The Vietnam War

In the years that followed World War II (1941-45), many changes occurred in Iowa. The state’s economy shifted from farm-based to an industrial-agricultural economy. Small farms merged into larger ones. Iowans moved from the rural areas to more urban areas to work in new and expanding industries. Iowa products were promoted and sold around the world. In 1960 the census reported for the first time that more Iowans lived in urban areas of the state than rural areas. By the 1970s manufacturing made more money for the state than farming.

The years following World War II also saw an increase in births. From 1940 to 1960 Iowa’s population increased from 2,538,268 to 2,757,539. The decade between 1950 and 1960 saw the largest increase in population. The increase was over 60 per cent larger than the decade between 1940 and 1950. These children came to be known as the “Baby Boomer” generation.

The Baby Boomers grew up in the 1950s, reaching their teenage and adulthood years in the 1960s. As they grew into adulthood many became disillusioned with the ideals, values, morals and lifestyles of their parents. They became vocal and active in social issues. They challenged the establishment through their dress and appearance, music, values and political views. It was a time of unrest and shifting values. The issue that most defined this generation in the 1960s and caused the most controversy was the Vietnam War.

Antiwar Movement

As war casualties mounted and Americans learned more about the war, an increasing number of people began to oppose the war. Beginning around 1966 organized protests erupted around the United States; some were very violent and destructive. The antiwar movement was especially strong on college campuses. “Make Love Not War” was a popular slogan of college students who opposed the war. While “America, Love It or Leave It” was a slogan used by pro-war activists.

Iowa’s colleges and universities experienced campus unrest and large antiwar demonstrations. The first major antiwar demonstration at the University of Iowa occurred in November 1967. Marine Corps recruiters were trying to sign up new recruits. A crowd of anti-war students blocked the entrance to the student union.

Another demonstration at the University of Iowa took place during a review of the student military Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Governor Harold Hughes reviewed the ROTC parade, an annual practice. A peace group announced that they planned to break up this parade. In a compromise effort the governor reviewed the ROTC parade and then stayed and reviewed the parade of peace activists. The students came by the review stand carrying symbolic caskets and throwing flowers. Both the governor and university president were crowned with a wreath of flowers.

A peaceful protest occurred at graduation ceremonies at Grinnell College. Some students wore black armbands. Several took over the microphone. One of the speakers refused to accept her college degree as protest against war and a society that would tolerate the war.

Drake University students in Des Moines held a large peace march from the university to the state capitol building. College and university administrators worked closely with the State Patrol to keep campus unrest under control. The Drake march was closely watched by Drake University administrators to avoid any confrontations.

Several bombings occurred around the state in Ames, Des Moines and Iowa City at police station and chamber of commerce buildings. Student demonstrations became more intense in May 1970 after the killing by National Guardsmen of four students at Kent State in Ohio. Because of the increase in violence all over the country, including at Iowa campuses, several colleges and universities in Iowa gave students the option of going home before the semester ended.

Anti-war protests weren’t limited to college campuses. In Des Moines high school students protested the Vietnam War too. John and Mary Beth Tinker and another student wore black armbands to school in protest of the war in December 1965. The students were suspended and told not to return to school unless they removed the armbands. Des Moines schools had adopted a policy that forbade students from wearing an armband to school. The suspended students, through their fathers, filed a suit with a U.S. District Court. They argued that their freedom of speech was protected by the First and 14th Amendments. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In a 1969 ruling the court agreed that the students were entitled to freedom of expression of their views. The ruling upheld the rights of freedom of speech.

Long History of Fighting

The Vietnamese people spent centuries trying to gain independence from larger and more powerful nations. For hundreds of years it struggled with China, its neighbor to the north. By the late 1800s Vietnam became a colony of France. The Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia region was known as French Indochina. During World War II Japan occupied the country for strategic reasons. This concerned the United States and it began supplying financial aid to Indochina.

America got involved in the Vietnam when President Eisenhower was in office during the 1950s. In 1954 the country was divided into communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. Eisenhower sent “military advisors” to help develop and train a South Vietnamese army that would defend the country from communist takeover. President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s increased the number of advisors. Thousands of American troops were sent to train the South Vietnamese to fight.

After an incident between North Vietnamese patrol boats and a U.S. Navy Ship in August 1964 in the Gulf of Tonkin near Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson began sending several hundred thousands of American troops to South Vietnam. He also ordered bombing raids over North Vietnam. For 11 years American troops fought in what became a full-scale but undeclared war in Vietnam.

First “Television War” in History

The Vietnam War was the most publicized war in history as a result of coverage by the press and television. More reporters with more expensive equipment were sent to cover the Vietnam conflict than any previous conflict in history. In previous wars reports from the battlefield showed up days later in newspapers. Newsreels about an event often were shown in movie theaters. But news traveled much faster in the Vietnam era.

By the 1960s the television set was becoming more common in homes. For the first time Iowans could watch in their living rooms what was happening a world away. In the beginning most Iowans were on the side of “Hawks” who supported the presence of U.S. troops in Vietnam. But that changed as Iowans saw images of American combat soldiers and Vietnamese citizens being injured or killed. Casualty numbers mounted weekly. The death and destruction became increasingly disturbing, and the war became more unpopular with many Americans.

More and more people began to question the reasons for U.S involvement in the war. Young men who were eligible for the military draft became more vocal, protested and resisted military service. Anti-war protests became common around all parts of the United States, with 1968 being the height of the anti-war movement. A popular song of the era from a musical group called The Animals captured the sentiment of soldiers and citizens alike—“We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

Drafted Into Service

During the course of the war years three million American men and women were involved in the Vietnam conflict. Many Iowans were unaware of where the small Southeast Asian country called Vietnam was located—until a family member was called to military service there. About 115,000 Iowans served in the Vietnam War. Over 800 Iowans became casualties of the war.

During the Vietnam War the U.S. government maintained a military draft. As the war escalated, the monthly draft quotas rose. Sometimes as many as 40,000 men were drafted in one month. Attitudes about serving in the military turned to reluctance and avoidance. Some people felt the draft system was unjust. College students were exempt from the draft. This led to the claim that a higher percentage of poor, working class and minorities were risking their lives in the war.

In 1969 the way men were drafted into the military changed. The new system used a lottery to select men for service. On December 1, 1969, the first national draft lottery since 1942 was held. At many Iowa colleges and universities students gathered around television sets in dormitories and apartments to learn their fate. This lottery system was based on a random drawing of birth dates. As dates were pulled from the steel drum men between the ages of 18 and 26 watched as a randomly drawn birth date was paired with a number from 1 to 365. Men with birth dates on the first 100 dates selected would almost certainly be drafted as the need for more men grew.

Honoring Vietnam Veterans

The Vietnam War affected many Iowans. Many who fought in Vietnam have painful memories of their experiences. Some carry physical or mental wounds that may never heal. The families of those who died in the Vietnam War have only memories of their loved ones. To honor the people who fought in the war, the Iowa Vietnam Commission built a memorial at the state capitol grounds in Des Moines. The memorial was dedicated in 1984.

Sources:

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By Marcia Meller

 

 


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