If you didn’t try to stop the Vietnam War you can join the Peace Corps today and show your apologies to the Vietnamese people personally.
By William Evensen (Peru 1964–66)
Sweet William © 2016
Anyone who knew anything about warfare, from Gen. MacArthur to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, knew it was foolhardy to wage a land war in Asia where you had to travel 11,000 miles to fight and all the enemy had to do was to walk across the street. We stood out and they blended in. Many saw
LBJ’s escalation in Vietnam as a military disaster, morally indefensible, and politically repugnant in its propping up of a dictatorship. Few, though, stood up for truth, justice, and the American Way.
In 1966 Muhammad Ali was only 24 when he courageously voiced his opposition, “I ain’t got no quarrel against them Vietcong.” In the Spring of ’67 Ali, World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, put his conscientious objector values above his money-making opportunities, and refused induction into the Army explaining, “My conscience won’t let me go and shoot them.” Shaking his head woefully he said, “Just take me to jail.”
It was no surprise that Ali was named Honorary Chairman of the Los Angeles Peace Action Council’s June 23, 1967, Anti-Vietnam War March to the Century Plaza Hotel where LBJ was holding a Democratic Party fund-raiser for his 1968 re-election campaign.
There seemed to be no other way to stop Johnson’s jungle juggernaut than to personally protest. I had honorably completed my eight-year military obligation; my wife and I had just returned from serving two years as Peace Corps Volunteers in Peru; and I knew from my college mentor Bernard Brodie, father of nuclear détente, of the folly President Johnson and his minions were pursuing. They had to be stopped.
Living in LA, my wife and I decided to join the March. The night before we called up twenty of our former UCLA classmates and invited them to our Westwood pad to make anti-war posters for the Century City Protest. Only two came: a sorority sister of my wife’s and a former Peace Corps Volunteer we had met overseas who was attending UCLA grad school. Several of our classmates had become assistant district attorneys, federal and county, and none wanted to be seen in opposition to the Powers That Be, no matter what our government was doing. Their excuses were pathetic, “I just passed the bar. I don’t want to get any smudges on my career so some day I can be a federal judge and make sure our rights are protected.”
The Century City Anti-War March produced an impressive turnout for normally uptight law-abiding LA. Thousands of white coat attired doctors and nurses, white-collar workers, and white college students marched with Ali and Dr. Benjamin Spock from Rancho Park to Century City. We wore sport coats and ties so as to illustrate the anti-War Movement had support from the middle class, not just from draft-age men. Even though our peaceful protest was violently dispersed by an LAPD’s storm trooper attack, LBJ never again appeared in public. Within nine months he gave up any notion of being re-elected.
I have often wondered had the other 18 well-educated Bruins, along with their friends and significant others, joined in the Century City March whether the Vietnam War would have raged on for seven (7) more horribly destructive ethically-bankrupt years that finally ended April 30, 1974 with America’s crushing military defeat.
Even with an outstanding example of unflinching integrity leading the March — Heavyweight Champion of the World sacrificing his Belt to honor his principles — our Bruin alums were morally intimidated and did nothing. By not protesting against obvious un-American behavior our Nation eventually was humiliated, our treasury gutted, our future compromised. Even worse, thousands and thousands of American families were destroyed by the casualties of war, hundreds of thousands of lives rendered useless from the horror of having to fight an un-winnable war. Not to mention how many millions of Vietnamese people would have been spared the awful violence LBJ’s Secretary of Defence McNamara and Nixon’s Secretary of Defence Kissinger rained down upon them.
On May 24th 2016 the U.S. Peace Corps, after being invited by the Vietnamese government to send Peace Corps Volunteers, signed an Agreement in Hanoi between our countries with President Obama in attendance. For those 18 Bruins who didn’t respond to the call in ’67 — almost all of who still live here in LA — maybe they should become Peace Corps Volunteers, and serve in Vietnam in order to experience the effects of ignoring war and to personally ameliorate the damage done by doing nothing.
No doubt many of these new PCVs will be helping the victims of our heinous use of Agent Orange defoliant to live a more comfortable life after being born with grotesque birth defects. (See Chau – Beyond the Line, 2016 Academy Award nominee for Best Short Documentary).
Remember, most of this Vietnam nightmare occurred after Muhammad Ali led the June 23rd March into the heart of Establishment LA to win their support in ending that damn war. Unfortunately not enough white people had his courage. As the Lone Ranger used to say, “It is never too late to right a wrong.”
Sweet William has published two books, Venice of America: The American Dream Come True, and JFK & RFK Made Me Do It: 1960–1968. In this fast-paced, fact-packed memoir of The Sixties, this veteran social activist recalls the idealism of the Kennedy Brothers’ push for peace and how it shaped him and others to become peacemakers.
This article is an excerpt of Autobiography of an Activist: A Serendipitous Journey from Brooklyn to Venice Beach” which is in progress.
CONTACT: Constitutional Capers, Box 1050, Venice, CA 90294; firstname.lastname@example.org; 323/974-5506.