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RECOLLECTION: A Berkeley Confrontation Over Vietnam
By Daniel Crim Lavery
In 1966 I drove from San Francisco to Berkeley for softball with Jerry, a high school friend and third year law student in Berkeley, a city with radical politics, the Free Speech Movement, and anti-Vietnam War protests. After the game, he invited us to his apartment where I noticed bookshelves of literature, history, politics, philosophy, law, and more. His friends were graduate students in Law, English, Comparative Lit., and History. I tried not to feel intimidated by the academic achievement surrounding me. I needed to inform Jerry of a crucial decision I had made and blurted out, "I turned in my wings and transferred from flying in jets a few months before the Navy assigned me navigator of my ship. So did my pilot."
Dan entering RA5C Sanford Florida, 1965.
"Why did you do that?"
"I heard pilots say at the officer club, 'Here comes the pilots and there are the bombardiers. The ones that fly are men, and the others are queers.'"
"Our ready room instructor referred to navigators as 'dipshits' even though some navigators died in the RA5C nicknamed, 'The Flying Coffin.'"
"The heaviest jet to land on carriers, it had the most losses in Vietnam, and the worst safety record with maintenance problems."
"Those are damn good reasons."
"I cheated death by transferring. The North Vietnamese shot down the crew who replaced me. They didn't recover the navigator. His pilot remains a prisoner in Hanoi."
"Sounds like the smartest thing you ever did."
When I said I was about to navigate 300 Marines to Vietnam, the mellow mood shifted. "Why the fuck are we in Vietnam?" Jerry spat out.
"To stop communist aggression into a country that needs us," I offered. Unexpected laughter greeted this simplistic explanation.
"Where did you learn that?" A tall bearded law student asked.
"Naval Academy classes in Far East History and counter-insurgency, the Coronado Naval Base courses, and Defense Department articles."
The History grad-student asked, "Don't you remember Dien Bien Phu?"
"The French colonial army lost the civil war to the Vietminh. The seventeenth parallel separated North and South Vietnam at the Geneva Conference with an agreement that free elections would take place in two years. One dictator after another ruled the South, they held no elections, and we backed them ever since."
"So you don't think the Viet Cong are terrorists?"
"The Viet Cong are fighting a civil war against the unpopular regime. Ho Chi Minh assists with supplies and his army."
His explanations calmly shredded my comment. Still, I felt compelled to defend our position from my background, the third Naval Academy graduate in my family, but it seemed I could not counter their logical, historical, and humanitarian arguments. "After our ships were attacked by torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, Congress authorized President Johnson to respond by an executive order to repel aggression," I added.
"No. That was a false report. Our ships were not attacked on August 4, 1964 in Tonkin, but Johnson used the Congressional resolution to launch an illegal war." Jerry added, "He never sought a declaration of war from Congress. Two nights before the claimed unprovoked torpedo attack, our airplanes and CIA fast boats initiated the hostilities bombarding the North Vietnamese coastline and islands."
Dan at Peace Rally in San Francisco.
My anger grew. I knew friends in Vietnam. Some had died there. I controlled myself, and asked, "Where did you get that information?" Jerry admitted, "We attended a teach-in by Norman Mailer who demonstrated the lack of international support for Johnson's war, the false basis for it, and hideous civilian casualties from a genocidal air war."
The history student added, "An expert described the horrible burns from napalm and said our anti-personnel bombs sent millions of razor-sharp 'fletchets' spinning to the ground slicing up any living thing in an area the size of a football field." They characterized B-52s carpet-bombing large swaths of landscape with penetrating heavy bombs as a "War crime under Geneva and other human rights conventions."
"That's a bunch of bullshit. How can you believe such left-wing crap?"
"Much of that information comes from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings Senator Fulbright held beginning in February 1966. What's left-wing about that, Lavery?" Jerry quipped.
After a moment of silence to consider, I asked, "Do you have a copy I can read?" "Sure. I'll grab it off the shelf." The report was two inches thick contained in a bound book with a cover featuring Senator Fulbright questioning Dean Rusk.
They had me on the defensive when I confused the Viet Minh and Viet Cong with the North Vietnamese regulars, and parroted Eisenhower's domino theory. Jerry continued, "Johnson used that theory to justify invading Vietnam to stop communist expansion in South East Asia. He claimed if we didn't invade South Vietnam, all the neighboring countries would come under communist rule from Russia and China. Most scholars disagree because the Chinese are their traditional enemies. Berkeley has good book stores with the history of Vietnam. Check them out."
"Yeah, but I see posters in their windows saying, "Get out of Vietnam, Now." You must know they're full of radical propaganda."
"You don't think the military feeds the troops propaganda?"
"I read what I trust and I've always gotten plenty of information from the Navy, Newsweek, and CBS. I've never heard anyone call that propaganda."
As I read the sources these students suggested, gradually I began to recognize much of the information our government fed the public was propaganda. In my sheltered and controlled military existence, I had let my purpose in life drift far from those values that had almost led me into the ministry. I began to consider for the first time that the peace marchers might be right. They were not wild-eyed radicals bent on tearing down America. After three months, I joined VVAW and Vets for Peace before my ship departed with fifty books from Berkeley, a beacon from a lighthouse that kept me from sinking and enlightened my path.
Daniel Crim Lavery: 1964 Naval Academy Graduate, photo-recon navigator in the RA5C, navigated USS Oakhill (LSD-7) to Vietnam, became opposed to the War, joined VVAW, graduated Hastings College of Law, became ACLU civil rights lawyer for Cesar Chavez's UFW, 34 years private civil rights attorney, writer of memoir, poetry, and short story.