The Vietnam War through the Eyes of a Draft-Eligible College Professor
Profilers: Tyler Vondriska, Jackson Hebert, Alan Galindo-Martinez, and Daniel Parker.
Role at California State University, Northridge
Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your role at San Fernando Valley State College, or as it is now known, California State University, Northridge?
Yes, I can. First, I’d like to say that I’m honored and delighted to be asked to participate, and meet all of you that I have not met before. Yes, I arrived at San Fernando Valley State College in 1968, Fall term. It was my first semester teaching and it had occurred right at the height of the Vietnam War, so I stepped right into that in a seething campus environment. And I continued talking about that war, lecturing on that war, speaking back and forth with students at the time and in retrospect about that war, for the balance of my career, I was there until my last semester in the Spring of 2000.
Approach to Teaching on Vietnam
As a history professor, how did you approach the subject of Vietnam both during the War and in the years following?
Well, there was no walking away from the war even if you wanted to, and I did not. So we waded right in. I come into my late twenties, a good many of my students are my age or older, and among them, I have students who just returned from the thick of Vietnam, both officers and enlisted personnel. I have antiwar demonstrators at the same time, in the same class and piling into my office to debate it all. We had people on campus in large numbers who would protest the war virtually every day. We had people coming in from Vietnam, or from the military more generally than Europe or elsewhere, who were there for an education and the two groups, of course, clashed. I welcomed that in the sense that this was something to be debated. We were in a place where issues of great importance, there was nothing bigger than this one, should be debated. What else is a university for? And so, it would carry on into my office hours, my bull sessions, I’d take students to lunch, and we would talk about other things of course, but one of the fundamental things, the most fundamental thing, along with Civil Rights, which was also an issue on the campus, but increasingly, civil rights was displaced by Vietnam. Vietnam became the preeminent issue.
I got into significant trouble during the first year I taught there to the point that a member of the senior faculty, a man in his fifties at that time, approached me, and said that the senior faculty are very upset with you. And I asked why, and they said because there are simply too many students hanging around your office and there was too much noise. And one of the reasons for the noise and the hanging around was we were debating this issue. We were talking about it. We were going right to the guts and the heart of it. And students now that I am still in touch with who are in their seventies, one is eighty, tell me that that was one of the most important and valuable parts of their education; that we talked about this. And they learned how to disagree with people they deeply disagreed with. And carrying on and learn respect for opposing opinions. So it was, it was a useful means of what.
Getting people to communicate, getting people to talk past their differences, getting dialogue going even if the voice level was elevated, and it often was. Elevated to the point it would strip plaster off the walls. I waded in a conflict my entire career. I encouraged people who disagreed to disagree. But to do so in a way in which they could walk away as respectful of one another as possible. And I fear that’s something that’s threatened now in campus environments. People are afraid to disagree or to encourage that. If anything, I encouraged it.
Personal Views on the War and Military Draft
What were your personal views towards American involvement in Vietnam, and how did they change during the course of the war, if at all?
Well, my personal perspective, and I’m glad you asked the question… increasingly as I arrived at San Fernando Valley State was: this war is going off the rails. As time passed into 1969, 1970, 1971, it seemed to me to become clear why. In retrospect it became absolutely clear that this was an accurate perception, that there was really no, there was no strategic plan for winning the war, to put it, to put it bluntly. To the point that polls of the generals who were running the war showed that 70% of them did not know what the plan was for winning at the time, and over half of them felt we shouldn’t be there at the time, at the time.
This, this is hard to fathom. And when you would say at the time they don’t know what they’re doing, not just the military, but the civilians overseeing the military, that would be greeted with disbelief. We’re the country that won World War II, of course we know what we’re doing. But I guess I can capture this best in retrospect by stating that as of 1968, 1969, I didn’t recognize a grand strategy. And I should emphasize that I don’t have a military background, but like many of you, I was in ROTC 61, 62 years ago at Berkeley, and I’ve studied military history. I’ve studied military history ever since.
I mentioned Ed Whitchurch, who was a grunt. He was on the ground. Let me talk about another man, to try to pin down this uneasy feeling I had at the time. That many people recoiled from. I mean, when you said they don’t really know what they’re doing, that repelled a good many people who assumed they did. One of my friends in the 1990s, he since passed away, was Frank Norris, who oversaw the Army’s part of the budget for the Vietnam War. The budget that covered the Army’s outlays was $28 billion at the time, which translates in present money into well over $200 billion.
Frank was in charge of that. He’d been a Major General. He was in George Patton’s Third Army and was immensely proud of that. He was an artillery officer and he ended his career as the the Director of the Armed Forces Staff College, he was very highly placed. And Frank and I would have conversations about World War II and about Vietnam, and when we talked about World War II, you know, there was this, rush almost of adrenaline in Frank’s responses as an old man. And when we talked about Vietnam, it was the diametric opposite.
He had a lot to say about the civilian oversight of the Vietnam War. That Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary up to 1968, was a bean counter who did not care about American lives. That basically he thought of American lives as something to be traded for Vietnamese lives in a war of attrition, and he referred to this as a bean counting with American lives, a total misapplication of force. I’m quoting him here. He was taking directions, hearing, you know, preachments from a great number of young men who had no military background or experience, but were applying such things as game theory to the management of this war. We just up the ante a little bit the South, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese will settle. They’ll recognize that they have no exit, we’re gonna win. We just incrementally raise the ante. We do this, we do that. But they had no knowledge of military theory nor any military background. Once again, his term was bean counting. He said, on one occasion: to win, you’ve got to beat the hell out of the other guy. World War II. But he said, as I recall on the same occasion that the way the Vietnam War was waged was, and I’m quoting him: “ugly, vicious, and cowardly.”
And so I asked, well, how could we hypothetically have won the war, Frank? And he all but threw up his hands. His only response to that was, well, we could have augmented bombing. The sole subject was as painful to him as it was to Ed Whitchurch who risked his life in Vietnam, Frank had risked his life in World War II. They knew what they were talking about, one from the top command level and one from, you know, the ground level. Those were the extremes of my experience, with people who had experience with Vietnam.
In retrospect, it wasn’t Frank Norris alone, it was people like H.R. McMaster. In his Ph.D. dissertation, which had been published under the title Dereliction of Duty, who’s focusing on the whole command structure for Vietnam, how the thing was run from the civilian down to the military level, down to the ground level. And as argued, you know, in much the way that Frank described the whole thing as cowardly, which is hard to imagine, but McMaster analyzes particularly the joint chiefs of staff who were haggling among themselves over resources, but never had a combined focused grand strategy that they could present back to civilian leadership for winning this war. In the meantime, civilian leadership was misleading and lying to the joint chiefs of staff. The whole thing in Washington was a mess. So when I intuited that they don’t know what they’re doing, I didn’t know the half of it, but you could smell it that they did not know what they were doing and as it turns out, such was the case.
By the way, H.R. McMaster served for a year in 2017 to 2018 as National Security Advisor under the presidency of Donald Trump. He’s revered, as I’m sure many of you know, as a soldier’s soldier.
So that’s the way it looked at the time to me in a murky sort of way and now in crystal clarity, in retrospect. There’s a huge literature on this among others, Robert McNamara, the Defense Secretary, published an extraordinarily revealing memoir that just lays it all out. And you know, the takeaway is we didn’t know what we were doing. 58,000 American lives on the Vietnam War Memorial, and they didn’t know what they were doing.
Were you ever drafted?
No, I was not drafted. I was draft eligible. I was, again I was in ROTC at Berkeley, which was required by the way. So I was in ROTC and I found military history and theory fascinating. Officers approached me and encouraged me to consider a military career. I did that, I strongly considered a military career. This was about 1962, ‘61-’62. And then I did my Army physical, I was draft eligible more than that, I was 1A, under the draft that then existed that ended in 1972. And every year I expected to be called up. Well, you know, this was moot. Let’s see, I would’ve had my physical, trying to think of the year. I would’ve had my physical in 1959, and nothing was going on. I mean there was a slow grade war in Vietnam, but nothing was going on. And so 1959, 1960, ‘61, ‘62, I was draft eligible every year. Your grandmother and I married in 1963, and we did marital calculations every year on the assumption that I’d be drafted. My draft board would ask what I was doing and I would say I’m in college, and my grades were acceptable. And then I’m in graduate school and my grades were acceptable. And I essentially set aside the idea of a military career before Vietnam heated up and then it heated up and I still expected to be called. But I wasn’t.
Did you ever feel compelled to enlist?
Now that’s a very good question, because I would like to think, and I’d be ashamed not to think, that I would’ve volunteered for World War II. And that was the model we all had in mind. World War II was the way wars were fought. World War II, now in retrospect, eighty years, is the great exception to the way wars are fought, in the post-war era. Decisive, clear cut, winners and losers, completely crushing your enemy. What Frank Norris described. But in the case of Vietnam, it looked to me like a really dubious proposition. And as I said, I came to the conclusion fairly early on they didn’t know what they were doing. By the time it was clear to me they didn’t know what they were doing, I passed through my phase of draft eligibility. But I assumed I’d be called up. I was perfectly willing be called up. I’m not a conscientious objector. And so just, the surprise was that I wasn’t. But it was a war I wasn’t going to volunteer for.
What were your thoughts on people that dodged the draft?
Well I viewed that with distaste. Now, again I made a decision that I was perfectly, why shouldn’t I go? If others were going, why shouldn’t I? If others served in the wartime or peacetime military there was no reason to exempt myself. I viewed a lot of the students who were irrationally, in my view, vocal about this war. As, in their vocalization, without, vocalization without justification. Just “this is awful, this is awful, this is awful.” There was a lot of that. I viewed that with distaste and disrespect. Running across the northern border to Canada, the same. I mean, if you’re a conscientious objector, if you don’t believe, on principle, in taking up arms, say it. Be a medic. Be whatever. You know, there are other purposes you can serve. World War II CO’s served as medics, one the most exposed positions there were.
What it came down to though, was that one way or another, college students like Bill Clinton, like Donald Trump, let’s be bipartisan about it, like Newt Gingrich, avoided the draft and so increasingly, increasingly, during the course of the war what happened was that people who wound up fighting on the ground were people with names like Jamaal, Jose, or Billy Bob. Young, blue collar males, who were picked up in the draft without deferments, without exemption, without their draft board saying you’re fine for another year because you were doing well in college. To the point that when those young men came back and joined veterans organizations, there was friction with World War II veterans over social class of all things. If you can believe it. The World War II vets, I mean everybody went. The hierarchy, Bob Dole, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, everybody went.
In Vietnam, those went who didn’t have an option. And increasingly, you know, the class structure changed, in the military and the caliber of recruits in terms of socioeconomic status and education diminished. Frank Norris argued, I mean he didn’t argue he just stated it flat out, and I think there was good reason to believe it. That we feel that at the outset of the Vietnam war, 1964, ‘65 we went in big. The best Army, the best prepared army we’ve had ever had in American history at the outset of the war. But that war, that Army, deteriorated and deteriorated and deteriorated. The officer corps deteriorated to the point that – you’ve read about – this, fragging. Unpopular officers would be fragged by their troops. Ed Whitchurch came face to face with General Westmoreland on one occasion and had the passing impulse to frag him, for God’s sake.
Increasingly also you’re talking about an Army that is drug-addled. Regular drug use by American military personnel worldwide by the end of the Vietnam War was in the vicinity of the high twentieth percentile. 20-30%range. One figure given is 28.5% of American troops. Using drugs, regularly. This is a higher percentage than the American population. This is a higher percentage than of any army ever recorded to my knowledge. The American Army that went into Vietnam was radically different than the Army that came out of Vietnam. The Army that came out of Vietnam had to be totally, wholly rebuilt and refurbished. It was a wreck. To a far greater extent, vastly greater extent than the French Army that came out of Vietnam in 1954. There was a tremendous rebuilding process that had to take place over the following 15-20 years. The US Army, US military, of 1975 was dramatically different from the US military that was fielded in 1991.
One of my students who came in to my horizon around 1975, ‘76, ‘77, was a former Marine, if I recall correctly, who had had some really bad battlefield experiences like Ed Whitchurch. He’d been under continual artillery fire for months on end and it reminds you of Ukraine now. And he had a lot to deal with. He’d been an ordinary enlisted man and eventually took a Ph.D. in history at USC. So many of the people that came out of Vietnam were people of high talent and high potential. But the Army that came out of Vietnam was a mess. And you know, you had to rebuild the whole prestige system of serving the military. The idea of serving in the military, that this was a valuable thing to do, that this served the country. You had to reinstill the notion of patriotism and that took years. Years and years and years.
The cynicism that war left was profound and combined with Watergate, the Watergate Scandal of the Nixon Administration that followed on its heels. The degree of cynicism in the society is one from which we’ve never recovered. We’ve never gone back to trusting institutions like government, like the churches, like universities, like one another. Like one another. To the degree we did before Vietnam has had profound and lasting impacts on this society. We’re different people on account of Vietnam and on Watergate, sadly.
Unrest on Campus and its Effect on Faculty
Did students protest on campus? If so, what were the protests like and were you involved in them in any way?
I felt that my part in a campus setting was to involve myself in the debate by creating a safe place for that debate to take place. When asked, I would express my views. But my role, I thought, was more to create safe haven for that debate to take place. Whether it was in a class with 150 students or an office packed with 5 or 10. And so it went on. So I was, what shall I say, I was a one time – I can’t think of any other exceptions – I was a one time protestor. Cal State Northridge had, in those years, anywhere from – I’m thinking of the Vietnam era – probably 13, 14 thousand students. Up to at the end of it, maybe 20. And at the maximum only 1,700, an estimated 1,700, ever protested.
We tend to think of everyone taking a side and vocally taking a side and being out there fighting for their side. But at the maximum, which was the protest over the Kent State Affair, it’s been also called the Kent State Massacre, of four college students by National Guardsmen in 1970. We had 1,700 by best estimate in the biggest protest I believe the campus saw. You know, people would be involved in a protest and then go to class, they’d be in a protest and come from class. Protest for 15 or 20 minutes or an hour and then go to their job at McDonalds or wherever. We had students who’d say, “Well I’d like to have been at a protest, but I had to be at work.” This is a campus, a commuter campus, particularly at the time, of young people who are very commonly first generation college students who are just trying to get a leg up with a higher education, so they have multiple commitments and responsibilities.
So you had protests continually but it was a relatively small fragment, a limited fragment, of the student population. A great many students were on the other side. They supported the war or at least support – There was a difference. You supported the war, that’s one thing. You supported the military, the mostly young men, not women at that time, who were fighting it and that was something just slightly different. One of the things that I insisted on was that respect be shown for the young men who had been there, who’d been in the field. There was tremendous and vile disrespect for the uniform, there was hatred of anybody who had been there. This was a vicious time, this was a bitter dispute, and a great many young military personnel coming onto college campuses played down or concealed the fact they’d been in the war or in the military. That’s a shameful thing to have happened. That should have been perfectly opened, had been respected.
These people were lambasted as baby killers and murderers by those on the extreme anti-war side, who just hated the war generally and could not differentiate or draw a distinction between. You know, let’s say, a perfect honorable young person who’d been in the field, who behaved honorably, acquitted his military responsibility, and came back to go to college. And you know, somebody involved in the My Lai Massacre, about which I’m sure you’ve read. Very different things, very different things. One of the most important things that I try to establish, and I haven’t thought about this until you mentioned it, is drawing a distinction. You can hate this war, but don’t hate the people that are fighting it. It’s not as though they necessarily wanted to be there either. And there’s a lot of uncertainty about this war and there’s shades of gray, but there was a tremendous tendency to make it black or white, binary. It’s one thing or another. You’re on my side or you’re my enemy. That’s why these debates and discussions and so on in class and in the office and in the poll section and over lunch were so contentious.
They were contentious among the faculty as well. I mean, we divided brutally over it. A lot of young people were, we didn’t realize how many at the time, a great many we now know in retrospect from scholarship on the war, were often quietly, patriotically, at least pro-military and commonly pro-war. They just, you know. We’re the United States, we have to win it, and that’s that. And then there were great many people who were in between, scratching their heads, asking, “Well I don’t know.” That’s always the case. So you had degrees of disagreement and degrees of perception. But that distinction was one I always insisted on. Don’t make it personal because you don’t know anything about what this person experienced in Vietnam. So let’s start from a point of disagreeing over the facts and go from there.
What was the effect of student protests and the Vietnam War on the faculty?
Sure. Well, it did tear the faculty apart. The faculty on the whole was antiwar. And I can establish that by votes in the Faculty Senate that were taken. That the Senate being a representative body of the faculty as a whole. The faculty was basically against the war, but for all kinds of reasons, from the very emotional to the very rational. That may not have been true at the outset. It was true by the latter period, by 1970. You can you can distinguish that from votes taken in the Faculty Senate and I think subjectively from conversations on campus. My department became nationally known, my history department, for internal dissension. And that’s a kind way of putting it. We really didn’t like one another very much. And what it came down to was that the department, the Department of History, had a group that was anti-war and wanted to integrate the campus. It was pro-civil rights and wanted to bring young African American and Latino students to campus.
The campus that I walked onto was remarkably white, remarkably caucasian, remarkably unintegrated. That was all just starting, and there was resistance to it among some faculty. They’d never tell you why, but but they were resisting it. So the war and the civil rights issues tended to conflate one another. Whether you were a “white hat” or a “black hat.” And by the way, those terms were assigned by conservatives. They they drew the terminology, we’re the white hats. Those who who want to integrate the campus rapidly and oppose the war are the black hats. This comes out of 1930s, 40s, 50s westerns where the bad guy wears the black hat and the good guy wears the white hat. I grew up on those Westerns, so I saw a lot of them. We who wanted to integrate the campus, and I did, we who had reservations about the war. However carefully, discussed and however scholarly or not scholarly they were. And my disagreements with the war were very factual and not emotional. I’m not a very emotional person to begin with. That’s not my nature. But the faculty split and the history department was the best example of that. That division pervade my entire career. From the beginning in 1968 to the end of it in my last semester in 2000.
We viewed each other through the lens, through the prism of Vietnam and integration that had set you on one side or the other. I knew what side I was on. I was always happy to and wanted to work across the lines. But the fact was that there were a lot of fights. It was bitter. Members of my department sued one another. In a wholly un-Vietnam War, un-Civil Rights related matter I was a defendant in a lawsuit that went on for eight years before it was finally thrown out of federal court. I was one of some 80 defendants, including the governor of the state of California, whom a faculty member accused of shortchanging him. And the charges were bogus. But it took eight years or so for that to resolve. When he was finally kicked out of federal court for filing a baseless lawsuit. Meantime, he was fired, making him the first, to my knowledge, tenured member of the faculty at California State University, Northridge, to be ejected from his position. That’s the way the history department was from my perspective. The Vietnam and Civil Rights era made it a hostile work environment, for my entire career.
Takeaways and Closing Remarks
When you look back and reflect on your time teaching at CSUN during the 1960s, what takeaways do you find most important for generations such as ours to know about and try to understand?
Well, let me start with a point that I’ve made. Be very careful, be very careful about going to war. Make sure you understand as clearly as you can what costs and consequences are likely to be and how long it is likely to go. And only do it as a last resort after every other means has been attempted to resolve whatever issue needs resolving. Know that your reasoning is valid and these are probabilities of success in a finite period of time, because this is a democracy and democracies don’t have a lot of patience, are realistic. Be realistic. Don’t let the sway of emotion overwhelm your reason. Assume that things will change. The study of history is the study of change over time, that defines the profession and the discipline and things changed with Vietnam. I mean never assume that the first year of a war, or conflict, strife of any kind is going to be like the last year. That war changed dramatically and it changed the country dramatically.
I would say things that things should be seen in a larger context. Vietnam was a very big part of an era of tremendous change in the society that went beyond Vietnam, if you can imagine anything going beyond Vietnam. But Vietnam came in on the heels of and overlapped the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, the first attempt since Reconstruction to make African-Americans real citizens of the United States with real equality in the United States. And, of course, that battle is still being fought. So the two overlap and in some ways they conflict. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the war as drawing away from the prospects of reform at home. He hated that war and made no bones about it. Because it competed for attention with domestic issues that he saw much higher priority. Oddly, Lyndon Johnson saw domestic priorities as higher, too. The war wouldn’t leave him alone. He would not leave the war alone. In addition to that, there’s a gargantuan range of social change taking place. The conflict between the World War II generation and the baby boom generation. The war between the parents and the children was deeper than any, what was then called Generation Gap, in American history. It was as though the two generations couldn’t talk to one another.
Tremendous changes were taking place. Some for the better. A more egalitarian attitude toward race, thank goodness, way overdue. Also toward gender, women’s rights emerges out of this era. The so-called sexual revolution emerges out of this area, this era. I mean, it’s just unimaginable how attitudes towards sexuality and the expression of sexuality change. Drugs, I mean I went through a public high school graduating in 1959, and I never saw any evidence whatsoever of drug use. And when I talk with my age contemporaries about this, they tell me the same thing. There was plenty of beer, there was a lot of booze, but we never saw any evidence of drugs around us. We heard about marijuana, the evil weed. We were trained to watch out for it and anybody who might try to sell it to you, but nobody saw any of it. This is suburban Long Beach, California, Lakewood Village. So it’s pretty middle American, 1950s. And that’s how we looked back in the 1950s. By ten years later, drugs are everywhere. They pervade the military there. They pervade civilian society.
You know, older people look aghast at drug use as well they might. We were just into booze. My God, this panoply of drugs is everywhere. And what’s going on? That was the fundamental question of that era. What is going on? I mean, basic, fundamental, elemental social values are being questioned and challenged. One of them is patriotism. One of them is war and the notion of good war. Is there such a thing? More and more being questioned. Remember, World War Two is referred to still today and look back on it as the good war. I believe on the whole, it was. If war ever is, that one had to be fought and won, had to be fought and won. But all that’s coming into question, everything came into question. There was almost nothing of importance that was not questioned. Religion, race, ethnicity, gender, all these things, all the old molds are breaking, cracking, and flying apart. So you’re on a, it’s like being on a deck of a ship that’s rocking back and forth and in all directions. You can’t keep your bearings. You can’t even stand up straight. You’re constantly being thrust back and forth. And living through that era was living through and teaching through that era was teaching through a time of extraordinary uncertainty where accepted old virtues and values now were provisional. And maybe yes, maybe no, maybe in this situation, but not in that situation.
It was an astonishing time and an unsettling time, a disturbing time and exciting time, a euphoric time and a dismal time. Every conceivable emotion. At a time when every conceivable value was being questioned and challenged. There’s a widespread view that the whole society was flying apart. Just things fall apart. They certainly seemed to be falling apart in that era. When it all began to congeal again we were a dramatically different society. Dramatically different society. By 1973, I was an Associate Dean and one of my assignments was to make sure that the brand new Department of Pan-African studies survived. That it was able to ensconce itself in a campus setting, among other departments and survive. Well, there hadn’t been any such department just a few years before. There had scarcely been any black students just a few years before. This was all new. Very quickly, I found myself being asked to serve on the Women’s Studies Program Committee, establishing a new Department of Women’s Studies. And I began to scratch my head and realize, my God, I’m a male feminist. Yeah, I’m a feminist. I believe that gender is ought to be equal and opportunity ought to be equal. Never thought much about that before because that surely wasn’t an issue in the 1950s, but now it is.
So you were continually questioning your own values and where you stood on an issue and how you felt about it. When I left, when I ended my career, I was an outspoken advocate of free speech on campus. Whatever your ideological views were, this was the one place in society where you could air them. And I went out of my way to and strained some friendships with colleagues who disagreed with me, to try to maintain that value. Now, of course, that’s in question on college campuses. I’m sure that you’ve all talked and thought a lot about that, but what’s safe to say? What’s not safe to say. What’s what’s beyond the pale? Is there a place for conservative views on campus? Is there a place for liberal views on campus? What words can I say? What about trigger warnings? What about, you know, microaggression? What about all of that? That was not a concern of mine, but again I retired, you know, 23 years ago. It would have to be a concern now. Things change. And I think that’s an important thing to take away from this era. But the Vietnam War cannot be seen in isolation from all this other profound change that’s taking place alongside it.
Was there a question that you anticipated that we did not ask you?
Here’s a question that you had no means of asking because you didn’t know about it. But in thinking about the war, I thought about. I’ve been doing that the last few days in preparation for this discussion. Was there anything that came out of the Vietnam War, for me personally, that I feel good about? And yes, there was. Although it originated out of truly horrible circumstances. One of the fears that Lyndon Johnson and his advisors had was that if Vietnam fell, other countries in Southeast Asia would fall as well. And they did, as you know from your reading Laos and particularly Cambodia. They were concerned about the spread of international communism and in Cambodia, a particularly vile and vicious and lethal form of communism. Psychotic communism, call it, took hold under the regime of a dictator named Pol Pot. During the period 1975 to ‘79, between 1 and 3 million Cambodians were murdered or starved to death as this new regime the Khmer Rouge, as they were called, emptied the cities and put civilians into the countryside as a purity ritual. The same kind of thing had happened in China. China inspired this. This was much more lethal. And perhaps 20-25% of the Cambodian population died as a result of it. As I say, between 1 and 3 million.
Between 1975 and ‘79, a great many Cambodians tried to flee the country and some succeeded. Hundreds of of thousands of Cambodians who were ethnic Chinese, for example, succeeded. And one such family that managed to get out by way of Thailand, which is to the east of Cambodia (it is to the west) was sponsored by the Thousand Oaks Methodist Church as refugees. We were living in Thousand Oaks at the time and we were asked if we would like to find a way of helping this family. And my wife Kathy and I said, “well, of course.” So we met them and talked with them. And I think that probably the family may have been a put together family. They may have been related. Some of them may have been related. But not all of them, I suspect, were related. I say that from their linguistic background. As I recall, 1 or 2 spoke English, 1 or 2 spoke French, which I was then fairly capable of managing. Some spoke neither.
So my wife began looking for work for these people and educational opportunities. Integrate them into American society. And I began working with them on English, working to teach those who did not speak English, English. It turned out to be one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. I learned a lot about their culture. I learned some about their harrowing experience exiting Cambodia. Remember, this was a murderous regime. You moved and you fled at enormous personal risk. They had managed to get out. They’d had a huge, huge long trek through jungles and so on to get out. They were finally gotten out by refugee rescue organizations. I imagine non-profits, NGOs. And then sponsored by an American church. So I learned a bit about that, but what I also learned about was how hardy and resilient these people were.
Before you knew it, the person who was more or less the head of the family was a restaurateur in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. And he was back trying to beginning to begin a restaurant business here in Ventura County. He prepared an enormous, wonderful meal for us with Cambodian cuisine. And in the meantime, I helped him learn English, which he was very quick to learn. He was very capable at taking it in. And out of this wreckage we gained some, I think, valuable new citizens. And I had a very valuable interpersonal experience, which I later brought to Ojai, where we live now, and began volunteering to teach elementary school students English using some of the same techniques used with the Cambodian family.