WITNESS explores how the killing of four Kent State Students, maiming of nine more, by Ohio National Guardsmen, President Nixon’s invading neutral Cambodia, widespread anti-Vietnam protesting, and Seymour Hersh’s explosive reporting on the My Lai Massacre, shattered an enormous number of American’s support for prosecuting the Vietnam War. Clara Bingham’s unique enlightening interviews of 100 activists, vets, and officials, who pushed our country towards what Mario Savio called a revolution against “The Machine” referring to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” “There’s a time when the operation of the Machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus-and you’ve got to make it stop!”(Kent State Students where 4 were killed and 9 maimed by National Guardsmen bullets)
David Harris, one of many activists explains everything “grew out of the Mississippi taproot …when white college students went south to help voter registration and witnessed the heroism of the black people of Mississippi.” Other interviews included drug use, Woodstock, The Black Panthers, SDS, feminism, and Nixon’s lies stabbed most every thoughtful person’s conscience by the time Daniel Ellsberg published the Pentagon Papers. These policies caused the largest student strike ever with 2.5 million refusing classes and 700 colleges shutdown including Kent State. While an historian might question whether this massive civil disobedience constituted a revolution, this powerful book shows a major shift in thinking occurred when so many resisted the draft. It would have been unthinkable to the serviceman or public in World War II, however, resisting the draft was the favored choice of an enormous number of their children.(Weathermen about to smash windows demonstrating their rage at the "Machine")
This disconnect is present today with the Trump supporters living in an alternative universe from that of Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. For example everyone in the Madison Police Department near Kent State when they heard of the shootings assumed the students were at fault from statements Spiro Agnew and the Ohio Governor made that vilified the protesters and urged the Guard to deal with them as scum. But the evidence was clear that the Guardsmen had violated their obligations to never fire on peaceful protesters as was common around the United States even if someone threw a rock or shouted obscenities. Allison Krause was killed by a bullet fired 343 feet away and while she took 45 minutes to bleed to death the medics were reserved for the Guardsmen and ignored her! Although no weatherman were present, elsewhere they had developed a strategy that included symbolic destruction of property like a Capitol bathroom with no one present. But it escalated into more serious bombings, hiding on the lam, and violence at demonstrations. Bingham says, “The sixties crested in 1968, with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King, the Tet Offensive and Nixon’s victory.”(Nixon under the influence of alcohol speaking with demonstrators who descended on the Lincoln Memorial in protest against the Vietnam War and Nixon's policies)
Nothing is more chilling nor remarkable than Seymour Hersh’s ferreting out the truth on the My Lai massacre by tracking down eye witnesses to a horrendous war crime. Vietnam Vets like Nick Turse submitted proof of at least 300 similar massacres. Many occurred in “free fire zones” where they killed “anything that moved.” The Village of Ben Suc by Jonathan Schell involved another massacre that made Jane Fonda say, “I was one person before I read it, and another person after I finished…that was the beginning of my outrage.” Hersh visited Calley’s attorney in Salt Lake City who called it a mistake as he was told defending Calley accused of killing 109 “Oriental human beings.” Over a few beers Calley called My Lai a “setup, just a firefight.” Ernie Medina, a Captain, refused to agree with Calley “how I had nothing to do with it!” Barry Romo explained the body count was “close to 500” with American casualties only “One self-inflicted.” Hersh learned of a photographer, Paul Medlo who told him of three pits with “hundreds of people”, and that Calley brutally killed a small child. Medlo admits he and Calley “Shot and shot” at the unarmed people. Medlo, one of “McNamara’s Folly”, who would have never qualified in the past because of tests he could not pass, the next morning had his foot blown off by a mine! He felt God punished him and would punish Calley. His mother said, “I sent them a good boy and they returned him a murderer.” Hersh found photographer Ron Haeberle who saved photos of the massacre reported by Ron Ridenhour who broke the story a year before. His graphic photos have been circulated worldwide.(My Lai Massacre where more than 500 unarmed civilians were killed under orders by Lt. William Calley)
At Calley’s court martial he was sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labor at Fort Leavenworth. The next day Nixon ordered him transferred to house arrest at officer’s barracks pending appeal! His habeas corpus petition was granted by Judge J. Robert Elliot because of pre-trial publicity prejudice, refusal of the House of Representatives to release testimony taken in executive session, and inadequate notice of charges. Bingham’s focus is 1969-70 the “crescendo of the sixties, when years of civil disobedience and mass resistance erupted into anarchic violence.” Government sabotage as well as surveillance, theatrics in courtroom trials, massive police misconduct, and President Nixon’s late-night Lincoln Memorial meeting with protesters under the influence of alcohol when he tried to make them understand he wanted to end the Vietnam War. However, when he created the plumbers his days were numbered and brought his rapid much deserved downfall with Watergate.(Jane Fonda and John Kerry speak at an Anti-Vietnam rally for Vietnam Veterans Against War)
BIO: Dan graduated Annapolis, navigated a jet, then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, joined VVAW, and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW, the ACLU and in private civil rights practice. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn in the military to crusader for justice. http://www.danielclavery.com (author website)
Beginning at the Traveling Wall in Austin, Texas, a smaller replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, Richard Pena expresses a somber emotion for those who died in Vietnam seeing a woman's tears. He knew her pain would never cease. Pena was on the last plane out of Vietnam after spending a tour as a medic in Saigon. His photo was taken by a Viet Cong soldier when that final plane left. He recognized himself carrying his law school brief case upon returning with a delegation at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City in 2003. Pena's journal entries while serving from 1972 to 1973 as an Operating Room Specialist are aided by John Hagan, author of nine books and many articles as professor of Sociology and Law, Northwestern University, who comments on the context of Pena's story in history with references.
Author Richard Pena pointing to himself entering the last plane out of Saigon
Pena's parents were proud of their Hispanic heritage and taught him by example. His father won a Silver Star for his service at Iwo Jima. Pena won best all-around high school athlete in San Antonio, Texas. He attended University of Texas at Austin when students burned their draft cards and protested the Vietnam conflict. The My Lai massacre struck raw nerves his senior year. Soon at Kent State National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded more wrenching America. His low lottery number made it certain he would be drafted. He tried to fail his physical but they were taking anyone who breathed then and entered the Army, June 14, 1971 as one of the last drafted.
Pena arrived at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon during the North Vietnamese siege of An Loc when they shot down four aircraft and killed nearly all the residents a few months before Nixon's presidential election during an opportunity for peace talks to resolve the conflict. His objections to pressing for peace were politically motivated as Humphrey would have gained substantial support as a peace candidate despite his role with LBJ. Nixon's voice on tape in the oval office showed he proposed nuclear weapons to succeed but Kissinger replied he thought it would be too much. Nixon said, "I don't give a damn" about civilians killed by U.S. bombing USA Today reported February 28, 2002. While peace was possible Nixon refused to press for it and made the South Vietnamese think if he were president they would get a better deal prolonging the war needlessly and causing more than 20,000 more American deaths.
Pena called Vietnamization a catastrophe demonstrated graphically as he arrived. Young ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) troops threw down their weapons and fled with villagers as the North Vietnamese launched an unprecedented invasion. They expected 200 or so casualties but 2000 marched toward a 100 bed hospital 60 miles away. However many were mortared by Communists on Highway 13 and others accidentally killed by our B-52s. The Air Force accidentally missed the Communists and hit a South Vietnamese village! Pena joined a group of fifteen who worked the Operating Room confronted by death who built a strong companionship.
Soon a C-130 aircraft crashed from mechanical failure causing them to expect many casualties. Burn patients were the worst, difficult to look at, tough to treat, and many died. The first soldier's face appeared plastered red, hair and eyebrows burned away, red burns ran the length of his young body. He had a wife and young child.They smeared Sulfamylon cream over him feeling helpless. His coworker said he would soon die. A sergeant arrived with a broken ankle and numerous lacerations. These professionals knew the risks but it is for the young whom Pena felt the most sorry. The lifers have some control but not the draftees. The sergeant wanted to know how many survived but Pena couldn't tell him only three made it. Pena wondered how many were on the plane and learned there were forty five. The government released only the number fourteen. Such lies insulted Pena and the others. It added brainwashing to misinformation.
An allied Cambodian arrived by air in desperate condition and needed a transfusion from someone with B positive blood. Pena readily provided it as the only one with that type. The doctors said he couldn't survive the operation, yet he wouldn't live without one! They amputated his left leg and blood splattered all over the floor. A nineteen year-old soldier was shot in the head and died from his wound. An American asked him for a cigarette but he didn't have one, so he shot him in the back of the head at point blank range with a .38 pistol. A clean-cut man named Holley had a wife he never cheated on but once. He was found the next morning in a lover's embrace as the girl had put ground-up glass in his food, the sixth American that girl killed. Soon we understand how Pena felt an impermanence sweep over him and all his previous concerns seemed small and unimportant. Much later Pena became President of the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas. His practice started as a solo attorney for the common person, without an office using an old beat up car. He felt his experience in Vietnam gave him the courage, willpower and confidence to stand up against injustice and fight for his clients. "It was the road less traveled, but it was my road." Published 2014 by Story Merchant Books, 9601 Wilshire Blvd. # 1202, Beverly Hills, Ca 90210
Bio: VVAW member Daniel C. Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and a ship, turned peace activist and became a civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his experiences:
Review of Greta Marsh’s Frankie and Jonny and Mommy too, by Daniel C. Lavery, Written for VVAW’s “The Veteran”