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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

VIETNAM WAR - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The VIETNAM WAR, an undeclared war in Southeast Asia in which the U.S. was engaged from 5 Aug. 1964 until signing a peace agreement in Jan. 1973, affected Clevelanders much as it did other Americans. As a political issue, the war contributed to ideological polarization and increased cynicism; in its effect on the economy, the war first benefited the city's INDUSTRY, then produced major economic disruptions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But first and lastingly a human tragedy, the war disrupted, scarred, and ended lives; individuals bore its greatest burdens. The Vietnam War most directly affected those young men eligible for military service. Between 1965-72, about 154,000 men of draft age lived in Cuyahoga County. Local statistics for military service are not available, but from 1970 census figures and percentages derived from national figures, it appears that about 50,000 draft-age men of the county enlisted, 12,000 were drafted, and about 92,000 never served in the military. Of those who never served, about 88,000 were deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service, while about 4,000 were apparent draft offenders. Of the estimated 62,000 Clevelanders who served in the military during the Vietnam era, probably 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 served in Vietnam but saw no combat, and 12,000 experienced combat.

Demonstrators along Euclid Ave. on the campus of CWRU protest U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, 1970. CWRU Archives.

The State Adjutant General's Department reports that 403 of the 15,000 Cuyahoga County soldiers who went to Vietnam died there; obituaries and the lists of those killed published annually in Memorial Day editions of local newspapers suggest that about 427 county men died in Vietnam. Probably another 2,000 were wounded. Casualty figures reflect the pattern of American involvement in the war. One local man, Navy flight surgeon Bruce C. Farrell of WESTLAKE, died in Oct. 1963, before the beginning of "the Vietnam era." No local men died in Vietnam in 1964, but as American involvement increased, so did the number of dead from Cuyahoga County: 17 in 1965, 48 in 1966, 89 in 1967, and 127 in 1968. The "Vietnamization" of the war and a phased withdrawal of American troops lowered county deaths to 87 in 1969, 39 in 1970, 15 in 1971, and 4 in 1972. WOMEN also served in Vietnam, and one nurse from Cleveland, Ruth Whiting, was killed in early 1968. No figures are available to suggest how many other women from Cuyahoga County served in the war. Published obituaries and addresses, while not available for all of those who died from Cuyahoga County, present a rough profile of some area soldiers. This profile suggests that the men sent to war from Cuyahoga County came disproportionately from the poorer areas of the county. Young men from upper-income neighborhoods were more likely to avail themselves of deferments or to serve in less hazardous roles.

Cuyahoga County soldiers went to war with varying attitudes. Many were enthusiastic about the war and, their military service; some even left high school to enlist. Others exhibited a strong sense of duty and purpose in volunteering for combat, sometimes going to great lengths to guarantee themselves service in Vietnam. Others fought despite misgivings about the war. For some, military service presented an obstacle to be cleared before proceeding with life: desiring "to get it over with" before going to college or getting married, these men often enlisted or volunteered through the draft. Local antiwar activists were similarly varied. From political action in support of negotiations, to direct-action protests against American involvement in a "civil war," to the belief that the war issue held possibilities for revolutionary change in America, the Cleveland antiwar movement reflected the variety of motivations, strategies, and political philosophies present in the national movement. But if anything distinguished Cleveland from other cities in regard to the war, it was the role played by local antiwar leaders such as Benjamin Spock, Sidney M. Peck, and attorney Jerry Gordon in creating a popular, broad-based national movement.

Antiwar sentiment was apparent in Cleveland even before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in Aug. 1964. On 18 June 1964, the PLAIN DEALER published as an advertisement an open letter signed by 69 Clevelanders urging American officials to negotiate a settlement rather than increase U.S. involvement. The letter was initiated by local attorney Sheldon D. Clark, a Quaker who had served as assistant state attorney general (1950) and assistant county prosecutor (1951-57), and who in 1966 was the Democratic nominee in an unsuccessful bid to unseat William E. Minshall in the 23rd congressional district. Clark entered the race to give voters the opportunity to vote for a "negotiated settlement" of the war and came out in favor of including the National Liberation Front in negotiations. Expansion of the American military role in Vietnam in 1965 increased the activity of local as well as national antiwar forces. The Univ. Circle Teach-in Committee, formed in March 1965, held its first teach-in the following month. Educational activities and rallies to publicize opposition to the war were prominent in these early efforts. But antiwar sentiment was not widely shared in these early years, and a midnight vigil and rally on PUBLIC SQUARE on 15-16 Oct. 1965 drew jeering counterprotesters.

Prior to mid-1967, the efforts of local antiwar groups were ineffective and largely uncoordinated. After mid-1967, Cleveland's antiwar forces coordinated their work more closely, led by the Cleveland Area Peace Action Coalition (CAPAC) under the direction of CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY. (CWRU) sociology professor Sidney Peck. In June 1967 the Vietnam Resolution Committee formed to gather signatures on petitions in support of placing on the ballot an antiwar resolution urging the president to "bring all American troops home from, Vietnam now so that the Vietnamese people can settle their own affairs." The resolution garnered the necessary signatures but was kept off the ballot by CLEVELAND CITY COUNCIL; it nevertheless provided a means of organizing antiwar support. Jerry Gordon, attorney for the Resolution Committee, later became a leader in Get Out Now!, formed in Oct. 1968 to advocate immediate American withdrawal. Some antiwar groups were more radical in outlook and more militant in approach. The Direct Action Committee, formed in the fall of 1967, confronted "hawks" such as Alabama governor George Wallace during their appearances in Cleveland and helped organize protests against the Dow Chemical Co., a napalm producer, at CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY. (CSU). One of the most active of the radical groups was the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union, formed in spring 1967. A project of the STUDENTS FOR A DEMOCRATIC SOCIETY (SDS), this Marxist group saw the draft as an effective tool in politicizing white students and workers. The group worked closely with Blacks Against the Draft, provided draft counseling, and organized rallies in support of draft resisters reporting to the Induction Center.

Cleveland hosted several important antiwar conferences that propelled local leaders into national roles. Three of these conferences in 1966, chaired by veteran peace activist A. J. Muste, brought together the most active local organizations in the country under Muste's policy of not excluding groups on the basis of politics. The first 2 Cleveland conferences--called national leadership conferences and held on 22 July 1966 and 10 Sept. 1966--were "tenuous and groping," but at the third meeting on 26 Nov. 1966, Peck proposed what historians have described as a "visionary plan for a huge national mobilization" in New York City and San Francisco, to take place on 15 Apr. 1967. His plan launched the important national Spring Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and the success of these demonstrations, along with the war's continued escalation, gave the national and local antiwar movements new momentum. Cleveland again gave rise to an important national organization in 1970; in the aftermath of the invasion of Cambodia, the CAPAC, then led by Gordon, hosted the National Emergency Conference against the Cambodia-Laos-Vietnam War on 19-21 June 1970 at CUYAHOGA COMMUNITY COLLEGE. That conference gave rise to the National Peace Action Coalition, a nonexclusive group dedicated to organizing massive opposition to the war.

Beginning with the increased draft calls and inductions in 1965, draft avoidance became an important element in the antiwar movement. As the draft quotas and inductions increased, the possibility of serving in a war became real for many local men. The Plain Dealer reported "a marked increase in draft dodging in Northeastern Ohio" in Oct. 1965, with legal officials reporting 25 cases that month alone. By Feb., 1973, about 500 draft-evasion cases were pending trial in the Cleveland federal district; several of the defendants were known to be in Canada. The Draft Counseling Assn., formed in 1968, and other draft-counseling services counseled many men about their rights under the law, advised them of available deferments and other options, and guided them through the selective-service system. Lawyers specializing in draft cases provided additional assistance. In addition to conscientious objection, medical exemptions, and student deferments, service in the National Guard or military reserve units provided refuge from the draft, refuge that on occasion was bought and sold illegally. In the spring of 1966, the FBI broke up a Cleveland draft-evasion ring that sold forged Air Force and National Guard papers; in Apr. 1970, 3 civilian employees of the Lakewood Ohio National Guard Armory were charged with soliciting bribes from potential enlistees in exchange for placing their names closer to the top of the waiting list for enlistment. By May 1970 the average wait on these lists was 3-4 months.

Antiwar sentiment increased with the invasion of Cambodia and the killings of students at Kent State Univ. (May 1970), events that created turmoil on normally quiet college campuses such as CWRU. Stories of American atrocities against the Vietnamese also contributed to the increasing unpopularity of the war. In 1967 David Tuck, a Cleveland post office employee, returned from a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam and began speaking out against the war; in Nov. 1967 he traveled to Copenhagen and testified at the Intl. War Crimes Tribunal about wartime atrocities. On 20 Nov. 1969, Clevelanders awoke to find Ronald K. Haeberle's shocking photographs of the My Lai massacre, published exclusively in the Plain Dealer. In 1970 Clevelanders followed the trials of Samuel G. Green, Jr., a Clevelander court-martialed for participating in the killings of 5 Vietnamese women and 11 children.

Such stories contributed to an unfair stereotypical image of murderous American soldiers that made it difficult for people to deal with the realities of the war and the soldiers who fought it. One commentator noted that the stereotype of "the crazy druggie" had obscured the fact that the "majority of veterans [had] returned home to marry, have kids, seek jobs and go on with their lives," putting the war behind them. In 1980 Cuyahoga County had about 66,200 Vietnam-era veterans. The celebration for returning Iranian hostages that year sparked a desire for recognition, which, as in other cities, Vietnam veterans had awaited for a decade. In 1984 the NORTHERN OHIO VIETNAM VETERANS OF AMERICA (NOVVA) (NOVVA, formed in 1980 as an alternative for Vietnam veterans who felt unfairly treated by federal agencies and other veterans' groups), established "a small flower garden" in front of the WAR MEMORIAL FOUNTAIN on St. Clair, at the MALL. The dedication ceremony on 30 Sept. 1984 was, one of the first "official tributes to Vietnam veterans in Cleveland." NOVVA, a chapter of the national Vietnam Veterans of America, was one of several local efforts to deal with the problems of unemployment, inadequate benefits, exposure to "Agent Orange" and other chemical defoliants, and related issues. An informal group, `Nam Vets Helping `Nam Vets, successfully battled the local Veterans Administration to treat Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). CSU psychologist John P. Wilson, a leading authority on PTSD who counseled troubled veterans, aided this campaign. He had been involved in developing the training program used for counselors in Veterans Outreach Centers, 2 of which opened in Cleveland in Dec. 1979. The political battle to fund these federally sponsored centers, as well as the Agent Orange issue, contributed to the organization of local veterans.

While Vietnam veterans battled veterans' agencies for adequate treatment, Cleveland's social-service agencies helped a new population adjust to American life. The fall of Saigon in Apr. 1975 brought a new immigrant population to Cleveland (see IMMIGRATION AND MIGRATION). Vietnamese refugees began arriving in the city in May 1975, as Clevelanders adopted orphans airlifted out of the country and sponsored refugee families. The influx of Vietnamese families created a crisis for area social-service agencies. Led by Joseph Meissner of the LEGAL AID SOCIETY OF CLEVELAND, 10 such agencies quickly formed Vietnamese Information Services to coordinate relocation. The Nationalities Services Center organized social and legal services and job-training and placement programs for the newcomers, and sponsored classes in English and home economics. By Nov. 1975 the Vietnamese Community had been formed as a nonprofit group to help the refugees with social activities and to aid in the preservation of Vietnamese culture and tradition. In Oct. 1976 a Vietnamese grocery opened; by 1985 about 1,000 Vietnamese called Cleveland home. Displaced against their will, the Vietnamese refugees served as a final reminder of the lasting impact and human costs of the Vietnam War.

Kenneth W. Rose

Rockefeller Archive Center

North Tarrytown, NY

Last Modified: 27 Mar 1998 11:09:06 AM

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