Medal Winners by Raymond S. Greenberg

You can’t judge a book by its title.

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.

Dr. Raymond Greenberg

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.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci at NIH in 1968

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.

Dr. Benjamin Spock in 1968

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.

–Bob Carolla