A Berkeley Confrontation about Vietnam

USS Oakhill (LSD-7)

USS Oakhill

When the USS Oakhill docked in San Francisco, I called my good friend Jerry Cohen, whom I had met in Japan. He attended Boalt Hall Law School in his third year on the University of California Berkeley campus.

“Hey Jerry, my ship’s going to dry dock in Oakland next week. Let’s get together.”

“You should play softball with some of my friends.”

“I’d love to.”

“Got any equipment?”

“I have cleats, glove, and a bat.”

“I’ll call you when I’ve arranged a game.”

I drove from San Francisco to Berkeley for softball, wondering what changes Jerry may have undergone at a prestigious law school in a city filled with radical politics, free speech movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, and clashes with the police.

He waited at his apartment with a few other Berkeley students in jeans, baseball hats, and tennis shoes, clutching gloves and bats. Most had long hair, beards, and mustaches. We went to the practice fields on campus and had an intense game. I actually left my feet at full speed diving for a ball someone sliced down the left field line, and slid into a wire fence while holding onto the ball to make an out.

“Hey, Lavery. We know you’re a gung-ho Annapolis grad. Stop trying to impress us with reckless abandonment.” Jerry quipped.

I had to catch that ball.

After that spirited game, he invited us back to his apartment for dinner. I walked up the stairs and noticed wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books. Jerry and his wife had an enormous library filled with the great literature, history, politics, philosophy, law, music, and much more.

“You remember Mandy?” Jerry said, as a blond with blue eyes and curls everywhere carried in a tray of cheese quesadillas. She was wearing blue-jeans and a Stokely Carmichael Black Power tee-shirt with a raised clenched fist.

I smiled, “Yeah. We met in ‘63 when Jerry and I drove out to LA from Massachusetts in sixty hours, even though we had to look for love-notes you left along the way.”

She nodded with a smile of nostalgia, “So, how long’s your ship here?”

“About five months.”

Jerry brought out a large green bottle of Tanqueray and mixed gin and tonics on the rocks with a slice of lime. Mandy served pepperoni pizza and a fresh fruit salad. After dinner we moved to the living room where a discussion began. Jerry’s group of friends attended law school at UC Berkeley or were graduate students in English, Comparative Lit, and History. They all loved sports. I tried not to feel intimidated by the level of academic achievement that surrounded me--so different from my Navy pals.

Jerry asked, “What does a navigator do to get your ship through the Golden Gate Bridge?”

“Ensure we passed safely under the Golden Gate at our ETA of 8:00 a.m.”

Remarks flew at me: “Wow,” “That’s cool,” and “How did you do that?”

“The navigator must keep accurate estimates taking account of wind, and current to adjust our speed to avoid other craft entering and leaving San Francisco Bay.” Making an exact arrival time seemed simple to me as I had radar fixes, and quartermasters citing landmarks visually as I charted our approach. The group of students, however, made it sound difficult and congratulated me on what they appeared to believe was remarkable.

I felt I needed to inform Jerry of a crucial decision I had made a few months before, and blurted out, “I turned in my wings and transferred out of flying in jets a few months before the Navy assigned me to my ship.”

“Why did you do that?”

I pulled out of my wallet a folded one-page request and handed it to him.

He read it quickly, “You wrote this Dan?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you keep it in your wallet?”

“To remind me of an imortant decision I made that removed me from a dangerous situation with out much of a future.”

“What do you mean?"

“I heard some pilots say at the officer club, ‘Here comes the pilots and there are the bombardiers. The ones that fly are men, and the others are queers.’”

“Are there many homosexuals in naval aviation?”

“I never knew of any--undoubtedly there are--but the remark was meant to demean the non-pilots.”

“What else?”

“Our ready room instructor referred to navigators as “dipshits.” Then we lost a few navigators there. And, the RA5C I flew in had the nickname, ‘The Flying Coffin.’”

“Nice!”

“It was the heaviest jet to land on carriers, and had the worst losses over Vietnam. On top of that, we lost a number of men to safety and maintenance problems.”

“Those are damn good reasons.”

“I cheated death by transferring. The North Vietnamese shot down the jet the navigator and pilot who replaced me flew. They didn’t recover the navigator’s body. His pilot remains a prisoner in Hanoi.”

“Sounds like the smartest thing you ever did.” I sensed the mellow mood shift dramatically as Jerry turned and spat out, “Lavery, why the fuck are we in Vietnam?”

“To stop the communist aggression into a neutral weak country that needs our military support.”

Unexpected laughter greeted my simple explanation.

“A tall bearded law student said, “Where did you learn that?”

“The Naval Academy courses in Far East History and counter-insurgency, a prep for Vietnam course at the Naval  Base in Coronado, and Defense Department articles.”

A grad-student of history asked, “Don’t you remember Dien Bien Phu?”

“Refresh me?”

“The French colonial army lost the civil war to the Vietminh? The seventeenth parallel separated North and South Vietnam at the Geneva Conference with an agreement that free elections would take place in two years. One dictator after another ruled the South, they held no elections, and we backed them ever since.”

“So you don’t think the Viet Cong are communist terrorists?”

“The Viet Cong are fighting a civil war against the unpopular regime. Ho Chi Minh assists with supplies and his army.”

His explanations calmly cut into my simplistic statement. I did not know the pre-war history. Still, I felt compelled to defend our position. “After our ships were attacked by torpedo boats at the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress authorized President Johnson to respond with an executive order to repel unprovoked aggression.”

“That was a false report. Our ships were not attacked on August 4, 1964 in Gulf of Tonkin, but Johnson used the Congressional resolution to launch an illegal war on North Vietnam.”

Jerry added, “Johnson never sought a declaration of war from Congress. Two nights before the claimed torpedo attack, our airplanes and CIA fast boats initiated the hostilities bombarding the North Vietnamese coastline and islands.”

My anger grew. I knew friends in Vietnam. Some had died there. After a deep breath, “How did you learn that?"

Jerry admitted, “We attended a teach-in by Norman Mailer who demonstrated the lack of international support for Johnson’s war, the illegal and false basis for it, and the hideous civilian casualties from a genocidal air war."

“That’s a bunch of bullshit, Cohen. How can you believe such left-wing crap?”

The history student  added, “An expert described the horrible burns to humans from napalm and explained how our anti-personnel bombs sent millions of razor sharp fletchets spinning to the ground and slicing up any living thing in an area the size of a football field.”

Another responded angrily, “They characterized the B-52 carpet-bombing as a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Are you aware of the damage and terror of those heavy bombs laid down systematically over a swath of many miles?”

I realized I could not counter their passionate, logical, historical, and humanitarian arguments. They had me on the defensive and embarrassed when I couldn’t clearly define all the parties to the dispute. I had confused the Viet Minh and Viet Cong with the North Vietnamese regulars, and then blindly parroted the domino theory Eisenhower had initiated.

Jerry continued, “Johnson used the domino theory to justify invading Vietnam to stop the communists from expansion in South East Asia. He claimed if we didn’t invade South Vietnam, all the neighboring countries would soon come under communist rule from Russia and China. Most scholars disagree with that assessment because the Chinese are traditional enemies of the Vietnamese.”

I felt I had to challenge these academic critics when our troops were involved in combat, “You sound like you’ve been persuaded by left-wing radicals who don’t have access to our intelligence reports.”

Jerry disagreed, “Much of that information comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings Senator Fulbright held beginning in February 1966. What’s left-wing about that, Lavery?”

After a moment of silence to consider his remark, I asked, “Do you have a copy I can read?”

“Sure. I’ll grab it off the shelf.” He jumped off the couch, found it among an array of books on foreign policy and history, and handed it to me. The report was two inches thick contained in a bound book with a colorful cover featuring Senator Fulbright questioning Dean Rusk.

I scanned the book, quickly thumbing through the chapters. It included testimony from Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, and George Kennan, a well-respected expert in foreign relations. It contained footnotes with references for follow-up, including the testimony of key decision-makers. Having provoked my curiosity I said, “Thanks, I’ll read it this week. What else do you suggest?”

“You ought to subscribe to Ramparts,  the New York Review of Books, and I.F. Stone’s Weekly.' See the stack on the bottom shelf,” he said pointing to that last year’s issues. “Take a few to check them out. They always have thoughtful articles on the War. Berkeley has good book stores with information on the history of Vietnam.”

“Yeah, but I see posters in their windows saying, “Get out of Vietnam, Now.” You must know they’re full of radical propaganda.”

“You don’t think the military feeds the troops propaganda?”

“I read what I trust and I‘ve always gotten plenty of information from the Navy, Newsweek, and CBS. I’ve never heard anyone call that propaganda.”

“Read the Fulbright hearings, and you’ll see a lot of what the public is fed on the media is propaganda from the military industrial complex.”

“I’ll read all of the Fulbright Hearings. I doubt any of it will change my mind.”

Jerry broke up the confrontation, “Food’s ready everybody.” Then he took me aside, “Keep an open mind, Lavery. You’ve only heard the military position backing the war. The anti-Vietnam movement is growing and exposing the lies. Read up on it. Relax and have another drink.”

This confrontation with these sharp minds made me realize I hadn’t taken the time to study the background of the conflict. Gradually, over the next two months I learned that many popular authorities, like Senators Fulbright, Frank Church, George McGovern, Wayne Morse, and others had made dissent against this War respectable. The physical appearance of Jerry’s friends may have jolted me into a knee-jerk reaction that these disheveled academicians were irrational idealists, or worse, commie sympathizers.

These sources caused me to view more critically the Defense Department information and that of its supporters. In my sheltered military existence, I began to recognize the information that government fed the public and me was filled with propaganda. I started to ask myself why I had let my purpose in life drift so far from the values that had almost led me into the ministry. How could my government make me think I should navigate hundreds of Marines to a conflict so controversial that many highly educated people actively protested against it? I began to consider for the first time that the peace marchers might be right. They weren’t wild-eyed radicals bent on tearing down America. They were impressive and intimidated me with their arguments because I needed to read and understand the history of the conflict. However, I still had no choice but to follow orders. I had always trusted the Naval authorities who gave me orders. The Defense Department experts were required to know the best course of action for our country. Could they be wrong?

After reading the Fulbright hearings on how we got into Vietnam, many books on the history of Vietnam, and listened to KPFK people’s radio station in San Francisco, I subscribed to the magazines Jerry suggested. In about four months it slowly came to me that the Vietnam War was immoral and unjustified–-and that I had to oppose it. For the first time in my life, I grew suspicious about our government’s motives.

My father, teachers, and professors assured me that the United States had always done the right thing. Now the miserable Vietnam War, which claimed thousands of American and millions of Vietnamese lives, seemed a horrendous mistake.

I joined Veterans for Peace. There I met others opposed to the War. I wanted to return to college and study for a more meaningful career than the military when I completed my commitment so that I would have the background to contribute something important to society. Before my ship set sail for Vietnam, I purchased more than fifty books from Berkeley bookstores spurred on by the energy the confrontation infused in me on a furious pace to catch up on the reading that my military background, athletics, and disinterest had caused me to neglect.

Berkeley will always stand as a beacon to me lighting a path for my future. The enlightening experience this confrontation caused helped me learn to question authority. Trained to accept the explanations of those who made military policy on which life and death mattered, I had always obeyed lawful orders without question. The confrontation had sparked an awakening of critical thinking and moral outrage against our killing machine in Vietnam based on a lie. While soldiers in battle don't have the luxury to choose which orders to follow, many  people were becoming aware that support for counter-insurgency warfare in Vietnam depended on a well-oiled propaganda machine. The empathy I had learned from my grandmother Ruthie, the New Testament, and now the Peace Movement returned and kindled inside me a new commitment. Finally, I was on fire.

 

"There are times when you have to obey a call which is the highest of all, i.e. the voice of conscience even though such obedience may cost many a bitter tear, and even more, separation from friends, from family, from the state to which you may belong, from all that you have held as dear as life itself. For this obedience is the law of our being."

Mahatma Gandhi’s inspirational words, India's spiritual leader (1869-1948)

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3 thoughts on “A Berkeley Confrontation about Vietnam

  1. Hi Dan. This account is very stirring for several reasons for me. As an engineering student at Berkeley in the 1960’s I was on the sidelines cheering on the protests and marches with Mario Savio and some of my liberal arts friends during the free speech movement. Sympathetic but too concerned about getting through school and too busy it seemed to participate more actively. But I think there has always been an atmosphere at Berkeley that rubs off on all students – to be questioning, and striving for open mindedness, and truth seeking (when truth can be found as well as possible). You were courageous to be open to new information when confronted by Jerry and friends. (Did I not hear that Jerry died a few years ago?)
    Secondly, my dad was awarded the Legion of Merit from the Army for his management of the U.S.’s air drops of medicine, food (and perhaps ammunition to the surrounded French at Dien Bien Phu – we never talked about it much to my regret). ‘That took place while we were in Japan and he was assigned to Army Hdqtrs in Zama.

    • Your experience at Berkeley learning to question, cheering on the protests, and feeling the enthusiasm of that atmosphere, is akin to my observation. Jerry and I started a lasting friendship in Yokosuka, Japan, where he and I lived a few blocks away and took the same bus to YoHi every morning. He is very much alive and active supporting progressive causes and challenging the status quo pressing for meaningful change. He knew how to persuade with reason, and careful argument that appealed to one’s highest ideals. He had an extraordinary capacity for detail and would teach rather than talk down to someone he wanted to understand the problem under discussion. I have shown or read this episode to quite a few people, some of whom are Annapolis graduates. As difficult as it is to depict the intensity of this confrontation, most people realize my anguish as the conflict grew. While a few expletives flew, Jerry and his friends used the opportunity to educate me on the background of the Vietnam debacle. He was a mench undeterred by such hierarchy as President Johnson, the pentagon, or their minions. Totally unused to such impudence, I wandered away from the facts into emotional jabs that exposed my weakness, but Jerry knew I wasn’t a hardened conservative like so many who have been propagandized. Pointing me to references where I could learn the difficult facts the administration refused to acknowledge, opened a window of opportunity I welcomed rather than making me out a fool for not studying the background of the hostilities. Thanks for confirming the beacon that Berkeley represents to the world where intelligent people gather and place current problems on the table for dissection. Peace, Dan

    • Hi Brad! Jerry is quite alive as I talked to him yesterday July 15, 2017. I had not noticed your remark as somehow my website did not notify me when posted. We have had many other conversations since you a wrote that but I felt compelled to respond as I am presently visiting family in Chico where my youngest son is a brewmaster for Sierra Nevada and has two marvelous children Joan and I love to visit! Cheers, Dan

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