The Vietnam War Episode 7 – The Veneer of Civilization (June 1968 to May 1969)

By Craig Kennet Miller

If you haven’t taken a look at the new documentary by Ken Burns on The Vietnam War, I strongly encourage you to at least watch Episodes 6 and 7 which cover the tumultuous events of 1968.

So much of the national debates we are having today on race, rich versus poor, the NFL and the national anthem, and the questions about our national political leadership are the continuation of a story line that can be traced to those who served in the Vietnam War and those who protested against it.

In the summer of 1968, the war waged on. Over 500,000 American soldiers, the vast majority being boomers under the age of 22, were fighting a bloody, hand-to-hand battle where no territory was taken, where the enemy easily hid in the civilian populations, and where there was no clear cut objective on how to win.

While the Republicans easily found consensus on endorsing Richard Nixon for the 1968 presidential election, the Democrats engaged in a war of its own as thousands of protesters crammed into Chicago to protest against the war as the Democrats held their convention in August.

Chicago Mayor Daley had no intention of letting the protesters have the upper hand. On one side were the police, some who had served in Vietnam or who had friends and relatives fighting across the ocean. On the other side was a mob of college students and anti-war sympathizers whose draft deferments kept them out of the war.

Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto’s insights into the social divide is illuminating. He had been born in WWII in a Japanese internment camp and upheld the family tradition of serving in the American armed forces. In one battle he was in charge of 150 men in which he lost a third of his men.

Okamoto said, “You know what? The real heroes are the men that died. 19-, 20-year-old high school dropouts. They didn’t have the escape routes that the elite and the wealthy and the privileged had. And that was unfair. And so they looked upon military service as like the weather. You had to go in and you had to do it. But to see these kids, who had the least to gain - there wasn’t anything to look forward to; they weren’t going to be rewarded for their service in Vietnam - And yet their infinite patience, their loyalty to each other, their courage under fire was just phenomenal. And you would ask yourself, ‘How does American produce young men like this?’”

As the police faced the protesters the pent up anger on both sides let loose. A police riot broke out as they freely swung their batons and beat up any one who was in reach. Rather than a peaceful image of orderly engagement between two worldviews, American television screens were filled with police beating up sons and daughters. The great divide was now clear to see.

As with the whole series, a number of surprises come to light. In one dramatic scene, President Johnson is heard in a conversation with candidate Nixon, a couple of nights before the 1968 election. Johnson and Vice-President Humphrey, who was running for the Democrats, had made a break through they thought would give Humphrey the election, they had convinced the South Vietnamese to come to the bargaining table. But a couple of days before the election they withdrew.

What happened? Nixon, in a secret deal with the South Vietnamese president, made a promise to get him a better deal than the Democrats could if he left the bargaining table, thus tilting the election to Nixon’s favor.

Johnson called Nixon to challenge him but couldn’t tell him that he knew the secret because he didn’t want to divulge that he had been spying on the South Vietnamese and had overheard the conversation. In the recording Nixon assures Johnson that he would not engage in what Johnson called treason, even though they both knew he was lying through his teeth. By the narrowest of margins, Nixon won the election and his secret was safe.

Karl Marlantes, a Marine, brings home a point that runs through the series, “You have these 19-year-old kids with these huge hearts. They will do what you ask them. The issue is, ‘Are you asking them to do something that is worthwhile?’ That’s up to the adults. And that’s where the failure comes.”

Questions for reflection:

  1. Throughout the series, Kennedy, Johnson, and now Nixon held out vital information from the American public, all in an attempt to obtain and keep political power. What is the role of the public to keep our political leaders honest?
  2. The war divided parents from their children and siblings from each other. How do you as an adult seek to heal wounds from when you were young?
  3. What role does integrity and trust play in the way you live out your faith?


For a post about Episode 1 go Here.
For a post about Episode 2 go Here.
For a post about Episode 3 go Here.
For a post about Episode 4 go Here.
For a post about Episode 5 go Here.
For a post about Episode 6 go Here.

To see Episode 7 on PBS go Here.

Craig Kennet Miller is the author of Boomer Spirituality: Seven Values for the Second Half of Life. He will be sharing insights on each episode of this series. Join Miller in a three-part on Boomer Spirituality starting on October 4, at 6:30 pm Central Time. Register for the webinar series »