Viet Nam War

I have four brothers. In 1968 that was a desperate situation. The Viet Nam War was raging and the draft was our greatest fear. Two of my brothers were draft bait, the others were too young for the draft for the near future. This time was one of deep deep disturbance. Madmen were using assassination rather than voting booths to make change. John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr, Lee Harvey Oswald, Malcolm X, George Wallace, George Lincoln Rockwell, college students working for civil rights, little black girls and their mothers in church, saints and sinners alike were in the sights of men with guns in their hands, hate and a political agenda in their hearts.

The Viet Nam War dragged tens of thousands of young men into these sights when few of those young men, and fewer of their mothers, knew why they were being asked to sacrifice their lives. This became the focus of the clash between a generation that had been brave and proud and did their duty when the world faced calamity at the hands of other sinners in 1940 and a generation that wanted to be brave and proud and do their duty in search of peace not war.

When my oldest brother graduated from college and his college deferment ended he had few choices. He could leave the country and face the possibility of never being allowed to return. He could join the National Guard, he could attempt to become a conscientious objector, or possibly find some ailment for which he could be deferred. As I understand the story, he received his draft notice, put it in his pocket and enlisted. Enlisting cut his time in the army from 2 years to 18 months. I don’t know how my brother felt. I know that he told my mother on his way to ship out to Viet Nam that he did not think he could kill another person and I know that my mother felt that his shipping out was killing her. We were so fortunate that both my brother and my mother survived.

My other brother joined the National Guard and thus avoided Viet Nam but found himself on the wrong side of his own politics on May Day 1971 when he was called upon to protect Washington, D.C. from anti-war protestors. He was a student at George Washington University where protests filled the streets and cars were overturned, helicopters landed on the dormitories, fires were set and thousands of those afraid of the draft and the war were imprisoned in RFK Stadium for frantically, desperately seeking to end the war. My brother would much rather have been the prisoner than the guard.

My younger brothers, by virtue of their age, were spared the choices, the fear, the sound of guns, the sight of blood and the anguish of our mother.

When I was in college, the draft system was changed. A lottery system based on birthday was instituted. I had a friend working in the college radio station and several of us gathered there to listen to the lottery numbers 1-365 were announced with their corresponding day of the year. As I recall the first 175 numbers could expect to be called up. We waited with worry and baited breath to hear the birthdays of our friends and were relieved that, by the simple grace of chance, they all had high numbers.

In 1978, just a few years after the war was over, I dated the son of a Georgia sharecropper. He had enlisted to see the world when the war was not a war but a police operation, early in our involvement in Viet Nam. He had large shrapnel and bullet scars on his back and legs and 2 Purple Hearts. He had been lucky to survive, not lucky to have been shot. One of his Purple Hearts resulted from an incident of friendly fire when his company was trapped and American helicopters coming to rescue them shot them rather than the enemy. He survived, many of his buddies did not.

Then, in 1975, we abandoned Viet Nam to the Viet Cong and the sky did not fall and Communism did not overtake all of Asia and today tourists lie on the beaches of Viet Nam.

Jean McGavin
Bethlehem, Ct 2009

The Worst Lottery

The late 60's had no shortage of issues to attract attention. I often felt that when the 50's ended, a wave of awareness swept across the country and we could see so many of our shortcomings. Maybe it was the fear tactics of McCarthy or Kennedy's organized crime investigation or Kruschev promising to bury us or opening the heavens to space exploration or it might have been seeing it all on television that brought a generation together to collectively shout about the injustices that we perceived. I do know that it was easy to find people who would take to the streets to express a point of view about the running of our country and changes we felt were needed for the world.

The war in Viet Nam summarized many of them. The war itself was problematic as few in my generation felt any threat from the domino theory of international politics. It just seemed so wrong to use Southeast Asia as a chess board to keep the nuclear powers from using the force of advanced weaponry while our leaders engaged in a testosterone induced body builders contest. The fact that young people who did not have the privilege of participating in democracy except as a class exercise could be drafted and sent off as the pawns of power was a major rallying cry. The draft itself was another bogeyman under the bed.

The draft was a disgrace. With a little money, you could stay in school and be deferred from conscription. Graduate school provided further delay. Of course, the result was that we were sending those who chose not to attend college or could not attend college to the rice patties of Viet Nam. If the war was not sufficiently immoral, then the draft pushed it over the edge. Essentially, we were sending the poor and non-white to catch bullets for a war we never planned on "winning". The protests of that time changed that system and for that I am quite proud of my role in those changes.

I was also devastated as the changes took place. The first step in eliminating the draft was to drop the system of deferments and replace it with a lottery based on your birthday. I was a junior at George Washington University at the time of the first lottery. We knew that our influence had created a much fairer system but were not looking forward to losing the comfort of the catbird seat. The first lottery was televised. People gathered around the television to see when their birthday would be called. There was a statistical suggestion that only the first 50 of the 366 days would actually be called to serve. A 6 in 7 chance seemed like pretty good odds at the time.

Me? I will never forget the hollow feeling of not even making it out of the top 10. I do not remember, but it seems to me that my birthday was the seventh drawn from the barrel. All I could do for the next several hours was drive my Austin Healey Sprite on the country roads taking pleasure in the machine and feeling like the condemned on a last fling (think about the film "On the Beach" for the cinematic reference). I wish that I could say that I was able to at least muster up some sense of nobility in that I knew that the lottery was an improvement that we had demanded, but there were too many other emotions as I straightened the curving country roads that night.

Lee McGavin
Leander, TX 2010

May Day 1971

I would love to be able to claim that I was one of those arrested and herded off to the parking lots of D.C. Stadium (renamed RFK at some point) during the May Day demonstrations of 71 but I was actually one of those doing the herding. The news footage of what happened in Washington D.C. when the protests over the Viet Nam war sought to bring the federal government to a standstill could not show the levels of organization and disorganization during that frantic week.

The political upheaval over the war was reaching its climax. Richard Nixon had been elected, in part, because he claimed to have a plan for victory in the war that would be complete during his first term in office. He was running out of time and the voters were running out of patience. The poster that was used widely promoting the demonstration summarized the radical position on the war.

I had joined the National Guard in the District largely to avoid being drafted after the results of the draft lottery made it clear that I would not be able to finish my degree before being called up. At the same time that I was finishing my senior year at George Washington University, I was the station manager for the campus radio station. I lived in an apartment building at the edge of the campus that meant that depending on which direction I walked, I was two blocks from the White House or the State Department or my office on campus. In other words, the hub of the planned protest.

As a member of the Guard, I was concerned about spending time called up to help with the crowds. As a student leader, I was involved in covering the story of what surely would be a huge demonstration. As a resident of DC, I was a little concerned about the crowds impact on my home. All of my concerns were well founded.

The DC Guard was not like the unit that got trigger happy at Kent State University. The members of the DC Guard were Washington Redskins, congressional aides, students and a host of others who chose not to participate in active duty who had been trained to be military policemen. Ten to twenty per cent of the members had purchased short hair wigs to wear when they were doing their one weekend a month obligation. I never felt that the federal forces had much faith in our ability to take part in protecting the capital from the anti war movement, but we were sure to be called up every time a group decided to gather and register their views about the war. I was actually a part of the public information detachment with the guard because I had some background in photography and film processing.

GW was a good urban university that drew most of its students from what we would now call blue states. The campus is literally across the street from the White House. It was always a great source of irony to know that Nixon had campus radicals as his next door neighbors. The campus would stop and protest most anything because of the intense social awareness of the era and demographics of the student body. It was not uncommon to see 50 to 100 students stroll into the center of an intersection and light up joints as a "marijuana smoke-in" to protest drug laws. They were reliable for most any kind of protest that needed to recruit. Before there was an internet, students had the "underground press" which included virtually every student newspaper and radio station on the east and west coasts. I was constantly answering phone calls from protest organizers looking for every conceivable type of information leading up the major protests. May Day was not an exception and my preparation for guard duty was primarily helping the protest to get organized.

I spent the last week before the May Day demonstration helping people find ways to be the subject of the photographs I would be taking for the National Guard. Amazing the irony that democracy can create. There were no great secrets as the demonstration began. The protesters planned to disrupt traffic flow into government buildings in the hope of making normal function impossible. Plans included massing pedestrians on the bridges to prevent commuters getting to their jobs and protesting in front of office buildings to keep people from entering. The police and military planned to arrest protesters and keep traffic flowing.

Everything happened the way it was planned. Bright and early Monday morning, protest marches on the bridges were greeted by troops who made mass arrests and loaded those arrested on buses. The problem for the police was what to do with all the people. Arresting them and then turning them loose at another location proved useless as they rejoined the protests and were arrested again. In an effort to reduce the numbers on the street, arrested protesters were taken to a parking lot at the stadium. Guarding the prisoners became the job of the military policemen of the DC guard. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! Many of those arrested manage to slip their confinement as a sympathetic guardsman became "busy" with other matters. The number of arrests grew so great that at the end of each day, everyone was released and the whole process began again in the morning.

I spent several days doing public information for both sides, getting phone calls from campus while working on documenting the guard at work. The protest was not successful in stopping the government but was very successful in creating a break from routine for most of the district. Among the protest tactics was to find small cars that could be picked up by a group and placed in the middle of a street. Once the car was blocking traffic, the air was let out of the tires to make moving it more difficult. The low light of the first day for me was seeing my Sprite with four flat tires perpendicular to traffic flow on the evening news. All I could do was moan, "I'm on your side."

My favorite image from that week was the picture of a group of women carrying a banner near Pennsylvania Avenue. The banner read, "Bring our boys home. Wives of the DC National Guard." We had quite a week and when I got back to my apartment and office, the tear gas could still be felt in air.

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