The encounter took place in the fall of 1970. I was a freshman at Villanova University. Back then VU mainly attracted students from the Mid-Atlantic and New England states. Many students lived locally and commuted. There was a small population of students from other states and countries. VU was and is a Catholic university. Most of us were from white, middle class, suburban families.
On the other side of the world, the Vietnam War was still raging. The majority of public sentiment had shifted against continuing the war but there were very strong, different opinions about how and when to end the U.S involvement.
Students had been actively, sometimes violently, protesting at many colleges. At times the protestors were violently disbursed. On May 4, 1970, four student protesters were shot and killed at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen. The vast majority of Villanova students were not actively protesting the war in the fall of 1970.
One night I was sitting with some new friends in the dorm having a wide-ranging conversation when someone expressed an opinion that the war never had a justifiable purpose. A friend I will call Paul took serious issue with this and dropped a verbal bombshell. His older brother had been a soldier who was killed in Vietnam. Like most, his brother was a very young man when he died. Just like a bomb explosion, Paul’s words created both a blast wave hitting us with force and a blast wind sucking the air out of the room.
Based on the news I heard and read I thought the war was wrong. Paul, who shared many of my views, had a very different opinion about the Vietnam War. The big difference between us on this issue was his personal experience – the loss of his brother. All I could think to offer was a sincere, I’m sorry.
The deaths, injuries and psychological trauma from the war which I read about and saw on the news were jarring. By the end of the war in 1975 over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and advisors had been killed and hundreds of thousands physically wounded or psychologically damaged. It is estimated that between two and three million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians had been killed. Layered on top was the civil unrest and societal fissures that split our country. The era of absolute trust in the government had come to an end as the American people learned that our government had been lying and hiding information about the war for years beginning in the Kennedy administration.
I am fortunate that I did not have any first-hand experience with the Vietnam War. My second-hand experiences made me more sceptical of people in power, both civilian and military. I learned that those of us who did not serve in the war were in no position to judge those who did. I do believe the Vietnam War affected every American in some way. What was your experience?