The War in Vietnam: What is Forgotten?

by Henry Booth

 

When Don Bonsper arrived in Vietnam in 1967 with the United States Marine Corps, like others, the first thing he noticed was the heat. “It was very hot, very humid, lots of bugs, bugs at night, hard to sleep,” Don said, “and when the monsoon rains [came], it was just very heavy rains, flooding, mud, so you were living in a [different] environment.”[1] Boyce McDivitt, a dentist in the Navy and a lifelong friend to Don Bonsper, also had his own Vietnam War experience, but rather from stateside, in San Diego.[2] Many others, like Phil Caputo and Larry Heinemann, spoke about the conditions over in Vietnam during their various interviews, including Caputo’s experiences that he wrote in his memoir. H.W. Brands, author of the book American Dreams, uses Caputo’s memoir to bring in a brief overview of the life of a soldier fighting in Vietnam. Brands discusses the Vietnam War at length, although he does it more from a political level rather than discussing the conflict for the soldiers fighting on the ground, or those who were serving back stateside. While H.W. Brands discusses the Vietnam War at length, he doesn’t describe the story of the soldiers on the ground enough, leading to missing elements into why the war in Vietnam panned out in the way it did.

Phil Caputo landed at Da Nang, close to the divide between the Northern and Southern divide in Vietnam, in 1965 and was part of the escalation in Vietnam in 1965. He stayed over in Vietnam until 1966, where a patrol incident with civilians in the village of Giao Tri lead his men to kill an innocent civilian, leading him to go back stateside.[3] Heinemann and Bonsper both arrived during 1967 (Heinemann in March, Bonsper in June). Heinemann, after initially being stationed near Saigon, fought in one of the bloodiest fights of the war at Soui Cut, where afterwards, he was shipped back stateside that March.[4]

United States Soldiers landing in Vietnam via Helicopter (Military Blog)

United States Soldiers landing in Vietnam via Helicopter, Military Blog

Bonsper served with the United States Marines until the end of October in 1967, where in November he became an advisor for the South Vietnamese Marine Corps and served with them through the Tet Offensive.[5] The Tet Offensive of 1968 was a decisive battle in the war, with the United States and South Vietnam repelling an assault by the North but was viewed by the public as a defeat due to the media’s affect. He was eventually shipped home in June of 1968. McDivitt worked at the San Diego naval base from 1967 to 1969, preparing many naval cadets for the war in Vietnam by cleaning and fixing

their teeth, hoping to get them battle ready.[6] Bonsper and McDivitt both grew up in the small town of Portville, New York, and both went to high school together at Portville Central School.

The fighting over in Vietnam was tough, especially with the conditions and the enemy they fought. Many soldiers over in Vietnam felt like they were stranded. “A feeling of abandonment came over us,” Caputo wrote, “The company seemed to be marching into a vacuum, haunted by a presence intangible yet real, a sense of being surrounded by something we could not see.”[7] Brands noted how the jungle made Marines like Caputo feel lost within the jungles of Vietnam, bringing a sense of anxiety over his men. And with Caputo being close to the border of North Vietnam with the war escalating in 1965 on the ground, it was a difficult experience to anticipate. Bonsper added onto this idea when he noted that “when they felt like they wanted to come out and engage, shoot some mortars, shoot some artillery, they could and then they could disappear back.”[8] The hit and run tactics by the North Vietnamese took a major toll on the Marines sanity, for they could face attacks at any time within the dense jungles and rice paddies over in Vietnam. With the war being full tilt in 1967, it was known that the United States had suffered significant losses.

Soldiers with a captured enemy flag in 1967 (Getty Images)

American Soldiers showing off an enemy flag after a tough battle, Getty Images

The losses from the hit and run attacks also made a major dent in the Marines morale. “If you just walk around and patrol and look and nothing happens for a number of days and then on the next day there’s an ambush and two or three of your people are killed, and then the enemy just disappears,” Bonsper said, “it’s a real frustration on the part of the troops to feel like you’re constantly a target and that it’s so hard to get even, or to find, and get revenge on the actual enemies.”[9] Without being able to retaliate properly, many soldiers lashed out, which ultimately led to atrocities like Giao Tri in 1966, or My Lai in 1968, where US Soldiers took out Vietnamese civilians. Caputo mentions an instance where an officer in his group had to keep a lieutenant from shooting an elderly woman because she was sharpening stakes that could be used for the various traps the North Vietnamese devised.[10] The war was further complicated because of the Viet Cong, or Vietnamese civilians who were resistant to the South, leading to a further complicated war. Caputo was also involved in an incident at Giao Tri, where his patrol killed an innocent civilian, leading to a trial that eventually led him  to be dishonorably discharged in 1966 after a false statement.[11] In My Lai, a group of American soldiers ran roughshod over the small village of My Lai, and slaughtered approximately three hundred Vietnamese civilians, leading to immense backlash from the American public.[12] Because the American soldiers struggled to get revenge on their North Vietnamese enemies, the pent-up anger could lead to events like My Lai.

Bonsper also noted how he served with the Vietnamese Marines as an advisor after November of 1967. “The [Vietnamese] marines were terrific,” Bonsper said, “the Army, we operated with the Army a couple of times, the South Vietnamese Army, and they were not up to the standard of the marines.”[13] The lack of true support from the South Vietnamese Army could’ve affected the morale of many soldiers in the sense that they were fighting for a country that wasn’t adequately prepared to defend itself, making the Americans’ job a whole lot harder,  ultimately dragging American morale down. Brands discusses the war and conditions on the ground, but he doesn’t elaborate enough on how the soldiers’ morale was damaged by the hit and run tactics and conditions, which is a point that should be emphasized more, especially if it led to atrocities like Giao Tri or My Lai.

Soldiers helping a civilian across the battlefield (AP Photos)

Soldiers helping a civilian across the battlefield, AP Photos

Confusion was a major aspect to the conflict. Caputo mentioned how his men were ultimately confused by the conflict. “There certainly were [discussions about our mission] because we were constantly getting these changing mission orders,” Caputo notes, “after the first couple of weeks, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to be doing over there.”[14] Many of the soldiers over in Vietnam had no idea what they were supposed to do, and with the lack of coordination between units, the battlefield was often a chaotic place. Many soldiers also had difficulty keeping up with the issues at home, however many had knowledge of the protests going on. Heinemann noted how they knew of the protests over in Vietnam, but never really cared much because of the difficult fighting.[15] Some soldiers also had difficulty keeping up with events at home. “There was a newspaper called Stars and Stripes and that would get distributed sometimes, [but] we had no way to communicate with the outside world,” Bonsper recalled, “it was just what we got, a little bit out of that newspaper and what people would tell us.”[16] McDivitt, still in San Diego, noted that he knew of the protests, but he never really kept up with them in depth due to the amount of work he had stateside.[17] Despite the soldiers knowing of the protests from 1967 through 1969, many members of the military had little reason to care about it because they weren’t super in touch with the protests like people are today, making it hard for the protests to truly impact them as much.

Marines fighting during the Tet Offensive (1968)

Marines fighting during the Tet Offensive, Flickr

Brands mentioned how many politicians during the war had a defeatist mentality. “We are alien to their culture,” said Senator William Fulbright, “where the French failed, we will fail.” [18] Despite many politicians thinking the war was going bad, there were mixed feelings on the ground and at home over whether everyone supported the war. Some like Bonsper thought the war was going well during his tours in 1967 and 1968. “I felt like we were doing what we were being asked to do, we were doing it well,” Bonsper said, “and I had no idea the political side and whether we were winning or losing, whatever.” [19] While Bonsper was confident in how the war was going, Heinemann was the opposite in his belief of how the war was turning out. Heinemann saw the war effort as a way of radicalizing more Vietnamese against the American cause, and with the destruction of Vietnamese farmland and resources, ultimately making the war effort a losing fight because of the damaged relationship.[20] While Brands discusses the political aspects in terms of supporting the war, he should have honed his focus on the soldiers’ perspectives, for they have a larger impact on the actual fighting and history of the war. In terms of supporting the war, Bonsper was a supporter of the war initially, but later lost his support of it. “I supported the war when I went to Vietnam,” Bonsper wrote, “My support never really changed until long after the war was over and many of the facts about the start of the war became public knowledge.”[21] His friend Boyce McDivitt also supported the war from home; however he didn’t want to fight in it because he didn’t want it to affect his relationship with his wife Kay.[22] However Heinemann was vehemently against it. “The war was [messed] up, that was clear,” Heinemann said, “We were not very sophisticated on the rightness and wrongness of the war, but everyone did know that it was [stupid].”[23] Both viewpoints show a significant difference even among the military, making Vietnam a tough conflict to win. If some parts of the United States military weren’t on board with the war, then it makes it difficult to win, especially against a fighting force that is stealthy, and knows their terrain well.

While Brands discussed the politics behind the Vietnam War well, he should have focused more on the soldiers and their perspectives while fighting the war. Brands does discuss the conditions of the war briefly by including Caputo’s experience, but he should have focused more on the soldiers’ experiences. Because Brands didn’t explain the human experience over in Vietnam enough, he didn’t discuss the communication issues, condition issues, and differing attitudes and support around the war, ultimately leading to the events that played out. Wars are won with the soldiers on the ground, so their experiences are the ones that need to be talked about, so not explaining it fully can lead to misinterpretations about the American experience over in Vietnam and allows people to forget the sacrifices soldiers made over in Vietnam.

[1] Interview with Don Bonsper April 25th, 2022, via Zoom

[2] Interview with Boyce McDivitt April 21st, 2022, via phone call (notes)

[3] Herzog, Tobey C.. 2008. Writing Vietnam, Writing Life : Caputo, Heinemann, O’Brien, Butler. Iowa: University of Iowa Press. Accessed May 11, 2022. ProQuest Ebook Central. 192

[4] Herzog 197

[5] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[6] Interview with Boyce McDivitt April 21st, 2022, via phone call (notes)

[7] H.W. Brands, American Dreams (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011). 144

[8] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[9] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[10] Brands 145

[11] Herzog 192

[12] “The My Lai Massacre,” PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), accessed May 10, 2022, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/vietnam-my-lai-massacre/.

[13] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[14] Herzog 15-16

[15] Herzog 65

[16] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[17] Interview with Boyce McDivitt April 21st, 2022, via phone call (notes)

[18] Brands 153

[19] Interview with Don Bonsper on April 25th, 2022, via Zoom (recorded and transcribed)

[20] Herzog 65-66

[21] Email from Don Bonsper May 2nd, 2022 (quoted from Email)

[22] Interview with Boyce McDivitt April 21st, 2022, via phone call (notes)

[23] Herzog 65

 

Transcript:

“‘Finally, in the latter half of the month, ‘ – April 1965 – ‘someone decided that since the Viet Cong would not come to us, we would go to them.'” – Philip Caputo quoted on page 143 in American Dreams by H.W. Brands

Interview Subject(s):

Boyce McDivitt, United States Navy Dentist from 1967 to 1969, who often fixed the teeth of many soldiers who went over to fight in Vietnam

Don Bonsper, United States Marine Corps from 1967 to 1968 who fought in Vietnam. Childhood friend of Boyce McDivitt

Interviews:

Boyce McDivitt: Phone Call (Notes) on April 21st, 2022

Don Bonsper: Zoom Call (recorded transcription) on April 25th, 2022

Email on May 2nd, 2022

 

From Boyce McDivitt’s phone call (notes):

When asked about what he did in the Navy:

  • Naval Training Center from 1967-1969
    • Checked guys who were going into the Navy for dental issues
    • Worked his tail off, leading to a promotion to a Commanding Officer by his Executive Officer

 

When asked why he joined the Navy:

  • Wanted to keep himself out of potential harm over in Vietnam
    • Knew of dentists who went over and were killed
    • Was married to his wife Kay at the time and didn’t want to lose that with the Vietnam War
    • Supported the war, but conscientiously knew that he could keep out of Vietnam if he was productive for the Navy Stateside

 

When asked about how in touch he was to the war’s protest efforts:

  • Aware of it
    • Not super in touch due to lack of connectedness
      • Cited that work and other priorities kept him from watching news as much as he does now in his retirement years
    • Boyce supported war, but wasn’t willing to lose his life over it, especially with a wife and being able to help from the states

 

When asked about if he kept in touch with his friends (Dick Anderson [Uncle Hoke in interview] and Don Bonsper:

  • Never kept up with them during the war
    • Didn’t have any letters unfortunately
    • Dick Anderson had diaries of what he and Boyce discussed, but was unable to access them
    • Don never got to discuss with Boyce the war
      • Don did write memoires about his time over in Vietnam

 

When asked whether any of his friend group (the Vikings) had any knowledge of the true status of the war during the war:

  • All three friends had little knowledge during the war
    • All had no knowledge of the true extent of the war until years after
      • Had some general suspicions that it wasn’t going well, but all three had zero clue over true extent of the war

 

From the Zoom Interview with Don Bonsper (transcribed):

Q: One of the first questions I had is … first off, when did you start serving in Vietnam?

A: I got there in June of 1967…

 

Q: … What was the conflict like over [in Vietnam]?

A: … It was guerilla warfare, so there was fighting in jungles, rice paddies, and it was the enemy, the other side, had two major elements to their force and they had the Viet Cong, … and those were sort of people that were fighting, [and] then the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA, …which was more like a real army, not as informal as the Viet Cong.

 

Q: … What was the war like over there, like life when you weren’t fighting, … what [were] the tensions like in your camp? Was it pretty high morale [or] was it pretty low morale? Can you describe that a little?

A: [Yes] I think the morale was good, morale was fine. The conditions we were living under were pretty difficult. It was very hot, very humid, lots of bugs, bugs at night, hard to sleep, and when the monsoon rains would come, it was just very heavy rains, flooding, mud, so you were living in a [different] environment. The conditions were very very hard.

 

Q: … Did those conditions give the enemy more of an advantage or did you think it benefitted your troops better?

A: I think it gave them an advantage. For one, they knew the area much better, they knew the terrain and they could pick and choose when they engaged with us. Much of our activity was built around taking and holding various pieces of real-estate, pieces of ground, and then just moving on and giving it up so the enemy was able to just lay low, stay in the jungle, and when they felt like they wanted to come out and engage, shoot some mortars, shoot some artillery, they could and then they could disappear back, so I think they tough conditions one, they were used to it, they lived there, it was their home, their space, so I think they had the advantage.

 

Q: … Did any of the pick and choose attacks of the North Vietnamese, … did that ever chip away at the morale of your troops?

A: It certainly does, [because] if you just walk around and patrol and look and nothing happens for a number of days and then on the next day there’s an ambush and two or three of your people are killed, and then the enemy just disappears, it’s a real frustration on the part of the troops to feel like you’re constantly a target and that it’s so hard to get even, or to find, and get revenge on the actual enemies, so [yes], it does chip away.

 

Q: …were you able to stay connected to …the events back at home because I know there was a lot of protest of the war back at home, so were you able to stay connected with that, or not really?

A: Not really. I think we knew about it. There was a newspaper called Stars and Stripes and that would get distributed sometimes, [but] we had no way to communicate with the outside world, it was just what we got, a little bit out of that newspaper and what people would tell us, what we would hear so it wasn’t like something we were constantly being bombarded with, any protests or demonstrations.

 

Q: … Were you ever able to communicate with my Grandpa Boyce during the war, or not really?

A: No not really. I’m not sure exactly where he was. I think he was on a hospital ship as a dentist, and I was on land the whole time, so we never did communicate. There was no way to make physical contact, and we didn’t have any of the contact means that exist today… we could communicate with people back home by [writing] a letter so we could write a letter and put it in an envelope and give it to someone who was going back to some other place where it could be mailed. We could mail tapes, little cassette tapes, back and forth which is what my wife and I did… the turnaround time, the time it took to actually get to somebody and then if the person was going to answer anything in that letter, the time it took to get back, …were talking a couple of weeks.

 

Q: Towards the end of your time in Vietnam, could you sense whether the war was going well for your troops, or whether you guys were getting beaten, what was sort of the thought process of that?

A: My tour was different. It was divided into two parts. There was a first part where I was with the US Marines, and a second part where I was an advisor with the Vietnamese Marine Corps, so I had two different experiences of leaving. I left the US Marines to go to the other unit. Honestly in both cases I felt like we were doing what we were being asked to do, we were doing it well, and I had no idea the political side and whether we were winning or losing, whatever. I was in the Saigon area during the Tet Offensive, and that’s when the Vietnamese launched a major attack through the country, … and they really got hurt militarily. They took so many casualties, it was a big defeat for them militarily, but it turned out to be a big political victory because then the people back home felt like we were not really doing that well if they could attack all over the country in such massive numbers. But no, I never felt like we were really losing, I never felt, … I was just doing my job, … it’s kind of hard to say that, but I had a job to do, I think I did it well and my troops did it well at the same time.

 

Q: …What was your time as an advisor for the Vietnamese Army like?

A: Well it was really quite a good experience. There were two advisors with [the] marine battalion, so there were about eight hundred Vietnamese Marines, and two Americans, and that was it, and we each worked with a counterpart and advisor is kind of a bad word because, or lets say a misleading word because we really didn’t advise them because they knew more about what was going on than we did. They had been fighting for years, they were extremely good, these marines were an elite unit, and so my role was more to help with supporting arms, artillery, … all the aircraft which would support the battalion were US aircraft, and so I was on the ground [and] was controlling those aircraft. If the battalion commander needed something that would come from Americans, he would tell me, and I would get it, I would control it and I relied on them to protect me. I only carried a pistol, I never expected to actually be shooting when I was an advisor. My role was to make sure that I got to support the battalion leader, and they were good.

 

Q: … Were you relatively in tune with the … larger plan [in Vietnam]?

A: No. Not at all. I barely knew what was going on in my battalion [in] the US battalion. I was in tune with the Vietnamese marines better, but not the big picture. No. Never.

 

Q: …Could you actually tell me [about] the morale of the South Vietnamese Army?

A: Well I don’t really know about the army. I know about the marines. The marines were terrific. The army, we operated with the army a couple of times, the South Vietnamese Army, and they were not up to the standard of the marines.

 

Q: … And so they weren’t really concerned about  losing [the] war, they were pretty confident?

A: … That’s a really good question. I don’t know. I don’t know what they thought, but when the peace, when the war ended in [1973], and there was a two year period where nothing was going to happen I think the Vietnamese marines knew that they were going to be in serious trouble if North Vietnam attacked, and of course that’s what happened. They all did their very best, and they paid a very very heavy price for it. And the US didn’t do the things that it said it was going to do, in terms of providing equipment and support. Once the war ended officially, the US just kind of backed out of things that it agreed to.

 

Q: … So essentially the US left the South Vietnamese marines, and basically their entire military out to dry after leaving?

A: Yes.

 

Q: … So after the war, what were your discussions with my Grandpa Boyce like about the war.

A: … We never really talked about it. Never talked about it in any kind of detail. He’s read my books. I wrote a couple of books, so he read the books, he has an idea of what I went through.

From Email with Don Bonsper:
Q: First, what dates did you serve with the US, and what dates did you serve with the Vietnamese Marines?
A: I was with the US Marines from June 67 to the end of October 67. Then from Nov 67 to June 68 I was with the Vietnamese Marines.
Q: Second, did you support the war when going over to Vietnam, and how did your opinion of the war change as your tour ran on?
A: I supported the war when I went to Vietnam. I was going to serve my country in the fight against communism. My support never really changed until long after the war was over and many of the facts about the start of the war became public knowledge. To this day I feel politics did not allow the US military to fight the conflict as a real war. We won the military war and lost the peace.

 

 

Outside Resources:

Thayer, Carlyle A. 2019. “North Vietnamese Diplomatic Posture during the Vietnam War.” Asia Policy 14 (3): 184-187. [ProQuest]

McAllister, James. “Who Lost Vietnam? Soldiers, Civilians, and U.S. Military Strategy.” International Security 35, no. 3 (2010): 95–123. [JStor]
Berni, Marcel. “The Forever War: New Perspectives on the Vietnam War.” Journal of Contemporary History 56, no. 1 (January 2021): 216–26. [Sage Journals]
Mohandesi, Salar. “Bringing Vietnam Home: The Vietnam War, Internationalism, and May ’68.” French historical studies 41, no. 2 (2018): 219–251. [Online Library]

How The Truth Got Out: The Acceleration of Student Protests in May 1970

By John Jankowski

On April 30th,1970, President Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, an escalation of the Vietnam War. Just a few hours later, William F. [Bill] Causey assumed the office of student body president at American University in Washington D.C., and just three days after that, the Kent State shootings ignited college campuses. As Mr. Causey recalls, the U.S. invasion of Cambodia was “the striking of the match and Kent State was the lighting of the fuse.”[1]According to H.W. Brands in American Dreams: “The Cambodian invasion sparked the largest protests of the war.”[2]But it was two critical events, Kent State and the Cambodian invasion together, which caused the surge in campus protests, demanding a stop to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In May 1970, the

American University protests May 1970

American University protests May 1970. Courtesy of Washington Area Spark

general public was still divided on the Vietnam War, but the Kent State shootings and campus antiwar protests in reaction to it helped to shift public opinion toward the antiwar movement. Bill Causey witnessed it all; the nationwide protests which “changed a lot of minds” and revealed the truth about the Vietnam War, ultimately leading to greater political pressure to end the war.[3]

The Vietnam War had been escalating for many years when Richard Nixon ran for President in 1968. Public opinion against U.S. involvement in Vietnam was growing and Nixon promised in his 1968 presidential campaign that he would pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam and win a “just peace.”[4] During the first years of his presidency, the war in Vietnam seemed to be deescalating. An average of 46 U.S. servicemen were dying every day in 1968, with that average decreasing to just 17 servicemen a day in 1970, with fewer troops deployed.[5] Although support for the war was declining, there was still a great divide between those who supported the war and those who were against it. President Nixon’s description of antiwar protestors as “bums blowing up campuses” was directed to those who still supported the war effort.[6]

After President Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, campus protests mobilized.[7] The Kent State protests then erupted, and on May 4th, 1970, at 12:24 P.M., sixty-seven shots were fired by National Guard troops deployed on the campus, aimed at protesting students, killing four and injuring nine others.[8] As described by author Howard Means in “67 shots: Kent State and the end of American Innocence, the shootings occurred “at one of the most turbulent crosscurrents in our national history.”[9] This was “the culmination of close to a decade of widening estrangement and open conflict between youth culture and established authority.”[10]

Bill Causey came to American University in September 1968 and immediately became very involved in politics; he was against the war and his antiwar views only intensified as the war continued. His growing activism caused him to run a successful campaign for president of the American University student body, which office he assumed on May 1st, 1970, for a one-year term.[11] He participated in the student protests on campus and witnessed the student unrest that gripped college campuses

Students being arrested on Ward Circle May 1970.
Courtesy of Washington Area Spark

nationwide so tightly. When asked if there were protests already on campus when he arrived, he answered, “not many at all but there were a few if you wanted to get involved in antiwar protesting in 1968.”[12]Implying that the worst of the protests were yet to come, Mr. Causey was the middleman between the students and the administration of the University when antiwar protests were most volatile. He quickly developed a connection with the American University President at the time, George Williams, and was widely supported by the student body which elected him. Mr. Causey, as part of the student leadership, as well as other protestors wanted one thing: the general public to wake up and see the terrible reality of the war being fought in Vietnam.

Historians Richard Peterson and John Bilorusky describe students of the May 1970 protests as “seeking to arouse seemingly unconcerned citizens to the wrongness of the American presence in Southeast Asia and to the dangers of the President’s Cambodia decision; and they were also trying to explain to generally bewildered and often hostile citizens what was happening on the campuses, and why.”[13] The cultural and political divide was seen in public reaction to the Kent State shootings which went from extreme outrage that university students had been shot while exercising their constitutional right to protest (some of the victims were not even protestors) to full-throated support of the National Guard’s actions.[14]

Mr. Causey discussed the May 1970 protests as first triggered by the Cambodian invasion as not “… just a student problem, it was countrywide, the country was very upset about Cambodia and that was the lighting of the match and then when Kent State happened things really blew up and because we realized that if you were going to have a serious protest against the war as a student, there was a risk you were gonna be shot and killed … like the four students at Kent State.”[15] Once the news circulated about Kent State, student protests exploded throughout the nation. Confirming Mr. Causey, a New York Times article published just days after the shootings stated, “more than 200 colleges and universities were closed in the spreading protest against the United States military involvement in Indochina and the fatal shooting of four Kent State University students by National Guardsmen.”[16] Mr. Causey also stated that the Kent State shootings “really polarized the campus at American University because we had police swarming all over the campus and they’re carrying guns, so … we thought, well, are we gonna be the next Kent State.”[17] With all of that fear came a lot of student resentment against the police entering their campus. Ward Circle, which runs through American University’s campus, was the site of many demonstrations, often peaceful (“honk for peace”) and involving the giving out of antiwar flyers, but sometimes, protests became disruptive and violent, including the blocking of traffic and hurling of rocks by students and with the police answering with teargas and arrests.[18] Mr. Causey recollects that “I go through Ward Circle, and I immediately think of those days in May of 1970 and what it was like … I remember when there were thousands of people there, the police were there, the sirens were going on, teargas going off, students getting arrested.”[19]

            Four hundred of the nation’s universities were affected by strikes.[20] According to the student newspaper, “The Eagle” May 8th, 1970 edition, “approximately 50 percent of AU undergraduates are staying away from classes in support of the student strike.”[21] The strike was supported by American University’s faculty.[22] As student body president, Bill described his role during the protests: “I think he [George Williams] understood the role I had to play, I understood the role he had to play, he had to deal with parents and a conservative board of trustees and I had to deal with … 15,000 antiwar students so I think we understood each other and as a result of those constituents, we had to trust each other and I think we did and I think that made the relationship much better.”[23]

 Mr. Causey noted that the student body was not completely unified against the war and that approximately 20% were more conservative politically: “by May of 1970, [it] was very hard to find a student that would defend the war in Vietnam, but they were more willing to defend Richard Nixon and the conservative movement and so there was some debate and division among students … I was debating the pros and cons of the protests and the war and up until Cambodia, you could find a lot of students who would engage in some very good discussions about the validity of the war.”[24] Mr. Causey views the Kent State shootings as greatly increasing student activism, he said “after the shootings, they became much more vocal, much more confrontational, a lot more students became involved in protesting. Students that would not normally get involved would sort of stand on the side

D.C. Police Chief Jeremy WIlson with a bullhorn on American University campus May 1970. Courtesy of Washington Area Spark

and kind of watch and making sure that they were far enough away that they wouldn’t get involved or hurt or injured. Now those students were actively involved and after Kent State happened, the students who were standing on the side and watching were the ones at Ward Circle, you know, vocally are protesting, so it really was a game-changer.”[25] Mr. Causey also describes the impact the Kent State shootings had on the students: “that famous photograph of the Kent State shooting with the student … lying … in the street … it was a confrontation between the police and the students and the students were the ones who didn’t have the guns, the police were the ones who had the guns and it was the students that were getting killed.”[26]

H.W. Brands states: “The Cambodian invasion sparked the largest protests of the war. On hundreds of campuses across the country, students boycotted classes and faculty suspended teaching in favor of discussions – which is to say, condemnation—of the war.”[27] This is partially true; the first sentence omits a reference to another very important event that ramped up these student protests: the Kent State shootings on May 4th, 1970. Brands also does not credit the protests for contributing to a change in public opinion of the war. When asked if he thought the protests made a difference, Mr. Causey thought they did and explained: “I think looking back on it after some time, I think we made a lot of our parents and a lot of adults in the country wake up and realize that the protest movement against the war was not a bad thing; that it might end the war. I think the Kent State shooting did more to galvanize public sentiment in the country than anything else … We were able to get some of the truth out and I think that did change the sentiment about the war and I think we put a lot of pressure on Nixon to get it over with much sooner than he would have otherwise.” [28]

All in all, the anti-Vietnam War protests had drastically intensified due to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, coupled with the Kent State University shootings. American University students, like protestors of other campuses grieved the loss of life on campuses and in Vietnam, but also realized the importance of public opinion in bringing the Vietnam War to a close. The massive nationwide protests of May 1970 communicated to the American public that the war was wrong and why and the public (if it hadn’t already) began to listen. These events, as well as many others, supported a growing movement that eventually caused U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to end.

[1] Zoom Video Call with William F. Causey, Washington D.C., April 22, 2022. [Causey interview]

[2] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (Penguin Books, 2010), 170. Kent State is mentioned at the end of the same paragraph but not as a cause of the protests.

[3] Causey interview.

[4] Howard Means, 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Da Capo Press, 2016), 7.

[5] Means, 2.

[6] Means, 7-8.

[7] Richard Peterson and John Bilorusky, May 1970: The Campus Aftermath of Cambodia and Kent State (The Carnegie Foundation, 1971), 5.

[8] Means, 78.

[9] Means, 210.

[10] Peterson and Bilorusky, 2.

[11] Causey interview.

[12] Causey interview.

[13] Peterson and Bilorusky, 16.

[14] Means, 87-89, 135-138.

[15] Causey interview.

[16] Robert D. McFadden, “Students Step Up Protests on War,” New York Times, May 9, 1970 [ProQuest]

[17] Causey interview.

[18] “The Eagle,” May 8, 1970, Vol. 44, No. 28 edition, sec. “Want Some Gas? CDUs Reaction to AU Honk-In.” http://digital.olivesoftware.com/olive/apa/wrlc/?href=AUE%2F1970%2F05%2F08&page=3&entityId=Ar00300#panel=document

[19] Causey interview.

[20] Robert D. McFadden, “Students Step Up Protests on War,” New York Times, May 9, 1970 [ProQuest]

[21] “The Eagle,” May 8, 1970, Vol. 44, No. 28 edition, sec. “Strike: Faculty Adapts and Supports.” http://digital.olivesoftware.com/olive/apa/wrlc/?href=AUE%2F1970%2F05%2F08&page=3&entityId=Ar00300#panel=document

[22] Ibid.

[23] Causey interview.

[24] Causey interview.

[25] Causey interview.

[26] Causey interview.

[27] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (Penguin Books, 2010), 170.

[28] Causey interview

 

Appendix

“The Cambodian invasion sparked the largest protests of the war. On hundreds of campuses across the country students boycotted classes and faculty suspended teaching in favor of discussions–which was to say, condemnation–of the war.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 170)

Interview Subject

William F. Causey attended American University from 1968 to 1971, serving as President of Student Government from 1970 to 1971. After graduating, he attended the University of Maryland School of Law. Mr. Causey practiced law, primarily as a litigator, in Washington D.C. for several decades.

-Zoom Video Call with William F. Causey, Washington D.C., April 22, 2022.

“I am John Jankowski, the interviewer. I am interviewing William Causey via Zoom. The date is April 22nd, 2022. I am at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. William Causey is in Washington D.C. The topic of this interview is antiwar protests at American University during 1970-1971.”

[Mr. Causey provided a lengthy background summary.]

When did you attend American University?

“Alright, I was a transfer student and my first year at AU was in September of 1968. I transferred there as a sophomore. I went for my freshman year to Towson University in Baltimore, so I spent three years at American University, and I’m still connected to the university. I loved it and I had a great experience and I graduated in May of 1971.”

When did you serve as president of the student government of American University?

“My term started on May 1st of 1970, and it ended on May 1st, 1971.”

Were you involved in any activities on your campus?

“When I first came to AU, I got very involved in the young Democrats back in the 1960s. Young Democrats and Young Republicans were very active organizations, particularly on campuses. They also were very active statewide, so there would be a very active Young Democrats in Maryland. So, I got very involved right away in politics, and of course, when I started in the fall of 1968, it was right in the middle of the presidential campaign, so the Young Democrats on campus were very active, and very involved in the election we weren’t, when I say we I mean the young Democrats, there were about maybe 200 people involved in the Young Democrats on campus. …”

When you first came to AU, were there anti-war protests already on campus?

“Yes, there were a few, not many, not many at all. But there were a few, if you wanted to get involved in anti-war protesting in 1968, when I got to AU,  you could find a group or two that would be doing that but they weren’t big, they weren’t well known, and within, as I’ve described, in the next year or so it really became the dominant movement on campus, but when I first got there, my first year was mostly devoted to traditional politics of you know a presidential election which was pretty tame compared to what happened in a year later with all the student protests around the country.”

What was your view on the Vietnam war?

I think I had very strong views against the war. I was a late bloomer. [My opinion] on the war didn’t really become firm until around 1967. So, the war had been going on for a couple of years it had been escalating. Johnson was really making a mess of Vietnam and by the time I got to college my freshman year, I was pretty antiwar. I thought the war was a mistake. I didn’t quite understand fully all of the implications of what was going on with the war until that first year. I started to read a lot more, talk to a lot more people, and I began to learn that it was basically a black war fought by blacks. Black young people, it was basically a white protest war, protested by white people ’cause black people were too busy trying to survive to be protesting. I began to have a better historical understanding of how we screwed up in Vietnam and then of course in 1969 one thing I forgot to mention, 1969 I think it was in 69 might have been 70 but I think 69 the Pentagon Papers were revealed and that told the whole horrible history of the war up to that point and everybody in the country realized that we had been lied to about the war and so I got radicalized you know my freshman and sophomore year and by the time all of these protests were occurring in 1970 I was very antiwar and very much against the war.”

How did the invasion of Cambodia affect the protests already on campus?

“Oh, that was the striking of the match and Kent State was the lighting of the fuse and once it was going off, that’s how I would describe it. So, it started with Cambodia and that wasn’t just a student problem, it was countrywide, the country was very upset about Cambodia and that was the lighting of the match and then when Kent State happened things really blew up and because we realized that if you were going to have a serious protest against the war as a student, there was a risk you were gonna be shot and killed you know like the four students at Kent State. So, that really polarized the campus at American University because we had police swarming all over the campus and they’re carrying guns, so you know we thought, well, are we gonna be the next Kent State. So, it was a pretty difficult time.”

The photos I’ve shared with you depict American University students taking part in a nationwide student strike against the Vietnam War. Did you take part in the strike and/or protests?

“Yes, I was at Ward Circle. I remember it vividly. Ward Circle is probably about a mile and a half from where I am right now, and every time I drive by American University, I’m still with the campus I still go to campus a fair amount, but every time I go to American University or I drive by it and I go through Ward Circle, I immediately think of those days in May of 1970 and what it was like. I can drive through Ward Circle now and it’s calm and it’s picturesque and they’re trees and grass and the campus is pretty and I remember when there were thousands of people there, the police were there, the sirens were going on, teargas going off, students getting arrested. I can’t drive through Ward Circle now without that thought going through my mind every time. So, it affected me a great deal and I was right there when it all happened.”

So you witnessed the brawls between the police officers and the students like in the photos on Ward Circle?

“Yes, I was on eyewitness.”

Did you communicate with the school administration about the protests?

“Oh yeah I was in constant, I mean, I think one of the advantages that I had as student body president was that I had a very good relationship with the administration not only the president and his top people but the faculty as well and I’m still in touch with some of the faculty members today 50 years later and I think the faculty trusts me they would ask me a lot of questions that they wouldn’t be willing to ask the more left-wing, pro protest students on campus ’cause they didn’t feel they would surely get an honest answer. But I was in constant communication with faculty and the administration and particularly George Williams [President of American University], because I mean he and I got along very well, I think we understood each other, I think he understood the role I had to play, I understood the role he had to play, he had to deal with parents and a conservative board of trustees and I had to deal with a, you know, 15,000 antiwar students so I think we understood each other and as a result of those constituents, we had to trust each other and I think we did and I think that made the relationship much better.”

When you look back at your time at AU now, do you think the protests and the strike made a difference?

“Yes, I do, I think looking back on it after some time, I think we made a lot of our parents and a lot of adults in the country wake up and realize that the protest movement against the war was not a bad thing; that it might help end the war. I think the Kent State shooting did more to galvanize public sentiment in the country than anything else and I know I talked to a lot of my friends who were students and I would ask them, what do your parents think of all this and they would either say they don’t really understand it or they’re very much opposed to maybe protesting and they don’t understand the student protest movement but I think over time, and I think that time period was fairly short I think within a year or so, a lot of people, a lot of adults in the United States began to realize how bad the war was, how much they had been lied to by the government over the war and began to see that the student protest movement was a positive thing. We were able to get some of the truth out and I think that did change the sentiment about the war and I think we put a lot of pressure on Nixon to get it over with much sooner than he would have otherwise. Of course, the other intervening event on that issue was Watergate which completely destroyed Nixon’s presidency, but I think the student protest movement made the made public officials realize that the public sentiment will no longer gonna be a war, it was gonna be antiwar and I did think it changed a lot of minds.”

Did you see a drastic change in the student protests after the Kent State University shootings?

Yeah, after the shooting they became much more vocal much more confrontational. A lot more students became involved in protesting, students that would not normally get involved who would sort of stand on the side and kind of watch and making sure that they were far enough away that they wouldn’t get involved or hurt or you know injured. Now, those students were actively involved and after Kent State happened the students who were standing on the side and watching were the ones at Ward Circle, you know, vocally are testing so it really was a game-changer.

What impact did the shooting have on students?

It was a shocking event in that all these protests are going on, on all these campuses around the country, but it was a shocking event because you had National Guard troops on a college campus firing live ammunition and killing four students and I’m sure you’ve seen that famous photograph of the Kent State shooting with the student lying, you know, in the street, I think that turned out to be the photo of the year. I think that that picture captured that moment. The horrible reality of that moment. So, that was, I mean, overnight there was a game-changer in the way people viewed these protests. Not only worry, now just vocally stating our objections, but it was a confrontation between the police and the students. The students were the ones who didn’t have the guns, the police were the ones who had the guns, and it was the students that were getting killed. So that was a big game-changer in the minds of a lot of students as to what was going on in the country.

Did any students oppose the protests?

We did have a block of students, as I said, my guess would have been it was about 20% of the student body were more conservative politically, a little bit more supportive of the war in Vietnam. Although it was very hard by May of 1970 it was very hard to find a student that would defend the war in Vietnam, but they were more willing to defend Richard Nixon and the conservative movement, and so there was some debate and division among students. I remember a lot of debates I had with students who were friends of mine on campus who were much more conservative about the war and about the protests than I was, debating the pros and cons of the protests and the war and up until Cambodia, you could find a lot of students who would engage [with] you in some very good discussions about the validity of the war or, you know, the impropriety of the war or the illegality of the war. But after Cambodia, it was hard to get students to get into that debate because most students became very anti-Vietnam. Now, I wouldn’t say they were pro protests, but they were anti-Vietnam and there was a divide there. I mean, you may have been opposed to the war in Vietnam, but it was stressful. Then to get to the active protest groups and there were a lot of students that were in that area in between that were against the war but didn’t want to get involved in protesting for whatever reason you know, but by large clear majority of students were willing now to take the next step and get much more involved.

Further Research

Michael T. Kaufman, “Campus Unrest Over War Spreads With Strike Calls,” New York Times, May 4, 1970 [ProQuest].

Robert D. McFadden, “Students Step Up Protests On War,” New York Times, May 9, 1970 [ProQuest].

Howard Means, 67 Shots, Kent State and the End of American Innocence (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, 2016).

Washington Area Spark, “American University Strike: 1970”, Flickr.com. Accessed April 21, 2022. https://www.flickr.com/photos/washington_area_spark/albums/72157706590903731

“Strike: Faculty Adapts and Supports” American University: The Eagle, (Volume 44, No. 22), May 8, 1970. (And other articles from this issue of The Eagle). http://digital.olivesoftware.com/olive/apa/wrlc/?href=AUE%2F1970%2F05%2F08&page=3&entityId=Ar00300#panel=document

Richard E. Peterson and John A. Bilorusky, May 1970: The Campus Aftermath of Cambodia and Kent State (The Carnegie Foundation, 1971).

 

Image

“Our Bodies, Ourselves”

“Our Bodies, Ourselves”, Experiencing the Impact of Roe v. Wade

By Jade Heenehan

“Women had finally won control of their bodies in the crucial realm of reproduction” (H. W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 180)

Pro-abortion potests

Pro-abortion protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington D.C. on May 2, 2022 (Photo by Alex Brandon, AP Photo)

For the past few nights, pro-choice protestors have been flocking to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. They were reacting to a draft majority opinion from the Court that was leaked on May 2, 2022. The leaked preliminary opinion would overturn the court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade (often shortened to Roe) decision. Justice Samuel Alito, the author of the preliminary opinion, claims Roe “was egregiously wrong from the start.”[1] At least four out of eight other justices agree with Alito. Many women are remembering the debate, and backlash, over being given control over their own bodies nearly 50 years ago when Roe was decided and abortion was legalized throughout the U.S. These women that have experienced the ruling are now, 49 years later, watching the possible overturning of Roe

When Roe passed in early 1973, my mother, Roxanne M. Rudy was 17 years old and living in Hartford, Conn. Briefly mentioned in H. W. Brands’ book, American Dreams, the Roe decision was seen as women finally gaining control over their bodies.[2] However, as Brands mentions, there was controversy about this decision that continues to this day.[3] There were many protests against abortion and reproductive health clinics like Planned Parenthood in Hartford. While growing up, she came to believe women should have a choice over their bodies. Rudy didn’t understand why “nobody else had seen the light.”[4] Despite being a liberal city and the state capital, not every Hartford resident agreed with the Roe decision. Rudy recounted how after the decision; her Catholic high school had tried to have “everyone sign a petition saying how awful Roe v. Wade was.”[5] The Roman Catholic Church, and thus Rudy’s school, has long taught abortion is a mortal sin. Rudy quietly did not sign the petition, and no one noticed, but many other students did.[6] Although many girls would later benefit from the Roe decision, they were still signing the petition, perhaps due to how they were raised, or from the pressure from their teachers and/or peers. 

Estelle Griswold in from of New Haven Planned Parenthood

Estelle Griswold in front of Planned Parenthood in New Haven, CT (Photo courtesy of New Haven Register)

Like Rudy, there were those who supported women being allowed control over their reproductive systems. A year before Roe, a Gallop Poll found that 64% of Americans believed “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by the woman and her physician.”[7] In the 1960s, many organizations were trying to decriminalize abortion. They were fighting against statutes enacted by legislatures, many over 100 years old.[8] A national movement had yet to develop, but four states – New York, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington – had begun to repeal their abortion laws.[9] But these four states represented only a small portion of the nation’s popular opinion.  

There were times when the two sides over reproductive rights came to a clash. The polarization over the Roe decision has helped to split parties and the country even further apart. Nearly 40 years after the Roe decision, David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, claimed the decision’s author, Justice Harry Blackmun, “did more inadvertent damage to our democracy than any other 20th-century American.”[10] There were anti-abortion protesters calling for Planned Parenthood to shut down. Despite the other family planning and women’s health resources, Planned Parenthood provides, “it was seen as the group that brings abortion into your community.”[11] There have been many disputes between Planned Parenthood and Republican-controlled state governments. Republicans often tried to cut – and often succeeded in cutting – funding to Planned Parenthood in an effort to shut it down.[12] Republicans, like President Donald Trump, declared “I want to defund [Planned Parenthood] because of the abortion factor.”[13] However, closing Planned Parenthood removes access to other reproductive and healthcare benefits like access to oral conception, pap smears, and “just anything that had to do with women’s health.”[14] Although abortion is one of Planned Parenthood’s services, many detractors see it as the only service it provides.  

A year after the Roe decision, Rudy attended a counter-protest to keep open Hartford’s Planned Parenthood clinic. After the Roe decision, Planned Parenthood “angered people” and the efforts to close Planned Parenthood increased.[15] Threats were sent to Planned Parenthood workers daily and screamed at when they entered and left work. “Murderer” can often be heard being yelled at by protestors at Planned Parenthood workers and visitors. At the protest, Rudy recalls being “scared out of my mind.”[16] The atmosphere was tense, and nerves were on edge. Many people were screaming and shoving. The fear Rudy felt that day makes her think that “even though they said they really respected life, … if they could have, they would’ve hit any one of us with a two-by-four across the forehead.”[17] The atmosphere was hostile and threatening, and while rocks and paint were thrown at opponents, the violence was minor and no one was injured. 

Words were not the only way to express people’s beliefs at the Hartford protest. Many people wielded signs to further their cause. Some anti-abortion protestors “have these pictures of [what they claimed] an aborted fetus looked like but the kid looked like he was ready for kindergarten.”[18] Rudy didn’t carry any signs but many others did to further support their cause. Pro-choice members chanted “our bodies, ourselves,” taken from a book title[19]. Written in 1970 by the Boston Women

Anti-abortion protest in 1973

A priest and fellow anti-abortion protestors outside the Reproductive Health Services in Missouri (Photo courtesy of St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Health Book Collective, Our Bodies, Ourselves mentions many female reproductive health topics like menstruation, pregnancy, and even abortion.[20] Similar to the chant used today, “my body, my choice,” this saying was used to support the idea that a woman should be in control of her own reproductive system, often against anti-abortion groups. 

The Hartford protest was mostly peaceful but things were still thrown. Rocks were thrown from both sides as emotions ran higher during the anti-choice protest. It further escalated when anti-abortion protestors threw paint at the pro-choice demonstrators. Rudy quipped that “paint stores did really well in their red paint [sales] for the weeks to come.”[21] The paint represented the blood of the fetuses killed by abortion. Anti-abortionists “would throw red paint, [say] ‘you’re murdering,’ ‘murder,’ ‘blood on your hands,’” Rudy recalled.[22] Emotions and anxiety were running high between the two sides and continued to until the Hartford Police came and told the crowd to disperse.[23] 

Now 66, Rudy is watching as control over her – and now her daughters’ –  reproductive rights are being decided again. Pro-choice protests have been happening more frequently as anti-abortion laws are passed in areas like Texas and Missouri. There were also Women’s Marches that began in January 2017, when President Trump took office, to protest his victory in the election. During these Women’s Marches, Planned Parenthood volunteers and workers often marched and waved signs to show support for women and pro-choice laws. Although Rudy has not been a volunteer with Planned Parenthood for over 20 years, she still vehemently supports their cause. Seeing the right to abortion being discussed once again, Rudy believes “we are going to see a lot of tragedy.”[24]

Anti-abortion and pro-choice protestors clash

Anti-abortion and pro-choice protestors clash in front of the Supreme Court, 2016 (Photo courtesy of CNN)

 The importance of Roe v. Wade is briefly touched upon in Brands’ book. The controversy Brands foresaw is truly being seen now as political parties are even more polarized than before.[25] The split between them is making abortion more a fight between parties than beliefs. This division has increased tensions and led to more intense violence during protests. In the 1970s, Rudy “pretty much knew [anti-abortion protestors] were going to call me names, yell, and throw paint at me, maybe a rock or two.”[26] But recently there has been an “upsurge in violent crimes, in people driving their cars into groups of protestors, the proliferation of handguns.”[27] Rudy says that she “would think twice” to protest but fears the nation will be going back in time.[28] Showing public support for pro-choice laws to state legislatures and the Congress is necessary to defend – and perhaps soon, restore – women’s rights to their bodies. 

Fifty years later, as reluctant as she might be, Rudy might have re-fight a battle she, like so many others, thought was won and settled long ago. Now she is looking to once again return to protest against anti-abortion groups to help keep choice an option. Or to restore it for many women, if the Supreme Court votes to overturn Roe, as is widely expected. 

Footnotes

[1] Gerstein, Josh, and Alexander Ward. “Exclusive: Supreme Court Has Voted to Overturn Abortion Rights, Draft Opinion Shows.” POLITICO, May 3, 2022. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/02/supreme-court-abortion-draft-opinion-00029473.
[2] Brands, H. W, American Dreams: The United States since 1945 (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010), 180.
[3] Brands, American Dreams, 180.
[4] Roxanne Rudy, in-person interview, audio recording, April 23, 2022.
[5] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[6] Roxanne Rudy, email interview, May 12, 2022
[7] GREENHOUSE, LINDA, and REVA B. SIEGEL. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New
Questions About Backlash.” The Yale Law Journal 120, no. 8 (2011): 2028–87. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41149586.
[8] “Roe v. Wade: Its History and Impact – Planned Parenthood.” Planned Parenthood, 2014. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/files/3013/9611/5870/Abortion_Roe_History.pdf.
[9] “Roe v. Wade: Its History and Impact – Planned Parenthood”
[10] GREENHOUSE, LINDA, and REVA B. SIEGEL. “Before (and After) Roe v. Wade: New Questions About Backlash.”
[11] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[12] Lawrence, Hal C., and Debra L. Ness. “Planned Parenthood Provides Essential Services That Improve Women’s Health.” Annals of Internal Medicine 166, no. 6 (2017): 443. https://doi.org/10.7326/m17-0217.
[13] Watson, Kathryn. “How Trump Is Doing on His Campaign Promises as He Launches His Reelection Bid.” CBS News. CBS Interactive, June 18, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-trump-is-doing-on-his-campaign-promises-as-he-launches-his-reelection-bid/.
[14] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[15] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[16] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[17] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[18] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[19] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[20] Pingolt, Maggie. The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, June 21, 2013. https://embryo.asu.edu/pages/our-bodies-ourselves-1973-boston-womens-health-book-collective#:~:text=The%20book%20examined%20women%27s%20reproductive,the%20original%20pamphlet%2Dstyle%20publication.
[21] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[22] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[23] Email interview with Roxanne Rudy
[24] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[25] Brands, American Dreams, 180.
[26] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[27] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy
[28] In-person interview with Roxanne Rudy

Interview subject

Roxanne Rudy, age 65, retired ESL and special needs teacher. A former volunteer at Planned Parenthood in Fort Worth, Texas during the 1970s.

  • Audio recording with Roxanne Rudy, Madison, NJ, April 23, 2022

Q: What was it like growing up in Hartford, Connecticut? 

A: At that time, in the 1960s, 1970s Hartford was, and obviously still is, the capital of Connecticut. It was, as I recall it, a great place to grow up. There were neighborhoods that were very distinct. There were neighborhoods where a lot of people were immigrants. It was a town of growing immigration. There were Ukrainians, which is what I [am]… It was very much a city dominated by [Catholics]. Most of the people I knew, the mothers stayed home, and the fathers went to work. A lot of people were blue collar workers, some were white collar workers. But generally speaking, it was, what we consider to be a traditional neighborhood, traditional families. 

Q: So, you talked about how Hartford, Connecticut was conservative. How do you think that played into Roe v. Wade after it occurred? 

A: Well for a lot of people it got them very worked up because suddenly women could have abortions, which didn’t translate as something that could potentially save a woman’s life or save whatever. It was “oh my gosh, women have now been on this rampage to the women’s movement. Now they have the pill and now they have an abortion. Oh my gosh, everything that has been considered proper is going to fall apart.” However, in my family, it was not that way. As I look back, my family was probably a little bit different… My mother in many ways was a traditional woman, she was very religious… [But] she said, what had always bothered her was at that time, women’s worth was what their uteruses could produce. She said that’s a bunch of nonsense. My grandfather was absolutely determined that his daughter would have a college education, which she got, and he made certain from the day that my sister was born, and a few years later, when I was born, that he had set up a bank account to make sure that at least some money would be set aside for our college educations.  

Q: So that’s your personal experience. How do you think your community’s experience was? 

A: My community’s experience was not good, as far as I was concerned. The experience was not good, as far as I was concerned, as far as I knew I should say. In 1973 I was in high school. I went to public schools for elementary school but … I went to a Catholic high school and when Roe v Wade came out, shortly after there was this activity or whatever in the high school to have everyone sign a petition saying how awful Roe v. Wade was. I thought “wait a minute, I’m not going to sign this”, and I didn’t. 

Q: Was the topic abortion, even before Roe v. Wade, a taboo topic that wasn’t discussed? 

A: Oh absolutely, yes. That was a taboo topic, sex was a taboo topic. In 1966, … there was no such thing as planning your children. At that time, it was not uncommon that some of my classmates had 9, 10, 11 siblings. 

Q: After Roe v. Wade happened, now that abortion was brought under public scrutiny, how did Hartford react? 

A: There were a lot of Catholics, and birth control was absolutely forbidden. Yes, we had a couple of colleges there, which you would’ve thought added to the progressive attitude but even when I got to college, in 1974/75, [abortion] was still whispered about… You had the law, but in my opinion, 85% of the community was still astounded that sex could be discussed. 

Q: After Roe v. Wade happened, do you think there was more push to close Planned Parenthoods? 

A: Oh, definitely! The whole idea that Planned Parenthood was coming into communities [angered people], it didn’t matter that it offered any other number of reproductive health services from pap smears to just anything that had to do with women’s health. It was seen as the group that brings abortion into your community. 

Q: Which Planned Parenthood did you do your counter protest at? 

A: In Hartford, when I was a freshman in college. One of the women that I worked for, her daughter, several years older than me, was a nurse at a Planned Parenthood. I remember that this women, on several occasions, was extremely worried for her daughter’s safety. They would regularly get phone calls [saying] “you’re going to be bombed”, “you’re going to be burned down”, “all you murders are going to die today”. 

Q: At your counterprotest, did you see anyone that you recognized? Either protesting [against Planned Parenthood] or counterprotesting? 

A: I didn’t no, mostly because I was scared out of my mind. The protesters looked really mean, they looked like they really wanted to hurt us. Even though they said they really respected life, I think if they could have, they would’ve hit anyone of us with a 2×4 [plank] across the forehead and not cared if we died. It was truly scary. 

Q: What were some things that the protesters were saying to your counterprotest or just Planned Parenthood in general? 

A: Murders. [Also] that Planned Parenthood encouraged sluts; they might have said encouraged loose behavior… If you were going to Planned Parenthood, supported Planned Parenthood, believed that it should exist, you were a murder. It didn’t matter, we needed to be stop. Even the idea of birth control, the idea that you could prevent a pregnancy so that abortion wouldn’t be needed was wrong.  

Q: So, you said you were scared, and it was terrifying. Did anything ever get thrown? Were there signs? 

A: Oh yes! They would have these pictures of [what they claimed] an aborted fetus looked like but the kid looked like he was ready for kindergarten. It was ridiculous. But it didn’t matter because emotions were running high. Yeah, they threw things. They threw rocks, paint. That was a big thing, the paint stores did really well in their red paint for the weeks to come. They would throw red paint, [say] “you’re murdering”, “murder”, “blood on your hands”, “when you stand before the throne of God, you’re going to have to answer for you standing in front of Planned Parenthood doors”. It was really emotional. It was emotional and vicious… [The protestors] would grab you and shuffle you. I remember a woman walking by on the street and they grabbed her. She was like “what are you doing?! I’m going to work”. She wasn’t even trying to get into Planned Parenthood. That is how high the emotions were. There was no logic and reason. 

Q: You were so vehement for pro-choice due to how you were raised. Do you think this is just how people were raised? 

A: I do, absolutely. It really is because I think it becomes part of your identity. For some people I suppose it was some sort of Heaven-sent crusade. But I think a lot of people, like my friends in high school, ever gave it much thought. They were taught that it was wrong, and it was wrong.  

Q: Since Roe v. Wade has been an impact in the states so much, now that areas like Texas and Missouri, are putting their own laws on abortion, how do you think this will impact society? 

A: I think we are going to see a lot of tragedy. I think we are going to go back to the day of self-induced abortions, which is never a good idea. I think we are going to see an uptick in young women, mid to late teens, having children and trying to raise them when they are in no position to raise them much less finish school themselves. I think we are going to see an uptick in children being raised in single family [homes] or poverty which is going to affect us for generations to come. I think we are going to go back in time. 

Q: Do you think that the fear and terror you felt when you were protesting will be replicated with the new youth now after anti-abortion laws are passed? 

A: Yes. I think we’ve reached a point in our society where extreme violence is the norm. When I stood in front of the abortion clinic in 1973/74, I pretty much knew they were going to call me names, yell, and throw paint at me, maybe a rock or two. But I never thought anything worse was going to happen, even though they kind of looked like they wanted to when I look back and I was scared. Nowadays, I have to say, I would think twice. With the upsurge in violent crimes, in people driving their cars into groups of protestors, the proliferation of handguns. I fear for this. 

Q: You said your chant back in the mid-1970s was “our bodies, ourselves”, how do you think it has changed to “my body, my choice”? 

A: I think it is basically the same. It is a little bit different but still the same. My body, my choice. If I want to have this baby, I will. If I want to prevent a pregnancy, I will. If I want to have sex, I will. I will make an informed decision, I am not incapable, I am not a child, and I know what to do. I think it is about time that everyone realize that. 

  • Email interview with Roxanne Rudy, May 11, 2022

Q: Were there any repercussions since you did not sign the petition for your school? 

A: I don’t think so. It was passed around in class, so I sort of just handed it on to the next kid without signing it. No one noticed that I didn’t! If I was Roman Catholic and it was passed around in Church, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to get away without signing it. But no, no one noticed that I didn’t sign it, so nothing happened.  

Q: How did the protest in Hartford end? 

A: Eventually, after a few hours, the police politely told everyone it was time to call it a day and that we needed to disperse. Which we did.  

The Women’s Movement and Those it Left Behind

By Sarah Cayouette-Gluckman

“You could be a feminist but not be like, progressive about being gay,”[1] recalls Dr. Susan Cayouette about life as a lesbian in the 1970s. Cayouette lived in Pittsburgh, attending graduate school at Duquesne University, in the mid-70s. It was easy for her to recall the homophobia she experienced in an otherwise progressive academic setting. “[My professor] had asked for these… journals, right, so I did my journal and, you know, in it [I] talked about, you know, being lesbian and he gave me like a C-minus or something,” she recalls, “[he] said, you know like, how dare you write about such trivia.”[2] Cayouette may have hoped that the burgeoning U.S. women’s movement would help to combat hostile attitudes like this. But despite the movement having spread across the country throughout the 60s and 70s, there were still many demographics of women that were being left behind by this second wave of feminism, including lesbians. H.W. Brands, in his book American Dreams: The United States Since 1945, describes second-wave feminism in the U.S. as a two-sided debate, feminists vs. anti-feminists, framed in the attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. Brands offers a moderately varied look at the anti-feminist side, separating out the religious right and their specific concerns from others suspicious of feminism, but his interpretation of the feminist side lacks such nuance, leaving out any mention of the conflicts that arose within the

Page of newspaper ads

Newspaper ad for the National Organization for Women in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1967, courtesy of ProQuest

women’s movement and the complexity of the relationship between mainstream leaders and those with other marginalized identities.

The leading organization advocating for women’s rights in the 1960s and 70s was the National Organization for Women, or NOW. Created in 1966 and presided over by Betty Friedan as president, NOW was meant to act as an NAACP for women.[3] Brands describes NOW’s involvement in leading strikes and marches across the country, and in trying to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified. While he adequately discusses the major efforts and achievements of NOW during the time period that he’s focused on, he leaves out any mention of the inner workings of the organization. This is where divisions among feminists can be seen, most notably the exclusion of lesbians from mainstream second-wave feminism and NOW.

Cayouette remembers explicitly not wanting to be involved in the Pittsburgh chapter of NOW because “[she] perceived it as not lesbian friendly.”[4] She doesn’t recall this issue being widely discussed or reported at the time, but the perception is backed by explicit homophobic behavior and the systemic expulsion of lesbians from NOW. Lesbians constituted a large portion of NOW’s early following, much to the dismay of then-President Betty Friedan.[5] She believed that lesbian issues and women’s issues needed to be kept separate in order to preserve the “political efficacy” of the women’s movement.[6] “The women’s movement was not about sex,” Friedan says in her memoir Life so Far, “but about equal opportunity in jobs and all the rest of it.”[7] She discusses in this same memoir how she was nervous about lesbians hijacking the movement from the inside out. Reports that “the lesbians were planning to take over leadership of the New York chapter of NOW”[8] sent Friedan into a tailspin and led to “purges” of lesbian leadership from NOW chapters across the country. Friedan describes this as “the responsible leaders of NOW [managing] to… diminish disruptions.”[9]

People marching in a parade with a sign that reads "women's liberation is a lesbian plot"

Christopher Street Liberation Day, June 20, 1971, courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections

Shortly after this purge, many lesbian members of NOW and their supporters staged the Lavender Menace protest at the 1970 Congress to Unite Women in New York City.[10] Wearing purple shirts bearing the words “Lavender Menace,” a phrase used by Friedan to describe the lesbian problem, seventeen women “took over the auditorium”[11] and discussed for two hours the difficulties of being a lesbian in the heterosexual women’s movement.[12] They also demanded that NOW adopt a resolution to “accept lesbianism as an integral part of the women’s liberation movement.”[13]

One notable woman involved in organizing the Lavender Menace protest was Rita Mae Brown. A prominent leader in NOW, Brown was one of the many women affected by the purge when she was ousted from her position as an editor of the NOW newsletter in New York City. She would then go on to quit from her other NOW leadership positions and become involved in the founding of several lesbian-feminist organizations.[14] Similar instances would occur across the country and many local lesbian-feminist groups would continue to be formed. In a statement from Brown and two other lesbians who left NOW with her, the homophobia Cayouette perceived in NOW was spelled out; “enormous prejudice is directed against the lesbian [in NOW].”[15]

Rita Mae Brown wearing a shirt that says "lavender menace"

Rita Mae Brown at the Lavender Menace protest, courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections

While the lesbian community looked outward to create their own support in fighting for women’s equality, they never stopped pursuing equal representation within NOW. In 1971 at the NOW National Convention, a “pro-lesbian declaration,” drafted by members of Los Angeles’s Lesbians Feminists, L.A. NOW, and L.A. Daughters of Bilitis, was adopted.[16] This declaration led to the first official recognition of the “intolerable form of oppression”[17] lesbians faced at the hands of NOW, but still could not solve all of the problems they encountered. The resolution made it NOW’s official platform to support lesbianism “legally and morally” but did not change the fact that NOW would not spend time and resources on fighting lesbian specific issues.[18] The complex relationship between the lesbian community, as well as other marginalized communities, and NOW and mainstream second-wave feminism, would not be solved by one declaration and would continue in the following decades, eventually leading to a third wave American feminism centered around the intersectionality of these various identities.

People walking in the street holding sign saying "atlanta lesbian-feminist alliance

The Atlanta Lesbian-Feminist Alliance walking in the ERA march, Washington DC, July 9, 1977, Courtesy of Southern Cultures Magazine

“It was okay for everybody else to, you know, get taken care of,”[19] recalled Cayouette about not only seeing the lack of representation in NOW, but watching women like herself being actively excluded. This very real struggle experienced by many, like Susan Cayouette, of feeling unwelcome in a movement they wanted to fight for that should have been fighting for them was not present in Brands’ interpretation of the women’s movement in the 1960s and 70s. He opts to leave out these chapters of complexity in favor of a simplistic battle between the feminists and anti-feminists. A survey of this period in history like American Dreams would not be complete without mention of the Equal Rights Amendment, Roe v. Wade, and the National Organization for Women but these were not the only important facets of second-wave feminism in America. As an author who otherwise does a good job of presenting the complexity of single sides of an issue, such as varying degrees of left-wing politics or different views within an administration on how to deal with foreign affairs, Brands does his readers a disservice by not including a mere few sentences on the vast lack of intersectionality within NOW and mainstream second-wave feminism.

The lesbian community and second-wave feminism had a long and complex relationship. Lesbians had to struggle through exclusion to make space for themselves and their unique issues in the fight for women’s equality in the 60s and 70s. Now, decades later, this story of overcoming exclusion is being left out of the mainstream retelling of the women’s movement. In a time with unprecedented amounts of documentation and historical evidence, it is the job of historians to uncover and teach these stories of exclusion like that of Susan Cayouette. In a survey of history like Brands’ American Dreams it may seem unimportant to tell these stories that did not affect everyone. However, when just a few sentences would change the reader’s perception of an entire social movement, they are essential.

[1] Video Interview with Susan Cayouette, Carlisle, PA, and Salem, MA, April 27, 2022.

[2] Ibid.

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 176.

[4] Email Interview with Susan Cayouette, May 10, 2022.

[5] Friedan, Betty. “The Enemies Without and the Enemies Within.” Essay. In Life so Far, 221. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.

[6] Gilmore, Stephanie, and Elizabeth Kaminski. “A Part and Apart: Lesbian and Straight Feminist Activists Negotiate Identity in a Second-Wave Organization.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, no. 1 (2007): 96. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30114203.

[7] Friedan, 223.

[8] Friedan, 222.

[9] Friedan, 223.

[10] Gilmore, Stephanie, and Elizabeth Kaminski, 96.

[11] “Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot,” underground newspaper Rat, v. 3, #6, May 8-21, in Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Thirteenth Anniversary Edition, Alice Echols, (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), p. 215.

[12] Echols, Alice, and Ellen Willis. “Notes.” In Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Thirtieth Anniversary Edition, 215. University of Minnesota Press, 2019. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctvqmp26c.14.

[13] Kahn, Emily. “Lavender Menace Action at Second Congress to Unite Women.” NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project. Accessed May 13, 2022. https://www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/lavender-menace-action-at-second-congress-to-unite-women/.

[14] Echols, Alice, and Ellen Willis, 213

[15] Rita Mae Brown quoted in Toby Marotta, The Politics of Homosexuality, (Boston Houghton Mifflin, 1981), in Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, Thirteenth Anniversary Edition, Alice Echols, (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), p. 213.

[16] Pomerleau, Clark A. Empowering Members, “Not Overpowering Them: The National Organization for Women, Calls for Lesbian Inclusion, and California Influence, 1960s-1980s.” Journal of Homosexuality, #57, (2010), p. 848. https://dickinson.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/view/action/uresolver.do?operation=resolveService&package_service_id=6753049800005226&institutionId=5226&customerId=5225&VE=true.

[17] National Organization for Women’s National Conference resolution on lesbianism, 1971, in “Not Overpowering Them: The National Organization for Women, Calls for Lesbian Inclusion, and California Influence, 1960s-1980s.” Journal of Homosexuality, #57, (2010), p. 848-849.

[18] Pomerleau, 849.

[19] Video Interview with Susan Cayouette, Carlisle, PA, April 27, 2022.

 

Appendix

“Many women distrusted what they perceived as the elitism of NOW and other feminist organizations” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 177)

Interview Subject

Susan Cayouette, Ed.D, age 66, is a Co-Director for Emerge: Counseling and Education to Stop Domestic Violence in Malden Massachusetts. She attended her undergraduate institution, Stonehill College, from 1973-1977 and was a part of several demographics during this time that the women’s movement and second wave of feminism left behind. These include being Catholic, coming from a low-income and very tradition background, and being a member of the LGBTQ community.

Interview

Zoom call recording, Carlisle, PA and Salem, MA, April 27, 2022

 

Selected Transcript

Q. so in general you’d say that even though you were kind of, maybe like, surrounded by the ideas in a sense like the concept of like feminism with that name like attached to it… wasn’t something that you were really aware of until after you graduated college and like moved to a big city?

A. For some of them it was like a homophobic kind of response they were against. You could be feminist but not be like progressive about being gay you know homosexuality or whatever, however you want to call it you know and even though the women’s movement was started by a lot of women who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, the movement became primarily initially like a heterosexual movement and they didn’t wanna, they didn’t want to have like bad press because of homosexuality you know so they tried to like cut out the lesbians in the movement you know and that sort of became clear to me when I was at Duquesne.

 

Q. You kind of were alluding to this but would you say that like once you became more aware of like the feminist movement at large did you feel kind of ostracized as a lesbian compared to like the sort of like – who the target of the movement was?

A. If you think about it, even though women were trying to like be part of these movements they were being ostracized and if you think about that then think about being LGBT you know being gay or lesbian or bisexual and if you were a person of color that would probably be even worse.

 

Q. At what point in time do you remember there being a shift, or was there ever a time where you remember the women’s movement like taking a fore front and like was there ever a time where it was the most important thing, where there wasn’t some other politics on peoples mind that was more important?

A. I’m trying to think of when I actually felt that the, you know, the movement too include gay lesbian etc you know into the – into the – you know “we’re gonna do something about this”… seems like that was really late in the game you know I feel like that was – that’s been really really late so it was OK for everybody else to you know get taken care of.

A. Many of the original founding mothers of the domestic violence movement were lesbians and they also got iced out in terms of like being able to be visible because people were afraid they wouldn’t get funding from you know the federal government and that they wouldn’t get support for the domestic violence shelters etc.

 

Q. Do you know if domestic violence was something that was being talked about by the women’s movement in like the late 60s early 70s or did that come later?

A. The women were people who were doing [domestic violence counseling] like basically in their apartments and stuff and a lot of them were lesbian you know so they sort of started the movements you know and like anything else as it got chugging along they wanted more quote professional people and they wanted people with degrees you know and it became primarily like a white movement and you know primarily visibly a heterosexual movement… that was really disappointing to people, people were really disappointed by that.

A. It was pretty late in the game you know that it became not just a white woman movement, the domestic violence movement, and it also started to incorporate gay you know gay, lesbian, trans people in it too I mean we’re talking pretty late in the game like in the 90s in the first decade of the 2000s.

 

Q. So that description was about the domestic violence movement but would you say that kind of same thing was applicable to the women’s movement in general that it was very white, upper class, heterosexual, for a long time?

A. Yeah I mean I think there were… there were people in it… there were a few people in it who were not white and who were not heterosexual but they were you know told to be quiet I think, you know, and you know, don’t get people upset, that was sort of the, you know, message, you know, you can’t talk about that lesbian stuff because that really pisses people off you know that was the idea for a long time.

 

Further Research

  • Nancy MacLean, The American Women’s Movement, 1945-2000 : a Brief History with Documents, (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009) [book, Waidner-Spahr Library]
  • Allison K. Lange, Picturing Political Power : Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020, Accessed April 29, 2022.) [ProQuest Ebook Central]
  • Nancy A. Hewitt, 2010. No Permanent Waves : Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=321673&site=ehost-live&scope=site [EbscoHost]
  • Martin B. Duberman, Left Out : the Politics of Exclusion : Essays, 1964-1999. (First edition. New York, NY: Basic Books, 1999.) [book, Waidner-Spahr Library]

Image

THE 1968 TET OFFENSIVE

By Long Bui

Map of battles and attacking directions by the communists during the Tet Offensive incident.

By the year 1967, the Vietnam war escalated to a scale that had never been before. Almost 400.000 American troops and 750.000 Army of the Republic of Vietnam’s (ARVN) soldiers operated across Southern Vietnam’s rural regions to conduct massive campaigns against further communist expansion by the Viet Cong (VC) and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). [1] Khe Sanh became the climax of this confrontation which a hundred thousand tons of bombs and artillery rounds were fired from the defense base every month. [2]  However, on the home front, an impending disaster was secretly approaching the US and its allies that would later disrupt the Pentagon’s strategic calculation of the war and weakened US public support for the conflict, later known as the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The author of American Dreams, H.W.Brands, indicated that the Tet Offensive severely paralyzed the US strategy in Vietnam since the campaign had successfully “revealed a capacity for command and control among communists that American officers and civilian officers hadn’t suspected.” [3] Specifically, the reminiscence of former communist Vietnamese lieutenant, Bui Ngoc Minh, will provide further descriptive insights into how the VC and PAVN infiltrated into southern urban areas and coordinated with each other to launch such a surprise attack. Although Brands stated that the Tet Offensive proved to be “a psychological and moral triumph” [4] for the communist camp, from Minh’s perspective, the brutality and bloodshed during the campaign left haunting memories not only for Americans who witnessed the incident but also for the communist soldiers who participated in this campaign, reflecting the desire for an end to a decades-long conflict from both sides. 

In the summer of 1967, captain (his rank at that time) Minh was then working as a platoon officer in the VI Artillery Regiment of the 6th Division which frequently operated along the Ho Chi Minh trails. Surprisingly, he received an order to infiltrate Hue, Southern Vietnam. “At that time, I was a little bit shocked that a technical engineer like me was ordered to be an undercover agent”- Minh recounted. [5] However, neither did Minh know that he was participating in the most elaborate and influential campaign in the war. In fact, even the MACV commander, general William Westmoreland and his staff, acknowledged that the communists were adjusting their grand strategy but never thought of such a magnitude would be unleashed right inside their heartlands. [6]

According to the plan, captain Minh would lead his platoon along Ho Chi Minh trails to Svay Rieng, Cambodia, and then intrude into the Southern Vietnam border. After five years of special operations, Vietnam’s rural areas had been severely destabilized, creating massive refugee caravans in the region. Captain Minh described: “The refugee caravans were chaotic, running from the warzones and as far as possible. Some moved to the city; some went to foreign countries; and some just wanted to run away”. [7] Therefore, he stated, “This made us easily infiltrate into the system since American troops hardly ever took serious concern about the refugees due to the human rights crisis”. [8] Taking this advantage, his team gradually walked along the HCM trails, to Svay Rieng, and then arrived at Hue just after one month. [9] 

“The Terror of War”, also known as the “Napalm Girl”, is a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph taken by photojournalist Nick Ut, a Vietnamese American photographer who was working for the Associated Press at that time. The picture depicted children were running away from bombarding areas in a countryside of Southern Vietnam.

Thanks to the lack of attention to the urban espionage process, Minh successfully joined the communist intelligence network in Hue in a short matter of time. Arriving at Hue, he followed the order to wait under the Da Vien bridge. After five hours of waiting, a child suddenly approached Minh to give him a small bag, and then the kid ran away. Looking inside the bag, he received his fake ID, other legal papers, money, and a coded letter that had his next mission. “My next task is to decoy as a man named Tám who owned and operated a small firework business and then won a bid for a firework slot in North West of Hue”- Captain Minh recalled. [10] The unstable and corrupted condition of the Southern Vietnam government made the deception easier for him to complete this goal. Through intelligence assistance and bribery, Minh quickly approached different local officials in the district. However, as long as he got in touch with these people, he realized that they almost all came from the same family. He indicated: “You do not need to corrupt them, they were corrupted in the beginning”. [11] In fact, the instability in the South had become an intriguing problems that according to historian James H. Willbanks, there are evidence that “weapons arrived in trucks loaded with flowers, vegetables and fruits destined for the holiday celebration (Tet)” and some VC soldiers even “dressed in ARVN uniforms to mingle with crowds of South Vietnamese cilvilian” before the incident. [12] Therefore, taking advantages of the situation, he successfully won a firework-operating slot in North West Hue along the main road of Tang Bat Ho. 

The battle of Hue 1968. Although the Red arrows indicates attacking directions of communist forces, there are still communist infiltrations before the battle that the picture does not include. Captain Minh and his platoons were fighting in the furtherst NorthWest arrow.

Although People in Minh’s team were not firework operators but instead, anti-air artillery operators, they gradually realized the decision behind deceiving the firework systems. He demonstrated: “Once we got in touch with fireworks, we discovered that fireworks and guns all originated from gunpowders and made the same sound”. [13] Then, he continued: “We then find a way to make the fireworks explode as long as possible to create a decoy for gun sounds abrupting when our comrades attacked the city”. [14] In the end, they came up with the plan of interleaving the gun sounds and the fireworks abruptions with each other so that the enemies could not be aware of the attack.[15]

Execution of a VietCong soldier by a Southern Vietnamese brigadier during the Tet Offensive in the street of Saigon. The photograph would later become one of the most influential catalyst to anti-war movements in America. (Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=csYYBOytkZM)

The night fell. At midnight the fireworks started and these fireworks lasted longer than any years before. As captain Minh indicated: “I was amazed how synchronized these fireworks happened in every district at that moment. At that time, I couldn’t believe that our comrades were literally everywhere in the city.” [16] The sound of fireworks and guns step-by-step became more mixed with each other and harder to identify. The fight became more extreme, spreading across the city. Guns and explosions became more astonishing than the sounds of the fireworks. In the street, many VC and VPA soldiers formerly dressed as civilians regrouped and occupied strategic buildings. Unable to identify the enemies, Hue’s police cadets were confused and acted violently. [17] They started to shoot any suspects including many civilians in the street, creating a bloody and chaotic scene in Hue. Captain Minh, with his team, ran into a building to find a shelter between the merciless fires from both sides.[18]

The street came into chaos and behind gun dust and shootings, a man wearing a VPA’s uniform with an AK-47 in his hand approached him and asked: “Are you captain Minh of 3rd battalion under 6th regiment, comrade?” Realizing the three stars in his epaulets, he understood that he was meeting with general Tran Do, the leader of the 6th regiment, then he stood straight and saluted the general, answering: “Yes, I am, general”. [19] Then, general Do greeted him and his men for their success and asked them to regroup with the remaining people of the battalion who were fighting in the district. In just several hours, they captured the main road of Tang Bat ho and the surrounding area. The Southern army in Hue and the local forces were stunned by the attacks; they were dispersed across the city to stay with their family and the sudden attack made them unable to regroup and resist the attack. [20] “Hardly any American troops are being seen in the city”- Captain Minh recalled. [21] In fact, many of them were encamped several miles South-East of Hue in Phu Bai airbase and had not been informed fast enough of the sudden attack.[22] According to captain Minh, the attack on Hue was a race. He explained: “If we were able to take most of Hue when the sun came in, the US would not be able to use their air superiority and bombard the city since the city had many historical sites”. [23] Therefore, in the morning, the VPA and VC had been able to capture most of the city and by dusk on the same day, the Communist flag waved on the top of the Imperial Citadel, marking the total collapse of the ancient capital. 

After the capture of the city, general Do organized a meeting consisting of captains and lieutenants to congrats on the victory. However, he stated that this was not an ultimate victory and we still had more battles to fight. Then, he took out a paper that consisted of names that he condemned as “cruel tyrants and reactionary elements” which should be exterminated. [24] In the beginning, everyone agreed with these decisions but “generals were not executives”-captain Minh insisted. [25] There were no real trials and the problems of whether their families would take revenge or fight against the newly established regime in Hue became an intriguing question for the top military commanders. As a result, many decided that the victims and their family members would share the same fates with them to prevent further security threats. Once blood is spilled, more blood will be spilled. The universal acceptance of executions became popularized and soldiers began to execute other people for different reasons from personal conflicts to lynching. Consequently, this never brought any peace and the communist forces were being pushed out after 3 weeks of occupation.

Reflecting on the incident, he stated: “Now remembering the war, we usually blamed Americans for their imperialism. But many of us have forgotten how we, ourselves, did horrible things to our own people”. [27] He continued: “But you know, the point of that war was to kill and exterminate people who just believe things that are different from you. Was there really a legitimacy for the war from the start ?” [28] The soldiers witnessed these atrocities and the high-ranking officials heard about the statistics and reports. Although the discussion about peace in the North was long forbidden, it was clear that in many communist top officials’ perspective, de-escalation was necessary and a peace negotiation was vital. Similarly, in America, after the incident, major protests broke out across the country to stand up against the ongoing conflict, forcing US officials to reshape their approaches to the war. On March 31, president Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the American people: The US is ready to “discuss the means of bringing this ugly war to an end.” [29]   Although the US retrieved its army from Vietnam 5 years later, as Brands indicated, the Vietnam War had “seared itself on the American mind, replacing the Munich Syndrome with a Vietnam Syndrome”. [30]

“Little Tiger”-a 10-year-old soldier in Southern Vietnam’s army during the Tet Offensive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

[1]:  James H. Willbanks, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 7.

[2]: Athony Tucker-Jones, The Vietnam War : the Tet Offensive, 1968, (South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military, 2014), 99.

[3]: H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 156.

[4]: H.W.Brands, 156.

[5]:  Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 24, 2022.

[6]: James H. Willbanks, 27.

[7]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[8]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[9]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[10]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[11]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[12]: James H. Willbanks, 26.

[13]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[14]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[15]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[16]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[17]: Athony Tucker-Jones, 111.

[18]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[19]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[20]: Athony Tucker-Jones, 111.

[21]:  Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[22]: Athony Tucker Jones, pg. 112-113.

[23]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[24]: James H. Willbanks, 45.

[25]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[26]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[27]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[28]: Interviews with Bui Ngoc Minh, April 30, 2022.

[29]: H.W.Brands. 158.

[30]: H.W.Brands, 175.

Pictures, photographs, and video: clicking into pictures/ photographs/ video for further information.

 

Interview subjects

Bui Ngoc Minh, age 86, retired VPA lieutenant who participated in the Vietnam War as an operative officer in the Ho Chi Minh Trails and intelligent officer during the Tet Offensive.

Zalo, April 30, 2022.

Selected Transcript

Q: Did you remember the Tet Offensive? I knew that you were a spy during that campaign but previously, you were an operative officer, so how could the infiltration process happen so quickly ?

A: The instability in the South made the espionage expansion more effective. After the (1963) coup, the South became increasingly destabilized with regional military factions and corrupted government officials. However, the US military intervention made it worse. The Seek and Destroy Operation devastated the rural areas and created huge swarms of refugees moving into cities and Cambodia. The refugee caravans were chaotic, running from the warzones and as far as possible. Some moved to the city; some went to foreign countries; and some just wanted to run away. This made us easily infiltrate into the system since American troops hardly ever took serious concern about the refugees due to the human rights crisis. I took the order with my comrades, following the refugees to Svay Rieng (South East Cambodia) and then re entered Vietnam and just after a month, I had completed my trip. 

Arriving at Hue, I disguised myself as a businessman who owned a firework company and then with some help from the inside, we were able to bribe the government officials to organize that year’s firework celebration in a part of Hue.

Q: Well, my high school teacher also mentioned him once. However, I am still wondering why the government officials did not suspect you ?

A: They thought it was just companies trying to compete with each other and the officials at that time were extremely corrupt so they just considered bribery as normal. 

Q: The plan seemed to go on very well. But you remember how the campaign officially started? 

A: So when the moment transitioned from the old year to the new year, also the time when we had to shoot fireworks, I ordered my team to place fireworks in the populated areas. Many simply thought we just wanted to attract attention and advertised our company. However, we really want to distract citizens from the guns’ sounds that the LSAV attacked in the middle of the night. The plan was a resounding success! This was the most unforgettable moment for me…..*he laughed*….. The moment that fireworks were shot around every city and every corner of every city, I knew that we would win this war. We had the legitimacy and I understood that if the Americans wanted to achieve their goals, they had to kill every single Vietnamese. Later, after the war, I acknowledged that this event was broadcasted everywhere. The scenario in which a well-equipped US soldier fought against a peasant with an AK  made the people in the world think of the US as invaders and us as heroic fighters for independence. 

But I could not held my happiness for long, the enemies soon realized that there were communist soldiers in the city. Even just a small number, they created more chaos in the street, shooting everyone they assume as communists. Many of my comrades fell down that moments. However, the majority of the enemies troops did not respond fast enough and could not regroup on time to counter the attack. Luckily, Hardly any American troops are being seen in the city.

At that time, a general met me and ordered me to regroup with my division and continued the fight. The attack was a race of time. If we were able to take most of Hue when the sun came in, the US would not be able to use their air superiority and bombard the city since the city had many historical sites. We advanced from columns to columns and buildings to buidings. At 12, we successfully captured majortiy of the Imperial Citadel. 

Q: I heard that the main goal of this campaign was to invoking a general uprisings among citizens in Southern Vietnam. Have you and your comrades achieved that goal after capturing Hue ?
 
A: No, much worse than we thought it could. We decided to build a new government in Hue. A new La Commune de Paris. But generals were not executives. As you know, the Hue Massacarce….. Now remembering the war, we usually blamed Americans for their imperialism. But many of us have forgotten how we, ourselves, did horrible things to our own people. But you know, the point of that war was to kill and exterminate people who just believe things that are different from you. Was there really a legitimacy for the war from the start ? The war I have witnessed was entirely different from the war with France. This war made soldiers became killing machine. This war was ugly. 

Life Between Extremes: A Housewife’s Balance Between Feminism and Anti-Feminism in the Late 1960s and Early 1970s

By Megan Triplett

In American Dreams, H.W. Brands covers second wave feminism as a largely polarizing movement. Spurred by Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, second-wave feminists sought sexual liberation, an increased role in the public sphere, and the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would add a prohibition of gender discrimination to the United

Betty Friedan lounges in her home

Courtesy of Library of Congress

States’s Constitution. Brands also describes the reactionary pushback of the anti-feminists. Especially in regard to the feminists calls for greater sexual freedom, members of the Christian right and others who believed in the traditional “nuclear” family, launched an anti-ERA campaign. Yet, Brands only characterizes these two opposing views and neglects to describe a middleground between the two extremes of second-wave feminism.

One such person who found themselves identifying with some parts from both movements was Carol Roland, later Carol Triplett, a sociology student at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in the 1960s. Triplett had participated in civil rights activism in her youth, attending protests and walking out of restaurants that refused to serve African American customers. She cites her love of people in her choice to study sociology. “I wanted to get into the adoption industry,” Triplett states as her collegiate idea for an intended career, “sort of helping people, helping kids. I really liked people.”[1] Yet, Triplett only studied sociology for two years. “I enjoyed it and I did real well in sociology,” she said, “but [Lawrence Triplett] and I decided we wanted to get married before he graduated.”[2]

Courtesy of Carol Triplett’s Private Collection

Because Carol Triplett chose to get married over finishing college and pursuing a career, she faced backlash that she would not have faced a generation earlier. The attitudes of second-wave feminism had begun to take their hold while Carol Triplett was in college. Her professors found difficulty accepting her decision, as they saw her as a promising sociology student. “So I know that my professors… and the counselor was very upset that I did not proceed. He (Triplett’s professor) wanted me to even go to grad school to get my masters. So he said that I thought I was brainwashed.”[3] Triplett, however, truly wanted to get married to Lawrence Triplett and start a family. “I think that, had I really wanted to be a sociologist, I would’ve stayed with it, but that wasn’t my main goal,” Triplett explains, “He (Triplett’s professor) couldn’t convince me otherwise. … I don’t regret it.”[4]

Triplett supported her female classmates as they pursued careers, but found herself more drawn to the domestic sphere. Though women of this era grew up in a climate that encouraged them to settle down, get married, have kids, and “desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity,” the dictums of second-wave feminism encouraged young women to pursue careers over growing a family.[5] Yet, Triplett did not identify with the thesis

Courtesy of Library of Congress

of The Feminine Mystique – that “well-educated women chronically yearned for more than their domestic lives afforded them” – though her friends largely did.[6] Triplett found no issue with her female friends who pursued a career path, and had pride in their successes. One of Triplett’s friends even joined NOW, the National Organization for Women, the group that Betty Friedan founded to advocate for women’s rights and to put the tenants of The Feminine Mystique into the political arena.

In, On Not Being Women: The 1970s, Mass Culture, and Feminism, Victoria Hesford contextualizes the feminist movement within the mass culture. This contrasts Brands, who focuses primarily on the political timeline of second-wave feminism. Hesford also distances her argument from Brands’s by pointing out that the feminist movement consisted of a collection of different people, with different backgrounds and viewpoints, people like Carol Triplett. According to Hesford, “‘women’ and ‘masses’ are present in our world as images—as representations that picture, however misleadingly, a unity that affectively solicits our identifications or disidentifications.”[7] Thus, Hesford separates her narrative from Brands by refusing to identify the feminist movement as one mass of women. 

Yet, Carol Triplett could not acquiesce to her peers’ decisions to get divorced from their husbands in pursuit of this newfound liberation. Divorce became more prevalent and normalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When Triplett began the process of marrying her husband Lawrence (Larry) Triplett, their priest tried to ask them what they would do in the event of a divorce, but the young couple had never considered divorce an option. “The priest told us that we were the only ones that he had met that did not believe in divorce,” Triplett explains, “we said…that wasn’t even going to be in our thought process.”[8] In this way, Triplett identified closer with the views of the American right who saw divorce as “a catastrophic departure that threatens the fabric of American moral identity.”[9] Tilfer cites America’s strong link to Christianity as a foundation for this view. When her friends would seek divorces, Triplett was “very sad for them.”[10] Drawing on her Catholic faith, Triplett states,  “I believe it is between them and God. I never treat them badly.”[11] 

After divorcing or simply not getting married in the first place, women who subscribed to the second-wave feminism movement often devoted their full attention to their careers. When Carol Triplett encountered such people, she describes her perception of their thoughts toward her as, “ ‘oh well, we’re not interested in that, you’re not important’ ” because she chose to not have a career and to raise her family.[12] She gleaned from her interactions that “if you didn’t have a career you were nothing.”[13] Yet, Betty Friedan, a prompter and preeminent figure in the feminist movement supported women who chose to be mothers. As interpreted by Burke and Seltz, Friedan “implied that so long as women freely chose motherhood, unmedicated birth was a preferable and empowering option for labor—an extension of women’s bodily health.”[14] Activists for women’s health followed this lead, advocating for natural childbirth as a way to “recapture women’s agency while rejecting narrow, pronatalist visions of women’s identity.”[15] Thus, some feminists, like Friedan, did not reject motherhood, but sought to include it under the women’s liberation movement by advocating for natural birth. Despite distaste and shame from her peers, often shame that did not align with Freidan and other feminists, Triplett remained secure in her choice, as she “loved raising my kids.”[16] 

Some took this distaste for domesticity to further levels, following the socialist feminism view that “autonomous structures of gender, race, and class all participated in contrsucting inequality and exploitation.”[17] This group “expanded the Marxist notion of exploitation to include other relations in which some benefited from the labor of others, as, for example, in household and child-raising labor.”[18] Thus, the struggle for women’s rights was inherently linked to the struggle for class-equality in the eyes of socialist feminists, who viewed content housewives like Triplett as inherently downtrodden laborers.

Despite her convictions to raise her family, Triplett also recognized pressure from her husband Larry to remain within the domestic sphere. “With… my marriage,” explains Triplett, “we had definite roles. He did not do any of what was called ‘women’s work.’ He didn’t do any of that. And I felt like, if I wanted to work, I would just be exhausted, having to do all that plus go to work.”[19] Triplett’s husband Larry conformed to traditional ideals and refused to take on more responsibilities in spite of the overall changing attitudes toward gender roles within the family. While raising her seven children, Triplett remarks that she “didn’t feel too bad about it [not pursuing a career] … because, actually for daycare … it would’ve cost me more probably than what I could earn.”[20] Though “agitating for affordable child care was a priority of many women’s liberation groups,” Triplett and others found themselves unable to justify pursuing a career against the costs of child care [21].

Courtesy of Carol Triplett’s Private Collection

Carol Triplett raised her seven children, six sons and one daughter, differently than her generation had been raised. “More and more women were working, so I told my boys ‘if your wife is working, you better help her out!’ I taught them how to do their own laundry and how to scrub floors and wash dishes. They would cook.”[22] In contrast to her husband’s attitude, Triplett states, “I felt like they should never feel like any job was below them.”[23] After the last of her seven children went to school, Carol Triplett took on a job as a second grade teacher’s aid. In working, Triplett realized the extent of what working mothers had taken on. “At that time, I thought ‘oh my goodness, how could they do everything?’ You can’t do everything.”[24] She concluded that “the man has to take on some of the responsibilities” and reflects that “things changed that way and for the good.”[25] Regardless of Triplett’s choice to happily raise her family, she raised her sons in the context of second-wave feminism to have a different attitude towards housework than her husband.

Tensions heightened after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, which legalized abortion throughout the United States. Triplett, who was a faithful Catholic, went “against the culture” as she “didn’t see killing a baby to be God’s best.”[26] The Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade isolated Triplett from the feminist movement, and linked her, on this one issue, with the emerging anti-feminist movement. According to Brands, “Phyllis Schlafly’s conservative Eagle Forum added STOP ERA to its name, and its spokespersons argued that the equal rights amendment would deprive women of traditional distinctive rights, such as the right to be supported by their husbands and the right to be exempt from military service – besides being an affront to states’ rights.”[27] Though Triplett was supported by her husband and had no desire to serve in the military, she did not identify with the Eagle Forum and supported the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet, her Catholic faith compelled her to stand against feminist arguments that sexual liberation and pro-choice objectives were necessary measures for women’s rights. According to Triplett, “my faith is to be lived whether the crowd agrees or not.” At one point, Triplett worked in a crisis pregnancy center, and so saw the individual struggles that the Roe v. Wade decision affected.[28] “I love these girls and I feel I can help them more to have their child,” Triplett said, “I counseled many and always respected them. I can feel for them very strongly.”[29]

Carol Triplett, a devoted wife and mother of seven, found herself aligned with both feminist and anti-feminist viewpoints. She did not pursue a career, instead contently choosing to fulfill household duties and raise her children. Triplett does not regret her decision stating, “a mother, when they’re home, they teach their children so many things.”[30] Though working peers sometimes expressed distaste for her choice, Triplett supported their choices to pursue a career and had hoped that they would support her choice to be a housewife. However, Triplett severed herself from the feminist movement on issues of divorce and abortion due to her Catholic faith. In contrast to Brands’s polarized depiction of the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Carol Triplett serves as an example of a real woman whose complicated ideals did not fit the picture of feminism nor the picture of anti-feminism.

[1] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[2] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[3] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[4] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[5] Friedan Betty, quoted in H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 176.

[6] Friedan Betty, quoted in H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 176.

[7] Hesford, Victoria. 2015. “On Not Being Women: The 1970s, Mass Culture, and Feminism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114 (4): 713–34. doi:10.1215/00382876-3157100. [America, History and Life], 715.

[8] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[9] Hilfer, Tony. “Marriage and Divorce in America.” American Literary History 15, no. 3 (2003): 592–602. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3568088. [JSTOR], 592.

[10] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[11] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[12] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[13] Interview with Carol Triplett (email), April 11, 2022.

[14] Burke, Flannery, and Jennifer Seltz. 2018. “Mothers’ Nature: Feminisms, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s.” Journal of Women’s History 30 (2): 63–87. doi:10.1353/jowh.2018.0014. [America, History and Life]

[15] Burke, Flannery, and Jennifer Seltz. 2018. “Mothers’ Nature: Feminisms, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s.” Journal of Women’s History 30 (2): 63–87. doi:10.1353/jowh.2018.0014. [America, History and Life]

[16] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[17] Gordon, Linda. “Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the ‘Second Wave.’” New Labor Forum 22, no. 3 (2013): 20–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718484. [JSTOR], 22.

[18] Gordon, Linda. “Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the ‘Second Wave.’” New Labor Forum 22, no. 3 (2013): 20–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718484. [JSTOR], 22.

[19] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[20] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[21]  Gordon, Linda. “Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the ‘Second Wave.’” New Labor Forum 22, no. 3 (2013): 20–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718484. [JSTOR], 25.

[22] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[23] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[24] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[25] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

[26] Interview with Carol Triplett (email), April 11, 2022.

[27] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 179.

[28] Interview with Carol Triplett (email), April 11, 2022.

[29] Interview with Carol Triplett (email), April 11, 2022.

[30] Interview with Carol Triplett (Zoom conversation), April 24, 2022.

 

 

 

 

“Well-educated women chronically yearned for more than their domestic lives afforded them.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p.176)

Interview Subject

Carol Triplett, age 71, a Catholic stay-at-home mom in the 1970s and 1980s and part-time second grade Catholic school teacher’s assistant in 1990s and 2000s. Former civil rights supporter and mother of seven children, grandmother to twelve.

Interviews

– Email, April 11, 2022

– Zoom recording, April 17, 2022

Selected Transcript

From audio:

Q. Did you go to college? What for? How long? What was it like?

A. I went to UMBC and I went two years, which I wasn’t in a two year program. So, I went two years and I was majoring in sociology. I enjoyed it and I did real well in sociology, but your grandfather and I decided we wanted to get married before he graduated. We were both the same age, so we were both going to graduate in those four years. So, instead I quit after two years, went to work for a year and then we got married during his last year of school. So I know that my professors… and the counselor was very upset that I did not proceed. He (Triplett’s professor) wanted me to even go to grad school to get my masters. So he said that I thought I was brainwashed. But, my goal was to get married and have a family. I think that, had I really wanted to be a sociologist, I would’ve stayed with it, but that wasn’t my main goal. … He (Triplett’s professor) couldn’t convince me otherwise. … I don’t regret it.

Q. What drew you to sociology in the first place?

A. I was an only child for like ten years, and then we adopted Dayna and Jimmy and I wanted to get into the adoption industry, sort of helping people, helping kids. I really liked people.

Q. What were your feelings toward divorce?

A. The priest told us that we were the only ones that he had met that did not believe in divorce…we said…that wasn’t even going to be in our thought process. … So in my generation they were starting to feel that divorce was fine and that careers were good … However when I did, later on, socialize, it seemed like if I wasn’t in a career or doing something, it’s like, ‘oh well, we’re not interested in that, you’re not important.’ … In a way, I didn’t feel too bad about it … because, actually for daycare … it would’ve cost me more probably than what I could earn.

Q. Did the women’s movement have an impact on your marriage?

A. With… my marriage, we had definite roles. He did not do any of what was called ‘women’s work.’ He didn’t do any of that. And I felt like, if I wanted to work, I would just be exhausted, having to do all that plus go to work. And I did end up going to work after the twins … started going to school. At that time, I thought ‘oh my goodness, how could they do everything?’ You can’t do everything. The man has to take on some of the responsibilities. Things changed that way and for the good.

Q. What did you teach your kids about women’s issues? I was wondering if you raised them any differently than how you were raised, if you instilled any values in them from the women’s movement that your generation wasn’t taught from a young age.

A. More and more women were working, so I told my boys ‘if you’re wife is working, you better help her out!’ I taught them how to do their own laundry and how to scrub floors and wash dishes. They would cook. I felt like they should never feel like any job was below them. … And Amy, I felt like Amy should have the chance to go to college … but she really didn’t have anything she wanted to work toward, just like I did. And she wanted to raise a family.

From email:

Q. Did the Roe v. Wade decision affect your attitude toward the feminist movement as a whole?

A. I kept my values and went against the culture. I still believe that sex is for marriage. That is Gods best and it keeps your problems down.  The Roe v. Wade (decision) made me feel very out of the feminist movement. My faith is to be lived whether the crowd agrees or not. I worked in a crisis pregnancy center and did hands on help for women in trouble. I love these girls and I feel I can help them more to have their child. I counseled many and always respected them. I can feel for them very strongly. But I don’t see killing a baby to be God’s best for them.

Further Research

  • Burke, Flannery, and Jennifer Seltz. 2018. “Mothers’ Nature: Feminisms, Environmentalism, and Childbirth in the 1970s.” Journal of Women’s History 30 (2): 63–87. doi:10.1353/jowh.2018.0014. [America, History and Life]
  • Dawn Ann Drzal. “Casualties of the Feminine Mystique.” The Antioch Review 46, no. 4 (1988): 450–61. https://doi.org/10.2307/4611947. [JSTOR]
  • Gordon, Linda. “Socialist Feminism: The Legacy of the ‘Second Wave.’” New Labor Forum 22, no. 3 (2013): 20–28. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24718484. [JSTOR]
  • Hesford, Victoria. 2015. “On Not Being Women: The 1970s, Mass Culture, and Feminism.” South Atlantic Quarterly 114 (4): 713–34. doi:10.1215/00382876-3157100. [America, History and Life]
  • Mann, Susan Archer, and Douglas J. Huffman. “The Decentering of Second Wave Feminism and the Rise of the Third Wave.” Science & Society 69, no. 1 (2005): 56–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40404229. [JSTOR]

Everyday Life in America During the World War II Era

By Abby Marthins

In the heart of World War II, Jackie Loftus was only a child. She lived in Philadelphia with her mother, father, and older sister. When the war ended in 1945, she was just three years old. Although Loftus does not recall the war itself, she grew up hearing about her parents’ experiences. Both her mother and her father aided in the war effort. “My dad made gun shellings,” she explains, “and my mom stayed home. She was working for the soldiers, doing the cooking.”[1] Loftus does remember, however, how the war’s long-term effects impacted her childhood. She grew up practicing air raid drills and witnessing her family struggle to acquire enough food. “My mom was so hungry,” she claims, “and they didn’t have bacon or ham, so she would make onion sandwiches.”[2] While Loftus’s recollection adds depth to H.W. Brands’s description in American Dreams of everyday life in America during the World War II era, it also highlights several aspects that Brands overlooks.

Two women work at an airplane assembly line

Women work at an airplane assembly line (Getty Images)

World War II created many jobs for women. Although women had been in the work force prior to the war, their options were limited and did not require physical labor. When men left to serve in the war, their previous occupations became vacant, giving women the opportunity to step in. Brands claims that “during World War II women took jobs in shipyards and drydocks, on truck and airplane assembly lines, on road and bridge construction crews, among the girders and scaffolding of building sites.”[3] Brands’s interpretation aligns with Loftus’s recollection of women working during World War II. Loftus remembers, “My sister…knew somebody that did riveting…she worked in a factory. I guess it was for planes. The metal where they would rivet something together.”[4] This woman worked at an airplane assembly line, which became one of the most popular occupations among women in the war era. According to Kari. A Cornell in Women on the US Home Front, “In the years before the war, women made up a mere 1 percent of workers in this industry. By 1943, that number had skyrocketed to 65 percent.”[5] Brands also mentions that women had different motives for entering the work force during the war. “For some women the jobs were simply jobs, a means to put food on the table and a roof over the heads of themselves and their families,” he evaluates, “For others the new opportunities signaled an important advance toward gender equality.”[6] When asked about her sister’s acquaintance’s motive for getting a job at an airplane assembly line, Loftus mentions that she “was married with children and probably wanted to help support her family.”[7] Loftus confirms Brands’s analysis of women seeking jobs to support their families.

Woman installs boards in her windows to block light during a blackout drill

Woman prepares for a blackout drill (Women on the US Home Front)

Another result of World War II was the incorporation of safety drills in homes and schools. In fear of being attacked, the government ordered blackout drills and air-raid drills. During blackout drills, all lights were to be turned off. In the case of a bombing, people thought that aircraft would have a difficult time locating a city without light. There were many rules that civilians had to follow during these blackout drills. Newspapers, such as The Philadelphia Tribune, reiterated some of the regulations. “Persons are permitted to move about or sit on steps or porches during the blue period but not during the red alert,” the Philadelphia Tribune stated, “Smoking is permitted during blue periods, but smokers are not permitted to light matches or lighters. No smoking is permitted during the red alert.”[8] Loftus recalls participating in blackout drills. She explains, “When sirens went off…all the homes in the city had dark shades you’d pull down. They called them black shades. And you couldn’t have any light really coming through.”[9] Not only were there blackout drills, but people practiced air-raid drills in homes and schools. At home, families were encouraged to practice hiding under tables. Many families created supply kits and plans for shelter in case of an air raid. At schools, when an air-raid drill was in place, students were instructed to sit under their desks or against the wall in the hallway. “When we were in school after the war,” Loftus recalls, “there were rules that you had to follow. If the sirens went off while you were in class, you would hide under the desk…And it was a little scary…”[10] Loftus remembers the air-raid drills in a similar manner to Barbara Williams Roberts, who attended an elementary school in Clinton, New York during the war. She explains, “It was scary. I was still in grade school, and I remember hearing an airplane and looking up to see what it was. I think I expected the Japanese to bomb Clinton.”[11] Loftus and Roberts agree that the safety drills were a frightening and memorable aspect of everyday life during and after the war, but Brands fails to mention it.

Citizens wait outside of their local War Rationing Board office

Citizens wait outside of their local War Rationing Board office (Library of Congress)

Rationing was also a major result of World War II. With the nation at war, there was a high demand for many basic supplies like food, metal, paper, and gasoline. To combat the high demand for these supplies, the government initiated a rationing program that limited Americans’ purchases. Each person was allotted “points” in the form of stamps in a book. With each purchase, a person would have to hand over points. According to the National World War II Museum, “By the end of the war, about 5,600 local rationing boards staffed by over 100,000 citizen volunteers were administering the program.”[12] Loftus remembers this program. She remarks, “The government issued coupons. They were called ration coupons. And if you went to the store, you could only get maybe a small portion of butter or gas. So, it was the government controlling what you bought.”[13] One of the first items to be rationed was tires. Then gasoline and bicycles were rationed. Finally, sugar (which would be rationed until 1947), coffee, canned goods, meat, cheese, milk, butter, and other fats were rationed. Although rationing created a lack of supplies, it also allowed for creativity and the rise in certain products. In particular, “Macaroni and cheese became a nationwide sensation because it was cheap, filling, and required very few ration points. Kraft sold some 50 million boxes of its macaroni and cheese product during the war.”[14] Rationing was also complicated; newspapers, classes, and government organizations helped Americans. The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger included a “Rationing Calendar” to assist Americans. The section read, “Here are the dates which it is important for you to remember in connection with the rationing program.”[15] It then listed several items and the expiration dates of their ration coupons. Brands does not include any details about the rationing program, even though it was a significant aspect of many Americans’ everyday lives.

Diagram of a garden plot from the Philadelphia Tribune

Diagram of a garden plot from the Philadelphia Tribune (Proquest)

When the government incorporated the rationing program, it also encouraged many Americans to create gardens. These gardens were called “Victory gardens” and their outputs helped manage the shortage of food. According to the US Department of Agriculture, “9 to 10 million short tons of fruits and vegetables were harvested from Victory gardens during the war years—the same amount of veggies grown on commercial farms during that period.”[16] Loftus’s family participated in creating Victory gardens. “They’d make vegetables,” she describes, “I remember my uncle…he planted a lot of stuff like corn, watermelon, all kinds of stuff.”[17] Even Americans in cities were able to create Victory gardens. Places like San Francisco, Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia were all homes to a plethora of Victory gardens. Living in Philadelphia, Loftus remembers what Victory gardens were like in cities. She explains, “Some people in the city didn’t have yards to plant stuff but they would have open fields and any place where they could plant stuff.”[18] The newspapers were also a source of information for and encouragement of Victory gardens. The Philadelphia Tribune included a section titled “Make City Backyards into ‘Victory’ Garden Plots” in which it embedded a diagram of a garden plot and gave advice such as “be sure to leave some space between the rows so that you may cultivate the plants.”[19] The Philadelphia Tribune also encouraged Americans to create Victory gardens by setting goals and holding contests. It read, “Last year 20 million gardens produced 8 million tons of food…the Victory garden goal for this year is 22 million gardens to grow 10 million tons of food,”[20] and “Conforming with the wish to the government, that amateur gardeners be encouraged to make more Victory gardens this year, the Tribune is inaugurating its second annual Victory garden contest.”[21] Victory gardens were an important part of everyday life for a lot of Americans; however, they are not mentioned by Brands.

Loftus’s recollection of everday life in America during World War II offers a lot more detail than Brands’s American Dreams. With a limited amount of space to discuss a large part of American history, it is easy to overlook many aspects. Since Brands focuses on the political perspective when discussing World War II, he is bound to omit the personal aspects of the war. Although Brands fails to consider the challenges of the home front during the war, the harsh emotions felt by many American should not be disregarded. “Times were really hard,”[22] Loftus remembers. “It was a really tough time,”[23] she mentions again.

[1] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[2] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[3] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 13.

[4] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[5] Kari A. Cornell, Women on the US Home Front (Minneapolis: Abdo Publishing, 2016), 34.

[6] Brands, 13.

[7] Email interview with Jackie Loftus, May 4, 2022.

[8] “Blackout Rules.” Philadelphia Tribune, Jul 17, 1943, pp. 9. ProQuest, https://envoy.dickinson.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2Fblackout-rules%2Fdocview%2F531732531%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D10506.

[9] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[10] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[11] Quoted in Cornell, 26.

[12] “Rationing.” The National WWII Museum, 2018, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/rationing.

[13] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[14] “Rationing.” The National WWII Museum, 2018, www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/rationing.

[15] “December 23, 1942.” The Philadelphia Inquirer Public Ledger (1934-1969), Dec 23, 1942, pp. 9. ProQuest, https://envoy.dickinson.edu/loginqurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2Fdecember-23-1942-page-9-38%2Fdocview%2F1833143557%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D10506.

[16] Cornell, 44.

[17] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[18] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[19] “Make City Backyards into ‘Victory’ Garden Plots: Improve the Poor Soil with Ashes, Fertilizer; it’s Work but Full, Too.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-), Mar 13, 1943, pp. 8. ProQuest, https://envoy.dickinson.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2Fmake-city-backyards-into-victory-garden-plots%2Fdocview%2F531669058%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D10506.

[20] “22 Million Gardens Victory Garden Goal.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-), Mar 18, 1944, pp. 7. ProQuest, https://envoy.dickinson.edu/loginqurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2F22-million-gardens-victory-garden-goal%2Fdocview%2F531741123%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D10506.

[21] “It is again! the Tribune 2nd Annual Victory Garden Contest: For all the Backyard Gardeners.” Philadelphia Tribune (1912-), Mar 11, 1944, pp. 8. ProQuest, https://envoy.dickinson.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fhistorical-newspapers%2Fis-again-tribune-2nd-annual-victory-garden%2Fdocview%2F531694564%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D10506.

[22] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

[23] Zoom interview with Jackie Loftus, April 28, 2022.

Americans’ Personal and Work Life During World War II

By Abby Marthins

“But during World War II women took jobs in shipyards and drydocks, on truck and airplane assembly lines, on road and bridge construction crews, among the girders and scaffolding of building sites.” (H. W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 13)

Interview Subject

Jackie Loftus, age 79, who recalls changes to personal and work life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during World War II

Interviews

–Zoom Call, April 28, 2022

Selected Transcript

Q: What was your family life like during World War II?

A: “World War II. My mom, at the beginning of the war, she was 28. Any my dad was 31. At the end of the war my mom was 34 and my dad was 37. And my sister wasn’t born in the beginning of the war, but at the end of the war she was five years old.  And I wasn’t born in the beginning of the war, but I was three years old. So my mom stayed home. She was working for the soldiers, doing the cooking. Well, she was busy with two kids, not like your mom with seven.”

Q: Were there any major changes to peoples’ daily lives?

A: “Times were really hard…you couldn’t buy meat, you couldn’t get butter. And the government issued coupons. They were called ration coupons. And if you went to the store you could only get maybe a small portion of butter or gas. So it was the government controlling what you bought during that time because everything was a really tough time. For example, not everybody would get gas for their cars…it was like sacred. There wasn’t much available.”

Q: How would you get these ration coupons?

A: “My dad worked in a steel mill and they converted part of the steel mill to make ammo. My dad made gun shellings. He would make cannon shelling for the big tanks…out of steel. And he got coupons to go to work so he was lucky.”

A: “And also the women at home would have what they called ‘victory gardens.’ Everybody grew everything. From seed, vegetables, tomatoes, potatoes. And if you didn’t have a yard, like some people in the city didn’t have yards to plant stuff, but they would have open fields and any place where they could plant stuff. A lot of the people, and older men too I guess that weren’t involved in the war, they would help out with the victory gardens. They’d make vegetables, and even, I remember my uncle, my mom was telling me that he had a big yard so he planted a lot of stuff, like corn, watermelon, all kinds of stuff. But he also raised rabbits because meat was scarce. So they would eat rabbits. And the other thing is he would also sell them to people because meat was scarce. And I remember my mom saying that sometimes she was so hungry they didn’t have bacon or ham, she would make onion sandwiches. People were a lot thinner then.”

Q: What types of jobs did people have?

A: “Children worked at that time. I was talking to my sister and I talked to Uncle Dick, my sister’s husband, that him and his friend went out in the neighborhood and they took a wagon going from house to house looking for metal because they would save metal to melt down and use for something else. And I remember as a kid, it wasn’t during the war, but they saved everything at that time. Nothing went to waste. They had this man that would come around and he would collect rags. I could never figure out why he was saving rags or what they used them for. It was weird. But he would go through the streets and yell ‘Any old rags, any old rags!’ I don’t know what he did with them but that’s what I remember. And Aunt Jeanette, she would knit socks for the soldiers. And did you ever hear the word ‘Rosie the Riveter?’ A lot of women worked for the war cause too. They worked, of course my mom didn’t.”

Q: So your mom was more focused on taking care of you and your sister?

A: “Yes.”

Q: Did she have a previous job that she had to give up to help your family or the war?

A: “No. During that time, women didn’t work. It was just later in years that women started to go to work.”

Q: When men went to war a lot of women would take their jobs in factories. Do you know anything about that?

A: “My mom didn’t know anybody, but I was talking to my sister, she knew somebody that did riveting. She was like a ‘Rosie the Riveter.’ She worked in a factory. I guess it was for planes. The metal where they would rivet something together. I don’t know what they did.”

Q: Do you know if she had to leave a job to do that?

A: “Most likely not. Women did work because I remember my mom before she got married was a telephone operator. So I’m sure some women worked. Other women with children obviously stayed home and cooked for their man. I think that everyone at that time would work together for gold to help the war effort basically. Everybody saved something, everybody made something, worked for a cause. They worked for the war effort. And as I mentioned, at that time everything was saved. They used everything. Nothing was wasted. Nothing. Like paper. They even saved stamps from letters and would send them to the soldiers so they could collect them and say ‘Ooo look I have a stamp from Canada’ and that’s where all collecting and saving stamps came from.”

Further Research

  • Claudia Goldin and Claudia Olivetti, “Shocking Labor Supply: A Reassessment of the Role of World War II on Women’s Labor Supply,” American Economic Review, vol. 103, no. 3, May 2013, pp. 257–62. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.103.3.257.
  • Natsuki Aruga, “‘An’’ Finish School”,’” Labor History, vol. 29, no. 4, Fall 1988, p. 498. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/00236568800890331.
  • Char Miller, “In the Sweat of Our Brow: Citizenship in American Domestic Practice During WWII—Victory Gardens,” Journal of American Culture, vol. 26, no. 3, Sept. 2003, pp. 395-409. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1111/1542-734X.00100.
  • Stephen W. Sears, “Sorry No Gas,” American Heritage, vol. 30, no. 6, Oct. 1979, pp. 4-17. EBSCOhost, https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx direct=true&db=31h&AN=20863705&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

The Nuclear Freeze Movement: A Personal Recollection

The Nuclear Freeze Movement: A Personal Recollection

By J. Miles Krein

Reagan’s apparent indifference to the prospect of nuclear war roused the attention of many Americans, including Scott Krein. Instead of waiting for world events to unfold on their own, Scott decided to make his concern known. On the 12th of June in 1982, Scott participated in a protest as part of the larger Nuclear Freeze movement that demanded that the United States cease the production of nuclear weapons. At the time, this protest was determined to be the largest peaceful gathering to occur within the US. “It was truly something else,” Scott said of the protest. “I was energized and motivated by all the people around me… I felt like we were fighting for something positive.”[1] However, despite the monumental nature of the June 12th protest, H. W. Brands fails to mention this event in his book American Dreams. While Brands writes about goals and context of the Nuclear Freeze movement when discussing the Reagan presidency, the author neglects the experiences of the average American citizens that made the movement possible. Due to this oversight, American Dreams fails to capture the true significance and impact of the Nuclear Freeze movement. In addition, Scott’s interview and other primary sources challenge certain assertions made by Brands regarding the Nuclear Freeze movement. 

James Scott Krein was born on September 9th, 1961 in San Diego, California and is the son of a Korean War veteran. As a child, Scott’s family moved relatively often and lived in places such as Guam and Japan due to his father’s active membership in the military. Scott recalls that his father’s military service influenced his political and social awareness later in life: “I remember being aware of what the military was doing because I was around that sort of environment so often… I remember the Vietnam War and learning about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and nuclear weapons when I was in school.”[2] While Scott was too young to take part in the Vietnam War protests, he remembers witnessing the protests on the news and hearing about the anti-war movement from his parents. According to Scott, he was able to understand that “a lot of people would die” if the United States did not withdraw from Vietnam. “That’s why people were upset,” Scott said of his recollection of the Vietnam War.[3]

Regarding his experience at the Nuclear Freeze protest that took place on June 12th of 1982, Scott said: “We got there the night before and spent the night on the street in front of the United Nations building. No tent or sleeping bag or anything… I slept on the sidewalk with just my sweatshirt and jeans.”[4] Apparently, Scott failed to consider that an overnight event might warrant the purchase of a tent or a sleeping bag. While Scott had originally agreed to go to the protest for the musical performances, he admits that the speakers and political figures are associated with stronger memories. Additionally, Scott mentioned that “one of my most vivid memories of my life is when we started marching and turned a corner near the United Nations building and we were faced by a row of New York cops with machine guns. I wasn’t scared, but I remember that it agitated me. Yeah there were a lot of people there, but no one was being violent.”[5] Scott’s interview regarding the June 12th Nuclear Freeze protest provides a personal and sincere recollection of one of the largest public demonstrations in American history. 

Protesters at the June 12th Rally

“Anti-Nuclear March at Central Park” via WNYC

While Brands’ American Dreams details the context and the goals of the Nuclear Freeze movement, the author fails to include any mention of the massive protest that took place on June 12th of 1982. Furthermore, Brands’ book includes no mention of a personalized experience akin Scott Krein’s recollection. Despite the flaws in Brands’ characterization of the Nuclear Freeze movement, the author effectively delineates why many Americans became concerned about the use of nuclear weapons under Reagan; “Reagan’s arms buildup and bellicose rhetoric… had set many Americans on edge.”[6] Brands’ assertion that Reagan’s demeanor was a major catalyst for the Nuclear Freeze movement appears to match Scott’s recollection; “With the people that we had in office at the time [of Reagan’s presidency], it was entirely believable that they could start an atomic war and destroy the world.”[7] During Reagan’s presidency, Scott decided to join the Nuclear Freeze movement and take part in the June 12th protest because he feared the possibility of a nuclear war. Scott asserts that he did not fear such an outcome during Carter’s presidency, though he admits that he was not especially politically active until Reagan took office. 

While Brands correctly describes the major catalyst for the formation of the Nuclear Freeze movement, he fails to give a full description of how the movement spread. In American Dreams, Brands credit various pieces of mass media for spreading the notion that the use of nuclear weapons would lead to a cataclysmic scenario. Brands mentions that the television program The Day After left “tens of millions of viewers…wondering how long the human species had left.”[8] In contrast, Scott recalls that he was made aware of the impending nuclear threat by a college professor: “I took a college course on American foreign relations… I don’t think the professor would have discussed [the use of nuclear weapons] as much as he did if it were not for the political circumstances at the time.”[9] Furthermore, Scott recalls that he heard about the June 12th Nuclear Freeze protest from a fellow student at Oberlin College. Scott never mentioned the influence of the media regarding his decision to become involved with the Nuclear Freeze movement. Newspaper articles written at the height of the Nuclear Freeze movement also tend not to credit the media for the movement’s spread. Instead, sources such as the New York Times characterized the Nuclear Freeze movement as a “grass-roots crusade.”[10] Though pieces of mass media may have informed some people about the movement, neither relevant newspaper articles nor Scott’s recollection concur with Brands’ assertion. 

American Dreams also fails to address the role of religion in the Nuclear Freeze movement. Brands addresses the role of religion during Reagan’s presidency, but only in the context of providing the 40th President of the United States with a new constituency that supported his policy of reinvigorating America’s nuclear arsenal. However, according to the New York Times, the Nuclear Freeze movement was endorsed by “American churches – particularly the Roman Catholic church.” [11] Scott’s experience at the June 12th protest confirms the New York Times’ assertion: “There were a lot of different religious groups there. I remember Quaker and Catholic groups in particular. When I first got there, I talked with two guys who I later found out were part of a Catholic organization.” [12] Brands characterizes religious groups as primarily supporting the Republican political agenda during Reagan’s presidency. However, both Scott’s interview and the New York Times indicate that religious groups did not strictly adhere to Reagan’s platform throughout his presidency. As Reagan’s rhetoric created greater fears of an impending nuclear war, more American citizens began to endorse the Nuclear Freeze movement. Religious organizations also experienced this anxiety, forcing institutions such as the Catholic church to reconsider which side of the political aisle held the moral high ground. Brands’ description of the Nuclear Freeze movement includes no account of the role played by religious groups, a phenomenon that is highlighted in Scott’s interview and other primary sources. 

Randall Forsberg and the Nuclear Freeze - Forsberg helped to shape the Nuclear Freeze movement and was a devout Catholic.

“Randall Forsberg and the Nuclear Freeze” via Outrider

Furthermore, Brands appears to indicate that the Nuclear Freeze movement was a failure. In the closing paragraph of the section written about the Nuclear Freeze movement, the author says that Reagan “rebuffed the nuclear freezers.”[13] However, Scott sees the Nuclear Freeze movement as a success: “I saw it as a success. [The INF treaty] that was passed later was part of that success.”[14] Brands makes no mention of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty that was passed in 1987 when discussing the Nuclear Freeze movement. While the treaty occurred five years after the Nuclear Freeze protest of 1982, Scott perceives the two events as directly related to one another. Without the massive rally that took place on June 12th of 1982, the INF treaty would not have been realized. Furthermore, political scientist Marvin Overby also argues that the Nuclear Freeze movement was a success. According to Overby, “by 1983, opponents of the freeze were themselves offering a version of the freeze.”[15] Overby asserts that after 1983, Congress was generally supportive of the Nuclear Freeze movement. Specifically, by 1983, former opponents of the Nuclear Freeze were endorsing legislation that advocated for a mild form of nuclear disarmament. Brands’ conception of the Nuclear Freeze movement as a failure contradicts Scott’s interview and social scientific analyses of the movement. 

“President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room” via Wikipedia

In his book American Dreams, H. W. Brands adequately describes the context and goals of the Nuclear Freeze movement. However, Brands fails to consider the unique experiences of the average American citizen that made the movement possible. Due to this oversight, Brands is unable to effectively articulate the significance and impact of the Nuclear Freeze movement. Scott Krein’s interview sheds light on the aspects of Brands’ account that lack information, in addition to challenging certain elements of Brands’ description. Specifically, Scott’s interview challenges Brands’ assertion that the popular media spread information about the Nuclear Freeze movement and the author’s notion that religious groups continuously supported Reagan’s platform throughout his presidency. Furthermore, along with social scientific accounts, Scott’s interview demonstrates that the Nuclear Freeze movement achieved some degree of success. Scott’s decision take part in the June 12th Nuclear Freeze protest allows one to create an accurate picture of the  movement: the opposition to Reagan’s nuclear policy was a grassroots movement that attracted the attention of religious groups and was made possible through the dedication of average the American citizen. 

Citations

[1] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, May 4th, 2022.

[2] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, April 25th, 2022.

[3] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, May 4th, 2022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011), 257.

[7] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, April 25th, 2022.

[8] H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011), 258.

[9] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, May 4th, 2022.

[10] Robert Shogan, “Nuclear Freeze Movement Emerges As Political Test,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles, CA), Apr. 17, 1982. 

[11] Fox Butterfield, “Anatomy of the Nuclear Protest,” New York Times (New York, NY), Jul. 11, 1982. 

[12] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, May 4th, 2022.

[13] H. W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2011), 259.

[14] Zoom interview with Scott Krein, April 25th, 2022.

[15] Marvin Overby, Assessing Constituency Influence: Congressional Voting on the Nuclear Freeze, 1982-83,” Legislative Studies Quarterly 16, no. 2 (1991): 308. 

Image Credits (in order of appearance)

WNYC Covers the Great Anti-Nuclear March and Rally at Central Park, June 12, 1982,” WNYC, last modified June 12, 2015, https://www.wnyc.org/story/wnyc-covers-great-anti-nuclear-march-and-rally-central-park-june-12-1982/. 

“The Nuclear Freeze Movement,” Outrider, last modified February 21, 2018, https://outrider.org/nuclear-weapons/articles/nuclear-freeze-movement. 

President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room,” Wikipedia, last modified October 15, 2021, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:President_Ronald_Reagan_and_Soviet_General_Mikhail_Gorbachev_signing_the_INF_Treaty_in_the_East_Room.jpg. 

Transcript (selected section from an interview done over Zoom with Scott Krein on April 25th, 2022)

Miles: “Did you ever take part in any protests as part of the nuclear freeze movement?”

Scott: “Yes I did. I attended arguably the largest public protest in the United States in June of 1982 in New York. That was the largest one I went to. I drove up there and spent the night across from the United Nations building. I think nearly one million people showed up. I know it didn’t make the biggest difference at the time, but I knew it was important for politicians to see bodies out on the street. We showed how many people were concerned for the rest of the world. And I guess it was successful. [The INF treaty] that was passed later was part of that success, at least I saw it as a success.”

Miles: “What made you decide to become involved in the nuclear freeze movement?”

Scott: “I was concerned about the amount of human suffering that a nuclear war might cause. I knew a lot of people would die and I didn’t want to see that happen. It would be a horrific thing to happen. And then when I got older and began to really think about the lessons we learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I realized that it’s not just about nuclear proliferation or disarmament. It’s about social justice and particularly the environment. It’s all connected… And you saw people like Reagan, and Henry Kissinger before him, overthrowing governments in Latin and South America. They even openly defied Congress to do it. Reagan was frightening. At the time, both the US and the Soviet Union had so many nuclear weapons that they could have exterminated humanity multiple times over. With the people that we had in office at the time, it was entirely believable that they could start an atomic war and destroy the world.”

Miles: “Did you ever see a connection between the United States’ possession of nuclear weapons and elements of our political policies?”

Scott: “Yes absolutely. Our nuclear arsenal was supposed to be our great strength, and that is the way it is today. Apparently we had the greatest military in the world and its strength was unparalleled, according to our government. Because of that, [other countries] have to do what we say. There’s always this implicit threat that we could destroy them if they don’t. It’s all related. We can bully other countries into doing what we want. It’s just a way of extending imperialism. The presence we had in other countries during Reagan’s time in office was an extension of the influence of our nuclear arsenal. Those countries had to let us have our way or we might destroy them. Nicaragua and Argentina, it was all the same… A big problem is that we can’t use [our nuclear weapons]. If someone uses a nuclear weapon, then the other country will retaliate. Then we will retaliate, then the world will end. I think they have a big effect on our foreign policy, our domestic policy, and on our individual psyche. The threat of a nuclear war and a nuclear winter made me feel more human than American.”

Sources for Further Research

Hogan, M., and T. Smith. “Polling on the Issues: Public Opinion and the Nuclear Freeze Movement.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 55, no. 4 (1991): 534-569.

Wittner, S. “The Nuclear Freeze and Its Impact.” Arms Control Today 55, no. 10 (2010): 53-56.

Overby, L. “Assessing Constituency Influence: Congressional Voting on the Nuclear Freeze, 1982-83.” Legislative Studies Quarterly  16, no. 2 (1991): 297-312.

Marullo, S. “Leadership and Membership in the Nuclear Freeze Movement: A Specification of
Resource Mobilization Theory.” The Sociological Quarterly  29, no. 3 (1988): 407-427.

The Change in American Life in Saint Clair, Pennsylvania in the 1950s

By Aidan Keillor

“So Great was the pent-up demand for houses, cars, washing machines, sofas, radios, sinks, and myriad other items large and small that had been unpurchased during the depression and unpurchasable during the war.” (H.W. Brands, American Dreams, p. 70)

Newspaper from VE Day [Victory in Europe] from Saint Clair’s local newspaper, the Pottsville Republican (Bernard Grace)

The 1950s and the postwar period were often recollected by most as a time of significant change following World War II. The end of the Second World War brought the introduction of the suburbs, more leisure time, and more economic opportunities to families, and the introduction of the Civil Rights Movement. In H.W. Brand’s American Dreams, these stereotypical; associations were mentioned heavily in the book. Although these associations were true in more urban areas, these changes in American life were not as prevalent in small coal towns. Brands gave the narrative that the 1950s brought a great change in the entirety of the United States in every sense. The 1950s did bring some changes to these areas, with the introduction of more leisure activities like movie theaters, dance halls, and ice cream parlors and the increased availability of things, yet it was not to the extent as compared to urban and suburban areas. An individual whose life best exemplifies this idea is my grandfather, Bernard Grace, who spent his early life in Saint Clair, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town right outside of Pottsville, Pennsylvania. The importance of the town’s coal industry would keep the town prospering until the end of World War Two. St. Clair would change drastically with more availability of more materialistic things and an influx of leisure activities, but the coal industry of the town was on a steady decline from what it had been years before.

Bernard Grace, 1954 (Bernard Grace)

Bernard Grace was born in Saint Clair, Pennsylvania on July 10 of 1936. He would spend the first years of his childhood in the Great Depression and World War II. He would come into adolescence in the postwar period and be a teenager throughout the 1950s. He lived in Saint Clair, a small town that was created around its coal industry in the late 1800s, up until the coal industry would fail. He would live in St. Clair until he graduated from Pennsylvania State University, where he would move away in search of work.

The 1950s was a time when the modern United States was starting to take shape. The introduction of the middle class shaped the country economically and the growth of the suburbs brought people from cities and rural towns to live in them. The introduction of the GI bill and the reintegration of veterans from the Second World War into civilian life brought a time of prouise. With the war over, it brought along an availability of goods that hadn’t been seen since before the war. Bernard Grace remarks, “After the war was over, it seemed like everything was available again and things like that. During the war years we had ration books, and when the war was over, all that stuff stopped. Now again the town I lived in; things seemed to be available for you.”[1] Bernard Grace would often recall this in comparison to the war. The war was rough on many Americans with all the sacrifices both home and abroad. The stark rationing of goods like food, rubber, and other goods was in great comparison to the availability of goods in the 1950s. In Brand’s American Dreams, he writes about the comparison of the availability of things in the war and after. Brands claimed, “So Great was the pent-up demand for houses, cars, washing machines, sofas, radios, sinks, and myriad other items large and small that had been unpurchased during the depression and unpurchasable during the war.”[2] The availability and abundance of goods was a wave of relief for all people, especially people in coal mining towns which had been hit hard by rations.

Saint Clair, Pennsylvania, 1950 (Saint Clair Community and Historical Society)

Bernard Grace also remembers the leisure life of the 1950s. With the United States having a strong economy and abundance of goods and free time, movie theaters and dance halls became very popular drawing teenagers and young adults to them. Bernard Grace recollects, “We would go to ice cream parlors and use their jukeboxes. When you were older, and you knew somebody that had a car we would go to this place called The Globe and it was a dance hall. We would take people on dates and take them to the movies. It was a great way to grow up.”[3] The 1950s brought in an astounding amount of recreational and leisure activities all over the country. In Nancy Hendricks’s Daily Life in 1950s America, the growth of recreational activities was very evident. Nancy Hendricks writes, “It could be argued that dance found its way into the daily lives of average Americans more than any other period in American history.”[4] It was also evident that the movie business was also booming in the 1950s showing the growth in leisure activities and recreation in the 1950s. Brands states, “Entertainment, in its numerous forms–grew into a powerhouse of its own. Hollywood churned out movies by the hundreds, with an increasing portion of them aimed at children and families.”[5] The extent of the growth of films and movie theaters was not just in suburbs and cities but had also made its way into St. Clair. The entertainer industry in all ways had grown due to the 1950s all over the county and was increasingly being geared towards family lifestyles.

Although there many fond aspects of the 1950s that Bernard Grace remembers, there were pitfalls that came with this era and some things in Bernard’s life in a small coal mining town did not change and seemed the same as compared to the suburbs and cities. H.W. Brands only covers the postwar period’s effect of the suburban but misses its effect on coal towns and how there was some change, yet not as much compared to other areas of the country. Brands often refers that both blue collar and white-collar families would be able to own expensive things and have a middle-class lifestyle. Brands notes, “In the 1950s factory workers and office workers alike earned enough money to support a thoroughly respectable middle-class lifestyle.”[6] This was not evident for Bernard Grace. With his father working for the railroad and his mother at home, his family would not be able to afford this lifestyle. Bernard Grace remembers, “For my dad, he worked on the railroad, he had a labor-type job. The most money he made in his life, in a year, was $1,200 ($12,000 in today’s money). A lot of people didn’t have a lot, but you didn’t really miss not having it because nobody did.”[7] Because of Bernard Grace’s family standings they would not be able to afford many of the newly affordable things of the 1950s like cars, telephones, and televisions. Bernard Grace also recalls, “Some families had cars, we (Bernard Grace’s family) never had a car, we never had a phone in our house. We used our neighbor’s phone for years. It depends where you were coming from. If you lived in the cities, I’m sure things were a lot different, but in a small coal-mining town, it was not.”[8] Brands does not classify this and focuses more on how much cheaper and available for regular people electronics and cars were for people. Brands claims, “Much of the economic activity revolved around the physical needs and wants of the Baby Boomers and their families.”[9] Brands only focuses on a broad scale that says that families were able to afford electronics and luxury items, yet not everyone was in this situation in the 1950s and in small coal towns like Bernard Grace’s. The 1950s did not change the lives of people to the extent of the suburbs and urban areas.

Saint Clair Coal Company (Wikipedia Commons)

Along with the introduction of affordable technology for people, the 1950s and the end of World War II would bring in many technological innovations in the energy industry that were cleaner and less taxing on resources. One of these innovations was the development of nuclear energy after the Second World War. The development of this energy was in part with the development of the nuclear bomb and offered a clean source of energy to power the United States. According to Jay Lehr, “Nuclear power was commercially attractive because it offered the opportunity to generate power without the air pollution that accompanied the burning of fossil fuels.”[10] Brands does not disclose the importance of this development of energy and does not show how its developments affected other industries like coal. In Bernard Grace’s town the coal mining business was the backbone of the creation of St. Clair and was one of the driving economies of the town. Bernard Grace recollects, “In this town I lived in [St. Clair], the garment industry was a big thing and coal mining was big”[11] The industry was the reason for the development of the town in the late 1800s. This is supported by Anthony F.C. Wallace’s St. Clair- A Nineteenth-Century Coal Town’s Experience With a Disaster-Prone Industry. Wallace states, “Three main groups of businessmen were responsible for the development of St. Clair: the owners of the underground mineral rights (the “landowners”); the colliery operators who extracted and processed the coal; and the transportation companies.”[12] These important coal companies being the backbone of the town would lead to the decline of the town and its industries. This was due to the introduction of nuclear energy. Bernard Grace would remark, “Coal mining was starting to reduce in popularity at that time because of new energy sources [nuclear energy], so people got out of the mines and people started to move away. I know when I got out of college, I had to relocate because there was no work where I came from, so I ended up going to a city to work.”[13] The introduction of nuclear energy would put the town in a steady decline leading it to mass unemployment and a closure of the mines. This situation goes against Brand’s stereotype of the 1950s as being a prosperous time in the United States because of St. Clair’s dying industry and dying town.

With the 1950s often associated with change, there was a push for racial change that marked the beginnings of the civil rights movements in the 1950s. In Michael J. Klarman’s “Brown, Racial Change, and the Civil Rights Movement” in Virginia Law Review. Klarman stated, “In the years immediately following the war, desegregation as a Cold War imperative became standard for political fare.”[14] The growth of civil rights and the fight against segregation was a growing topic and many civil rights leaders rose in the 1950s seeking political reform. Jim Crow and segregation still plagued the country and were a topic of protest. Brands claims, “Blacks numbered some seventeen million in the mid-1950s, or about 10 percent of the population, and despite the migrations to the North during the two world wars, most still lived in the South, where the Jim Crow system of racial segregation remained.”[15] Brand’s association of racial change and Jim Crow to the 1950s and the postwar period was apparent but because of the smallness of St. Clair and the ruralness of the town, it seemed like race had never been a pressing issue, because of the little to no presence of African Americans. Bernard grace would remark, “Back in the 50s, in my town, there was one black family and there must have been 2500 people living there. There was never an issue with color because nobody was there so we didn’t have that situation.”[16] The small to no presence of African Americans in St. Clair would go against the association of the growth of civil rights and fight against segregation and the 1950s because there was no diversity in the town, he lived in. Bernard Grace was not exposed to these issues until later in his life because of the smallness of St. Clair.

The 1950s brought great changes to the United States and offer many opportunities for all Americans following the Second World War. The availability of goods in the United States and the introduction to family-oriented leisure activities would offer a good time to be alive. Race and the birth of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s would help institute civil change in the United States and new energy sources would create cleaner sources of energy. Bernard Grace’s experience in the 1950s brought him many opportunities and fond life experiences, yet it was not to the extent of others that lived in the suburbs and cities.

[1] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[2] H.W. Brands, American Dreams: The United States Since 1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 70.

[3] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[4] Nancy Hendricks, Daily Life in 1950s America (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2019) 176 [ProQuest].

[5] Brands, 73

[6] Brands, 80

[7] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[8] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[9] Brands, 71

[10] “Nuclear Energy: Past, Present and Future,” excerpted in Jay lehr, Energy and Environment (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2010) 97 [JSTOR].

[11] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[12] Anthony F.C. Wallace, St. Clair- A Nineteenth- Century Coal Town’s Experience with a Disaster-Prone Industry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, inc.,1987), 54.

[13] Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

[14] “Brown, Racial Change, and the Civil Rights Movement” excerpted in Michael J. Klarman, Virginia Law Review (Charlottesville: Virginia Law Review, 1994), 27 [JSTOR].

[15] Brands, 84

[16]  Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace, April 13, 2022.

Interview Subject

Bernard Grace, age 85, spent his childhood and adolescent years in Saint Clair, Pennsylvania, a small coal-mining town outside of Pottsville, Pennsylvania where he experienced the changes brought to the US during the 1950s until he attended Pennsylvania State University.

Interviews

– Recording Zoom Interview with Bernard Grace on April 13, 2022

– In-person interview with Bernard Grace on April 17, 2022

Selected Transcript

Q. How drastic was the change in the way of life after the Second World War?

A. “In the town that I came from, it didn’t seem like it was that different other than, during the war in the 40s, you couldn’t get things. After the war was over, it seemed like everything was available again and things like that. During the war years we had ration books, and when the war was over, all that stuff stopped. Now again the town I lived in, things seemed to be available for you.”

“You didn’t sorta notice the change. Things might have been a little different, but I graduated from high school, in this town I lived in, the garment industry was a big thing and coal mining was big”

Q. With the influx of better jobs/ pay, did your family go on vacations, did they get a car or have a television because they got paid more?

A. “For my dad, he worked on the railroad, he had a labor-type job. The most money he made in his life, in a year, was $1,200 ($12,000 in today’s money). A lot of people didn’t have a lot, but you didn’t really miss not having it because nobody did. Some families had cars, we (Bernard Grace’s family) never had a car, and we never had a phone in our house. We used our neighbor’s phone for years. It depends where you were coming from. If you lived in the cities, I’m sure things were a lot different, but in a small coal-mining town, It was not.”

“Coal mining was starting to reduce in popularity at that time because of new energy sources [nuclear energy], so people got out of the mines and people started to move away. I know when I got out of college, I had to relocate because there was no work where I came from, so I ended up going to a city to work.”

Q. How was leisure life in the 1950s? Was there more to do outside of work and school?

A. “After the war things were a lot better. Things were available. The 50s was a good time to be alive. Everything was available and there were a lot of things to do with a lot of fun involved. We would go to ice cream parlors and use their jukeboxes. When you were older and you knew somebody that had a car we would go to this place called The Globe and it was a dance hall. We would take people on dates and take them to the movies. It was a great way to grow up.”

“We would take people out on dates. In our crowd, we had a lot of that. Somebody would date someone one night, and then the next week somebody else would take them out. It wasn’t very serious but it was fun all the time. It was a great way to grow up and in this generation when we get together and talk, we talk about how good it was to grow up in that time. It’s gotta be tough today for people compared to back then.”

Q. Did you remember any racial issues either happening in your town, on the radio, or in the news?

A. “Back in the 50s, in my town, there was one black family and there must have been 2500 people living there. There was never an issue with color because nobody was there so we didn’t have that situation.”

Further Research

  • Anthony F.C. Wallace, St. Clair- A Nineteenth- Century Coal Town’s Experience With a Disaster-Prone Industry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, inc.,1987)
  • Nancy Hendricks, Daily Life in 1950s America (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2019) [ProQuest]
  • “Nuclear Energy: Past, Present and Future,” excerpted in Jay Lehr, Energy and Environment (London: Sage Publications Inc., 2010) [JSTOR]
  • “Brown, Racial Change, and the Civil Rights Movement” excerpted in Michael J. Klarman, Virginia Law Review (Charlottesville: Virginia Law Review, 1994) [JSTOR]

 

 

A witness to the takeover of the US embassy during the Iranian Revolution (an interview with former political officer Michael Metrinko)

On November 4, 1979, amid the chaos of the Iranian revolution, a huge crowd of Iranian militants and students stormed the US embassy in the Iranian capital of Tehran and took 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage. One of those diplomats who was taken hostage was a young political officer by the name of Michael Metrinko. For 444 days, he and the other 51 hostages were held against their will by the Iranian regime, who sought to profit from the hostage takeover by demanding that the United States hand over the exiled Iranian Shah in return for the hostages, something the US President Jimmy Carter refused to do. Finally, on January 20, 1981, after over a year in captivity and a failed rescue attempt by the US, the 52 hostages were released into American hands. Forty years later the incident still casts a large shadow over US-Iranian relations, which continues to be strained.

Iran hostage crisis - Wikipedia

Militants and students storm the embassy on November 4, 1979.

In order to understand why the revolution occurred, one has to go back to the year 1953. It was at this time that the Iranian government under Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh was removed from power in a coup orchestrated by the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the United Kingdom’s M16 (foreign intelligence branch). In Mossadegh’s place, the US helped put back into power Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah. While the Shah had been on the throne since 1941, his political powers increased considerably after the events of 1953. Under the Pahlavi Dynasty (1926-1979), Iran witnessed huge economic and modernization programs. In one of the most famous efforts to bring about political and economic reform, known as the “White Revolution,” the Shah implemented policies that sought to significantly reduce the powers of major landlords. He also gave women the right to vote in elections, a step that angered the conservative religious clerical establishment.

To his critics, the Shah’s regime was not a modernizing force but a very repressive political model. On the Shah’s watch, thousands of Iranians were arrested, tortured, and sometimes even executed. “I had students who had been in jail because they were opposed to the Shah. I had one student who was executed, wonderful student, after being tortured by the Shah’s secret police”, Michael recalled.

By the late 1970s, dissatisfaction with the Shah’s regime had reached a boiling point. Thousands of Iranians from all walks of life came out to protest against the Iranian monarchy. “There was a lot of demonstrations here and there. Anyone who could not see the revolution coming had to be blind, death, dumb, and incredibly stupid. You could sense it. You could feel it. You could hear about it” Michael stated. In January 1979, after much thought, the Shah, who was sick with cancer, boarded a plane and left Iran for the last time into exile. “It was time for him to go. He didn’t understand that”. Shortly after his departure, a man by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile and became the leader of what was now a full-on revolution.[1]

As the United States had been a major supporter of the Shah’s rule, there was a lot of anti-American sentiment expressed among the Iranian revolutionaries. Outside the US embassy in Tehran, there were often large protests against the US government by Iranian militants and students from the nearby university. On the morning of November 4, 1979, there was what seemed to be another usual protest by militants and students. Then, suddenly, members of the large crowd began to scale the embassy walls and some managed to get the embassy gate open. A sea of people began to storm the main embassy building itself within the compound. “I had gotten there early. I was sitting there doing some paperwork with my back turned to the window. I heard this rumbling noise start. I eventually went to the window to check it out and saw a huge crowd of people storming the gates. That’s when the alarms went off. We just sat there and waited.”[2]

The militants and students quickly took control of the embassy grounds and seized 52 American diplomats and citizens hostages. For over a year the hostages, Michael included, were held in tight conditions. “Spent ten months in solitary confinement. I was routinely beaten. I slept on bare concrete floors a lot of the time. I was often handcuffed. I sat in a room in solitary with a guy sitting ten feet away pointing a gun at me. I was never allowed to write a letter. My parents did not know I was alive until December 1980. Nor did the State Department. One of the guards smuggled a letter out for me” Michael recalled. Many of the hostages were interrogated and beaten. Some were forced into mock executions, where the prisoners were lined up against a wall where they thought they would be killed.[3]

Michael Metrinko, political officer, held hostage in Iran, 1981 vintage press photo print - Historic Images

Michael Metrinko as a foreign service officer in the United States State Department

In April 1980, the United States military, with the go ahead from US President Jimmy Carter, launched Operation Eagle Claw, a military attempt at rescuing the hostages from Tehran and returning them to the US. A group of US military helicopters and transport aircraft were sent into the Iranian desert from the USS Nimitz and the USS Coral Sea. Unfortunately, as the operation was underway, the aircraft encountered a large sandstorm that forced the group to land. Upon landing, it was discovered that one of the helicopters had a damaged rotor blade and was subsequently abandoned. To make matters worse, a bus carrying a group of civilians arrived in the area and had to be captured and guarded by members of the US Delta Force team that was part of the operation.[4]

Seeing that the operation seemed to be going nowhere, President Jimmy Carter ordered the team to abort the mission and return back to base. As the aircraft took off, one of the transport planes collided with one of the helicopters, bursting into a massive fireball that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 8 crew members. Operation Eagle Claw had resulted in a total failure and a large propaganda victory for Khomeini, who claimed that God had protected Iran by sending in the sandstorm to stop the US operation. President Carter was forced to take full responsibility for the failed mission, and it greatly hurt his reelection chances in 1980, which were already not that great to begin with thanks to domestic economic troubles.[5]

In September 1980, Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein invaded Iran and soon the two countries were deadlocked into a full-blown war with warfare tactics not seen since the First World War. It was around this time that other countries began putting more and more pressure on Iran to release the hostages. Also, due to the death of the Shah back in July of that year, the Iranians now had little use of the hostages as a bargaining chip. Furthermore, with the war with Iraq raging on, Iran was in desperate need for military supplies. Since Iran had mostly American-made arms and equipment, Iran was forced to go to the US for extra supplies. As a result, Iran and the United States with the assistance of Algeria, began to negotiate for the release of the hostages.[6]

On January 20, 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan had been inaugurated as President, the hostages were finally released after 444 days in captivity. “Free at last. Felt good. I was glad to be out. I don’t think I had any ill effects. I got into very good physical condition while I was in my cell” Michael stated. Forty-two years later and relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to be nearly nonexistent as Iran considers the US to be the “Great Satan” and still celebrates the takeover of the US embassy 42 years later. When asked if he regretted anything, Michael simply replied, “Yeah that I didn’t stay home that morning,” as he laughs out loud.

The Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981 was and continues to be an important historic event. To this day, this major diplomatic incident shapes American public and government opinions of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Maybe one day the two countries can put the bad blood behind them and normalize relations. Until that time, however, the two will remain at odds and seek ways to challenge and undermine the interests of the other.[7]

 

Interview subject: Michael J. Metrinko, age 75, retired US Political Officer who worked in the US State Department during the late 1970s and was taken hostage during the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979

-Audio recording with Michael Metrinko, Carlisle, PA, April 26, 2021

Q. Could you describe your position as a political officer?

A. I had served in the Peace Corps in Iran for three years from 1970 to 1973. I went back in 1977 and it was my third assignment. First in Turkey for two years and then in Syria. I was initially assigned to the visa section in the embassy. Then a few months later I was asked to go up to Tabriz and take over as principle officer at the American consulate in Tabriz. I was in the consulate there until February 1979. Because of conditions and an attack on the consulate in Tabriz I was brought back to Tehran and given an assignment in the political section. I was one of the few people that stayed on from the old staff that had been there prior to the revolution. I stayed on because I could speak Farsi and I had a lot of contacts within the Iranian government. The embassy wanted me to stay on because I was one of the few people that could speak Farsi and so I became one of the new officers in the new political section. Later in 1979 I was in the political section reporting officer responsible for a wide variety of subjects when the event occurred on November 4th 1979 the attack on the embassy, which resulted in the taking of hostages.

Q. Did you sense that a revolution was on the horizon? Why, or why not?

A. Of course. It was obvious to anyone who wasn’t a total idiot. I had students who had been in jail because they were opposed to the Shah. I had one student who was executed, wonderful student, after being tortured by the Shah’s secret police. All I ever heard from Iranian friends was their dissatisfaction with the Shah’s government. When I went back in 1977 I was getting this all the time. It was talked about quite openly by a lot of Iranians. There was a lot of demonstrations here and there. Anyone who could not see the revolution coming had to be blind, death, dumb, and incredibly stupid. You could sense it. You could feel it. You could hear about it.

Q. What did you think of the Shah, as a man and as a ruler?

A. I have a prejudice against dictators. I have a prejudice against people who think that God himself has bestowed a kingdom upon them and ignore the laws and ignore morality and rule it as if it is a family business. He was a fairly weak ruler. He’s family was fairly corrupt. He was basically incapable to have the ability to rule. He had been there since the 1940s. It was time for him to go. He didn’t understand that. Maybe a nice guy to his family. Shallow, vain, thought he was great when he wasn’t.

Q. How did you feel about the revolution of 1979?

A. It was necessary because the Shah wasn’t going to leave otherwise and his system wasn’t going to change otherwise. Initially it gave promise. Almost immediately it started breaking its promises.

Q. How did you end up at the embassy that morning?

A. My standard work day was I would be out every night. I had a vast network of friends. I was out almost every night with Iranian friends. There was martial law so often I would not come back until early in the morning. That meant that I could not get to the embassy at 8 o’clock in the morning to start work because I had gotten back home at maybe 5, 6 in the morning. The day before all this I had a call from a good friend. He said that he had to talk to me the next day around 10 o’clock or so. I said I couldn’t do it. He said his brother and him were going to leave Tehran and meet with Yasser Arafat. I said sure I’ll be there. They never showed up.

Q. Could you describe the morning of the takeover?

A. I had gotten there early. I was sitting there doing some paper work with my back turned to the window. I heard this rumbling noise start. I eventually went to the window to check it out and saw a huge crowd of people storming the gates. Thats when the alarms went off. We just sat there and waited.

Q. Were you surprised when they stormed the embassy?

A. No. I was highly annoyed. What surprised everyone was how long it was going to take. We thought that even if we were attacked it would be over in a few hours and then we could go back to some degree of normalcy.

Q. How did you feel when you were taken hostage?

A. Pissed. Royally pissed. Annoyed because it messed up the rest of my day. As it gradually sank in that this would not be over anytime soon I became more and more angry. I could not feel outraged, however.

Q. Could you describe your captors?

A. Combination of bad educations. They knew very little about the real world outside of Iran. Many of them were not students. Some had actually studied in America. They were aided and abetted by people around Khomeini.

Q. How were you treated as a hostage?

A. Spent ten months in solitary confinement. I was routinely beaten. I slept on bare concrete floors a lot of the time. I was often handcuffed. I sat in a room in solitary with a guy sitting ten feet away pointing a gun at me. I was never allowed to write a letter. My parents did not know I was alive until December 1980. Nor did the State Department. One of the guards smuggled a letter out for me.

Q. Did you think you would be rescued by the US?

A. I never thought I would be. You know when I was going through Junior officer training. During orientation we had a long lecture. A guy told us that if we were kidnapped while you are a diplomat they would not pay a ransom. It was an effective policy.

Q. How did you feel once you were finally freed on Jan 20, 1981?

A. Free at last. Felt good. I was glad to be out. I don’t think I had any ill effects. I got into very good physical condition while I was in my cell.

Q. When you look back at this event is there anything that you regret?

A. Yeah that I didn’t stay home that morning hahaha.

Q. Do you think that the Iranian revolutionaries intended to drag this event to 444 days?

A. No. They continued to use this to stay in power.

 

Bibliography

[1] FARBER, DAVID. “TAKEOVER IN TEHRAN.” In Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam, 73-101. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2005. http://www.jstor.org.envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/stable/j.ctt7sts9.7.

[2] FARBER, DAVID. “444 DAYS.” In Taken Hostage: The Iran Hostage Crisis and America’s First Encounter with Radical Islam, 137-80. PRINCETON; OXFORD: Princeton University Press, 2005. http://www.jstor.org.envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/stable/j.ctt7sts9.9.

[3] Smith, Steve. “Policy Preferences and Bureaucratic Position: The Case of the American Hostage Rescue Mission.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 61, no. 1 (1984): 9-25. doi:10.2307/2619777.

[4] McDermott, Rose. “Prospect Theory in International Relations: The Iranian Hostage Rescue Mission.” Political Psychology 13, no. 2 (1992): 237-63. doi:10.2307/3791680.

[5] Smith, Steve. “Groupthink and the Hostage Rescue Mission.” British Journal of Political Science 15, no. 1 (1985): 117-23. http://www.jstor.org.envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/stable/193750.

[6] Nuechterlein, Donald E. “Iran Hostage Crisis: The Changing Mood in America.” In A Cold War Odyssey, 167-94. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. http://www.jstor.org.envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/stable/j.ctt130hzr1.12.

[7] Schachter, Oscar. “SELF-HELP IN INTERNATIONAL LAW: U.S. Action in the Iranian Hostages Crisis.” Journal of International Affairs 37, no. 2 (1984): 231-46. http://www.jstor.org.envoy.dickinson.edu:2048/stable/24356927.