Last fall, Saint Anselm alumnus Dave Witham ’68 contacted Professor Masur after learning about his course on the Vietnam War. Professor Masur asked Mr. Witham if he would be willing to share some recollections about attending Saint Anselm during a very tumultuous time in American history. The first part of the interview appears below. We’ll post the second part of the interview separately.
Q: Can you start by giving me a little bit of your background? Where are you from? When did you attend St. Anselm and what did you study?
A: I grew up in Bangor, ME, during the 1950s and early 1960s and attended John Bapst H. S., a Catholic school in the city. It was a time when across the kitchen table and in the mass media U. S. foreign policy and military involvements were rarely questioned. I graduated in 1964 and began my freshman year at St. Anselm the following September.
Dave Witham a few years after his college days
I declared as an English major at the beginning of my sophomore year. Because of my interest in history—especially military history—I enrolled in several courses over the four years in that department. Having such an engaging and demanding (in the sense of requiring us to know and to try through hard work to remember facts—and not of the fake variety) teacher as Fr. Justin in Western Civilization (or From Plato to NATO, as I now call it) helped greatly in developing my love of the subject matter. My accompanying affection for biography and autobiography is probably a direct result of my desire to know in greater detail the lives of important and fascinating people that I had encountered in my historical studies.
As an English major, the important writers, poets, and playwrights—for example, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, William Collins, Yeats, Joyce, Twain, Stephen Crane, Stevens, Faulkner, Baldwin, and Jarrell, but alas, no Whitman or Dickinson until graduate school—that I encountered either in class or as reading recommendations by classmates initiated a lifetime of literary study. During my senior year I decided to become an English teacher and so had to take quickly enough education courses—including student-teaching at a Catholic high school in Manchester—to constitute a minor course of study.
Dave Witham while a St. A’s student
Q: 1968 was a big year in the United States and internationally. One important event at the beginning of the year was the Tet Offensive, up to that point the largest NLF/North Vietnamese campaign in the Vietnam War. What do you remember about the Tet Offensive? Were people talking about it on campus?
A: Because nearly all students graduating from St. A’s during the years 1964-68 were draft eligible once their student deferment expired, the prevalent attitude that I recall was one of “whistling past a graveyard,” generally ignoring (except for a small group of students of whom I was a member) this horrific, seemingly interminable conflict in the hope that it would end prior to our graduation in 1968. News of the Tet Offensive dispelled that illusion, though I don’t recall much campus discussion of it. I remember thinking at the time that it was just one more disaster flowing from U. S. policy, a logical complement to U. S. weekly losses at times of around 250 soldiers and airmen. The Nixon Administration and such military leaders as Army Gen. William Westmoreland (also known among war protesters as “Waste-more-land”) portrayed the Tet Offensive as a U. S./ARVN victory due to the heavy NLF losses. However, over the next few weeks the increasingly skeptical commentary in newspaper editorials (but certainly not the then right-wing Union Leader) and some members of Congress centered on the fact that previous optimistic predictions about “a light at the end of the tunnel” were either outright lies or delusional opinions.
The ability of the enemy to launch attacks throughout South Vietnam attested to their military strength and persistence. As Mark Bowden, author of Blackhawk Down, states in his book on the battle of Hue, no longer was the question among many Americans, “When will we achieve victory?,” but rather “How will we get out of this morass?”
Q: The war in Vietnam prompted Senator Eugene McCarthy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in early 1968. What was your role in the McCarthy campaign? What drew you to McCarthy?
A: Senator McCarthy was one of only a few in Congress who addressed the immorality of inflicting modern weapons of war upon a third-world country, an unleashing of massive bombing campaigns (whose tonnage exceeded that of all U.S. airpower in WWII), unrestrained use of herbicides such as Agent Orange (still causing birth defects in Vietnam), and search-and-destroy tactics by U.S./ARVN ground forces.
Pat Fox (friend of Dave Witham) with Senator Eugene McCarthy
McCarthy’s call for an unconditional end to U. S. bombing of the North, for greater reliance upon a diplomatic end to the conflict, and for the administration’s recognition of the immoral ways in which the war was being prosecuted elicited widespread agreement among students and adult voters alike (a campaign very similar in its emotional tenor to that of Bernie Sanders’s recent run). I and several of my friends and classmates worked for him in the upcoming NH Primary; our duties included mostly passing out literature in the severe cold at various Manchester locations. In retrospect it was basically only our moral outrage at this unending, terrible conflict (eventually taking more than 3,000,000 Vietnamese soldier and civilian lives and that of more than 58,000 Americans) that could have motivated us to leave the warmth of the dorm and our academic obligations.
Q: What was the atmosphere on campus, particularly in regard to the war and the presidential election? Were students politically engaged? Did students have strong opinions about the war in Vietnam?
A: During my four years at St. Anselm, the campus did not experience the same kinds of demonstrations—marches against the Vietnam War, protests against some universities’ perceived complicity with immoral military weapons research and objectives, and occupation of administration buildings and laboratories to support demands for minority and women’s studies programs—occurring at other institutions, especially as Presidents Johnson and Nixon greatly increased the numbers of soldiers and Marines and escalated the bombing campaign beginning in 1965. Except for the group that I mentioned above and some individual students and faculty members who voiced either concern about or opposition to U. S. military involvement in Vietnam, the student body at large was generally oblivious to events there through about the end of the school year in 1967.
As we seniors returned for our final year, Sen. McCarthy announced his candidacy during the fall, which served to galvanize a portion—say, around a quarter–of the student body in its opposition to the seemingly unending horrific loss of life and widespread destruction in Vietnam. The great majority of students seemed to accept unquestioningly (a typical attitude for draft-eligible young people from the end of WWII through the Korean War and beyond) the narrative of the monolithic Communist Menace.
So both the public and young people subjected to a compulsory draft were generally unaware that there was no Independent North Vietnam invading a struggling So. Vietnam that sought its own autonomy. I learned of the thwarted Geneva Accords only by reading an account in a book by the French journalist Bernard Fall, who had spent years reporting on events in Vietnam. That sealed the issue for me: U. S. intervention on behalf of (followed years later by the assassination of) the self-aggrandizing Diem totally contravened the desire of the majority of the Vietnamese people for self-determination. It was this faulty foundation of U. S. policy and the later immoral prosecution of the war that solidified my opposition to it.
In retrospect, one tactic that any St. Anselm faculty member concerned about U. S. foreign policy and its application—especially regarding the use of force—to Vietnam could have implemented was one that existed on many college campuses across the country: the teach-in. My understanding of this kind of on-site gathering, as described in news reports and magazine articles, was that an institution’s instructors conducted informational sessions about the war. Having researched Vietnamese history (especially during its nearly century-long struggle against French colonialism) and American political and military involvement in Southeast Asia after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, they presented the facts as they saw them about third-world nationalism, alleged monolithic Communism, America’s apparent anti-Communist crusade, and the morality of its conduct of the war. I assumed that lively discussion and debate ensued after each of these presentations.
At St. Anselm, however, no faculty member stepped forward to plan and host its own form of a teach-in, and I unfortunately lacked the self-confidence and imagination to approach anyone among the faculty to elicit his or her reaction. So it remains uncertain whether the college administration—despite the provisions of academic freedom–would have acted to prevent such a seminar and even whether faculty members could be expected to speak out beyond the confines of the classroom on matters of public policy, especially when lives wereat stake. On the other hand, I recall vividly in 1967 the appearance of New York attorney and incisive war critic Allard Lowenstein at the student center; although I was unable to attend his lecture, one student told me that he no longer supported the war after listening to Lowenstein’s persuasive arguments.
As for student discussions about the war in Vietnam, they occurred sporadically—usually on an individual basis between members of our small group of antiwar protesters and students who conceived of North Vietnam as a separate nation from the South, and whose Communist aggression was an analogue of the Nazi conquests prior to WWII. These students tended to subscribe to the highly emphasized (by such administration figures as Johnson, Nixon, Rusk, Laird, and other spokespeople) but ultimately simplistic domino theory, originally articulated by President Eisenhower, in which the loss of So. Vietnam through a policy of appeasement to the Hitlerian figure Ho Chi Minh, or his alleged handlers in Moscow, would inevitably lead to a Communist take-over of all Southeast Asia. As pointed out above in The Pentagon Papers quotation, Pentagon officials were skeptical of this scenario, though several administrations suppressed their opinion.
One common refrain that I heard occasionally over the years on campus whenever the subject of the war and its horrific violence came up was that “Life is cheap in the Orient,” a comment made whenever none of our few Asian students were within earshot. Obviously, it’s tempting to fall back on what we now would consider a racist remark when one is young and hasn’t been encouraged—or taken the time—to question the official line about national policies. And only a few students or citizens stopped to think that it was the U. S. military’s use of search-and-destroy tactics, indiscriminate bombing, torture of POWs, chemical defoliants, and forced resettlement programs that so devaluated lives in Vietnam or “the Orient.” In fact, I don’t recall hearing the comment after the revelations of the My Lai massacre and the infamous published photo of terrified children running down a road after their clothes had been burned off by napalm and their skin severely damaged.