Elise Lemire’s Battle Green Vietnam: The 1971 March on Concord, Lexington, and Boston (University of Pennsylvania Press, 248 pp. $45, hardcover; $35.99, Kindle) is a detailed look at a relatively little-known antiwar protest held over Memorial Day weekend in 1971 by members of the New England Chapter of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Lemire, a Literature Professor at Purchase College at the State University of New York, conducted more than a hundred interviews with veterans and civilians who took part in the event or were opposed to it, and did a vast amount of research into archival materials. She has done a great job pulling all of that material together and tells a very interesting, readable story.
The protesting veterans considered the importance of place and performance for this demonstration to both focus, and magnify, what they were trying to say. They carried out their peaceful protest on Revolutionary War battlefields in Massachusetts enacting guerilla-theater war atrocities with toy rifles terrorizing innocent “civilians.”
The antiwar veterans believed that traditional ways of affecting change would not bring about the end of the war fast enough and so they needed to make a bold statement to try to make that happen. They walked almost a hundred miles to make the public more aware of their reasons for calling for an immediate end to the war.
The marchers wore jungle fatigues and carried toy M-16 rifles. They used battlefields where the Revolutionary War began: Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. They chose to do Paul Revere’s famous ride, as mythologized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in reverse, marching from Concord to Boston.
The idea was to suggest that the U.S. needed to reverse its course in the Vietnam War. They saw this as a patriotic act to warn the American people about what their government was up to in Southeast Asia. Along the way the veterans drew crowds, made speeches, engaged in acts of civil disobedience—and were charged with trespassing,
Lemire also provided a good, concise history of VVAW, and also explains how the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the role the New England colonies played in the Revolutionary War, and the meaning of using obelisks to represent war dead.
Lemire brings the story of this three-day-long demonstration to brilliant Technicolor life. It’s a story that well deserves that treatment.
Floater (Koehler Books, 246 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is former Green Beret Martin Robert Grossman’s third action-thriller featuring Jerry Andrews, a retired police detective who was a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam during the war.
The idea driving this novel is conveyed in the dedication, which is to the men and women of our armed forces who fight and sometimes die to protect our freedom, “even in the face of protest.” The dedication goes on to say that antiwar demonstrations by hippies and other war protesters “crushed the morale of the American soldier!” And that “the idle rich and famous played the most demoralizing role.” So, in this story, which takes place 20 years after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, justice against what Grossman calls “turncoats and traitors” is “dispensed by those betrayed–REAL JUSTICE!”
Several characters feel they were betrayed while at war and again after returning home to an ungrateful nation, and they have not been able to terms with that. They “quickly found that civilian life for a Vietnam vet was a nightmare,” Grossman writes. The men—Claymore, Meat Cleaver, Short Arm, Super Mex, Terminator, and others—are drawn into a plan to take out a “who’s who of war protestors.”
One of their main targets is the movie star Brandy Forester. She began as a child of privilege and wealth, becoming an acclaimed actress who always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous father. She then began protesting the war and, in 1972 traveled to North Vietnam where she “sat for photographs with the enemy.” She’s described as having a “small chest,” in contrast to Army nurses with their “big racks.” The men don’t want to just kill her; they aim to send her straight to hell.
A rival group may be going after the same targets, including Sen. John Kershaw, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and served in Vietnam on a brown-water Navy patrol boat. Grossman writes that after intentionally wounding himself in order to get a Purple Heart, Kershaw then denigrated American troops when he testified before a congressional committee. Grossman says “he became hated by all soldiers” who were fighting for their country and their lives.
The leader of the group of enraged vets lives on a large ranch in Arizona and feels increasingly isolated from a world he thinks has rejected him. His goal is to put together a new A-Team, drawing men from VA clinics. He thinks of them as his “band of merry men.” Meanwhile, former detective Jerry Andrews volunteers to help law-enforcement with the cases.
I suggest reading this novel about murdering prominent people who protested the war as a fantasy. If that sounds like your thing, the story is well written and moves fast.
A glance at the cover of Raymond S. Greenberg’s Medal Winners: How the Vietnam War Launched Nobel Careers (University of Texas Press, 440 pp., $29.95) might suggest that winners of the Nobel Prize in any one of six fields, including literature and peace, began their careers fighting in the Vietnam War. Silver and Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts come to mind.
But the medal in question is a Nobel Prize itself—in this case, in the field of medicine. The Vietnam War and the draft are only the foundation in Part One of three parts in the book, which takes a much broader account of the careers of four research scientists who long before winning the prize worked as Clinical Training Associates at the National Institute of Health in Washington, D.C., during the Vietnam War.
Nobel laureates Joseph Goldstein and Michael Brown (in photo, above) and Robert Leftkowitz and Harold Varmus are the subjects of Goldberg’s book. Today, for most Americans, their names are not be as familiar as another alumnus of the program from that era: Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergies & Infectious Diseases and a leading member for the presidential task force battling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only two chapters out of five in Part One are particularly relevant to the war. They are important ones, however, because they provide a unique measurement of the war’s impact on American society.
One chapter, “The Yellow Berets,” explains the origin and structure of the “Doctor Draft,” which began with the Selective Service Act of 1948 at the beginning of the Cold War. In 1960 it was expanded to include “male physicians, dentists, veterinarians, pharmacists, and optometrists under the age of fifty-one.”
In the 1960s to avoid the possibility of the draft interrupting their early careers years, medical doctors could apply to become officers in one of seven the Uniformed Services, which included the Public Health Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The PHS were had several branches, including the Communicable Disease Center and NIH. “Only a small percentage” of those who applied to Public Health Services programs, Greenberg writes, were accepted.
The “Ballad of the Green Berets” was the number-one song of the year of 1966. A parody of the song, from which the title of the chapter is derived, proclaimed: “Fearless cowards of the USA/ Bravely here at home they stay/ They watched their friends get shipped away/ The draft dodgers of the Yellow Berets.”
NIH associates did not see the song as applying to them. It was partly a joke, but Dr. Fauci recalls it was still “very much derogatory.”
Dr. Greenberg—a renowned cancer researcher—claims that “as emotions faded and many former Associates went on to distinguished careers, the term became a badge of honor.” One can’t help but suspect that that statement is contrived to help give the book an attention-getting chapter title.
There is a breeziness throughout the narrative that almost is offensive in which Greenberg largely gushes uncritically about the four Nobel laureates. The acclaim is deserved, but at times Greenberg seems to want to elevate them to sainthood.
Some young men who came of age during the war had choices. Although Goldstein, Brown, Leftkowitz and Varmus were among an elite group of men who avoided military service, they still served their country.
When President Franklin Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of NIH’s initial buildings in 1940 he noted that the institute’s mission would be to “save life and not destroy it. We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation. We must recruit not only men and materials, but also knowledge and science.”
Doctors in military service sometimes resented those who had “cushy” NIH jobs, but there were ways to gain respect. Across the street from NIH was the National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center). Some NIH research physicians, including Fauci, volunteered to treat troops there—men who were “flown in with serious complications of wounds” because the military hospital didn’t have an infectious disease department.”
The second notable chapter on the Vietnam War deals with NIH’s “Campus Life.” As in much of America at the time, there were currents of protest and paranoia at NIH. In 1969, a group of activists organized a Vietnam Moratorium Committee and invited the pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, a fierce opponent of the war, to speak on October 15 in conjunction with the National Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. The NIH director, accountable to the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, denied a request to hold the event on campus, but was thwarted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. Spock told a crowd of several thousand that the U.S. was the aggressor in the war, rather than “the good guys,” and the war was illegal and immoral.
Most employees at the prestigious NIH were not politically active. Many believed that speaking out against the war would put their careers at risk. NIH security officers sometimes would take pictures of people who attended antiwar meetings and ask for lists of members.
In his epilogue, Greenberg describes many factors, beginning in the 1990s, that have contributed to a decline in physicians choosing to become research scientists and subsequently winning Noble Prizes. His overarching thesis, however, is that the Vietnam War and the influence of the draft were the forge in which a unique alchemy produced a Golden Era out of “Yellow Berets.”
Historians should not overlook that structural force in assessing the war’s legacy.
The Girl To His Left (Bermondsey Books, 318 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an entertaining novel about the military and the antiwar movement in the Sixties written by Stephen P. Learned, who says he didn’t serve in the military or take part in the protests against the Vietnam War. Learned is a retired U.S. Justice Department trial attorney who has been a long-time volunteer at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
We meet the title character, Shawn, on the first page as she takes a seat next to Paul Bondra at a pizza place. It’s the spring of 1966 in Pittsburgh and the two strike up a conversation. Paul is about to join the Marines and they bond over the next month, deciding to write each other while he’s gone in hopes they can maintain their relationship. They promise to be faithful to each other. “As long as you’re alive,” Shawn tells Paul, “I’m yours. But don’t come back a different person.”
After his first military haircut Paul says he looks “like one of those Mormon guys who knock on your door.” With Paul on active duty, Shawn transfers to the University of Wisconsin and becomes involved in the antiwar movement. She keeps it a secret from most people that she has a boyfriend in the Marine Corps.
In February of 1967 Paul’s plane lands at DaNang and he is quickly bused to Hill 327. While he is setting up security and night ambushes, Shawn is engaged in antiwar activities, including attending draft card burnings.
Soon Paul finds himself in the thick of things. He “felt the change in pressure caused by bullets snapping overhead,” Learned writes, coming from the “nasty clap of a Russian SKS semi-automatic carbine.” Paul notes that an after-action search of a hamlet bombed by Americans uncovered dead bodies. “Bad guys, good guys, who knew?”
As a platoon leader, Paul decides he “wasn’t going to kill anyone until his men killed first. Sure, he was a killer. But his job was to lead killers, not be one.”
Paul learns that he can get an early out if he extends his tour in Vietnam for six months. He considers it, but remembers that Shawn made him promise he would return as soon as he could.
He writes to her, spelling out his reasons for extending. She writes back saying she’s completely opposed to the idea. What’s more, she suggests that if he does extend his tour it would be a selfish act and she would end their relationship.
As you would expect of a good novel—and this is a very good one—bigger-picture historical moments are personalized through the eyes of the characters. This gives the reader a better understanding of exactly what those events meant to those who lived through them.
Elsewhere Than Vietnam: A Story of the Sixties (261 pp. Sticky Earth, $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a quite enjoyable novel. The author, David Schwartz, served as a U.S. Army Czech language intelligence interrogator in Germany from 1969-72. The title comes from a 1971 Armed Forces Journal article by Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr. in which he wrote that the morale of U.S. troops in Vietnam was lower “than at any time in this century and possibly in the history of the United States.” The colonel then added: “Elsewhere than Vietnam, the situation is nearly as serious.”
It’s the “elsewhere” that this story is concerned with, mainly antiwar protests on college campuses and underground resistance in the active-duty military, both in the U.S. and on bases abroad.
Schwartz’s main character Steven Miller is a student at Yale University in 1968 and, along with all the other young men on campus and around the nation, he finds that he is constantly thinking about the military draft.
“We knew the war was wrong,” we learn from Miller, “and we didn’t want to be involved in it.” Before long, though, he loses his student deferment and receives a draft classification of I-A, fit for service. “Fit to shoot people,” Miller thinks, “and fit to be shot at in return, simply because their ideas were not our ideas.” He begins attending meetings on resisting the draft. And then he gets a letter to report for induction.
Miller realizes he’s not brave enough to flee to Canada and wonders if his new girlfriend will wait for him for a couple of years. At Fort Dix he passes the stockade and hears another GI say, “The Army had to invent something worse than Vietnam to get people to go there.”
He begins “learning how to soldier. The soldier was the opposite of the student. The student should engage in critical thinking; the soldier should not question what he is told.” Miller’s goal is to avoid being sent to Vietnam. So he agrees to extend his service time a year in exchange for being sent to the Army’s Czech language school. Whenever possible, he goes off base to a local coffeehouse, the headquarters of a local radical newspaper and the scene of frequent antiwar discussions.
Miller graduates from language school and is sent to Fort Holabird in Baltimore for interrogation training. Here he learns that “it is a misconception that you need a cruel streak to excel as an interrogator. You just need to be a good actor.” Nothing is said about physical torture.
Miller’s then shipped to Germany where he works on developing intelligence reports. A German girl tells him that Americans are always immediately recognizable because they “all walk around loose and relaxed, like cowboys.” He continues to lead a double life: being a good soldier on-base while getting involved in resistance activities outside the gates.
The subtitle, A Story of the Sixties, is certainly accurate and everything in this novel rings true. This is a book about an honorable, conflicted man who gives his body and mind to the military, but not his heart and soul. It is a good story about a good man.
Many years ago through a haze that wasn’t particularly atmospheric in nature or origin, someone said to me, “If you can stand there, flat-footed, and tell me you remember the Sixties, man, you weren’t really there.” Turns out he was correct, on several levels.
Speaking of the Sixties, Robert Roth’s novel, Berserkley (The Periphery Press, 620 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins and ends with the word “Unbelievable.” That just about describes this offering, which is constructed like a huge, feverish Jack Kerouac story—after being loosely introduced to Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
There are no chapters, per se. Roth, instead, gives us lots of words, separated by rows of five asterisks. We move from scene to scene, with the breaks coming just when the reader needs to take a breath. A series of cinematic scenes dissolve as we wade through the story. What a rush!
Roth has very skillfully assembled a covey of characters right out of central casting who personify, almost eerily, every type that we had on the scene at UC Berkeley in the mid-nineteen sixties. We get the dweeb from Cleveland (our erstwhile protagonist); the drug-addled Vietnam veteran; the effete snob from a waspish New England family; the oblivious Santa Monica cutie; the self-hating Jewish restaurant owner; the Chicano wanna-be radical; the wide-eyed rural Nebraska farm boy; the grizzled, old, radical newspaper publisher; the kidnapped newspaper heiress; the Hare Krishna background singers; and a huge herd of supporting weirdos.
Throughout the book I read about little things here and there that I’d forgotten over the decades. And I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah, I remember that.”
The story propels us through a time-warped narrative that seemingly is unanchored. Roth rarely bothers to mention a day or time as the story just seems to waft along—kind of like the ever-present cloud of pot smoke that was Berkeley in those days. Roth presents more fiction on the back-cover blurbs, including words from the late Truman Capote calling the novel “far superior to To Kill a Mockingbird.”
I began reading Beserkley with a bit of trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised. It offers up memories of the Sixties, along with the love, hate, and angst that went with them.
Derf Backderf’s Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio (Abrams ComicArts, 288 pp. $24.95) tells in graphic novel form the true story of a massacre of four unarmed students by Ohio National Guardsmen on the college’s campus in May 1970. That bloody incident often is considered the end of the turbulent sixties, along with much of the promise that those years embraced.
I am in awe of what Backderf—a renowned cartoonist and graphic artist—has accomplished in this book, especially the massive amount of research he did and his ability to incorporate the results of that research into an artistic format. Following a brief Prologue, Backderf gives us four chapters, one for each of the four days of the Kent State story which played out from May 1 to May 4. He includes an Epilogue on the book’s very last page, following more than two dozen pages of endnotes. Placing the Epilogue there is akin to a director adding a scene in a movie following the credits.
Kent State is a dramatic recreation of the events based primarily on eyewitness testimony and official reports. I strongly suggest reading the 26 pages of endnotes, which provide source material for each scene and serve also to flesh out the entire story.
College campuses around the nation erupted when President Richard Nixon announced that his latest attempt to bring the war in Vietnam to an end was to officially expand America’s role beyond the borders of Vietnam and move U.S. troops into Cambodia.
At Kent State University in Ohio a student group reacted by publicly declaring the U.S. Constitution dead and burying a copy of it on campus on Friday, May 1. They also called for an antiwar rally for Monday May 4. That antiwar agitation made for an intense weekend, both on the campus and on the streets of Kent.
The book is pretty much a moment-by-moment telling of what happened over these few days, culminating in National Guard troops opening fire on students, killing four and wounding nine others.
This is not a comic book made up of mostly drawings. Plenty of words filll every page. Backderf, an Ohio native, includes boxes of text throughout, providing background information on such subjects as the military draft, Students for a Democratic Society, and ROTC.
His illustrations are so vivid that I could almost hear the sounds of the weekend on each page: music blasting from stereos, the ringing of the campus Victory Bell, the marching feet of the advancing Guard troops, and then the screaming.
The unfortunate highlights of this book are the violent, sickening pages (thirty-three panels) that show each student at the moment he or she was shot. It was a brave decision to illustrate these in such an explicit fashion—and it was absolutely necessary for readers to see the carnage in order to understand the horror unleashed on the students that day.
This is a marvelous historical account and artistic undertaking. Don’t question the depth and seriousness of this book because it’s in a graphic novel format. It’s appropriate as a college textbook, and for any others who wish to know about this episode into the darkness of the American soul.
“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” That refrain from Neil Young’s song “Ohio” about the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, is embedded in the nation’s collective memory. The lesser-known song on the B-side of that record, Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” may have inspired the title to Susan Erenrich’s elegy to the victims of that day, The Cost of Freedom: Voicing a Movement after Kent State 1970 (Kent State University Press, 336 pp. $34.95, paper; $24.99, Kindle).
The book is an assemblage of genres—including a single photograph, a short song, and a 37-page treatise on the historic preservation of the site—dealing with the violence at Kent State University that May day, its aftermath, and its influence on the community and the nation. Erenrich thoughtfully divides this anthology into ten accessible sections.
The fiftieth anniversary of the shootings has brought no less than ten recent books on the events that add to an already robust bibliography of the episode. Erenrich’s book seeks to differentiate itself by its focus on justice issues and its call for the future. The books is a collection of primary source material, though it does not focus on contemporaneous accounts of the events, but rather on the later reflections of students and administrators.
There is a palpable catharsis in many of the accounts, and though the reflections are heartfelt and earnest, many were written 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years after the fact. The essays can veer to the polemical and the writers to self-indulgence, which is entirely understandable as many of their lives are divided in half—one before May 4, 1970, and one after. There are entries that are not directly Kent-related by Patricia Mosley and the former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Weatherman Mark Rudd.
The one contemporaneous account of the events, by then Kent State senior Constance Nowakowski, describes protestors on acid throwing bottles at the police, breaking windows indiscriminately, burning the American flag, burning the ROTC building, and cutting hoses firefighters tried to use to douse the flames. This provides context for the tragedy that would ensue, but does not explain or excuse the senseless killings. The Scranton Commission was correct in finding the shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
From a historical perspective, the pieces on post-facto legal activities are compelling and informing. William Whitaker, an Akron trial lawyer who represented the Kent 25—the moniker given to the protesters indicted for criminal activity in connection with events leading up to the shootings—offers an excellent one, as does Sanford Jay Rosen, the lead civil attorney for the dead and wounded students.
Noteworthy among the essays from the students directly affected by the shootings is the piece by John Cleary. An amateur photographer, Cleary, a freshman, was not part of the protests. He was observing and photographing the days’ events when he was shot in the chest. Cleary had a quiet determination not to allow May 4th to define his life. He finished his studies at Kent and went on to a career in architecture.
The shootings at Kent State still reverberate. This collection is a written monument, a fitting memorial to all those killed, wounded, or scarred by the events of May 4, 1970.
Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties (Verso, 800 pp. $34.95) is a history of the social and political struggles of the 1960s unlike most others. For one thing, Jane Fonda is mentioned only six times in 640 pages of text. What authors Mike Davis and Jon Wiener do, instead, is probe and dissect diverse communities in Los Angeles deeply below the surface of the usual panorama.
A special ideological perspective or historical interest is needed to read it. Even its vocabulary is different. Davis, an author and MacArthur Fellowship recipient, and Wiener, a history professor and longtime contributing editor to The Nation magazine, for example, write about “uprisings” against “grinding forces of oppression.”
Black revolts against racism and inequity are at the book’s core, but the authors also cover “reciprocal influences and interactions.” Formal and informal alliances include the Vietnam War antiwar movement. There are competing or conflicting cultural outlooks, strategies, tactics, and agendas.
In 1965, Los Angeles’ police chief compared a Black uprising in Watts, one of the poorest sections of the city with 8,000 people and 20 percent unemployment, to the fighting in Vietnam. Thirty-four people died. More than 1,000 suffered major injuries. A National Guard report claimed that the Viet Cong were involved. (In fact, the “bungled” police arrest of a drunk driver on a hot summer’s night sparked the violence.)
In June 1967, President Lyndon Johnson arrived in L.A. for a $1,000-a-plate Democratic Party fundraising dinner at the Century City Plaza Hotel. A thousand police officers faced off outside against 10,000 protesters. Ensuing violence caused the Secret Service to prepare—if necessary–to evacuate the president by helicopter from the roof of the hotel. The organizers had a legal march permit, but some sat down and halted it in a show of civil disobedience.
Antiwar protesters in front of the Century City Plaza Hotel
Century City was a turning point. White middle class participation in the protest convinced Johnson he was unlikely to win the 1968 presidential election. In March he announced he would not run after Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s strong showing in the Democratic primary in New Hampshire was followed by Sen. Robert Kennedy’s entry into the race.
McCarthy and Kennedy had similar plans to end the war, premised on negotiations, but the Left wanted an immediate American military withdrawal. By 1967, its leaders already had launched a third-party strategy, organizing the Peace and Freedom Party.
Their desired presidential candidate was Martin Luther King, Jr., who declined the honor. The Black Panthers and White radicals then went after comedian and Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory. Black nationalists wanted Eldridge Cleaver, a former convict and author who called for “a second front” on the West Coast to support the Viet Cong.
Cleaver was two years short of the U.S. Constitution’s minimum age requirement to run for president, but in August 1967, the PFP state convention in L.A. voted 161-54 to endorse him. On Labor Day the national convention nominated him.
In April 1968 Cleaver was involved in a shoot out with Oakland police, and charged with attempted murder. Protests by leading liberal writers and intellectuals led to his release on bail. Cleaver then “lost interest.” On Election Day, he endorsed a pig whom protesters at the Democratic National Cconvention in August had nominated as their candidate. Three weeks later he fled to Algeria.
Bitterly critical of Eldridge and the PFP division, Set the Night on Fire nonetheless heralds the registration drive to get the party on the ballot in California as “a triumph of historic proportions.” The PFP become the first left-wing party to win official recognition in 20 years. The authors credit it as “the first evidence anywhere in the country of LBJ’s vulnerability to an electoral challenge.”
The book has eight sections and 36 chapters. Overlapping events make the chronology difficult to follow. Mexican Americans and Chicano Moratorium demonstrations are covered in the seventh section. Asian Americans and “other liberations” in the last. One of the most interesting chapters deals with draft resistance and the sanctuary movement.
Occasionally, police, prosecutors, or judges sympathized with draft resisters and deserters. One soldier from Fort Ord asked his girlfriend to marry him while taking refuge in a Quaker meeting house. Their wedding took place during a recess in his later court-martial for desertion. The Army prosecutor spoke at the ceremony. He wished the bride and groom happiness, and said he had “nothing personal” against him. The deserter received a dishonorable discharge, but no prison time.
Set the Night on Fire is a valuable doorstop reference book, but will never reach a popular audience. Which is perhaps unfortunate. Insights and lessons are buried in its many pages. Some would be useful to recall as resurgent waves of Black and White protest today seek to overcome fault lines in the American Dream.
“If, when the chips are down, the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant,” President Richard Nixon famously said in an April 30, 1970, address to the nation, “the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
During that speech Nixon announced plans for a joint South Vietnamese-American operation into Cambodia to confront the North Vietnamese Army, which had long used the territory as a sanctuary to launch missions into South Vietnam. The address spurred an immediate reaction from antiwar activists across college campuses, culminating in confrontations that led to Ohio National Guard troops shooting to death four students at Kent State University in Ohio on May 4, and Mississippi state police officers killing two students at Jackson State College on May 15.
In their book, Cambodia and Kent State: In the Aftermath of Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War (Kent State University Press, 88 pp. $12.95, paper) Kent State professors James A. Tyner and Mindy Farmer provide a concise introduction to the domestic and international context of the shootings, as well as an overview of the historical memory in Kent and Cambodia. The book relies on secondary sources and the authors’ knowledge of the university where Farmer serves as the director of the May 4 Visitors Center.
The book’s thesis—connecting the incursion into Cambodia and the ensuing domestic protests to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, while also examining the collective memory in both countries—is laudatory. It is a helpful primer on both topics, and its strength is the closing chapter on the commemorations of the four victims in Kent and the millions in Cambodia.
But the book’s brevity does not account for curious unforced errors or reductive analysis. The world’s previous conflict was not World War II, as the author say, but the Korean War. What’s more, Kissinger and Nixon did not create realpolitik; it was a 100-year old political philosophy. And the South Vietnamese Army was a full participant in the operation, committing more than 60,000 troops and suffering some 600 killed in action.
“Nixon’s Expansion of the Vietnam War,” as the subtitle puts it, is important to the authors’ conception of the incident, but the context of the decision is more nuanced than the familiar Nixonian caricature. As the authors document, the North Vietnamese had long violated Cambodia’s neutrality, and when Prince Sihanouk was deposed in mid-March 1970 and replaced by the pro-Western Lon Nol, who welcomed the incursion, it provided the opportunity for something that the American military had long yearned.
Though Nixon’s Secretaries of Defense and State opposed the plan, there were no “fierce objections,” and the incursion had the support of the Joint Chiefs, the CIA, the South Vietnamese Embassy, and the National Security Adviser. The pacing of the book can be frenetic, jumping between the administrations of Nixon, Ford, and Carter with alacrity.
The Nixon Administration anticipated domestic fallout from the Cambodian action, but they underestimated how severe that reaction would be. In Kent, the protests were marked by an escalating level of violence, including burning the campus ROTC building. A Gallup poll showed that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for the killings.
Not explored in this book, but important to the historical context, is the infamous New York City “Hard Hat Riot” that occurred four days after the shootings, and the subsequent May 20 rally that drew some 100,000 Nixon supporters. In 1972, Nixon won reelection by more than 18 million votes.
Four Dead in Ohio
The coda of the book is an appropriate elegy to the senseless deaths of four students on a beautiful Monday afternoon in Ohio, and to the millions who perished at the hands of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.
In the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy, this succinct treatment is a welcome addition to the historiography of the “end of the Sixties.”