A Professor's Perspective on the American Public During the Vietnam War
Profilers: Michael Saccone, Bryan Tevie, Paul Kwon
Start of Vietnam War
Michael: Can you tell us, you know, how old you were, where you were when the Vietnam War was starting?
Michael: In terms of like, you know, when the U.S., started to enter the war, or maybe when the draft started happening, like, what was the moment that you remember where Vietnam first felt kind of real and close to home for you.
Furman: The Vietnam war really started about, well for the United States, anyway, started about 1966 while I was in graduate school in the seminary at the time, and I had finished college in 1960, and so I was roughly 6 years into graduate school. In 1968, I finished my graduate work and started teaching in a small school in North Carolina. And the Vietnam war was just beginning to heat up at that point, and I was consumed with preparing for lectures and things, and in the small school where I was teaching.
And it was there that I for the first time really came into some sort of emotional contact with the war, and it was because the war in Vietnam, at least for a good part of the people in the United States, got mixed up in their mind with their attitudes toward the hippie movement.
You probably don’t remember anything about the hippies. But the hippies were a movement that began in the 1960s as well. These were people who were against commercialization of things. They were against government, about anything. They were against war because it was conducted by government. Their idiom was, make peace, not war!That was kind of a word that went along with them. They were against normal social patterns.They were for things that were shocking to many people, such as different kinds of music, they were for free love, they were for drug use, marijuana, and LSD. They were for wearing long hair and beards. Now, all of those things were characteristic of the Hippies.One of those had to do with the war.
The reason I mentioned them is that at the small school where I was teaching, they were just dead set, because it was so conservative, they were just dead set against anything that had to do with the hippie movement.
Michael: And do you mind real quick? What was the name of that school you were teaching at?
Furman: Yeah, it was Gardner Webb College, Boiling Springs, North Carolina. It was a very conservative school. They would kick students out immediately. I mean, just kick them out the same day if they found them with their hair, the males, with their hair touching their ears. I am not kidding about that.
Well, that was the atmosphere in which I was teaching beginning in 1968, just when the war was beginning to heat up.
Now it became a kind of a real issue for me, in that very conservative atmosphere, when some students came to me, and told me of their plans to organize a protest. They were gonna have this protests that were gonna march and have banners and stuff like that. And I said to them, well, now you know that you’re gonna get kicked out of school if you do that.
And so I suggested to them that they change and organize a boycott of the noon meal in the cafeteria, because they couldn’t get kicked out of school for not eating. That would not fly would very well, and I suggested that they sponsor a debate about the Vietnam war and make use of two very conservative history professors on the Pro and the Con side about the war. Again, this is not something that administration could kick them out for doing so. But the President and the Dean were all there, sitting on the front row when they had that debate, because they were just looking for some excuse to kick the students out. So, I was kind of a behind the scenes moderator for the students as they were learning how to react to the war themselves.
Beyond that well, while I was teaching at this small school until I got fired 3 years later. That was not a happy experience, by the way, teaching in that school, but that was the extent of my involvement with the Vietnam war was by counseling the students themselves.
Time at Seminary and Just War Theory
Furman: And then in 1977, I was teaching at a seminary teaching. This time teaching ethics.
And there, beginning, in 1977, my contact with the war, which was now over, came in the form of one: listening to students who themselves had been in Vietnam, and they had had time to come home, go to college, and then come to Seminary.
And so I had listened to some of them telling their stories about what they had experienced there. They were three or four in particular, who had serious emotional issues of various kinds relating to their experiences.
I remember one in particular. I looked out my office window and saw one of my students who was kneeling beside a tree planter in the courtyard, and he was burying a dead young bird that had just been fledged from the nest, and he built a little shrine in this planter, and was chanting something. I don’t know what it was. And I later ask him what he was doing, and he was not able to respond to me at all with a coherent explanation for why he was dealing with this small dead bird. But I knew it had to do with something with his memories of what he had been involved in Vietnam. And he was very tenderly planting this bird. So I listened to stories from people who had actually been there.
But then professionally in the ethics classes, my connection with Vietnam had to do with the fact that the Vietnam experience became a major resource as we talked about the issue of participating in just wars.
The just war tradition starts out by asking, Is there a just cause for participating in a war? It asks whether or not the use of violence of forces is the last resort. It asks whether or not the war has been declared by a proper authority. It asks whether the intentions of participating in the war, are something that promotes good and justice. It asks whether the end of the war is proportional to the means used to end the war. It asks whether there’s a reasonable chance of success. These are all questions that – oh and it asks whether or not there’s proportionality in the use of force against non-combatants when non-combatants have been involved inadvertently.
Now these are all good questions for any war, but they were particularly good, is illustrations coming out of the Vietnam war, and one of the things that we always came to realize in the classroom is, there was no easy way to answer those questions. There was no easy way to say what was done was right or wrong. People might be critical, for example, of the United States participating in the war in Vietnam. But then you have to ask, was there a reasonable reason for them to be there?
And some people would say, yes, and some people say no. So the standards for just war, it became evident to all of us, are not so exact that you come to a clear-cut black and white answer about the participation in the war.
And consequently, I think, students used to ask me. They said, Well, you gotta army commission yourself. Would you have gone to war? And I said, Yes, I would have, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily approve of everything that was done in that war. That’s a different matter, but that was my personal response.
There was room for many personal responses, as people looked at the arguments for just war in light of what we had gone through in Vietnam. It was for that time the all-consuming social issue for people, it literally divided our country.
Polarization During Vietnam
Michael: Obviously, us studying this in retrospect, you know, things seem a little more clear-cut. We have all the facts, but you know, you being in the Carolinas; kind of a Southern, more conservative place; and then also, you know, this happening in the heat of it all; when people talked about this, like even in the ethics class and stuff and it was in an academic setting, was it typically very, like, heated discussions, or did you find that it was, you know, something that people for the most part, could approach rationally? Or do you think that that changed over time, or maybe that ability only came in retrospect after the war was over?
Furman: That’s a very good question, and the answer is both. That is, there were some students for whom this was a very, very emotional – it remained a very emotional issue – both for the war and against it. It was emotional on both sides. There were others who had been chastened and humbled by the experience of the war, whether they had been soldiers there or not. They had more of an ability to step back from it and ask the kind of proper questions that in the case of my classes, these would be would be Christian ministers, ask the kind of questions that a Christian minister should ask about the war, and consequently I had for example, I had a number of students who decided themselves to become military chaplains. And to be a military chaplain, you had to be able to say, you can’t be absolutely against all war, obviously, and still be an adequate chaplain. And I had probably a dozen or more students, who were able to do that. And, by the way, that was true also, when I went to Duke later in my career, and we had military chaplains coming through on one-year programs where the Government paid for them to go back to school. And I ended up being on the graduate committees for several of these people, men and women, many of whom, for reasons that are quite obvious, wanted to write a master’s thesis on something having to do with the just war issue, so it was a real issue. It remained a real issue for students. And ironically, at Duke, one of the ethics professors at Duke, was an absolute committed, no holds barred pacifist and he wouldn’t have anything to do with the military chaplains. Nothing, he wouldn’t touch them with a 10-foot pole, and so I, by default, became their advisor. But that was later. That was in the 1990s, even.
Michael: Oh, wow!
Soldiers’ Experience and Reflections
Michael: You know, spending time at the Seminary, did you notice the relationship between religion and soldiers that would come back from the war? Did you encounter any that maybe had their faith shaken or strengthened while they were gone, or had some experience in Vietnam that changed them or maybe their religion? You know, they kind of questioned and looked through the war through the lens of religion. Is there anything you can speak about in that regard with that.
Furman: That varies with the particular students. There were some students who went off to Vietnam and for what individual reasons they became absolutely anti religious, shall I say. Their attitude was: how could God allow this kind of event to take place? That was that basic argument, and so, consequently they just rejected religion completely. There were others who came back with a more clear intention of trying to think through how, with difficulty: how do you follow a person who speaks about loving your enemies – which is what is said to be one of the major things that Jesus talked about – how do you do that, and still participate in a society where you have to be able to protect the weak? And for them, the issues raised by the just war theory were very important because they needed to be able to find some way that they could combine their faith with an argument also for using force in the protection of the rights of their society, their country, of their society. And so arguments about what is a just cause for war, or arguments about the right intentions that you have in a war, or how you treat those who are non-combatants, these became extraordinarily important to them, because it was a part of making their faith somehow meet the real world. They had to find some way to do that. And it’s not an easy task, Michael. I don’t know, for any of them, including myself. I don’t know that it’s an easy task to resolve the question of: how can you end up supporting, or even yourself taking another person’s life. What would justify that? But that’s what they had to wrestle with.
Public Opinion During the War
Michael: Throughout the war, you know, us learning back there’s been a few moments that we’ve heard of that have been either turning points or significant points in the war. Do you remember a couple – and if you need examples, I can give them to you, but I kind of want to hear what you think of as like some significant events in the war from your perspective that you heard about. But do you remember, like the moment that kind of news broke about these things, and how the country reacted to some of these things? Were they divided, were they united, things like that?
Furman: Well, the answer is yes and no. Some of those dramatic events kind of run together like, for example, the when the news came about the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. That became, as for somehow that was just was dumped on American society. When news came out about dropping Agent Orange, and, by the way, that ended up damaging my cousin, who was stationed there. It’s ended up killing the brother of my college roommate, who was stationed there. Those are things that stick out for me. Well, and what also sticks out for me is the reaction, the violent division and reaction in our country itself. Well, do you remember hearing about the Kent state? When the National Guard-
Michael: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that.
Furman: Killed several students at Kent State. Well, that just created an absolute outrage among, particularly among the younger generation of college age students in this country. I cannot tell you how traumatic that was for them.
But, on the other hand, there were, there were so many that were so patriotic, and their patriotism made them able to shut their eyes to the dark side of the war.
And I, and I don’t mean to argue that they were wrong, I don’t mean that I’m good because I think there are many. There was some good reason, probably, for the participation of this country in that war. I think maybe in retrospect there were more bad reasons, but it was not an issue that lent itself to easy answers, as if one side is automatically admittedly and without question wrong it just wasn’t that kind of thing, and that’s the worst kind of social upheaval to have when you don’t have a clear way of resolving it in the public eye. That was one of the problems with Vietnam, it was not easily resolvable. And that’s not blaming either side for that, that was just the nature of the beast.
Reaction to Gulf of Tonkin
Michael: Question 5: When the Gulf of Tonkin happened specifically. Do you remember hearing about that or is that something that kind of was published later? And do you remember how you reacted, or how other people reacted to that? Or was there confusion about it?
Furman: Well, the it became public knowledge within a few days, as I recall. They did this, supposedly there’d been this attack on an American warship. The truthful details about that were a little late coming out, unfortunately. But that, as I recall that attack when it was publicized, and when Lyndon Johnson use that publicly to generate enthusiasm for participating in the war, it had, it had that effect. The general public, said well, by George, you shouldn’t be attacking us, and we need to send somebody over there to swat you down. It worked for a while. I think that it was an unfortunate PR Experience.
Those Who Went to War
Michael: You spoke also about your cousin, and your roommate’s brother that were kind of in the war and affected by it negatively. Do you remember certain friends, colleagues, neighbors, that, you know, were actually, drafted, or something going off to war? Do you have any experience like, were you ever around somebody the moment they were drafted, and then they kind of had to deal with the weight of going to war or coming back from war? Kind of your experiences with them, hearing their stories, anything like that?
Furman: No, actually, not Michael, because if you were in college, you were exempt from the draft back then. And that was one of the reasons that students wanted to remain in college, so they would not be drafted. They didn’t wanna be kicked out of college.
So I wasn’t around the students who actually went off to the war. I only encountered those later on when I was teaching the seminary, and it was after the fact that I knew them, it wasn’t at that point when they were sent off. And my cousin, both my cousins were in Vietnam. One was a helicopter pilot. The other one, I forgot what he did, but he was with the army, not marines, and he was exposed to Agent Orange and my roommate’s brother, younger brother, who was a West Point graduate, was also exposed to it, and it died from it fairly quickly. The nature of his exposure. You know I saw those experiences kind of first hand. But that was the limit of my exposure, at the point of being drafted or sent off to war.
Those Who Stayed
Michael: If you know, among college students and people that stayed home from the war, is there – this is totally conjecture – but was there sort of, maybe a sense of guilt, or maybe not guilt, but some kind of regret? Obviously, it’s mixed right, because people will be, I’m sure, very glad that they’re not going into war, but maybe also kind of guilty that they’re not fulfilling their, you know, patriotic duty, or whatever, staying home. Did you encounter any of that here, or was it kind of united like we’re kind of all glad that we’re just not going over there?
Furman: Again both, and that includes myself. There were times that I felt guilty by the fact that I was not going over there and participating in it. After all, I had been given a commission. It seems, sometimes I feel guilty that I had avoided what many of my college classmates had to do, and I did not have to do. So yes, there were people who obviously felt that way, others who fell “Oh, man, I am so glad that I don’t have to do that!” So it was both. The latter were the people that ended up, sometimes fleeing to Canada.
Divided Country: Then and Now
Furman: It was a divided culture and country, Michael.
Michael: You talk about a divided country, and you know us growing up, I think we’ve also experienced a divided country about some obviously, other factors, was there any similar – this kind of a broad question – but like, do you kind of see that as like a through line as, you know, we’ve come into the present, and there’s all these political divides and things like that? Does it feel similar, or is there something different about…? I don’t know. It’s a broad question. But was there something different about the Vietnam war divide that made it more maybe, like ferocious or contentious in any way?
Furman: I have to think about that a minute. It seems to me that the divisions that are felt in our society today have a very different feel. The divisions that were around the Vietnam war. The Vietnam war, involved not only just a reaction to war, but it was also had to do with a cultural division symbolized by the hippies. The rejection of everything that the hippie stood for on the right wing meant also that when you were against the Hippies, you were for the war and vice versa. Now that was not always the case. If people were for hippies, that didn’t mean that they were absolutely necessarily, against the war, but they tended to be that way. It was a culturally divided society. But culturally divided for different reasons than, I think, our divisions are today. For example, there was far less racial division involved in society during that time, though it is true that Martin Luther King ended up speaking out against the war. Nevertheless, it didn’t really become a dominant part of America’s reaction. The racial issue didn’t become a dominant part of the reaction to the war, I don’t think, that’s my opinion. I think that racial divisions have become more or prominent in a more subtle way in recent years, sadly enough.
So it is a different world, and I don’t see people reacting to the participation of the country in some kind of warlike endeavor. They’re not reacting to it the same way that they did to Vietnam. So, for example, participation in the Iraq war, Afghanistan war, didn’t evoke the same kind of emotional reaction that participation in the Vietnam war did. It just seemed to be a different kind of beast, emotionally in society.
Michael: Do you think that there’s a kind of something you can point your finger to as a reason for that? Cause you know, we’ve talked about a lot in our class about how the Iraq war and stuff is almost like, they refer to it as a shadow of Vietnam in terms of like kind of following in its footsteps. So do you think that there’s a reason for that, or just you know, the times are changing?
Furman: Well, I don’t know one thing that’s the difference, is that during the Vietnam war there was a draft, and so people could be forced into it. Whether they wanted to be a part of it or not. That was not true in recent wars, so I think that changes things rather dramatically.
I think also the fact that war and recent wars have become more mechanical and sometimes distance oriented. And when you’re sitting around, guiding a drone in to attack somebody or flying in a plane and sending a missile from 20 miles away to something, that’s very different from walking through a jungle and being shot at by people that you can’t see. So it’s different kind of warfare. And I think all of that enters the picture.
Michael: Yeah, makes sense a little less close to home.
Changing Perspectives on Vietnam
Bryan: I wanted to ask if your opinion on the Vietnam war has changed over time, or if it is has remained the same from earlier.
Furman: Actually, I don’t think that my personal opinion has changed in the sense that, from the very beginning I had some questions about the reasoning behind the participation in the war. And I still do. And I had that from the very beginning.Now if they had asked me to go, I would have gone, but still I had those personal opinions. So my own opinion has not changed dramatically.
Importance of History and Stories
Furman: You’re familiar with that book All Quiet on the Western Front? And one of the things that strikes me about that novel. I don’t know, you call that a novel, part of it is kind of real experience. But it describes the position of the German people hearing about the war from their perspective, and way they hear about it is different from the real experience of the soldiers on the front. So when you see “all is quiet on the Western front”, well, it really wasn’t. But it’s the way the story is told, and so the way the story is told is one of the most important issues about deciding about the conduct of and justification for war. We have to take into account how we’re going to tell the story as well and that’s what y’all trying to do trying to tell the story. I compliment you for doing that.
Michael: Thank you very much Granddaddy