The American South and the Vietnam War by Joseph A. Fry

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I graduated from a Pittsburgh high school in 1951 and from Penn State in 1955. While talking about the American Civil War, my teachers inculcated me with the belief that the eleven states of the Confederacy were still a world apart from the rest of the nation. As northern liberals, my teachers had looked down on Southerners, disparaging their pride and dedication to the Confederacy and its lost cause.

Since 1956, except for overseas military assignments and extended vacations, I have lived in the South. I have encountered situations that confirmed or denied my teachers’ lessons. But long ago, I learned to accept each event according to its own merits.

Historian Joseph A. Fry resuscitated a few prejudices for me in The American South and the Vietnam War: Belligerence, Protest, and Agony in Dixie (University Press of Kentucky, 467 pp., $35.57, hardcover; $33.79, Kindle). The book describes the struggle between pro- and antiwar individuals and organizations, emphasizing the influence that like-thinking people from the eleven former-Confederate states (plus Kentucky) exerted on the Vietnam War and America at large.

Fry approaches this with a brief history lesson about Southerners and United States foreign relations from 1789-1973. Fry’s twelve southern states share a distinct regional perspective, viewing needs of the world as contrary to their domestic desires and favoring “unrestrained military intervention aimed at decisive victories rather than diplomatic negotiations.”

He next addresses Southerners’ opposition to the Vietnam War. As they do throughout the book, racism and other sensitive issues play a large part in the discussion. Ill will, anger, threats, violence, shootings, and killings frequently accelerated the dissension between opposing sides. Fry withholds judgment and allows facts to tell the story.

He astutely shows how powerful conservative Democratic Sens. Richard Russell of Georgia, John Stennis of Mississippi, and Harry Byrd of Virginia influenced the nation to minimize overseas military assistance from 1953-64. They contended then that intervention in South Vietnam would be too costly and its people were an inferior race unwilling to protect themselves.

Meanwhile, obsessed with a need to contain communist expansion, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson gave aid to South Vietnam. A strong sense of honor and manhood made maintaining international credibility a necessity for Johnson. The 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident provided the impetus for him to gain a congressional resolution to prosecute war in Vietnam, Fry says.

Unfortunately, the resolution, which Congress overwhelmingly supported, did not solve the problem of how to run the war. Fry clearly shows that debates over the scale, pace, duration, and cost of the war never ended.

The book’s second half covers Southerners’ views on the war’s conduct, their contribution to the decision to withdraw from Vietnam (1968-70), and their views on ending the war (1971-73). Southern thinking seldom matched national attitudes about domestic policies, racial problems, military appropriations, foreign aid, and other contentious issues. Often, southern regionalism promoted self-serving behavior, which compounded disagreements. At times, racial assumptions and the quest to procure government military spending trumped party politics, Fry says.

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LBJ and Sen. John Stennis

Two sections—”Southern Soldiers” and “Southern College Students”—interrupt the book’s chronology. These chapters might hold the greatest interest for Vietnam veterans. “Soldiers” exemplifies southern manliness by describing horrific combat scenes in which Southerners engaged. But Fry’s argument here is weak because men from all sections of the country experienced similar horrors in Vietnam.

Much of Fry’s support material comes from books written by Southerners. Nevertheless, this chapter might educate readers unfamiliar with the war about death and destruction, leadership, religion, race relations, and post-war attitudes among fighting men.

The chapter focuses on the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, including the fighting at Landing Zone Albany, all but glorifying them as engagements led by southern officers in which Southerners suffered the highest number of casualties. In fairness, Fry then cites the My Lai massacre, which was led by Southerners, as a failure in ethics. Later in the book, Fry reviews the political fallout from My Lai. He points out that it required “moral courage” by another Southerner to reveal the breadth of the massacre.

I disliked Fry’s long and emphatic references to characters from novels to “celebrate the South’s warrior tradition,”  even though one character reflects the thinking of former Marine and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, according to Fry. I believe Fry should have quoted Webb directly or quoted other courageous infantrymen—there are plenty of them—to make his point. As I see it, fiction is fiction and does not adequately serve a history book’s purpose.

“Students” does an excellent job reporting on the diverse antiwar activities by organized groups. Until the end of the war, University of Texas students, for example, led protests that unbalanced the South’s pro-war stance but never toppled it. Within Dixie, “antiwar students lost all the battles and the war for majority southern opinion regarding Vietnam,” Fry says.  He quotes fellow historian George C. Herring on the student issue: “The antiwar movement lost every battle but eventually won the war—the war for America’s mind and especially for its soul.”

Fifty-seven pages of endnotes support Fry’s study. Rather than listing sources alphabetically, he includes a bibliographic essay that relates sources to each other. Fry’s research included delving into oral histories, transcripts, interviews, memoirs, and letters by leaders, along with those from ordinary citizens, students, and military personnel.height-200-no_border-width-200

Andy Fry taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas for nearly forty years. His courses included U.S. foreign relations, the history of the American South after 1850, and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At times I feel that Americans have overburdened themselves with their arguments about the Vietnam War. After fifty years of arguing, we should accept that we learned nothing from the war. Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner, tricked us into fighting in Southeast Asia, which we failed to recall when another Southerner, George W. Bush (aided by Dick Cheney’s misdirection), misled us into Southwest Asia.

In this election year, Fry’s book might best serve as a voters’ guide: Do not cast your ballot for anyone who professes a correlation between manhood and war.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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