“It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times” – Charles Dickens; Tale of Two Cities.
To say that the ten-year period between 1965 and 1975 was a defining decade may be one of the understatements of the century. Just as the first of the baby boomers began to graduate from high school in 1964, the era of the “Happy Days” culture was about to become a distant memory. America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict would forever erase that age of innocence that we enjoyed during the previous ten years as portrayed in everyone’s favorite sitcom by the characters of Richie Cunningham and the Fonz.
If you were an able-bodied young man in that graduating class of 1964, of which I was one, your near-term future would be dictated by the options available because of this conflict. You either secured a college deferment, fled to Canada, or just took your chances on the draft. A fourth option was to enlist in the military service in hopes of landing an assignment to anywhere but Vietnam.
It was in October of 1965 that I enlisted in the U.S. Army for a four-year hitch for that very purpose. However, as things turned out, despite guarantees otherwise, I ended up in Vietnam anyway. I was stationed in a place called Phu Bai, which was located about six miles south of the city of Hue. Hue, which was the northernmost major city in South Vietnam, was the country’s provincial capital until 1945. We were a unit of the Army Security Agency operating under the cover designation of 8th Radio Research Unit. Phu Bai was also the headquarters of the 3rd Marine division.
Up until the end of 1967, Hue (pronounced Huway) was largely untouched by the warring parties. That would all change at the beginning of the 1968 lunar new year, aka, Tet on January 30, 1968.
If there was a tipping point in this decade, it could arguably be the North Vietnamese Tet offensive. As chronicled in detail in Mark Bowden’s recent book “Hue 1968”, it was the single bloodiest battle in the entire Vietnam war, brilliantly conceived and concealed by the North Vietnamese planners with secrecy that could rival that of Pearl Harbor. Throughout the conflict, the U.S. military brass continued to discount and dismiss the strength and resolve of the North Vietnamese invaders. U.S. Marine ground forces who were trained for jungle warfare, were now fighting house to house. The battle continued for a month, and ultimately the city was recaptured, only after heavy U.S. and South Vietnamese casualties.
The misguided judgment and bungling of the U.S. command, headed by General William Westmoreland, in managing this conflict sparked a sea change in America’s support of the war. Within 30 days after the end of hostilities in Hue, President Johnson announced that he would not seek reelection. General Westmoreland was summarily relieved of his command. A brand-new counter culture was born in America. In the first six months of 1968, more than 200 demonstrations took place in colleges across the country.
Throughout this period, we endured bell bottom pants, leisure suits, and the Watergate scandal, until the defining decade mercifully came to an end on April 30, 1975 with the end of hostilities in South Vietnam.