Vietnam, the worst years of our lives – Part 1


My wife Kay and I binge-watched the PBS documentary special on the Vietnam War. It is factual, well-produced and is necessary for all Americans to view and take to heart. (Caution: If you remember the Vietnam days like I do, it will be strong medicine to take.)

The program showed that our leadership (elected officials) is not perfect. In fact, leadership is as faulty as humanity can be.

‘Misplaced power’
I recall the wisdom of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.

The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.”

Obviously, his warning at the end of his presidency virtually fell on deaf ears. We ignored his wisdom and waltzed into a colonial quagmire that was developing in Indochina.

France had lost its colonial grip on the nations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand during the Imperial Japanese invasion of the land in the early stages of World War II. As the war ended and these former colonies were starting to stand for independence, the French military returned and reclaimed their former colonies.

National movement
Within Vietnam, a strong movement, headed by local hero Ho Chi Minh, rebelled. They pushed out the Japanese and now felt strong enough to take on France and anyone else who wanted claim to them.

The following struggle was intense. It caught the interest of American politicians. One such up-and-comer was Senator John F. Kennedy. He visited Vietnam and interviewed the French press covering the war.

They convinced him that France was going to lose the war, that the rebelling Vietnamese leadership would eventually drive out the colonialists and side with the growing communistic philosophy coming out of China and the Soviet Union. Vietnam was destined for communism.

Despite the prudent advice given to him during his trips to Indochina, the young JFK kept strong interest in finding a way to exert political leadership into the Vietnam situation.

Lost the war
The French would eventually lose to the Vietnamese leadership under Ho Chi Minh. As a condition of surrender, they agreed to divide Vietnam into two nations. The North would be headed by Ho Chi Minh and the communist order; the South would be headed by a more moderate (and corrupt) group.

That’s the how France got out of the situation. Ambitious American politicians who couldn’t wait to exert influence got into it.

During the 1960 election, it became an item of interest. “How do we stop the communist influence in Indo-China?” Presidential candidates Senator John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon danced around the topic. Unbeknownst to American voters, it was about to become the biggest issue of our lives for decades.

Capitol Hill seemed to have forgotten the warning given to them by President Eisenhower.

Pressure for war
Kennedy won the election. That seemed to delay any direct involvement by our military, but CIA activity and other tactics of engagement started to increase. That “military-industrial complex” Eisenhower warned about was becoming a lobbying cesspool. The pressure to engage against the North component of Vietnam increased.

In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and the “hawkish” environment stirring on both sides of the political table was reaching a frenzy. The 1964 presidential campaign involving Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater was about one certain thing: Who was going to be the toughest concerning the Vietnam issue?

The civil rights movement, under the superb leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was becoming a more pressing issue. Goldwater, in his bombast, opposed the Civil Rights Act while Johnson indicated he would embrace it.

At the same time the military-industrial complex went on the “down low.” They were safe – it didn’t matter who was going to win. Both political camps were going to do something about the “communist threat.”

Personal impact begins
Johnson played on the sadness about JFK’s murder and played the race sympathy card to the maximum. He won in a landslide. But he would have to appease “the complex.” This is where it all started to affect me in a personal sense – along with all the souls of my generation.

One Sunday morning, I walked into Bethel AME Church in my beloved hometown of Oxnard, Calif. I went to the restroom and ran into my first cousin, Fred Brown Jr.

Fred was one of the first of my relatives who would play college athletics. He played guard for the Pepperdine College basketball team. He had been away for a few years and I asked him, “Where have you been?”

He looked stern and replied, “I just got back from Vietnam.” “What’s a Vietnam?” I asked. He looked sternly at me in my eyes and said, “Stay away from there! They got us killing people. We are blowing civilians away!”

Fred never seemed the same to me. It took a while, but I would find out why.

Harry C. Alford is the co-founder and president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Contact him via Click on this commentary at to write your own response.



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