As a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps, James Wright was deployed to Japan during the 1958 Quemoy Matsu Crisis, when the Communist government of mainland China threatened to invade the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which were held by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek.
After the crisis was resolved, Wright, and the Marines with him, returned to Pearl Harbor where they were greeted by a military band.
A decade later, American veterans returning from Vietnam met a very different reception. There were, overall, no military bands playing marches, no parades, no ecstatic welcomes home at airports or naval bases, as there had been for veterans after World War II.
People didn’t seek out their stories or greet them as if they had been engaged in a heroic endeavor. Far from it.
“They were struck and hurt by how little interest people had in them,” said Wright, a historian and the president emeritus of Dartmouth College, whose most recent book is Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and its War (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press).
Wright will be reading from the book and answering questions on Wednesday at the Norwich Bookstore.
In 2012, Wright published Those Who Have Borne the Battle: A History of America’s Wars and Those Who Have Fought Them. After that, Wright said, he had no intention of doing another book. But he did think he had some op-ed pieces in him about Vietnam, and wrote them. With that came the growing realization that the subject “was more than an op-ed.”
The Vietnam War and the consequences for the people who served in it was something to which Wright had already given a lot of thought.
In 2009, Wright gave a speech at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. in which he urged Americans to make sure that the 58,000 names etched into the polished black wall were more than just inscriptions.
By writing Enduring Vietnam, Wright ended up, in effect, taking his own advice.
“Who were these kids? Where did they come from? They didn’t just drop in to Vietnam,” Wright said.
So he began the long, intensive process of seeking out male and female veterans who had served, and who had seen their friends and colleagues killed.
In all, Wright spoke by phone to 160 veterans, the majority men, and their family members. Many of the veterans said they were speaking about their experiences for the first time because they wanted to honor the people who died alongside them.
“I ended up telling the story of a generation,” Wright said. “It doesn’t mean we glorify the war, but it’s time to acknowledge how much they’d sacrificed.”
Wright also stressed that although he tells the story of Americans in Vietnam (and some Vietnamese), he is not, he said, “by any means suggesting that the American story is the story.”
What he hoped to do, more than 40 years after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, was to paint a portrait of some of the people who were in Vietnam, and why they were there.
Although many Americans have enduring images of massive and sometimes violent anti-war protests, which can leave the impression that more Americans were against the war than for it, the fact was that 40 percent of baby boomers served in uniform during the Vietnam War, Wright said.
The baby boomers had grown up in the post-war atomic age, with ever-present fears about both nuclear warfare and the dangers of Soviet domination.
Their parents had gotten through the back-to-back crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Their fathers had likely been combat veterans; their mothers may also have served on the home front, or in women’s auxiliary programs.
Male baby-boomers, in particular, had grown up in a culture where comics, World War II movies and Westerns had shaped their ideas of what it was like to be a man, and of the glories of proving themselves on a field of battle.
“They grew up with a sense of a worldview that was somewhat scary but they felt they had an obligation to serve,” Wright said.
Wright interviewed such draftees and enlistees as Chuck Hagel from Nebraska who asked to be reassigned from Germany to Vietnam, because he thought that when there was a war on that’s where you ought to go; he later became a U.S. Senator from Nebraska, and served for two years as Secretary of Defense in the first Obama administration.
Pat Sajak, from Chicago, didn’t want to wait to be drafted, so he enlisted and worked as a disc jockey for the American Forces Vietnam Network in country; he went on to become the host of the game show Wheel of Fortune.
David Balazs from Pennsylvania, was a recent college graduate when he was drafted and decided to join the Marines because he’d never traveled outside the U.S., and he looked forward to the adventure; his father, a steel worker who hadn’t finished high school and had advised him to go for the Air Force or the Navy, told him “Jesus, I just assumed you had better sense than that.”
As the war dragged on with no apparent end in sight many of the men who fought began to question why they were there. The war became less about loyalty to country than loyalty to their “buddies,” who fought alongside them, Wright said.
Indeed, the war became a millstone around the necks of American presidents and the country they led. The protests against it were increasingly heated. Even as it was being fought it was labeled a mistake, while the people who had been drafted or enlisted were subject to such epithets as “baby killer.”
“Who wants to die for a mistake?” Wright asked.
In the decade after the end of American combat, Vietnam, he said, became a war that “dare not speak its name.”
In what has been called a “blue collar” war, fought by men who were not able or didn’t want to take advantage of deferments, the resentment of those who served toward those who didn’t, or toward those who hung back behind the front lines, was often corrosive.
The book is also a study in other dominant issues during the war, such as the thinking behind the American involvement, and how it shifted. The role of the press, which was, by comparison to World War II and the wars after Vietnam, quite unrestricted, which would have a significant effect on how Americans thought about the war. The changing definitions of what it was to win a war, and what it was to lose it.
Wright also includes a section devoted to the 11-day-battle between the Americans and the North Vietnamese in May, 1969 on a mountain in the north of South Vietnam. The Vietnamese called the mountain Dong Ap Bia; the Americans of the 101st Airborne Division, who attempted to take it from the Vietnamese, dubbed it Hamburger Hill, because of the high casualty rate.
It was an unusual kind of battle for Vietnam, Wright said, because it represented a return to the kind of confrontation between two opposing armies more typical of World Wars I and II than the guerilla-style warfare of Vietnam, where the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong got in and out of engagements with agility and speed.
Wright visited Dong Ap Bia with two former North Vietnamese soldiers. They were the only ones on the mountain that day, Wright said. The Vietnamese men pointed out to him the still-extant bullet holes in the trees and the indentations of old “spider holes,” military speak for one-man fox holes.
One of their discoveries was an old and small piece of American military equipment: scrap metal from an incendiary device, which the men typically used, Wright said, to heat up their C-Rations. Wright brought it out during the interview, a tangible reminder of the conflict, left behind by an American soldier nearly 50 years ago.
As with any war, there is analysis after the fact about what was learned, what went right and what went wrong. How did we get into World Wars I and II? How did we get into Vietnam, and what did we learn from it?
“We keep talking about lessons from Vietnam. I’m not sure what the lessons are. For me the more important question is, what does this mean for the kids who fought there?” Wright said.
It is a mark of how divisive the war was, and how eager most Americans were to forget it, Wright said, that more Americans know the name of Lt. William Calley, the Army officer who was convicted in a court martial for murdering 22 South Vietnamese civilians during the My Lai massacre than know the names of the women and men who served their nation in Vietnam 50 years ago.
That, he said, is a tragedy.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.