TIME conflict

‘There Was All This Chaos': Vietnam-Era Antiwar Activists Reflect

LIFE Books

Read an excerpt from LIFE's book 'The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago--Two Countries Torn Apart'

For LIFE’s recent book revisiting the events of the Vietnam War, Daniel S. Levy and photographer Joe McNally visited people who had been involved in many sides of the conflict, including the anti-war movement. On the anniversary of the Jan. 30, 1968, beginning of the Tet Offensive — a campaign that energized such protests — we present the following excerpt of Levy’s conversations with four key anti-war activists from that time:

Richard Flacks was, in the 1960s, teaching at the University of Chicago and the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was a cofounder of the famous Students for a Democratic Society. Vivian Rothstein was a community activist. Abe Peck was a member of Chicago’s underground press. Ross Canton was a decorated soldier who, upon returning home, joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Here, during a sit-down with Levy in Santa Barbara, California, this group discusses not only their shared antiwar past but how they view their legacy today.

LIFE: How did you get involved in the antiwar movement?

Rothstein: I got recruited in the Mississippi freedom summer program in 1965. I decided I wanted to be an organizer. Then I got invited by Tom Hayden to go to a conference in 1967 in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, to meet representatives of the provisional revolutionary government in South Vietnam, to actually meet the grass-roots opposition in South Vietnam. From that I got invited to go to North Vietnam. The experience crystalized my commitment to end the war.

Canton: I was one of those poor white draftees. I was neutral with the war, until I got drafted. My first day out in the field in Vietnam our point man got wounded by a nine-year-old kid, and I thought, So that’s the enemy? I was in the field three weeks when I got wounded the first time. The third time I spent nine and a half months in the hospital. I had shrapnel in my brain and was not supposed to survive. But I did. It crystallized my feelings about the war and how I was very angry. Once I got out I joined the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Flacks: I went to teach at the University of Chicago in 1964. A few months later a group of people in Ann Arbor [Michigan] started the action, which they called a “teach-in.” Classrooms were used for debate, discussion, forums about the war. By the end of the academic year there were a thousand campuses where something like a teach-in had occurred. To me, that was the step I needed. I then devoted a great deal of my energy to being active in that role as a professor and as a campus leader.

Peck: I tumbled into the movement. I went to the Summer of Love in San Francisco, five guys in a Volkswagen van. My pivotal moment was driving to the Pentagon Demonstration in 1967. I saw everything from people putting flowers in guns to people storming the building to just having a sense of just how outraged we all were by the war.

LIFE: What did your families think of this?

Flacks: My parents were schoolteachers in New York, active in building a union. In the McCarthy Red Scare era, they both were purged along with several hundred other left-wing, commie-oriented teachers. I was 25 by the time I was taking a stand against the war. They supported me.

Canton: I grew up with a single mother who did the best she could. My father, an Italian immigrant, joined WWII early on, and was in the 101st Airborne for five years. Got wounded. He would have been prowar.

Peck: My parents weren’t radicals at all. My dad was a liberal Democrat, very working class.

Rothstein: My mother had a progressive heart, but we were raised with this sense that we lived in an ominous world that could turn against you at any moment. But when she heard me speak about my trip to Vietnam, she got herself involved.

LIFE: Describe the time, if you would.

Rothstein: When I went away to college that first fall, Kennedy got shot. There was a sense that it was a chaotic political environment. We weren’t being told what was going on. That engagement in the civil rights movement and the free speech movement gave the feeling that you could actually make a difference, that you needed to take a stand. I think we felt a sense that we could actually help end the war.

Flacks: The draft was an expression of this militaristic, imperial power that we were opposed to. I was in the early founding of the Students for a Democratic Society. We thought we were responsible for having to have an antiwar movement. We thought the demonstrations of larger numbers of people would have an effect on policy, and that was perhaps naïve. A new lever that SDS perceived for a change of the policy was people being forced to fight the war had the opportunity to resist it. It was a strategic kind of effort: We who were in opposition to the war, if we ourselves refused to fight, and got other people to refuse to fight, the policy would have to be reexamined.

Peck: A lot of it was exhilarating, the idea that you could set the country on the right way, change the world, build a new society, stop the war. There was a concept of “right action”—that this was really the thing to do. I had great trepidation about the Chicago Convention in 1968, but I still had to go to the park. You had to show up.

LIFE: Did dissidents have regular contact with the veterans?

Rothstein: There was the GI coffeehouse movement. These were independent coffeehouses that were set outside the bases. Women staffed those. I helped to recruit people. I worked at Fort Leonard Wood. The idea was not to push any kind of line. But there was antiwar material there and underground newspapers. It was a very subversive strategy, because it was a place where guys could talk about what was really going on. It was brilliant.

Peck: There was this kind of ring around the military to support people making decisions of conscience.

Canton: Returning veterans who were against the war were very dangerous, because we could tell what was true and what was not true. The whole idea of winning the war was deflated by all these Vietnam veterans coming back and saying that is not true. That really took hold. After [I spent] time in the hospital, I went back to Fort Ord and trained troops to go to Vietnam. We gave them the straight line. We told them that it was all bullshit.

LIFE: What was your experience with the mistreatment of vets?

Canton: It never happened to any of the Vietnam veterans I was associated with—getting spit on at the airport, “baby killer!” and all those kinds of things. By 1969 there was a coalescence of trying to have the veterans and the soldiers be a part of the antiwar movement and not disenfranchising them because they served over there.

LIFE: How were women in the antiwar movement viewed?

Rothstein: The [anti] draft movement was very focused on men. Eventually we started building independent women’s organizations and did antiwar activities. Women Strike for Peace was in there from the very beginning, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Jeannette Rankin Brigade.

LIFE: If so many opposed the war, why was it so hard to stop?

Flacks: Both Johnson and Nixon said explicitly that no matter what public opinion said about the war, it would go on. It really [defies] explanation why, in the face of a popular mood against the war, these Presidents would feel they had to continue it. Vivian and I went to this conference in Bratislava, meeting the Vietcong, the North Vietnamese folks. They wanted to tell us that the U.S. had been defeated in the war, that there was no conceivable military strategy that the U.S. could deploy that would allow the U.S. to win. There was insight there into the limits of American power. It was reinforced a few months later during the Tet Offensive.

LIFE: So, at the end of the day, were all the protests useful?

Flacks: If you add up the numbers of protests after Kent State, it is the largest mass demonstration in American history.

Rothstein: The amazing thing is hundreds of thousands of Americans took to the streets to oppose this war. That they cared that much, that they would put themselves at risk—it is really remarkable. What could you think of today where hundreds of thousands of Americans would get up off their couches and demonstrate?

Peck: A lot of good things came out of that period amid the tumult and the personal destruction.

Rothstein: Things have changed. There is no draft. Nobody can get over there to meet with the enemy and see what is going on. The press has to be embedded. They have changed the conditions.

LIFE: Talk about the radicalization and splintering of the movement.

Rothstein: There was all this chaos. The black communities were exploding. Martin Luther King was assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. There was a lot of agitation. There was a lot of militancy on campus, and the repression came in—Kent State, the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, the attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Convention. People felt like they were coming to get us. People felt like the stakes were really high, and we weren’t winning on the civil rights front, we were not winning on the antiwar front. I think some people became adventurist because they couldn’t figure out a strategy that was going to work. It was a totally wrong strategy. You don’t end an international conflict by breaking storefront windows.

Peck: People got extraordinarily frustrated. There were internal revolutions. It splintered . . . It was almost a Revolution of the Week Club.

Canton: We were having infiltrators. The FBI parked out in front of my house. Everybody who was a leader in the Monterey chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War had their phones tapped and were followed.

Peck: During the Democratic Convention our paper’s windows were shot out and the only car on the street was a police car. The FBI came to look for my parents to find out more about me. They couldn’t find my parents, but they found Mrs. Schwartz, my neighbor. And they asked, “What kind of boy was he?” and she said, “Oh, he always held the elevator doors.”

Flacks: The founding people and elected leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society were on [an FBI] list. In May 1969, a guy called me who said he was a newspaper reporter wanting to interview me about student protests. He attacked me . . . and left me there bleeding. There was the Legion of Justice, a vigilante group. There is circumstantial evidence they were perpetrating this kind of activity and operating in connection with government intelligence.

Rothstein: I was organizing youth in Berwyn and Cicero, Illinois. We started a coffeehouse in a church, and the Legion of Justice shot crossbow arrows into the church. They found it so threatening that young people would sit and just talk about life, the draft or maybe whether they wanted to go to college. Nobody got hit. I remember going into meetings and being greeted by the Chicago police officer who was with the Chicago Red Squad, “Hey, Vivian. How are you doing?” They knew every person’s name.

Flacks: Whatever splintering there was, there was [also] a thread of more strategic action. People like Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda and others organized a campaign to get Congress to stop appropriating money for the war. And that was successful.

The shocking thing is that the American majority turned against the war in the late ’60s. The morale of the troops was collapsing by the late ’60s. Establishment intellectuals were writing about how the youth of America was turning against the society. And yet it still took six years for the war to be brought to an end after that.

LIFE: Looking back, your final thoughts?

Peck: I don’t have laments. We were learning as we went. As the Grateful Dead would say, it certainly was a long, strange trip. Being in the underground press gave me a really enduring appreciation of the First Amendment, which I have always defended since then.

Rothstein: For years I was very fearful that anybody would know about me going to North Vietnam. In those days it was considered a traitorous thing to do. Now it’s a really great thing to say I did. When I was in Vietnam, the Vietnamese said, “You are the true sons and daughters of Washington and Jefferson.” They had a real sense of an American tradition. I think in retrospect, what I did was in the best interests of the country.

Looking back now, we can all be proud we took those risks, but at that time we had no idea what it would be like in 40 or 50 years. I feel proud of the things that I did. I feel it took too long to end the war. I think history has not really taken on the Vietnam War and how right we were about the enormous destruction of Vietnam and the destruction it caused in our country. The antiwar movement is really not given the credit that I think we deserve.

Peck: There is no antiwar memorial.

Flacks: I would argue that at the time, the best interests of this country were not served by a leadership getting us into war but [by] the people who were trying to stop the war. [Also] I have a positive view of some of the changes in society that have come out of this period. The idea that the U.S. should fight that kind of war is illegitimate now. The draft is illegitimate. I can’t imagine a possibility of reviving conscription in this society. I know in my bones that if the move to restore the draft was made, there would be massive protests on college campuses right away.

The Vietnam War ended the capacity of people to be innocent and hopeful about political leaders. There is something healthy about that skepticism.

Canton: The reason we were out protesting was because we cared. It was about caring for certain types of freedoms—caring about certain things that were being done in our name. Most of us, our parents were immigrants who really came here for the American Dream. We grew up with that idea that it would be a new country, a new world and a better world. And it was a better world.

Peck: On a good day we wanted America to live up to its promise.

Canton: Yes. Exactly.

LIFE’s book The Vietnam Wars: 50 Years Ago–Two Countries Torn Apart is available here.

TIME justice

Mark Wahlberg’s Victim Says the Actor Should Get a Pardon

The Vietnamese man a 16-year-old Wahlberg attacked says he wasn’t blinded in the assault

A Vietnamese man who was brutally attacked by a 16-year-old Mark Wahlberg in 1988 says that contrary to some press reports he wasn’t blinded in the assault and he believes the actor should receive a pardon.

“He did hurt me, but my left eye was already gone,” Johnny Trinh told the Daily Mail. “He was not responsible for that. I would like to see him get a pardon. He should not have the crime hanging over him any longer.”

In 1988, Wahlberg attacked and hurled racial slurs at Trinh and another man during an attempted street robbery in Boston.

Trinh, 59, says his left eye was blinded in a grenade attack while he was serving in the South Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War. After the war Trinh sought refuge in the United States.

Wahlberg, 16 at the time of the assault, served 45 days of a two-year prison sentence. After runaway success as an model, singer and actor, Wahlberg is seeking a pardon for crimes he committed as a juvenile.

[Daily Mail]

Read next: Mark Wahlberg Should Not Be Pardoned

TIME Veterans

Vietnam War Veteran’s Remains Returned to Family After 47 Years

US-VETERANS-DAY
The shadow of a member of the US Army appears on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC on Nov. 10, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

Staff Sgt. James L. Van Bendegom had been missing since his patrol was overrun in 1967

The remains of a fallen Vietnam War veteran who disappeared near the Cambodian border 47 years ago have finally been returned to his family, according to the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia.

In mid-July 1967, James L. Van Bendegom was captured after his patrol was ambushed and overrun by enemy forces while deep in hostile terrain. The 19-year-old staff sergeant reportedly died of his wounds in captivity.

Almost two decades later, a Vietnamese national in a refugee camp in Thailand provided U.S. authorities with the remains of an American service member; however, officials were unable to establish the identity of the soldier based on the evidence provided.

“Thanks to advances in technology, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) re-examined the remains and determined that there was a possibility for identification,” read a statement released by the U.S. mission in Phnom Penh on Friday. “The remains were then identified as belonging to Staff Sgt. Van Bendegom.”

Bendegom’s remains were returned to his family earlier this month and the solider was finally laid to rest with full military honors on Nov. 11, 2014 in Kenosha, Wis.

To date, there are still 1,639 American service members from the Vietnam War who remain unaccounted for.

TIME conflict

Why Were Activists 45 Years Ago Protesting ‘Against Death?’

March Against Death
Wearing the name of a serviceman who died in Vietnam, a marcher pauses in front of the White House on Nov. 14, 1969 AP Images

It had nothing to do with immortality

On the night of Thursday, Nov. 13, 1969, the “March Against Death” began. By the time that weekend was over, Washington, D.C., had seen more protesters than any single event in its history had drawn. Attendance was higher, by tens of thousands, than at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. And despite a name that, 45 years later, may seem overblown or vague, the march was actually about something very specific.

The deaths they were protesting were those of soldiers and civilians in Vietnam.

As TIME reported in the Nov. 21, 1969, issue:

Disciplined in organization, friendly in mood, [the march] started at Arlington National Cemetery, went past the front of the White House and on to the west side of the Capitol. Walking single file and grouped by states, the protesters carried devotional candles and 24-in. by 8-in. cardboard signs, each bearing the name of a man killed in action or a Vietnamese village destroyed by the war. The candles flickering in the wind, the funereal rolling of drums, the hush over most of the line of march—but above all, the endless recitation of names of dead servicemen and gutted villages as each marcher passed the White House —were impressive drama: “Jay Dee Richter” . . . “Milford Togazzini” . . . “Vinh Linh, North Viet Nam” . . . “Joseph Y. Ramirez.” At the Capitol, each sign was solemnly deposited in one of several coffins, later conveyed back up Pennsylvania Avenue in the Saturday march.

Mrs. Judy Droz, 23, of Columbia, Mo., was chosen to walk first in the March Against Death. Her husband, a Navy officer, died in Viet Nam last spring. “I have come to Washington to cry out for liberty, for freedom, for peace,” she said. The New Mobe [New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Viet Nam] organizers had recruited others who had lost loved ones in the war, but some gold-star families wanted none of it. In Philadelphia and Dallas, groups of mothers and widows of G.I.s killed in combat obtained court orders to bar use of the men’s names by the protesters.

Another march took place that Saturday, capped by speeches and musical performances watched by at least 250,000 people. A connected event in San Francisco also drew record crowds for that city.

Read the full story here, in TIME’s archives: Parades for Peace and Patriotism

TIME Opinion

How to Understand Republican Strategy: Look to the Vietnam War

Early Voting
People line up for early voting outside of the Pulaski County Regional Building on Nov. 3, 2014, in Little Rock, Ark. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A historian describes why he sees a similarity between American politics today and those of North Vietnam

War, wrote Carl von Clausewitz, is politics by other means—but for at least 20 years Republicans and Democrats have been fighting a civil war by political means. The Republicans seem likely to win a big victory Tuesday by taking over the Senate. Should they succeed, it will be a new victory for a long-term strategy with a very surprising analog: the strategy that allowed the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to win the Vietnam War.

In one of his many books on the Vietnam War, the late historian Douglas Pike described the overarching Communist strategy, called dau tranh, or struggle. Although the United States spent many years, billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives fighting the military aspects of dau tranh, it runs out that the political aspects were always more important. The Viet Cong always had more political workers than soldiers. They conducted motivational propaganda among their own troops, but also infiltrated and did whatever they could to make it impossible for the South Vietnamese government to function effectively. That is why, for example, they tolerated inept South Vietnamese officials who would discredit the Saigon government, but were likely to assassinate effective ones. If they could reduce South Vietnamese society to chaos, they reasoned, the well-organized Communist party could easily take over, and in 1975 the South Vietnamese army and government completely collapsed in the face of the last North Vietnamese offensive. Some years ago, I realized that that the Republican Party has been practicing its own kind of dau tranh for more than twenty years. Recently, the strategy has intensified. It has significantly weakened government at all levels and has a good chance of eliminating the remaining vestiges of the New Deal and the Progressive Era.

Although it is very unlikely that Newt Gingrich had heard of dau tranh when he began his all-out assault on the Democrats in the House of Representatives in the 1980s, he employed a parallel strategy from the beginning. He created a new vocabulary to make his pro-government opponents look corrupt and weak. Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge has gotten nearly every Republican in Congress to commit never to increase taxes, hurting the government’s ability to do its work. The Federalist Society has developed a network of lawyers and judges who side against government, and conservative media serve as an echo chamber for those ideas. Since I first noticed these similarities between this strategy and dau tranh, the Republican struggle has continued on many fronts. Oddly, while this attack on government has done a great deal to contribute to our current economic mess, the mess also makes dau tranh more effective, because it undermines confidence in the government. All these tactics spread the idea that government is a powerful conspiracy against the interests of the American people.

Yet despite their rhetoric, while George W. Bush was in power, most Republicans had no choice but to collaborate in the funding and operation of the federal government. Their views changed when a liberal Democrat, Barack Obama, took office in 2009, and Congressional Republicans decided to do everything they could to make his administration fail. In that same year the Tea Party opened its own campaign against government, Democrats and moderate Republicans. The Republican struggle is financed by several networks of donors—including the Koch brothers, who have financed the most extreme candidates. Helped by the recession that Obama inherited, the Republicans gained control of the state legislatures of Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2010, and ruthlessly gerrymandered the Congressional districts in those states to assure themselves of majorities for some time to come.

Since winning the House of Representatives and taking away the Democrats’ 60-vote majority in the Senate in 2010, Republicans have made it impossible for large parts of the federal government to function. The Surgeon General should in theory be the point person for dealing with the Ebola outbreak, but we have not had one for many months, because the NRA opposes President Obama’s nominee, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and the Republicans have refused to allow a vote on his confirmation. The same tactic brought the National Labor Relations Board to a halt for some months, after the expiration of board members’ terms had left the board short of a quorum necessary to do business. Republicans have used the Congressional investigatory power to create scandals, even though many of them, such as the IRS flap, never lived up to the headlines they generated. Six years of endless propaganda against the Affordable Health Care Act, combined with the problems in its initial roll-out, have made Democrats too frightened to campaign as supporters of it, even in states where it has given many people health insurance for the first time. And since 2011, the Republicans, while forcing further reductions in the discretionary budget of the federal government, have made it impossible for President Obama to do anything significant to speed the economic recovery, much less to strengthen his own constituency with immigration reform.

The genius of the Republican strategy is that it validates itself. Crippling government tends to prove that government does not work, and allows Republicans to argue that the nation would do better with even less government. Democratic administrations on the other hand depend on the idea that government can help the people. Starving and immobilizing the government makes it look ineffective, which seems to validate Republican propaganda. Franklin Roosevelt created the modern Democratic Party by convincing every section of the country, from the agricultural south and the resource-rich west to the urban areas of the northeast and Midwest, that the government could help them. Now that belief has nearly disappeared in most of the Red states, and those states may well give the Republicans control of the Senate.

Some months ago Mitch McConnell told a symposium hosted by the Koch brothers that if the Republicans win the Senate, a Republican Congress will use the budget process to defund every part of the federal government that they do not like—a recipe for even more disorder. That is bound to create an even worse conflict between Congress and the President, and could easily lead to a further government shutdown. By 2016, the country may be so sick of this that it will elect a Republican President just to bring gridlock to an end. That would be the final triumph of several decades of dau tranh. But while the Vietnamese Communists practiced it to put a totalitarian party in power, the Republicans are doing so to reduce the power of government to the minimum necessary for society to function—or perhaps, to below that minimum. Their struggle against governmental authority is not simply a means, but also an end in itself.

David Kaiser, a historian, has taught at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Williams College, and the Naval War College. He is the author of seven books, including, most recently, No End Save Victory: How FDR Led the Nation into War. He lives in Watertown, Mass.

TIME Vietnam

Risking China’s Ire, India Signs Defense and Oil Deals With Vietnam

Vietnam's PM Dung waves next to his Indian counterpart Modi at the forecourt of India's presidential palace Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung waves next to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during Dung's ceremonial reception at the forecourt of India's presidential palace in New Delhi on Oct. 28, 2014 Adnan Abidi—Reuters

The agreements were signed during a visit to India by the Vietnamese Prime Minister

On Tuesday, India pledged to supply naval vessels to Vietnam and also secured oil exploration rights from Hanoi in parts of the contentious South China Sea, in moves that promise to ruffle a few feathers in Beijing.

The announcement came during Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s two-day visit to India, during which his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi pledged to “quickly operationalize” the $100 million line of credit established during Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Hanoi in September.

Along with an expedited sale of four offshore patrol ships, India will also take up enhanced training programs for the Vietnamese military, according to the Economic Times.

The agreements come at a time when the Vietnam, along with several other Southeast Asian nations, is locked in territorial disputes with Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea.

“Everybody’s worried about what China’s going to do next,” says A.B. Mahapatra, director of New Delhi–based think tank the Centre for Asian and Strategic Studies–India. “That is a common concern between [India and Vietnam] now, because all through history they never thought that they should expand their trade relationship or their defense relationship.”

Hong Lei, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, reasserted Beijing’s claim to the disputed Spratly islands in the South China Sea, but said it would not object to any joint exploration by India and Vietnam in undisputed waters.

“But if such cooperation harms China’s sovereignty and interests, we will resolutely oppose it,” he said.

Both Vietnam and India are growing closer to China economically, and a recent visit to New Delhi by Chinese President Xi Jinping yielded agreements worth billions of dollars.

But Mahapatra points out that neither Indian nor Vietnamese economic dependence on China precludes territorial conflict, and assumptions that Beijing would not destabilize a region in which it has economic interests have proved wrong time and again.

“[India and Vietnam] realize that if they don’t encounter China now, they will lose [the territory] forever,” he says.

TIME remembrance

Benjamin Bradlee, Esteemed Editor of the Washington Post, Dies at 93

Became famous for editing the newspaper during its groundbreaking coverage of the Watergate scandal

Benjamin Bradlee, who edited the Washington Post during the period when the newspaper published articles based on the Pentagon Papers and broke the Watergate story which eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, has died at age 93.

Bradlee helmed the Post from 1968 to 1991, and became famous after the paper’s coverage of the Watergate scandal, when burglaries of the Democratic National Committee offices were linked to Nixon’s office, setting off a chain of events that eventually forced the president to resign. He was played by Jason Robards in All the President’s Men, which told the story of the Post’s discovery and coverage of the scandal.

He became close friends with John F. Kennedy when he was assigned to cover the his presidential campaign for Newsweek, but he had an advantage over the other reporters; he lived on the same Georgetown block as the young candidate, and they shared a back alley.

“I don’t want to disappoint too many people, but … the number of interesting political, historical conversations we had, you could stick in your ear,” recalled Bradlee about his friend. “We talked about girls.”

Bradlee’s Newsweek remembrance of JFK after his assassination became a book, That Special Grace. In 2013, Bradlee was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

TIME Vietnam

Top Vietnamese Minister Says It’s Time for the U.S. to Drop the Arms Embargo

China suggests six steps to boost ASEAN ties
Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh delivers a speech at the opening ceremony of the 11th China-ASEAN Expo and the 11th China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit in Nanning, China, on Sept.16, 2014 Peng Huan—Imaginechina

Washington looks like it might agree

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh has said that Hanoi would welcome the U.S. dropping a decades-old arms embargo against his country.

“Nearly 20 years ago, we normalized the relations with the United States and in 2013 we set up the comprehensive partnership with the United States,” he said during a talk at the Asia Society in New York City on Wednesday. “So the relation is normal and the ban on [selling] lethal weapons to Vietnam is abnormal.”

Minh’s pronouncement came a day after Reuters published a story citing an unidentified American official and two senior executives in the U.S. weapons industry who stated that Washington was on the verge of lifting the 30-year-old ban targeting its erstwhile enemy.

The assessment follows similar comments made earlier in the summer by Ted Osius, who is currently awaiting confirmation of his appointment as the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. During a hearing with a Senate panel in June, the veteran diplomat said it might be “time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban.”

“I think dropping of the embargo would represent a significant change in the relationship in a variety of important respects,” says Jonathan London, a professor and Vietnamese scholar at Hong Kong’s City University, and the author of Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations.

“Not only would Vietnam be able to acquire arms and equipment, which it sorely needs particularly with respect to maritime capabilities, but it would also imply opportunities to deepen military-to-military ties between the countries and I think arguably that’s at least as significant as the ability to acquire arms.”

The warming of ties between Hanoi and Washington follows an exceptionally rocky period in relations between Vietnam and Beijing.

In May, Vietnam’s smoldering distrust of its northern neighbor erupted after a billion-dollar drilling platform belonging to a Chinese state-owned company dropped anchor in the middle of fiercely contested waters near the disputed Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea.

The presence of the drilling unit set off riots across Vietnam and led to months of maritime clashes as Vietnamese cutters tangled with Chinese coast guard vessels, until the rig was withdrawn from the contentious site in July.

Despite increased tensions with Beijing, experts say Vietnam’s leadership remains pragmatic and unlikely to abruptly give up its relationship with China for the sake of closer ties with Washington.

“Vietnam is a long way from joining any alliance with the U.S. — it doesn’t even participate in the CARAT [Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training] naval cooperation exercises with the U.S. that almost every other ASEAN country does,” Bill Hayton, author of The South China Sea: The Struggle for the Power in Asia, tells TIME.

“However, it is hedging its bets and warning China to moderate its actions in the South China Sea, particularly.”

During the question-and-answer session at the Asia Society, Foreign Minister Minh brushed off the suggestion by the society’s moderator that the potential sale of U.S. hardware to Vietnam would irritate Beijing.

“If we do not buy weapons from the United States, we will still buy weapons from other countries,” said Minh.

TIME

War to Peace

chuck Searcy portrait
Searcy poses with now harmless U.S. bombs outside a museum in Quang Tri Aaron Joel Santos for TIME

An American 
veteran returns to Vietnam to help make it safer for 
his former enemy

Nearly 40 years on, Chuck Searcy is still fighting the Vietnam War—but now for the other side. It’s a September morning and Searcy, a 69-year-old veteran, is overseeing a team of Vietnamese about to blow up a bomb discovered in a village in the central coastal province of Quang Tri. Because of its proximity to the old DMZ between what was once North and South Vietnam, Quang Tri was subject to relentless bombing by U.S. warships and planes. As a result, the area is infested with unexploded ordnance (UXOs).

Now, after a torrential downpour, a UXO—in this case a baseball-size cluster bomblet—has surfaced in a villager’s garden. Team members use sirens and megaphones to evacuate residents. Sandbags are placed around the explosive. Moments later a concussive detonation rumbles through the hamlet as the deadly weapon is destroyed. “It’s safe now,” Searcy, a co-founder of the ordnance-removal organization Project Renew, says in Vietnamese.

Long after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Washington and Hanoi remained foes. Besides being ideological opponents, the U.S. imposed an embargo that hindered large investments in Vietnam. But their relationship improved rapidly after they normalized diplomatic ties in 1995. Today the U.S. is Vietnam’s third biggest trading partner and its biggest export market. The two have also been brought closer by their mutual concern over China’s rise. Hanoi is now a frequent stop for top American officials visiting Southeast Asia, and Washington is even thinking of easing an arms embargo on Vietnam.

Searcy underwent a similar journey of alienation and re-engagement. He wasn’t in Vietnam long—just about a year in the late 1960s, working as an intelligence analyst in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). That’s all it took to disillusion him. The North Vietnamese engaged in propaganda, but so did the Americans. Searcy says he massaged information to fit U.S. policy: “We were lying.” After the war was over, Searcy felt a sense of relief—and release. “I sort of put Vietnam behind me,” he says in his Southern drawl.

In the next 25 years, Searcy had successful careers in media, politics and public service. He started a weekly paper in Athens, Georgia (his home state), and helped run political campaigns. He also served six years as director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. Yet, try as he did, he could not forget Vietnam. “For me and most American veterans, [it] was the most profound experience of our lives.” Searcy went back for the first time in 1992 with an army buddy. Over a month, the two traveled the length of the now unified communist country. Searcy says the trip was life-changing: “I was astonished at the complete lack of anger or bitterness or hostility from the Vietnamese toward us returning GIs. It was amazing.”

Searcy was struck, too, by the determination of the Vietnamese to rebuild their battle-scarred nation. “I began to think that I’d like to contribute because I felt some responsibility as an American for what happened there.” A few years after his visit to Vietnam, Searcy turned down a good job with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. His new mission: help make Vietnam a safer place for its people.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. forces dropped anywhere between 8 million and 15 million tons of ordnance across Indochina—several times that used by Allied forces on the Axis powers in World War II. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that at least 10% of the munitions failed to detonate on impact. Since the war’s end, some 100,000 people have been killed or maimed by the residual explosives. Vietnamese officials say 83% of Quang Tri province is contaminated by UXOs.

Searcy decided that they needed to be tackled in a systematic way. In 2001 he founded Project Renew with support from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the Quang Tri People’s Committee. Key to the operations has been the use of Vietnamese teams and resources. The 100-strong outfit is staffed primarily by locals. The province’s Youth Union teaches adults and children to identify ordnance and then call a hotline run by Project Renew when bombs are discovered. Through Vietnam’s Department of Health and local hospitals, amputees are fitted with prosthetics, while the Women’s Union helps manage microcredit loans for victims. “I’m very grateful to international organizations and friends who come back and help clean up the deadly remnants of war,” says retired Vietnamese colonel Bui Trong Hong, Project Renew’s national technical officer. “People like them understand how badly our country was devastated.”

Just in the past 24 months, Project Renew has eliminated about 27,000 pieces of ordnance, with only one accident reported in the past year in the districts where the teams operate. “[The system] results in a lot more ordnance destroyed on a daily basis,” says Searcy. Project Renew wants to scale up the Quang Tri model nationwide with the help of additional funding from the U.S. government. “It could happen in the next five to 10 years, at which point we Americans step back and can say we finally did what we should have done 40 years ago,” says Searcy. Perhaps then, for him, the war will be truly over.

TIME Opinion

How I Got Out of the Vietnam Draft — And Why That Still Matters

amnesty: Sept. 9, 1974
The Sept. 9, 1974, issue of TIME reports on the amnesty proposal, which was issued on Sept. 16, 1974. TIME

The Vietnam draft dodgers were offered amnesty 40 years ago today, but their story isn't over

My ’60s high-school experience was close to the stereotype — smoking pot, trying LSD, seeing the world in a new way, and questioning authority: If the government lied about drugs, why not about other things?

It turned out that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the justification for the Vietnam War, was one of those lies — as have been the justifications for most of our wars, I believe — but I didn’t find that out until later. Still, even before I knew that war was based on a lie, I could see that our nation was divided and confused about it. No one could give me a good, clear, convincing explanation of what was going on. Wasn’t that uncertainty a sufficient reason to refrain from killing millions of people? That’s how I felt at the time, though I couldn’t have articulated it so well back then.

I didn’t figure that out all by myself. I had the good fortune to fall in with some other teenagers who were also figuring it out. We spent many hot summer afternoons in someone’s cool basement, playing peace music and reading counterculture comic books. We listened to the sound track of Hair over and over. Clear Light’s cover of “Mr. Blue” was a stunning indictment of authoritarianism, though I didn’t learn the word “authoritarianism” until years later.

We felt that the war and the draft were bad, but I didn’t fully understand what my friends were going through; my own experience was too different. I was good at math, so I knew I’d be going to college, and I’d automatically get a draft deferment. Also, I felt less nationalism than most people. For me it would be just an inconvenience, not a great hardship, to flee to Canada, at that time a safe haven for draft dodgers. I knew that I would never wear a uniform.

Then, in November 1969, after I’d been in college for a year, the rules changed. A lottery began phasing out student deferments. My roommates and I started thinking and talking more about the draft. It occurred to me that the people on the draft board were human beings who deserved a friendly hello as much as anyone did, so I wrote them a letter.

The letter was very brief. I don’t remember the exact words, but they were something like this: “Dear Draft Board, I feel sorry for President Nixon. He must have had a terrible childhood. Why else would he be bombing all those Cambodians?”

It wasn’t just ink on paper. I thought anyone on a draft board must have a terribly drab life and deserved some cheering up – so, when my breakfast cereal box was empty, I cut out the front panel, which included a colorful cartoon character. I flipped it over to the blank cardboard that had faced the inside of the box. In crayon, with the great innocence that can come from LSD, I wrote the letter that I sent to my draft board.

It wasn’t a conscious attempt to get out of the draft. That payoff hadn’t even occurred to me. But my draft board promptly decided I was crazy, and classified me 4F, unfit for military service. They even phoned my parents to offer condolences. I got off lucky; a more authoritarian board would have drafted my sorry ass right then and there.

Perhaps I was crazy, but not as crazy as war. At any rate, I was safe, and home free, and no longer affected by the draft. I hardly noticed the draft-related events of the next few years: In 1973 the draft ended, in 1974 President Ford offered conditional amnesty to the draft dodgers — 40 years ago today — and in 1975 the war ended. But by then the draft had already done great damage to the U.S. military and its image. I’ve heard many stories of soldiers who didn’t like what they were forced to do.

During my college years, at first I joined in a few antiwar marches. But I found political arguments frustrating, so after a while I put them aside; I left the world in the hands of people who claimed to know what they were doing. I grew into a middle-class life, with spouse, house, two kids, and a tenured mathematics professorship at a prestigious university. I didn’t think about political ideas again for decades. Then, in 2006, a number of changes in my life gave me time to think, and I woke up. I realized the world was a mess, and taking care of it is the responsibility of all of us; it seems to me that the people in whose hands I’d left it did not know what they were doing. Since then I’ve been marching for many causes, and reading and writing about politics. Among other things, I’ve formed much stronger opinions about war and the draft.

It turned out that the Vietnam War never really ended — it changed its name and location, but as far as I can see, the questionable justifications have not changed. Politicians tell us that the people “over there” are different from us, but really those people are our cousins. I think we need politicians who will try harder to make diplomacy work.

And the draft never really ended either — now it’s a poverty draft. I hear stories all the time about people joining the military because they can’t find a decent job. Forty years after the draft dodgers were offered pardon, their message still matters: being able to choose what you’ll fight for is a freedom worth fighting for.

Eric Schechter is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at Vanderbilt University. Since his retirement in 2013, he has devoted his time to political causes.

Read 1974 coverage of President Ford’s decision to grant amnesty to draft evaders here, in TIME’s archives: Choices on Amnesty

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