement or the fire control system in use in Vietnam, which resulted in his false charges of command sponsored genocidal warfare.
If there is wrongdoing, who is responsible, and who shares the guilt? Actions have consequences. Those responsible for the actions are also responsible for the consequences, especially when the actions have outcomes that damage American national interests and the reputations of men and women serving in uniform. Men like me, and those who served with me, were branded war criminals as a result of charges leveled at Vietnam Veterans. Those charges were not over the top, as John Kerry has subsequently acknowledged. They were false and they had a profound impact upon troop morale, as well as the outcome of the war; and they resulted in persecution by anti-war radicals of veterans upon their return home.
The evidence does not support the VVAW claims of massive atrocities committed by American combatants in Vietnam. It supports a conclusion that the VVAW made unsubstantiated claims – claims that slandered all Vietnam Veterans. The VVAW and those who supported their cause owe an accounting for accusations that do not square with the facts based upon the service of countless Vietnam Veterans who conducted themselves honorably in South Vietnam.
The lesson learned by those of us who found ourselves confronting the anti-war movement on the Home Front during the Vietnam War is that our duty is to conduct ourselves with dignity despite grave provocation. Our mission supporting troops in harm’s way can only succeed by carrying out our mission, while respecting the rights of our fellow citizens to practice the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights. To the extent that laws are violated by those seeking to prevent soldiers from performing their duty, we must rely upon the civil authorities to maintain law and order. Moreover, as leaders of soldiers returning from combat on foreign soil it is our duty to prepare our service men and women for possible provocations by the opposition as the price we pay for the privilege of service in uniform. Had we understood the potential impact of the attacks upon unwary soldiers returning from Vietnam, many of whom were gravely injured in battle, we might have been able to prevent the psychological trauma experienced by many, who were totally unprepared for the unfounded attacks upon their service and personal honor.
 Who is John Kerry?, Alexandria, VA: The American Conservative Union, 2004, pg. 49-57.
 William F. Buckley, Jr., God and Man at Yale. Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1986.
 Anthony Lewis, “A Thoughtful Answer to Hard Questions,” New York Times October 17 1969.
 Mark Moyar makes the case in his account of the War that American journalists covering the War in Vietnam provided distorted coverage that resulted in several false impressions of the war including the following: the War was being lost by Saigon; the Communists War efforts was being waged by insurgents known as the Viet Cong as opposed to the Army of North Vietnam, who were waging a legitimate struggle with the support of the population and generally in accordance with the Geneva Convention; whereas American combatants were waging an immoral war. See Mark Moyar, Triumph Forsaken: The Vietnam War, 1954-1965. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.