A homefront torn by war

April 30, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith

IN THE winter of 1965, before the anti-war movement began in earnest, I wrote about a family in South Attleboro, Mass., whose son had been killed in Vietnam. He was one of the first casualties from that part of the state -- a new thing then, a Page One story.

A Marine officer stood at attention next to the family Christmas tree, offering the nation's condolences.

A stoic sadness -- a solicitude for the young officer with the difficult duty -- filled the room.

The young man's parents must have asked themselves why, but they did not challenge the authority that sent their boy to his death. The president knew what was best, people said in those days. Over the next few years, though, as thousands came home in body bags, more and more Americans stood up to ask what this mother and father could not.

In addition to the 58,000 U.S. deaths, questioning and protesting and refusing to trust government has been an enduring legacy of Vietnam for good and for ill. No one accepts the arrival of a noxious chemical plant, incinerator or halfway house -- even a softball field -- without considering a campaign to defy whatever quadrant of officialdom dares set foot near their back yard.

No one imagines today that you can't fight City Hall. Today, disciplined American militants take on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, battling police -- earning headlines for their concerns about exploited people around the globe.

Studiously and professionally nonviolent in their protests, these demonstrators and street theater artists trace their civil disobedience lineage to the baby doctor, Benjamin Spock; to former Yale chaplain William Sloan Coffin; to writer Norman Mailer; to actress, Jane Fonda -- and to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

King asked the nation to recognize that many of the men killed in Vietnam were black or poor. His opposition to the war was part of the civil rights movement, a citizen uprising that pre-dated the expansion of protest as a permanent aspect of American life.

An editorial writer at the

cf03 Providence Journal

cf01 where I worked in the mid-1960s agreed with King and for months wrote pointed, angry and emotional editorials decrying U.S. policy, defining the newspaper's position on the war. Suddenly, that paper's publisher seemed to notice and silenced this eloquent critic, giving him a signed column, hoping to separate his paper from this man's opinions.

The columns grew more strident -- and the writer was fired. He was hired immediately by the

cf03 New York Times,

cf01 signaling a kind of establishment embrace of anti-government viewpoints.

Government itself embraced protest, making it a canon of the war on poverty: maximum feasible participation of the poor, a widely criticized directive which deliberately threatened entrenched political machines in cities across the nation. A parallel political structure was formed under the auspices of community action agencies -- and over time city councils, mayors' offices and other seats of power fell to once-excluded groups. The alienated and disenfranchised were brought into the system.

The willingness of Americans to oppose the official position of their government grew at antiwar rallies that blanketed Central Park in Manhattan; laid siege to Washington during the march on the Pentagon; and occupied university presidents' offices on campuses across the nation. President Lyndon B. Johnson, unable to pin the coonskin cap of victory to the cabin door, chose not to run for a second term.

When the war ended, those who escaped the fate of the kid from South Attleboro were reviled -- and learned to build a protest movement of their own. Led by men like Jan Scruggs, then a Columbia resident, they forced Congress to provide money for a monument near the Lincoln Memorial.

In those days, I wrote about another anonymous victim of the war, Joseph M. Turowski Jr. He grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of south Baltimore in a gray stone house with a varnished wood swing on the front porch.

One had a sense of life's predictable cycles at the Turowski home, a feeling expressed by his mother.

"We really expected to have him home," she said. "He was due in August. He was killed June 22, 1970."

Unlike the mother in South Attleboro, Mrs. Turowski offered her angry protest.

"I don't see any reason for it," she said. "If he went there and he lost his life fighting for this country, we would feel better than we do today."

None felt more betrayed than the returning veterans who took responsibility for finding a symbol that might unite a fractured nation. The black granite memorial they built, its angular arms reaching out on the National Mall toward the Washington and Lincoln monuments, bears the names of all the Vietnam dead. Surely everyone would support this effort.

But some found the display divisive, mordant and apologetic.

They protested. And a more conventional display -- three battle-weary soldiers -- was added.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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