As I watched “The Vietnam War,” the extraordinary 10-part PBS series co-directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the number 98 kept popping into my head. Why 98? That was my number in the first Selective Service draft lottery held in late 1969 during my senior year of college when my student deferment was about to expire. The lottery determined the order of call-ups for military service; the lower the number out of 366, the more likely you were to be conscripted. Having the relatively low 98 meant that unless I fled to Canada — as tens of thousands of my peers did — or succeeded in obtaining a different kind of draft deferment, I was most likely destined for Vietnam. In the end, I received a deferment on medical grounds and did not have to serve.
The series resurfaced, for me and I suspect for countless others, the enormous tension of that era in American history. Many of my generation dreaded the thought of killing or being killed in a war that was widely regarded as misguided, at best, and fundamentally immoral, at worst. Two emotions washed over me repeatedly as I watched the show: great sadness at the misery being inflicted on the Vietnamese people and on our men and women who served there and outrage over the behavior of our country’s political and military leaders who, time and again, lied to the American people through a succession of Democratic and Republican administrations. The tragedy of Vietnam was a bipartisan affair.
There is no question that Vietnam changed the trajectory of my life. I spent my junior year abroad in Jerusalem in 1968-1969, leaving behind one country that was being torn apart from within, and arriving in another — a little more than a year after the Six-Day War — that was brimming with pride and patriotism.
In contrast to what was happening back home, the positive energy in Israel was palpable, and I was quickly hooked. My commitment to Israel fostered in that environment led to an extended period of studying and living in the country in the 1970s, followed by an almost-40-year professional career of Israel advocacy work in the United States.
“The Vietnam War” rotated back and forth between what was happening on the ground in Southeast Asia and the response to the war in the U.S. Considerable attention was given to anti-war efforts, including student protests and the anti-war stances of prominent personalities such as Martin Luther King Jr. I was curious about what positions had been taken by the organized Jewish community at that time. Through the magic of Google, I found a book with a chapter devoted to this issue, “Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee 1945-2006,” by Miriam Sanua-Dalin (Marianne R. Sanua when the book was written), a professor in the Department of History and Jewish Studies Program at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
The Jewish War Veterans, according to Sanua-Dalin, supported the war effort. Among the organizations that expressed opposition to the war were the American Jewish Congress (AJC), National Council of Jewish Women, Synagogue Council of America, and the synagogue and rabbinic arms of Reform Judaism. At its 48th General Assembly in November 1965, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) adopted a resolution which called upon the president “to declare to the world that as of a given date, our Armed Forces will cease firing, our planes will cease bombing and that our representatives are proceeding … with a view toward finding a peaceful solution…”
In the mid-1960s, West Caldwell resident and prominent national Jewish leader Jackie Levine led the anti-war efforts of AJC’s women’s division as chair of its National Peace Committee. In 1967, her committee worked with Americans for Democratic Action, and the anti-nuclear activist group SANE in a petition drive calling for peace negotiations.
The American Jewish Committee, Sanua-Dalin explained in her book, was in the throes of an “intense” behind-the-scenes debate about what stance to take. There were those who argued that opposing the war might anger the U.S. administrations and would have consequences in terms of American support for Israel. Others were concerned that if they didn’t oppose the war they might alienate the many young Jews disproportionately involved in the protest movement. In 1969-70, the American Jewish Committee’s Ad Hoc Committee on Vietnam issued this statement saying, “the American Jewish Committee’s reputation for probity, reasoned judgment, and prudent statesmanship might well be called into question were the committee to issue a statement either pro or con.” Instead, it asserted the rights of Americans to dissent and debate without being considered disloyal to their country.
I found an interesting Jewish Telegraphic Agency item from November 1969: “The American Jewish community appeared today to be as deeply split as the rest of the nation over the Government’s Vietnam war policies. The antithetical views were reflected in the capital where a massive anti-war moratorium demonstration in which many thousands of Jewish youth are expected to participate, will take place Nov. 13-15. Efforts by Jewish student and youth organizations to find housing last weekend for the demonstrators met with a cold reception from many but not all, synagogues and temples in the Washington area.” I was one of those Jewish students who sought and eventually obtained housing — outside the Jewish community.
According to Sanua-Dalin, “the preponderance of New York/New Jersey-area Jewish students in the antiwar protests, including among those who actively courted arrest, seemed so evident that the nation’s large Midwestern universities began taking steps to reduce their out-of-state enrollments, disproportionately affecting Jewish students.” The ADL, she noted, found it necessary to undertake an examination of anti-Jewish bias.
Manchester resident Bob Jacobs, who served in Vietnam from December 1969 until December 1970, thought the series was outstanding. “I never knew how early American officials, particularly [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara, reached the assessment that we couldn’t win the war,” he told me. Jacobs, the vice chair of the Jewish War Veterans’ Vietnam Veterans Committee, welcomed the extensive interviews of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers. “It showed they were just as human as we are.” He agreed with one of the North Vietnamese interviewees who said, “there are no winners or losers in war, only destruction. The ones who talk about winners and losers weren’t there.”
Jacobs said his only disappointment was the segment dealing with the incursion into Cambodia in the spring of 1970, during which he was serving as an army clerk. In fact, he typed the operation order that sent 33,000 troops into Cambodia to clean out war supplies that had been brought down on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “The series focused on the reaction back in the states, including [the killing of four students, three of them Jews, by National Guardsmen at] Kent State, but did not pay sufficient attention to the Cambodia operation itself,” he said.
In the last part of the series, one of the anti-war protesters tearfully apologized for having called the returning Vietnam vets “baby killers.” Indeed, with some notable exceptions that were well documented in the series, millions of our young men and women served bravely and honorably in a war horribly mishandled by our country’s policy makers. Because of their exposure to Agent Orange and other factors, these vets are generally experiencing more health-related challenges than non-vets of the same age. They need more than apologies. They need, and deserve, the best possible medical and counseling services, provided by an adequately funded and efficiently managed U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
NJJN readers — send that message to your senators and representatives today.