Resurrecting Vietnam (II)

by Loren Bliss

The passage of years has soft-focused most of the details of a disturbing incident that occurred in May 1970 -- a brief but wrenching encounter with mob violence a couple of months before I left New York City and traveled west to recover from a ruinous divorce and return to college -- and now, nearly 34 years later, all but a few of the images of what happened that night have dwindled into the increasing and often merciful vagueness that so often veils our memories of long-ago. But the justifiably terrified expression in the uniformed soldier’s uniquely colored golden-green eyes remains as clear as ever. I’m sorry I don’t also remember his name – though he identified himself to me with a grateful handshake after we left the sheltering doorway in which we had huddled there on Manhattan’s West 64th Street – and I remember only vaguely his explanation of the adverse circumstances that had dropped him, without a stitch of civilian clothing (and thus all too much like fresh meat flung into an alligator pit), amidst the post-Kent State fury of New York City. And fury it was, with all the city’s colleges closed by student-and-faculty strikes, even the high schools shut down by wildcat walkouts, and – no wimpy pacifist black armbands for New Yorkers – more people defiantly wearing red armbands than the old folks from the Russian neighborhoods had seen since the autumn of 1917 in Petrograd.

Indeed – and this is a confession – in May of 1970 I was part of the red armband legion myself. Like so many in New York – especially those of us in media – I knew that President Richard Nixon had commissioned the Rand Corporation to prepare the rationale for suspending the 1972 elections, and I knew the goons of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the New York City Police Department Red Squad were everywhere. As a reporter I had crossed paths with the spooks more than once; I had witnessed the NYPD cops standing by doing nothing save grinning sadistic grins as a mob of several thousand "hard-hat" construction workers beat several hundred non-violent peace demonstrators bloody at City Hall, and I had seen the equally repugnant violent idiocy of the Weathermen in their bombed-out "safehouse" on East 11th Street – I had been at an editorial conference three blocks away when the Weathermen accidentally blew the place up. For me as for so many others it was exactly as a popular song of the period so aptly put it: "paranoia strikes deep/ into your minds it will creep/ it starts when you’re always afraid/ step out of line the Man come/ and take you away."

But I had remained publicly neutral – once vaguely hawkish, now decidedly anti-war though not openly committed to either side – until the Ohio National Guard obeyed an officer’s order to fire a deadly volley of M2 Ball into a crowd of unarmed anti-war protestors. A company of Guardsmen with their .30-‘06 caliber M-1 rifles had thus gunned down 12 Kent State University students, killing four and wounding nine more – leaving one student a permanent cripple -- merely because the authorities were unhappy the students were exercising rights of speech and assembly guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States: the same Constitution that I as a Regular Army soldier (1959-1962) had taken an oath to defend with my life. When President Nixon broadcast the next day that Kent State’s dead and wounded had gotten exactly what they deserved, I (like many of my colleagues) believed this marked the end of American liberty – that the massacre was the beginning of a deliberate nationwide slaughter ordered by Nixon himself – and that now there would be open war between the fascists who sought to impose dictatorship and a hard corps of radicals who would defend the Bill of Rights. When my Marxist neighbor offered me a red armband in the patio of our Chelsea apartment building, I tugged the four-inch-wide circlet of crimson cotton on over my coat-sleeve without a moments hesitation.

I had two girlfriends at the time, and by some quirky and vaguely ironic twist of fate, they lived on opposite ends of 89th Street: Janey lived on West 89th, Stephanie on East 89th, and on this particular night -- perhaps because of the pleasant early-summer weather, perhaps because of some long-forgotten reason related to the diverse motives that prompt New Yorkers to walk more miles than any other Americans, more likely because I simply felt I had sat too long in my newsroom chair that day at The Jersey Journal (where I was variously an investigative reporter and a rim-rat on the telegraph desk), I got off the Eighth Avenue train at West 54th Street station intending to walk the rest of the distance to Janey’s place. My chosen route led me up Sixth Avenue from the mouth of the subway, left along the sidewalk at the southern end of Central Park and right – uptown -- on Central Park West. As always, walking felt good , and my ability to create my own solitude amidst the omnipresent crowds enabled me to contemplate whatever I chose. But at this distance in years, I have no idea what I was thinking about that night, merely that when I reached the byzantine-looking Ethical Culture Society headquarters on the corner of Central Park West and West 64th Street, I decided to head west towards Broadway and accordingly had turned away from the park and crossed onto 64th.

There were dozens of anti-war, anti-Nixon rallies going on throughout the five boroughs of the City, and one of these was underway at the Ethical Culture Society’s temple-like facility; I could hear the yelling and chanting even through the massive masonry walls. When I was about midway up the block, the Ethical Culture Society’s double doors swung open and the mob of people who had been rallying for peace and Nixon’s impeachment boiled out onto West 64th street behind me. On the other side of the street and directly opposite me a uniformed soldier was walking toward the mob. He was dressed in Army Class A woolen winter greens with the leather-visored garrison cap, which marked him as someone from an outland military district (local soldiers were already wearing summer khakis), and his tunic had the unadorned sleeves characteristic of a man fresh out of training. When the peace mob saw the soldier, it let out an enraged snarl. The soldier stopped, gawked, reversed direction and began to run with a frantic gangling gait bred of panic and now as he crossed the street on a long diagonal toward me the peace mob was chasing him and yelling and I remember thinking "this is what a lynch mob is like."

Individuals in the mob were now hurling stones and bottles and bits of garbage and the mob was gaining on the soldier – it is impossible to run very fast in low-quarter Army dress shoes – and without much conscious thought I snatched up a discarded newel-post from a debris pile and hooked my left hand through the handle of a garbage-can lid and raised the lid as a shield and shouted at the soldier something like "here, on me," words that told him I was military too and that he’d found an unexpected ally in this terrible and unprovoked fight. I think I gestured at a doorway behind me and the soldier ducked into it, and I seem to remember a fleeting expression of out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire horror when he saw my red armband. I said something like "no, no, I’m not with them" and turned to confront the front rank of the mob, which as it stopped short on the sidewalk and spilled over into the street I could now see was also wearing red armbands.

I pointed at my own red armband and roared in their faces that they were behaving like Nazis on a Jew-hunt and I roared that they goddamned well should be ashamed of themselves for turning on a fellow member of the proletariat and I roared that they were revisionist pigs for violating the revolutionary solidarity of students and workers and soldiers, and though I was as frightened as I have ever been, somehow the armband and the denunciation and the combination of the impromptu newel-post war club and the garbage-can-lid shield and maybe too my tone of voice and the expression that was probably reflected on my face or maybe all of this together startled some sense into them and they backed off. As the drill sergeants of those years taught, "yew gots to be AG-ile, MO-bile and HOS-tile," and I was surely all of that. But as much as anything else I was thankful for the childhood years of vaguely Marxist indoctrination I had received from my father who’d been a Red in the ‘30s and whose library of political books, which I had absorbed during my teens, had given me just the right words to defuse this terrifying moment. Some of the peace mob now tried to apologize and I knew the soldier was going to be safe at least for now and I laid the newel post back on the debris pile and put the lid back on the garbage can and the soldier put down the dark green wine-bottle he had grabbed from the garbage can while it was open and I leaned against the building to hide the fact my knees were knocking together.

The mob thinned out, and then it dispersed completely, and I asked the soldier where he was going, and when he told me, I suggested we share a cab. He agreed, and during the ride I explained that my red armband "was just a symbol of protest, not sympathy for the Viet Cong or anything" and the soldier explained how he came to be in a winter uniform in mid-May – I don’t remember the details but I think he said he had recently completed advanced artillery training or possibly anti-aircraft school and had then been ordered to a permanent duty station in Alaska but had no sooner arrived than he had been compelled to come home on emergency leave because of a potentially fatal injury to a parent or maybe a potentially fatal illness. In those days you were not allowed to possess civilian clothing until after you completed advanced combat training, which is probably why the soldier had no civvies, or maybe some airline had (typically) lost his baggage. In any case he had taken a cab in from JFK and had decided that to emotionally prepare himself for the sight of his sick or severely injured parent he would walk the last couple of miles to his home, but instead he encountered the peace mob. By now we had reached 89th and Broadway, where I paid my share of the fare and gave the cabbie a generous tip. The soldier thanked me and we shook hands once more and I wished him good luck, and he went on his way in the bright yellow taxi, and I never saw him again.

As I have explained in other columns, I had been in the reserves between my release from Regular Army active duty in 1962 until I was honorably discharged at the end of 1965, and I had been more hawk than dove during most of those years, but I had not been especially passionate about either position. I had hoped for peace and foolishly believed President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s first lie he was a peace candidate and his second lie the North Vietnamese had attacked us without provocation in the Gulf of Tonkin. When I turned against the war in 1969 or more likely early 1970 it was because I had finally grown furious at the U.S. government for pointlessly squandering soldiers’ lives in a meat-grinder conflict it lacked the political will to win or even the command-level competence to properly fight. But the shooting at Kent State followed by Nixon’s enthusiastic endorsement of the National Guard’s deliberate atrocities came very close to changing me into one of those Jane-Fonda-like useful idiots who was willing to not only denounce U.S. policy but to turn against the entire notion of America and dismiss it as a fraud. After Kent State and Nixon’s expression of delight at the bloodshed, it was an easy position to take. Hence I understand fully the temptations that beset John Kerry and his ilk, because in those days the Democrats under Johnson, and the Republicans under Nixon, seemed united in a malevolent twinhood of tyranny. Indeed every man or woman I knew felt profound loathing toward each party and even the government itself during those dreadful years. But apart from the minority represented by Hanoi Jane Fonda and her ideological kindred – a hate-America family-tree that included both the "moderate" Kerry and the "radical" Weathermen – most of us did not embrace the enemy or declare war on our own nation, and we most assuredly did not cheer when Kerry denounced American military operations in Vietnam as "reminiscent of Genghis Kahn." .

In retrospect I would have to say it was a kindness of fate, or more likely the grace of some higher power whose existence in those days I often claimed to doubt, that I had been given a glimpse of the evil at the heart of a mob, and thus – though it would be a while before I fully understood, and many years before I could put it into words -- I had seen all too vividly the darker implications of revolution. Walking west on West 89th Street toward Janey’s apartment that night I was still wearing the red armband my neighbor had given me, but when I got to the doorway into Janey’s building, I was suddenly embarrassed by the armband and the mob viciousness it now seemed to represent, and with considerable self-disgust I pulled the armband off and somewhat furtively tucked it into a nearby garbage can. When I donned a red armband once again – in an anti-war demonstration at college a year later – it was merely because that is what had locally come to distinguish military veterans from the far more numerous pacifists, who wore armbands of black as if they were in mourning for lost relatives.

Because so many years have passed, it is easy to forget that though Nixon got us out of Vietnam, he did so only by the murderous betrayal of our South Vietnamese allies and resultant damage to our national credibility that has not yet been repaired. But Vietnam was truly the Democrats’ war, and the Democrats therefore bear the greater responsibility for the nation’s 58,168 Vietnam War dead. Moreover, it was a war of betrayals from the very beginning: the Democrats betrayed America when Johnson lied himself into office as the peace candidate in 1964, creating a legacy of electoral cynicism that lingers to this day, and the Democrats then betrayed America’s soldiers not once but thrice -- first by fabricating the Gulf of Tonkin incident, next by pointlessly sending our troops into the meat grinder, lastly by slandering the survivors and pelting them with feces when they returned. Now the Democrats are trying to resurrect the Vietnam era and somehow cleanse it of all its anguish and emotional wretchedness so they can rewrite its history and thus transform falsehood and treason into heroism and victory – all this to steal America’s future by robbing America’s past and thereby electing John Kerry as President – John Kerry who (lest we forget) condemned us as genocidal killers in 1970 and has already expressed his intent to leave us defenseless in 2005. In other words, the Democrats are trying to betray us once again.

Loren Bliss was a journalist for 30 years – variously an editor, editorial-page columnist, public affairs writer and investigative reporter. He has covered politics, education, transportation, crime, and sociological issues. He is also a poet and has written several essays on the resurrection of the feminine aspects of the Divine and the resultant renaissance of Paganism. This is his fourth column for Civilization Calls.

posted by on February 20, 2004 06:06 PM


Right now I'm just making sure all the blogs are still working, but I'll have to come back and read that in full.

Posted by: Pixy Misa at February 21, 2004 04:00 AM

This is an amazing story. I never knew that Nixon seriously considered suspending the 1972 elections. The author did the right thing by protecting that soldier. I could only imagine how terrified that young man felt being chased by a murderous mob. After all, most of those who served during that era did not do so by choice, and it's unfortunate they took the blame for the evil of men like Johnson and Nixon. No matter how one looks at things, the Vietnam War was one of the most terrible periods in American history. I just wonder how different this country would be today if it never had happened. Certainly, the '60s and '70s would have been a far more peaceful and prosperous era. But who's to say what would have happened.

Right now, this country is more divided than it has been since at least the Carter years. A John Kerry presidency would be horrible for America, as he is every bit as divivise figure as George W. Bush has shown to be. We need a man like John Edwards in office; I believe only he can unite us now. Sen. Edwards, unlike Bush or Kerry, is not an idealouge. He is a genuine human being with a good heart, and a good mind. He has many of the same qualities Ronald Reagan possessed. Reagan brought this nation together again, but we were divided once more during the Clinton era. Perhaps I'm oversimpilfying things here, but John Edwards is an uniter, not a divider, and we need someone like that desperately right now. I do not believe Edwards would sell our military out the way John Kerry would, nor would he would recklessely destroy our economy the way Bush and his henchmen are doing. John Edwards would at least make an attempt to bring our jobs back home. Four more years of Bush or a Kerry regime would tear this country apart at the seams, bringing us back right to where we were during Vietnam. I love this country too much to see that happen.

Posted by: VoodooChild278 at February 21, 2004 07:18 PM

President Bush is a polarizing figure, but I wonder how much of the current climate is actual divisiveness and how much is the ranting of extremists on either end of the spectrum made loud by modern media. Nowadays, people can log on to the internet and fairly instantly find information to support or refute their particular bias. I don't think the 'center' has changed so much as the fringes have gotten more attention.

As a former member of the military myself, thanks for what you did for that soldier.

Wonderful post.

Posted by: Ted at February 22, 2004 11:26 PM