Tonight Ken Burns’ documentary series, Vietnam, premiered, and I watched the first episode. Vietnam was the defining issue of my generation and the next. As I was entering college, the U.S. was quietly engaging in Vietnam. I knew virtually nothing about Southeast Asia. I was an international relations major with a deep interest in Canada, particularly French Canada. This was the sixties. With the end of the Duplessis government, what was known in Quebec as the Quiet Revolution had just begun. My only real knowledge of Southeast Asia came from the freshman geography class, imparted by my professor, Robert Huke, and he spent more time disparaging Wengener’s drifting continents, soon to become legitimate geological theory via plate tectonics, than he spent on Vietnam. My knowledge of Vietnam was through the popular press. As has become evident over the years, much was happening outside the eyes and ears of the press, and much of what was reported was ignored or denied by the government and military.
In 1964, a buddy and I decided we would hitch hike to Alaska, where we would work for the summer. We began in New Hampshire, heading north through Montreal. The goal was to follow the newly completed TransCanada Highway as far west as we could. Outside of Ottawa, while we waited along the highway with a sign with Vancouver written on it, a group of Carleton College students stopped. They weren’t going anywhere, but they gave us the telephone number of one of their friends, and advised us to look him up in Vancouver.
After a few days of good luck, we actually arrived there. With no place to stay, we called the number we had received in Ottawa. George wasn’t home yet, but his parents offered to put us up and we stayed with them for the better part of a week. During this time, they fed us, took us around town, and acted pretty much like surrogate parents. George’s’ mother even washed our clothes. They were as kind as could be. They were also the first communists either of us had ever met. The father was willing to admit Stalin had made mistakes, but the mother was not. Among the periodicals they received was a Canadian communist publication that carried news from Vietnam. They urged us not to believe everything that we read about Vietnam. We were still teenagers, and neither of us knew the history of Vietnam, nor exactly why we were engaged there. Our global view was the Cold War.
A year and a few months later, I found myself in studying French in southern France, and began reading an account by French journalist, Jean Lacouture, of the Vietnamese conflict, Vietnam, entre deux paix. This work which had just appeared, convinced me that you could only understand Vietnam through the prism of intense nationalism, and suggested that American policy might not work at all. The French military experience had been a disaster.
Returning to the States in 1966, I found that opposition to the war increased as had our government’s involvement. The Selective Service was a burning issue. It ensured a steady feed of manpower from the Baby Boom generation, but the inductions included many who opposed the war or were confused about it. In each category were young men ready to serve, though some were more reluctant than others. Still others opposed the war strongly, some refusing to serve and seeking conscientious objector status, others considering exile in Canada. Anxiety about the draft plagued young men graduating from high school and college. Draft boards followed very different policies across America. Some were hard nosed, others granted deferments for practically anything. Influence and favoritism were a big problem. If your family was rich and had connections, deferments came easier. In 1966, a returned PCV from Texas told me that his board told him as he returned to college and would soon graduate, that he had done his peace service, and when he graduated he would have to do his war service. No law school for him.
I applied to the Peace Corps before I graduated. I had a good Moroccan friend who occupied the room across from me in Cutter Hall, and another student who, having grown up in a missionary family in Beirut, had developed a deep interest in the Arab world. The latter, by the way, strongly opposed the war, and when drafted, ended up doing clerical work in Alaska, despite his knowledge of French, which might have served the miliary’s interest in Vietnam.
I did not feel ready for graduate school, and thought that the Peace Corps would permit me to learn and serve. My hope was that I would have a deferment for my Peace Corps service, and be able to put off the draft for a couple of years. I asked the Peace Corps for assignment to Morocco. Of course, I was offered Senegal instead! I turned down the assignment, and asked again for Morocco. Fortunately, Dartmouth had a Peace Corps training office, and a site at a collège catholique in Ste. Anne de la Pocatière, Québec. I was fortunate to work with two West African Peace Corps training programs in that summer of 1967, and ate the best institutional food of my life. What a beautiful spot it was, and what a contrast to the migrant labor camp in Hemet, California, where Morocco X was trained.
Peace Corps finally did give me an assignment in Morocco, and, to my great surprise and delight, found that one of my closest friends at Dartmouth, who lived down the hall in my dorm, also was invited to the Morocco X program! We celebrated and killed a bit of time until our training program began by hiking in the Canadian Rockies.
In Morocco, the far away war always hung over us. It was understood very differently by different strata of Moroccan society. Younger, more educated Moroccans mostly saw it as a post-colonial, Cold War episode in a remote part of the world. With past colonial experience, they tended to side with the Vietnamese. Others, like my maid’s husband, Ali, had actually fought in Vietnam, part of the French excursionary forces. These non-French soldiers were mercenaries, and once France withdrew from Vietnam were happy to be home in one piece.
For most, Vietnam was just a remote, far away place. The Middle East dominated the thoughts of more educated Moroccans, and there was widespread sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and a deep antipathy to Israel, which, by 1968, was occupying the West Bank and Gaza. The media played on the issue, and the Moroccan government gave lip service to the Palestinian cause without doing much. The position Moroccan Jews became even more precarious. There was a lot of hostility toward Jews, though Moroccan Jews often maintained long lasting and close personal relationships with Muslims, in and out of the government.
Late in my service a draft lottery was instituted. I drew the number 333, and the issue of serving in Vietnam disappeared. I would not enlist, and, leaving the Peace Corps, entered graduate school to study anthropology.