My Vietnam Awakening

Hanoi. October 21, 2017

I am travelling back to Vietnam again this week. I have journeyed here nearly every second year since 1970.

Yesterday as I walked the streets of Vietnam’s capital, I reflected on what got me to Vietnam in the first place; what it was that first caught my attention. As so many young people of my generation, my awareness of Vietnam was born in a war and in my case a protest movement 50 years ago this month.

I was a student - a kid really just past his 20th birthday. I stood in the middle of a large anti-war demonstration, surrounded by a lot of young men and women my age.

I stood apart from the others, however, for I was not protesting anything but telling people all about it on the radio.

A sophomore in college, my roommate had got me a part time job as a radio reporter at a station in Rosslyn Virginia just across the Key Bridge from Washington D.C.

In the days long before the internet, before cellphones, before CNN, television and even radio did little, live, continuous news coverage. “W-A-V-A News Radio,” promoted itself as “America’s First all-news station: All News All the Time for the Nation’s Capital.”

Unlike the big nets CBS, NBC, and ABC, little “WAVA” planned to broadcast LIVE from the Pentagon; staffed largely by a reporting team of kids in their 20’s, earning minimum wage.

My friend Bob Schmidt and I were asked to lug heavy Motorola two way radios over to the Pentagon. I had never done a live radio broadcast before. I had never been to an anti-war demonstration before.

Standing on a flatbed truck positioned near Corridor 7 at the Pentagon’s mall entrance, microphone attached to my two-way, I looked out over a vast sea of people. Helmeted Military Police bayonets affixed to their rifles and Federal Marshals, faced thousands of protesters. Many had heeded the call of the leaflets of the Washington Student Mobilization Committee. “End the Draft.” “Bring the Troops Home Now.” “Assemble!” “March on the Pentagon.”

An extraordinary assortment of people gathered.

Some carried flags - red on top, blue on bottom, yellow star in the middle. “The Revolutionary Contingent,” they called themselves. This “anti-imperialist coalition” armed with their “Viet Cong” flags, supported the aspirations of Vietnam’s “National Liberation Front.”

Alongside them were veteran peace activists and those whose activism was born in classrooms just the year before. There was a smattering of neo-Nazis protesting the protesters. There were girls with flowers in their hair and angry people calling LBJ a “war criminal.” Still others called on Americans to “support our troops.”

I jumped off the truck and waded into the crowd to talk to some of them.

“We’re protecting ourselves by fighting in Vietnam,” one woman argued. She held up a sign: “If you’re not willing to fight for your country, you’re not fit to live in it.”

“No, you are wrong!” countered one man. “There’s no reason for us to be there. We’re killing a lot of innocent people, and we’re not doing anything to stop any kind of world communist movement.”

We broadcast a remarkably spirited debate.

Late on Sunday the 22nd, we were live again as Federal Marshals and Military Police began to arrest protesters. After midnight Monday morning, tens of thousands had dwindled to several hundred hard core activists. They were ready to be taken off to jail. Marshals barked orders. Demonstrators sang “"America the Beautiful" and “We Shall Overcome.” MP’s carried them into police wagons. It was over by about two am. I packed up my Motorola and its heavy batteries and trudged back to Rosslyn.

There would be many more and much bigger anti-war demonstrations in the years ahead: against Nixon’s war in 1969 and against the invasion of Cambodia in 1970.

By that time I was gone. I was no longer on the radio from Washington.

[Listen to excerpts of Laurie’s live radio broadcasts from the Pentagon October 21-23 1967 below]

The following year I declared my major at University - History with a concentration in Asia Studies.

In April 1970, I arrived in Saigon, was issued a credential from the “Joint United States Public Affairs office of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam” and began nearly five years as a war reporter in Vietnam and Cambodia.

On the morning of April 30th, 1975, I watched as North Vietnamese tanks rumbled into Saigon. I remembered those demonstrators defiantly hoisting their National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) flags in 1967. The boys on the tanks in Saigon that day, seven and a half years later, waved the same flags.

Looking back - Forty eight hours in October, fifty years ago, turned out to be my Vietnam awakening.


Follow Jim Laurie on Twitter @FocusAsia

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