Everyman in Vietnam

Michael Adas and Joseph Gilch, Everyman in Vietnam, by Hank Bitten

Book - Everyman in Vietnam

In my reading of the first pages of Everyman in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 2018), I found the personal narrative of Jimmy Gilch, a young man from Runnemede, New Jersey engaging me with fresh perspectives about the conflict in Vietnam. The new perspectives are likely to motivate high school and college students in asking questions about the effects of colonialism on America’s foreign policies, the influence of domestic events, and the reasons for a fragmented foreign policy, and the failure of American intervention in Vietnam. Personal letters offer a perspective that is different from studying historical documents, viewing a film, or reading about battles and events in a book.

One advantage of Everyman in Vietnam is the author’s understanding of the importance of the relationship between the chronological perspective of domestic events and Vietnamese society and culture. History is the story of time and Michael Adas and Joseph Gilch intentionally introduce the historical time machine in an analysis of America’s involvement and why many baby boomers and some of their parents did not support this conflict as their parents and grandparents did in World War II or Korea. The narrative begins with the changes in postwar America that were developing in unexpected ways.

“During the 50s an entire industry built from scratch took hold of the nation. The first telecasts offered little beyond bland news programs and “Howdy Doody,” But by the mid-1950s the broadcast industry was booming. Within a ten-year span from 1949 to 1959, the number of household television sets increased from 940,000 to 44,000,000…. After school Jimmy would often race home and sit on the red carpet in the den watching television to avoid schoolwork. He watched cartoons and teen-targeted programs, such as Tom Terrific and Spin & Marty, His favorite was Tennessee Tuxedo.” (pp.23-24)

The post World War II years were a time of significant demographic, economic, and cultural changes that students need to know as part of their understanding of the decade of the 1960s. The numbers of Americans regularly attending worship services doubled during these years as many were convinced of the value of God and country in a world threatened by the evils of Communism. An example of a new perspective in the book was the impact of President Eisenhower’s speech in 1952 in New York City that “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply religious faith.” (p. 24) It is in this context of political and religious conformity that Jimmy and many other youth in every state evolved into school rebels with D.A. haircuts and other modes of passive rebellion.

The suburbanization of America, the way people embraced automobiles, and the fascination of America’s youth with fads in music and other forms of popular culture support the argument that these were not times of unchallenged cultural conformity but rather questioning that would lead to revolutionary challenges in 1968 when Americans questioned the containment policies of the Cold War and the domino theory that spread fears of a collapse of capitalism and democracy.

“Jimmy claimed he was not interested in what others thought of him. He did not need their approval or guidance, but he was concerned with his image. A little vain, he spent a lot of time in front of the mirror combing his hair and practicing his smile. He saw Elvis as his ideal, sported a leather jacket, and popped its collar. He enjoyed rock and roll, and western or action films. Like so many Americans in the postwar decades, he was an ardent fan of John Wayne. Jimmy was willing to conform, but he craved independence. A driver’s license and a car allowed him to escape briefly the suburban sprawl. He bought an old green truck with a big engine and a heavy frame. It had a broken passenger door, smelled of gasoline, and had little in the way of chrome fittings. When he drove his sisters to school, he kept the windows up because he wanted people to believe the truck had air conditioning. Jimmy drove the truck like a hot-rod-hard and fast.” (p. 49)

The decade of the Sixties is complicated for students to understand because it includes poverty and affluence, the civil rights movement, the space race, nuclear proliferation and non-proliferation, changing roles for women, a revolution in communications, and conflicts in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is also a complicated period for teachers to cover because they are faced with time constraints and deciding which resources are most appropriate for engaging students with inquiry, discussion, analysis, and the evaluation of theses relating to the causes and effects of America’s foreign policy decisions in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

A second profound perspective in Everyman in Vietnam is the explanation of the culture of the Vietnamese and their struggle for national unity since the 14th century. For example, in reading the chapter about the flawed agreements of the Geneva Conference, students might search for evidence on the multiple theses if the Vietnam War was an issue of independence from the Chinese, Japanese, or French; if the conflict was about the national unity of the diversity of cultures (Amman, Cochin, Tonkin); or the spread of communism and socialism in a country dominated by extreme poverty from three centuries of colonialism and capitalism.

The information presented by the authors on the dates of the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945; the proclamation of the recognition of the Viet Minh by the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, and the surrender of the fortress at Dien Bien Phu on May 8, 1954 (9th anniversary of V-E Day) gave me a new perspective of Ho Chih Minh, the importance of his travels to London, Paris, and New York in the 1920s and 30s, and how these historic events are turning points in Vietnam’s history and struggle for national unity.

“Ho began his brief but stirring address (before a massive crowd in Ba Dinh Square in Hanoi on September 2, 1945, V-J Day) with a quotation from the American Declaration of Independence. Abbreviating what he termed an ‘immortal statement’ from that earlier call to armed resistance against colonial tyranny, he declared: ‘All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ Ho’s decision to begin the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence with the most resonant passage from the preamble to the American one can be seen as cruelly ironic in view of subsequent history. His choice of American precedents was almost certainly in recognition of the cooperation – and the deep, mutual respect it engendered – between Vietnamese guerrilla fighters and the American Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) in the final stages of the war against the Japanese.” (p. 12)

Within the next six months, Ho sent President Truman a telegram dated February 28, 1946 with references to the principles of both the Atlantic Charter (1941) and the San Francisco Charter (1945):

“ON BEHALF OF VIETNAM GOVERNMENT AND PEOPLE I BEG TO INFORM YOU THAT IN COURSE OF CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN VIETNAM GOVERNMENT AND FRENCH REPRESENTATIVES THE LATTER REQUIRE THE SECESSION OF COCHINCHINA AND THE RETURN OF FRENCH TROOPS IN HANOI (STOP) MEANWHILE FRENCH POPULATION AND TROOPS ARE MAKING ACTIVE PREPARATION FOR A COUP DE MAIN IN HANOI AND FOR MILITARY AGGRESSION (STOP) I THEREFORE MOST EARNESTLY APPEAL TO YOU PERSONALLY AND TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE TO INTERFERE URGENTLY IN SUPPORT OF OUR INDEPENDENCE AND HELP MAKING THE NEGOTIATIONS MORE IN KEEPING WITH THE PRINCIPLES OF THE ATLANTIC AND SAN FRANCISCO CHARTERS.” (Document, p. 13)

Although Secretary of State, George C. Marshall was critical of the French for their refusal to accept the realities of a postcolonial world after World War II, the economic importance of Indochina’s raw materials, rice exports, and rubber plantations, and opportunities for commercial development and investment shaped the fateful decision for ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ in the transformation of Vietnam into a future battleground that divided Americans.

The third perspective that influenced my inquiry as a reader of Everyman in Vietnam was the decision faced by students graduating high school to enlist or be drafted. I was a baby boomer and turned age 18 in the beginning of my third year of college (as a result of skipping a half year of kindergarten and seventh grade) and faced similar decisions until my Class IV deferment ended with college graduation. Just as high school students eagerly look for college acceptance letters in their mailbox or email Inbox today, many teenagers in the Sixties feared the announcement in the mail from the Selective Service Administration to report to their local draft board for a physical exam. There were choices for the young boys who graduated high school and were not enrolled in college. These included enlisting for four years with the hope of a placement in Europe, joining the Reserves or National Guard, applying for an exemption as a conscientious objector on religious beliefs, writing to one’s local congressman for preferential treatment, leaving the country, or applying for a medical deferment to avoid harm’s way.

The description provided in the personal letters of Jimmy Gilch to his best friend Gerry about his basic training at Fort Dix reveals the harsh reality of how the Army made boys into men. The experiences of basic training were not limited to the privacy of one’s family and as they were shared with others through conversation and visually illustrated on the nightly TV news, everyone understood how life in the military was different from the civilian life of rock concerts, beach weekends, drive-in movies, and ice cream sundaes at Dairy Queen!

“…I learned more about hand-to-hand combat today and boy can you really hurt a guy if you want too, but what the army is teaching is nothing to play around with, it doesn’t take much to hurt a person no matter what their size or weight, if you have good foot speed and fast moves it is hard to be beat, but the enemy is not just standing there singing. If you are slow when you come in contact with him [you’re dead]. but once you get him down you smash his head into the ground 7 or 8 times and give him the heel of your boot, then you decide how to finish dispose of him and that’s where I’m told the fun starts….” (p. 72)

In a letter to his mother at the end of his Advanced Infantry Training, Jimmy writes,

“Dear Mom,

…Too bad I did not know what I know now when I was home because I would have had more respect for both you and dad and the kid’s.(sic) I wish you made me study in school, and I wish you were a lot harder on me. Tell Georgie to leave the girls alone, he doesn’t know what it is like to be away. I’ve learned a lot that I would not otherwise have if I stayed in [Runnemede] all my life…thank god (sic) I found this out now while it is not too late. I would like to go back to school when I come out and make the family proud of me like I’m proud of dad and you and Georgie. I don’t see how dad kept the family like he does, I don’t blame him for being mad sometimes because he has a lot on his mind…and everything he tried to teach me I thought I knew, but I didn’t know anything. When I get out, I will really try my best to help instead of being a pain….” (p. 76)

The fourth fresh perspective in this book is in the analysis of the military strategies as a result of the information revealed in both the declassification of documents and the secondary sources of historians and authors over the past 50 years. The information about the tunnels, use of Armored Personnel Carriers, B-52s, helicopters, tanks, chemicals, and the nuclear option are informative and engage the reader in reflective thinking.

It is difficult for teachers and students to understand how our country won most of the battles in Vietnam but did not win the war. Michael Adas and Joseph Gilch provide an excellent analysis of America’s fragmented foreign policy in each presidential administration – Roosevelt (D), Truman (D), Eisenhower (R), Kennedy (D), Johnson (D), and Nixon (R). They also explain with strong documentation the frustration experienced by President Johnson regarding his agendas for civil rights and the Great Society with the escalating costs of the Vietnam War and the conflicting views of Clark Clifford (Chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board), Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense), and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although in 1966 the ratio was two American soldiers to one Vietnamese guerrilla, this was considered inadequate.

President’s Johnson’s frustration is expressed in an off-color analogy that he made following his deliberations at a meeting in Aspen Lodge at Camp David in the summer of 1966:

“If I left the woman I really loved – the Great Society – in order to get involved with that…of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs; all my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless; all my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor. But if I left that war and let the Communists take over South Vietnam…there would follow in this country an endless national debate – a mean and destructive debate – that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy.” (p.96)

There are lessons for teachers and students to contemplate on the human and economic costs of the war, the stories of refugees who came to the United States, the work of military chaplains, the resilience of the Vietnamese people, and the reconstruction of Saigon and Vietnam from war to a 21st century productive economy. Teachers and students may also compare the experience of our military withdrawal from Vietnam with decisions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria. The Epilogue in Everyman in Vietnam provides a concise analysis preparing students for an informed discussion on the lessons of Vietnam in the big picture of 20th century military conflicts involving the United States.

Jimmy Gilch died in combat in 1966 just a few weeks before he was to go on leave in Japan,

“On the night of July 20th, six days after the army terminated Operation Coco Palms, B Company was exhausted when they returned to Cu Chi. Nonetheless, it was again ordered back into the Filhol Rubber Plantation. Jimmy’s squad would head out the next morning….

The next morning B Company was ordered to start packing their APCs with C-4 explosives and antipersonnel mines….Jimmy and B Company left base camp at 0900, and entered the Filhol by late morning….they were hyper-alert as they continued into the Ho Bo Woods and around the village of Phu My Hung, which was a well-known, well-secured area that held two enemy hospitals, a fortified headquarters, and a training depot – all mostly underground. The Filhol area was notorious for hidden enemy entrenchments and snipers, who climbed high into the trees and hid in the foliage. The GIs in B Company expected to be ambushed, so they breathed a sigh of relief as the APCs maneuvered past ground that had claimed many of their friends.

But on the return trip, guerrilla forces ambushed B Company in the same place where earlier that afternoon they had dismounted their APCs and demolished an enemy entrenchment. The ambush began with small weapons fire from the earthworks one hundred meters away. An ammo box inside Lieutenant Jagosz’s APC was struck and exploded. Jagosz was knocked unconscious and pinned to the floor by falling ammo boxes. His driver was hit in the face by shrapnel and slumped over the gears, sending the track into reverse.

The VC had placed command-detonated mines all around the area. They also hung recycled US howitzer shells from low-lying tree branches, which they shot down on the approaching Americans….In an effort to flank the enemy, Jimmy and his third squad mates took it upon themselves to move their APC around the enemy trench line to support the units that were pinned down under fire. They were hoping their flanking maneuver would disrupt the enemy’s ambush long enough for A Company to arrive and repel the guerrilla’s assault. As their track moved across the trench, it was hit by a command-detonated mine. The blast set off several pounds of explosives stored in the overhead compartments. The hood covering their engine, weighing several tons, flew at supersonic speed through the air. The only thing left of the APC was the floorboard and the driver’s steering sticks. All seven soldiers aboard were killed instantly.” (Excerpts from pp. 189-191)

The book, Everyman in Vietnam by Michael Adas and Joseph Gilch, has information and insights for everyone.

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