2004-10-01 / Columnists

Editor’s Desk From the

By Howard Schwach


Although I have been a registered Democrat ever since I turned 21 and voted for John F. Kennedy for President in November of 1960 (you had to be 21 to vote in those days), I really do not consider myself a political person in the sense that I have allegiance to a particular party or platform.

I registered as a Democrat because my parents were Democrats and because then, as today, the only fun primary races in New York City involved the Democratic Party.

I guess that, for the times, I would have been considered a Kennedy Liberal. I was in favor of civil rights and big government. I was more concerned with the Communist threat and a nuclear holocaust than I was with a faraway place named Vietnam, which I associated only with the French and the recent fall of Diem Bien Phu to the indigenous communist guerrillas.

When I received my draft notice in 1961 and was told by officials at the draft board on the second floor of the Far Rockaway Post Office building that I would be leaving for basic training in about three weeks, I took a alternative route and joined the Naval Reserve at Floyd Bennett Field because that plan allowed me to complete my final year of college prior to going on active duty.

All thoughts of war at the time were of the Communist threat against Germany and the nations in Eastern Europe that were still free, and we had been living with that threat since the end of World War II and the Berlin Airlift, a scant 15 years in the past..

In any case, I did my boot camp at Floyd Bennett Field in 1962. The highlight of the boot camp was the death of Marilyn Monroe.

I went on active duty in February of 1963, reporting to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for assignment.

Our only involvement at the time with Vietnam was a contingent of Special Forces soldiers who were there to train the South Vietnamese forces how to fight, although troop strength was growing under Kennedy’s direction.

We believed in the “Domino Theory,” that posited the theory that the fall of one nation to the Communists would lead, like falling dominos, to the fall of other nations in the region. Today, that sounds quaint, but we really believed it at the time.

Then came the assassination of JFK, the ascendancy Lyndon B. Johnson and The Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

The Gulf Incident, which marks the beginning of massive American involvement in the war, began with the reported attack on American destroyers on August 2, 1964, a little more than forty years ago.

I was in the Mediterranean Sea at the time on board USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42). If I remember correctly, we were in Cannes, France for a port visit at the time.

The USS Maddox was patrolling off the Gulf of Tonkin, looking for enemy artillery positions, when two torpedo boats reportedly attacked with torpedoes and gunfire. One shell was said to have hit the Maddox.

On August 4, two American destroyers, the Maddox and the Turner Joy were attacked by North Vietnamese patrol boats.

Today, the entire story is in doubt, with many historians believing that the Johnson administration made up the entire incident as an excuse to beef up our troop strength in Vietnam.

Later in the year, however, I spoke with a radioman assigned to my ship who had been on the Turner Joy that night. We talked about the incident at length in a bar in Barcelona one night and he told me that it was one of the most frightening nights of his life. He said that the attack was a confused jumble of lights and sounds, explosions and course changes. He spoke of the attack as if it really happened and I don’t think he had reason to lie to another sailor drinking with him in a Spanish bar.

In any case, Johnson went to Congress to ask for support in sending troops to Vietnam under the theory that Americans had been attacked in international waters and that was an act of war against America.

Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7 and Johnson quickly used the resolution to send troops. The beginning of the buildup really began in March of 1965, about a month after I left active duty, but I am still considered a Vietnam Veteran by the government because I was on active duty at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

Many of the pilots on my ship quickly asked for a transfer to the west coast so that they could fly combat missions.

“I’ve been training for years for war,” one A-6 Intruder pilot told me, “and I want to get into the game while it’s still hot. I want to drop live ordinance.”

I guess that I was a “Hawk” at the time, the designation for those who believed in the domino theory and thought the war was necessary. Of course, those opposed to the war were termed “Doves.”

By the early 1970’s, however, I had moved quickly from “Hawk” status to “Semi-Dove.” It was clear that we had no way of winning the war – that we could not bring democracy to a nation crippled by corruption and local agendas, a nation whose people did not want our form of democracy to begin with.

It was clear that American young men were dieing without reason.

This was all brought back last weekend. I was watching one of the myriad talk shows broadcast early on Sunday morning when one of President Bush’s supporters said something that struck a chord in my memory banks (or, what is left of them).

“John Kerry is not supporting our troops in Iraq,” the president’s flack said. “Every American should support the war effort and our men and women in uniform.”

That was, as Yogi Berra once said, “Déjà vu all over again.”

I remember Johnson’s flacks and then Nixon’s flacks saying the same thing in the 1970’s. “If you don’t support the war, then you are a traitor to the men (there were few women except nurses in combat at the time) who are fighting for your freedom,” the mantra went.

My first thought on hearing the statement last weekend was, “This is Vietnam all over again.”

Sure, Vietnam should not be an issue in the campaign, although there is a bottom line. Kerry served and was wounded and Bush ran away and hid. There is no way that flying sorties over the Gulf of Mexico matches up with running a swift board on the Mekong River.

There are too many parallels, however, to ignore the fact that Iraq is turning quickly into another Vietnam for America. We cannot bring democracy to a nation whose people prefer a religious theocracy. That, too is the bottom line.

Let’s hope that ten years from now we are not watching CNN as the last helicopter pulls away from the American Embassy in Baghdad as dozens of Iraqi civilians who helped us in their nation hang from the helicopter’s skids. There is a real possibility, however, that we will be seeing something very similar one day if we keep pursuing the course we are on today.

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