Bethel at War, 1964–1975

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‘The Vietnam War’ signifies for most Americans the near-decade long crescendo of U.S. military involvement in a thin strip of Southeast Asia, a ritualized narrative of an experience bounded on each end by the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 and the Paris Peace Accords in early 1973. Yet American involvement did not begin in 1964. It began nine years earlier, when President Eisenhower ordered American military advisors in 1955 to head “in country” and begin training the fledgling South Vietnamese Army. Then in 1961 President Kennedy sent U.S. Special Forces to teach covert warfare. Even so, for the Vietnamese — both North and South — the American involvement in their war (the “Resistance War Against America”) was a just new phase in a protracted struggle against Japanese and later French colonial power. Thus, as American commitment to Vietnam strengthened, the United States assumed a bloody mantle last discarded by the French at Dien Bien Phu — that of western imperialist.

"Waiting to Lift Off" - James Pollock

“Waiting to Lift Off” – James Pollock

The Gulf of Tonkin incident, a confused altercation between an American destroyer and alleged North Vietnamese torpedo boats in August 1964, launched the real American build up. Over the next four years, President Johnson increased draft calls, sending ever-higher numbers of American men to Vietnam. By the peak of American involvement in 1968, over half a million American servicemen patrolled the jungles of Vietnam. The numbers were of limited use, as the January 1968 Tet Offensive demonstrated. Stunned by the outcry from a citizenry that had been told the war was going well, Tet confined Johnson to a one-term presidency. Richard Nixon’s solution — “Vietnamization” — proved only marginally more effective, delaying the inevitable collapse of the South Vietnamese military with overwhelming air superiority. By the end of 1973, the war was over for America. In April 1975 television viewers were greeted with a macabre last glimpse of the war: panicked Vietnamese attempting to claw their way into retreating American helicopters. As the beating sound of metal blades retreated into the distance, Viet Cong and NVA troops milled in the streets.

Why did four U.S. presidents continually escalate American military commitments to a jungle country trapped in a civil war four thousand miles from U.S. shores? As with so much of post-war twentieth century American policy, the answer was the Cold War, the geopolitical chess game between the United States and the Soviet Union waged by proxy wars exported to the third world. Even before elected to the presidency, then-Senator John Kennedy gave utterance to the dogma that did more to shape American foreign policy than any other doctrine:

Burma, Thailand, India, Japan, the Philippines and obviously Laos and Cambodia are among those whose security would be threatened if the Red Tide of Communism overflowed into Vietnam.¹

In an effort to stave off that inevitable conclusion, four U.S. presidents spent billions of dollars carpeting Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia with nearly 8 million tons of ordnance and chemical defoliant — enough to devastate six million acres of land. By the time direct U.S. involvement ended in August 1973, fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers were dead, a number that paled in comparison to Asian deaths: over two million Vietnamese and another half million Cambodians and Laotians were killed in the war.

Yet for all of its destruction, the Vietnam War was unlike any the United States had yet fought. The two World Wars produced massive mobilization at home with attendant rationing, blackouts, and war industrialization. World War II in particular re-ordered vast swaths of the U.S. economy and significantly impacted business and manufacturing. In contrast, Vietnam mobilized millions of people, many for the first time, who marched, sang, occupied, protested, and otherwise opposed the war. The war unleashed a wave of destabilizing violence that forced a sitting president out of public life, and in potent combination with race, women’s rights, and a host of other new concerns, reshaped the social fabric of the country. Millions of citizens were shocked by scenes of brutal violence when protesters clashed with police and National Guard troops on television. While American soldiers experienced a war of guns and bombs in Asia, American citizens fought a rhetorical war that sometimes broke into open violence. Somewhere within this social upheaval was Bethel College.

In the year and a half since its inception, this project — my portion of it at least — has significantly overrun the boundaries of the “impressionistic survey” Chris Gehrz and I set out to sketch. Instead, it has evolved into a sprawling analysis of the complicated intersections of warfare, ideology, education, religion, and the changing social norms at a mid-century evangelical college. Yet as much as this work approaches a total history of the Vietnam era at Bethel, it overlooks a score of desperately important topics — race and civil rights foremost among them. While abundant material exists to examine the development of these concepts at Bethel and in its sponsoring denomination, the Baptist General Conference, race and civil rights were simple too far outside the umbra of the war to justify their inclusion. While often intimately connected in broader American society, at Bethel the war and race were seldom linked topically, even if Bethel’s participation in civil rights did arguably prime the campus for anti-war activism. And temporally, the civil rights era just barely abutted the earliest years of the Vietnam War at Bethel; I could not justify reaching still further back into the 1950s.

Bethel_College_and_Seminary_SignThere are other critical omissions as well. The Seminary, truly Bethel’s oldest institutional incarnation, is sadly underrepresented in the following essays. The reasons are many, but reduce most simply to practical limits on time and resources. In a few places, the Seminary does manage to poke through the dense fabric of the college, and this study is richer for it.

Likewise, I have not been able to cover the experiences of servicemen and women to the extent they are due — a particularly egregious insult when one considers the paucity of affection Vietnam veterans were afforded upon returning home. Partly, this was due to lack of sources. While the Clarion, Spire, Coeval, and countless other Bethel publications are readily available in the school’s archive, collecting the kind of rich oral history that could illuminate the war experience of Bethel’s Vietnam veterans takes time, money, and serendipity. With so many archival riches to be plumbed within easy reach, oral history fell to the wayside. To the extent that readers of the 2014 project blog contributed their memories and stories, I have incorporated orality into the project. (Special thanks goes especially to alumni Richard Evans, Bob Goodsell, and Ron McNeill for their contributions; the material they provided proved essential at several critical junctures.) Nevertheless, the lack of adequate coverage of Bethel’s veterans remains my deepest regret for the Vietnam section of this project. (Happily, the War on Terror features an entire essay devoted entirely to the experiences of Bethel veterans.)

If this project has gone far afield at times from a close conception of the Vietnam War, delving into such (prima facie) unrelated topics such as student power, curriculum reform, and the fallout from a staffing decision, I take justification in the fact that Bethel students at the time felt such issues to be intimately connected to the war:

The complex feelings of that time merged into a mass that had to be described rather than separated into its component parts. Many other students, especially my friends in the activities, felt that the anti-war/pro-peace demonstrations were inextricably linked with other areas of their lives, including dating, classroom studies, and campus life.²

Finally, I have been struck by emotions and qualities Bethel students at the time exhibited: a mixture of earnestness and cynicism, hope and despair, worldliness and naïveté, utter confidence in their own abilities and the insecurity borne of youth. Perhaps most of all, I have been inspired by their conviction that a better world was waiting to be realized and that its attainment was their personal responsibility. So while in this study we will encounter some that was crass, unadvised, brash, and otherwise distasteful, I encourage the reader to bear in mind the words of President Lundquist:

And suppose we do listen to them? What will we hear? I grant that we will hear some things that are superficial, trivial, hypocritical, rude, an anti-intellectual. I hope this will not tune us out. These are but the peripheral distortions of the real message. That message can be heard in the lyrics they sing, the simplistic signs they raise, and the confrontations they force. The notes I hear are the insistence that every human being is a person of importance and worth, that material security ought not have the highest priority in life, that love ought to characterize all of our interpersonal relationships, that right ideals are worth suffering for, that honesty should characterize our actions, that unconventional methods may open exciting new doors into the future, and that whatever ought to be done ought to be done now.³

— Fletcher Warren

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¹ John F. Kennedy, “America’s Stakes in Vietnam,” August 1, 1956.
² David Heikkila, “Questionnaire,” Responses to 1976 Cedric Broughton survey, Personal Collection of G. William Carlson, 3.
³ Carl Lundquist, “1968–69 Annual Report of the President,” In 1969 Annual Report of the Baptist General Conference (Chicago: Harvest Press, 1969), 125.

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