What is the enemy and what was our role?

I sat there, one of 12 soldiers taking an International Relations course offered at Schofield Barracks.

I think I was the only draftee in the class. The others looked suspicious. I assumed they were army “lifers,” mostly intelligence people.

It was about the same time LBJ was building up troop strength following the Gulf of Tonkin incident, when apparently the North Vietnamese fired on one of our Navy vessels. The buildup was in spite of Johnson’s ’64 campaign pledge: “I will not send my boys 8,000 miles to fight another nation’s war”

The instructor passed around a letter from Ho Chi Minh, the North Vietnamese leader who had liberated Vietnam from years of French Colonialism. It was addressed to President Johnson and asked why we were “blowing them off the face of the earth.” Ho Chi Minh argued that they were fighting a civil war just as we had fought a civil war and that they were trying to unite the country just as we had wanted to bring our north and south together. There was no mention of Communism, which is what we, as soldiers, had believed. That’s what we were led to believe — our reason to be there — stop Communism. And even that was rarely discussed.

We grew up assuming we were the good guys and our enemies were the bad guys. Communism was “bad” and we knew Communists were our enemy. John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, warned against the “domino theory”—if Vietnam falls, then Laos will fall, and Thailand, and soon all of Southeast Asia will be under Communist influence.

The instructor explained how Communism might better serve the people in Vietnam. He implied they needed the tight reins of Communism. He said the people need “a thumb” to hold them in place, at least for the time being.

In my elementary school years, the Weekly Reader colored the Communist countries black or red; the U.S. and its allies were white; while neutral countries, such as India, were gray.

That was all it took.

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