Former student leader recalls the Vietnam War
Franklin Crawford does an outstanding job of summarizing key points in Fredrik Logevall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam (“Doomed to Repeat It,” Currents, July/August 2013). However, I’m compelled to ask for further reflection on Crawford’s use of the quote from Country Joe and the Fish in his concluding comments. By citing the lines “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?/ Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn—next stop is Vietnam,” the writer (as was Country Joe McDonald) is not acknowledging that many Americans who entered the military did so because they’d been persuaded that fighting “communism” in Vietnam represented a patriotic duty. (I almost became part of that group, as I had planned to enlist before being entreated by my high school English teacher to apply to Cornell.)
While there is a noteworthy component of truth to the observation that many young Americans felt “an air of poignant fatalism” regarding the draft, many others felt a profound moral responsibility to resist conscription. Hundreds of students at Cornell either acted upon this sense of ethical duty or supported those that did. Nationally, one of the high-profile individuals who refused to comply with the draft was Muhammad Ali, the controversial heavyweight champion. Also, as the war in Vietnam continued, resistance within the military began to rock the boat. No longer was there unquestioning acquiescence to the dictates of those who felt that bombing Vietnam back to the Stone Age (as was suggested by General Curtis LeMay) was the way to deal with the unwillingess of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong to accept U.S. hegemony.
In addition, there were many members of the U.S. military who became peace activists after their return to the States, including Ron Kovic, the former Marine who wrote Born on the Fourth of July. The current Secretary of State, John Kerry, became an effective voice for peace upon his return, testifying in Congress as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. My point in citing this broad range of examples of opposition to participation in that war effort—by people who refused conscription, as well as those whose thinking changed based on their experiences after being drafted—is to provide a significant degree of support for the contention that many in the military did, in fact, “give a damn.” That’s why many veterans threw their hard-earned medals over the White House fence—they were angry about being deceived about the nature of our military efforts in Vietnam.
Finally, though Professor Logevall’s book is clearly a brilliant work of scholarship, I am troubled by the closing words of the subtitle: The Making of America’s Vietnam. While one may contend that I’m missing the significance of this use of the possessive form, there is something fundamentally awry in that phrase. Logevall quotes JFK, in a November 1951 speech, in which he tells the Boston Chamber of Commerce that the Vietnamese government did not have the support of “the people of that area” because it was “a puppet government.” What American leaders did was take over the lease of a French puppet show, using a series of new marionettes. This transition cost the lives of between three and four million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans, as well as billions of dollars. But despite our nation’s huge investment of blood, tears, money, and machinery, Vietnam never was “America’s.” Sadly, after the French defeat, the American war in Vietnam became a series of tragic losses of life, as veterans and historians like Professor Logevall have demonstrated with exceptional effectiveness.
Climate Change of Heart
What can I say about the interview of Elaine Wethington except that she has the arrogance of youth (“Storms Ahead,” July/August 2013)? At the age of seventy-nine, living alone in a home whose backyard is bounded by salt water and where, two years ago, a destructive F2 tornado came within 800 yards, I can say that she certainly does not speak for me when she writes that she prefers Ithaca over the seacoast. To try to use the elderly as another bludgeon in the climate change debate is condescending, especially when she advocates mandatory evacuations. Where would I go? I’m safer in my home than wandering storm-swept highways.
I do not have independent knowledge as to whether the climate is warming, though I did study glaciology and glacial geology at Cornell, and I am well aware that in the years since man first inhabited North America, mile-thick ice lay over Ithaca and has been receding since well before the Industrial Revolution.
I lived through the hurricane of September 1938 that killed 600 on Long Island and in New England, more than twice the death toll of Sandy. The Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed more than four times the number of those who died in Katrina, and, really, no responsible meteorologist has claimed that climate change has had any effect on the frequency or intensity of either hurricanes or tornados. I would hope that CAM would avoid nonsense of this sort in the future and stick to better-sourced articles that do not use senior citizens as involuntary weapons in the climate fight.
Elaine Wethington responds: Mr. White has read more into this interview, and my opinions about climate change, than was intended. I did not argue that tornadoes and hurricanes are connected to climate change. (Indeed, it is not established that storms will increase if there is climate change; sea level rise seems more likely under some predictive scenarios.) But putting the subject of climate change aside, the fact remains that older people, on average, are more vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters and extreme weather, including death. The greater death rate, as during hurricanes, is not wholly attributable to living in more vulnerable areas; research studies show that other factors are involved, both social and physiological. (These are noted in the interview.) This greater on average vulnerability has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Association of Retired Persons, and many state and local governments that have put policies into place to assure that older people are protected. The policies are based on evidence and experience after natural disaster—these include better, more interpretable warnings, locally based evacuation plans, and educating everyone (not just older people) about disaster preparation and survival.
I believe that protecting the health of older people is a public good. Obviously, not all older people are equally vulnerable. The vast majority are capable of making their own decisions about where to live and what to do, and that also is a public good. Although Mr. White seems to assume I am a youth, I am in fact an older person (age sixty-three). I am in good health and hope to retain it for at least twenty-five more years, as my parents did. Thinking about the future and preparing to protect my health translates for me into wanting more information about how to be prepared.
We now find ourselves in a situation where graduating students cannot launch tradi – tional efforts to start careers, buy homes and cars, and start families. They are beholden to student loans.The article “Forward Into the Past” is a bland treatment of a corrosive development (July/August 2013). The costs of higher education in the U.S. have escalated at rates higher than inflation for more than forty years. No cost control [has been] exercised by universities and colleges!
The enabler for this profligacy of cost escalation has been student loans. So we now find ourselves in a situation where graduating students cannot launch traditional efforts to start careers, buy homes and cars, and start families. They are beholden to student loans. This damages the overall economy.
I believe that one of the most irresponsible outcomes of my adult life has been the failure of the higher education system to control its costs. As a society, we are beginning to pay the extraordinary costs of this error. MOOCs are the canary in the coalmine!
Imagine that the Class of ’53 was entertained by a singing group made up of old grads singing at their first reunion, and suppose that they are called the Cayuga’s Waiters from the Nineties—the 1890s, that is. This puts into perspective what has been going on for the past nine years as the Cayuga’s Waiters from the Fifties entertained the returning classes at reunion, sixty-years-plus after their own graduation.
It all started in 2001 when the ensemble from 1953–54 met for the first time in forty-seven years at a resort in Vermont. All of the living members—nine of the original twelve—were present. It was decided to meet yearly and to invite other members who had sung with the group in the Fifties. Then they were invited to sing at Reunion 2005 and have done so each year since, including performances at the Savage Club show, the CRC luncheon, for several classes, and at Cornelliana Night. They dust off their old repertoire to bring back fond memories and strong emotions for the classes from that era.
At Reunion 2013, the Cayuga’s Waiters from the Fifties performed for the classes of ’48, ’53, and ’58, as well as for CRC, the College of Human Ecology, and at a celebration for John Nixon ’53 (a Cayuga’s Waiter) and Lea Nixon ’53 for their contributions to Cornell. It is remarkable that these alumni, who love to sing and entertain, make the trip each year, some from as far away as Florida and California. It is heartening that the Cayuga’s Waiters still exist and are immensely popular on campus today. Will they return to sing in sixty years? Let’s hope so.
Objecting to Technion
David Skorton’s column in May/June 2013 refers to the Cornell Tech campus as an opportunity to create a model institution for applied sciences, lauds high-tech research, and praises the effort to make New York City a world center for high-tech enterprise. The problem is that Cornell is partnering with Technion–Israel Institute of Technology. How many alumni know that Technion is a direct link to the Israeli military and that their students in Israel develop drones, surveillance equipment, and weapons?
We should be true to our founding values and ethics: cut the ties with Technion and make it a true science and education complex in New York City.
Sports, page 16: The photographs of Victoria Imbesi ’13 and Stephen Mozia ’15 should have been credited to Russ Hartung. We apologize for the error.