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Scholars, veterans discuss unpopular Vietnam War at conference

By Jessica Priest
June 14, 2013 at 1:14 a.m.


For Ray Gonzales, "The Vietnam Experience Conference" at the University of Houston-Victoria on Friday felt a lot like deja vu.

In 1970, Gonzales, now 66, was serving in Thailand as a noncommissioned officer in charge of a dental clinic, where he saw high-ranking officers turn a blind eye to blatant substance abuse.

"We had a policy in our camp," he said. "As long as you didn't have anything locked up and they could go through it and see it, there was no prosecution."

People easily exchanged cigarette and alcohol ration cards, too.

"It was so readily available, and there was nothing else to do," Gonzales said.

The Vietnam War era may have been the first time in American history where soldiers publicly dissented, presenter Robert Buzzanco said.

Buzzanco, a history professor at the University of Houston, said the drugs, such as opium, heroin and marijuana, were cheap and potent. The soldiers also did not have an attack such as Pearl Harbor to avenge, so to speak.

Officials tried to characterize Ho Chi Minh as a Nazi and as the next Hitler, "but nobody was buying that," he said.

There was also a lot of class and racial tensions - both at home and abroad.

"Given the nature of the deferment system, it was fairly easy to get out of the war if you had any kind of education or connection," Buzzanco said. "If your family had the equivalent of $3,000 or $4,000 dollars or less in the 1960s - I don't know what that would be today, probably $25,000 - your chances of getting wounded or killed in Vietnam were about seven or eight times larger than if your family had an welfare income of over $15,000."

African Americans, who made up about 14 percent of the U.S. population, also accounted for about 30 percent of the casualties up through 1968. The numbers evened out in later years, though, he said.

Chris Hickman, a professor at the University of North Florida, also read a paper about how Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a friend of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, believed that "the basic means of a protest was the ballot box."

His colleague, Justice William Douglas, however, wanted to hear controversial cases about the First Amendment, Hickman said.

The university's library offered technical support for the two-day conference, which about 50 people attended from as far away as New York and Ohio.

A few years ago, the VC/UHV library called upon historians to participate in a Korean War conference.

"It's always good to get that first-hand experience," said Joe Dahlstrom, director of libraries. "I think they (Korean and Vietnam War veterans) are both kind of unappreciated."

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