A Conscientious Objector’s view of the War against Vietnam

By Thomas Gilbert

First things first: I was never in Vietnam. I was a conscientious objector (CO). When I turned 18 years old, just graduated from high school, I received a letter from the draft board indicating that I had been given a draft status of 1-A. There were only three classifications: 1-A, a combatant, 1-A-O, a non-combatant in military service (a medic) and 1-O, non-combatant conscientious objector, which meant I was to be inducted into the army. Of course there were ways to defer military service, to put it off.

Too many young people were completely unaware of the fact that this was the critical juncture in their future draft status. Most wrote back that were still going to school and needed a school deferment or were going to go on to college and therefore needed a school deferment.

This was a trick! I stated – the correct procedure – that I would not be looking for a deferment, but would be asking for a 1-0 classification as a Conscientious Objector. I then received back a letter from the draft board stating that because I was in school and going to college, I would be given a school deferment.

I asked to be classified as conscientious objector, as I was a Quaker.

However, when I stopped going to college, the draft board contacted me again and told me that my school deferment had ended. I was now reclassified as 1-A and would have to report to duty.

On receiving the draft board’s letter, I sent the copies of the first response I gave from when I turned 18. I asked to be classified as a conscientious objector as I was a Quaker.

This began a lengthy process of essay writing: I had to explain everything, including giving them an account of my Quaker family history. My parents and friends had to write letters of support and endorsement. It was also necessary to write letters confirming my aversion to guns, military exercises and killing under all circumstances. I had to argue against the death penalty, discuss religious community events and prove my participation in them.

There were 6 months of back-and-forth communication which eventually ended in an interview by a military panel at the local draft board. The objective was to intimidate me and try to persuade me that I was not really a CO.

The objective was to intimidate me and try to persuade me that I was not really a CO.

I won the argument because I had written that initial letter at the age of 18. Those who did not ask for a 1-0 classification at the age of 18 were told sharply:

If you really were a conscientious objector, you would have stated that right from the start rather than simply asking for a school deferment. It’s too late for you to try to convince us now that you really are a conscientious objector when you didn’t state that at the beginning.

This is why so many who tried to convince the draft board they really were opposed to killing Vietnamese in far away Vietnam were summarily denied late requests. They had to take off to Canada or Sweden, or go to jail, or submit to being enlisted.

I become an orderly at Wooster community hospital for two years. The pay was $1.86 an hour. 

So, instead of shooting, bombing and napalming the Vietnamese, or fighting in wet jungle foxholes, or participating in the murder of civilians in places like Mai Lai, I became an orderly at Wooster community hospital for two years.

The pay was $1.86 an hour. I worked 40 hours a week cleaning floors, giving baths to sick people, doing catheterizations, setting up traction, escorting people to therapies, assisting physically in surgeries, lifting, transferring, feeding, answering bell calls, changing dressings, taking vital measures and doing whatever was asked of me.

It was crazy at times, but it was also rewarding at times. I had to write up daily reports. I met a lot of ordinary people who were not ordinary at all. They were people struggling to stay afloat and support the ones they loved.

Working stateside in a hospital in Wooster Ohio as an orderly for two years was my way to complete my alternative service for the draft as a CO. I was listed as 1-0, officially a non-combatant, from September 1970 to September 1972.

Like all the young people of my generation, the Vietnam war opened my eyes. We were compelled to try understand what was behind this war as a matter of urgency. I reflected long and hard on the war in Vietnam and came to my conclusions. It was not a war for democracy, peace and justice at all.

Ewan MacColl’s song to Ho Chi Min

The mess began a long time ago. The French colonized and brutalized Vietnam for more than a century right up to World War II, when the Japanese took over and threw the French out, replacing one form of domination with another.

During WW2, a Vietnamese patriot named Ho Chi Min came to the USA. After asking for permission, he was subsequently invited. When he arrived in the USA he went to Washington DC where he met with Truman and offered the services of his underground rebel forces to assist with the American effort to expel the Japanese from Vietnam.

He also offered help with anything else Truman considered that needed to be done in the region in order to end the war and bring peace.

The request however had one respectful condition: if the US and allied forces were successful, once the war was over, would the US please help Vietnam become a free independent nation? Would the USA protect Vietnam against outside colonial oppression?

The US agreed with Ho Chi Min’s proposal, and a treaty was established between the USA and Vietnam while Ho Chi Min was still here on American soil.

Ho Chi Min was utterly astounded by this betrayal.

Ho Chi Min was a true scholar. He spoke nine different languages. While he was in the USA he visited Philadelphia where he came across our Bill of Rights, our Declaration of Independence, and our constitution. He spent time here translating these three documents into Vietnamese and brought them back to his country. He returned to Vietnam to organize his guerrilla rebels and Ho Chi Min and his fighters assisted in the war effort as he had promised.

When the war was over, Ho Chi Min was such a great admirer of US democracy that he actually conducted a radio broadcast for all Vietnam from Hanoi, where he read the US Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights and our constitution. Ho Chi Min told his national audience that their new independent country would be based on these three documents. The applause and cheering from the Vietnamese people, it is said, went on for over twenty minutes.

After the war Ho Chi Min was faced by the terrible reality of US foreign policy. When he asked in a formal communication for the US government to honor the end of the war treaty, the Dulles Brothers at the Central Intelligence Agency stepped in.  

They advised Truman against supporting Ho Chi Min and against supporting Vietnamese independence. The Dulles brothers proposed giving Vietnam back to the French as the only ‘reasonable’ and ‘diplomatic’ arrangement to continue the economic and political balance in the region.

Ho Chi Minn was utterly astounded by this betrayal. Nevertheless, he was determined in any way possible for his country to become free and liberated.

An interjection:

While the USA was fighting for its independence in the 1700s, we enlisted the help of every nation willing to assist us, including that of those very hostile enemies of the British Crown: the French, the Hessians and the native Americans. We did not care who assisted us in our fight for independence. We weren’t concerned about the feelings of the British.

When Ho Chi Minn realized the extent of the allied betrayal, he sought out any and all assistance available, and what was then available to him was the assistance of communist China and the Soviet Union. He didn’t care at this point. Independence for Vietnam was his sole aim.

Ho Chi Min was exactly like a type of George Washington, although, unlike Washington, Ho Chi Min did not own any slaves.

As Ho Chi Min began his fight for independence over the next two decades he and the North Vietnamese Liberation Army (NVLA) – with Russian and Chinese assistance – began to make headway against the French, who had been allowed to come back and rule over Vietnam by the allies after the end of the Second World War.

The French asked the USA to join the war against the Vietnamese anti-colonial movement. The Vietnamese nationalists and the USA slowly became embroiled in a military conflict.

Map showing locations of U.S. Army aerial herbicide spray missions in South Vietnam taking place from 1965 to 1971.

Our underlying reasons for getting in the war were strategic, but they were mainly economic. Texas oil billionaires wanted the drilling rights off the coast of Vietnam where they had already discovered oil deposits … and they got them.

US mining corporations wanted the aluminum deposits buried in the soil of the mainland.  It was not a coincidence that Agent Orange was used extensively on the jungles in part to clear the land for US mining companies after the ‘inevitable’ US victory. In the process of defoliating Vietnam, many children of that generation were born with birth defects.

… much of what is now taught in some institutions [about] the Vietnam war is absolute bullshit.

The Vietnamese eventually won the war. First US ground forces were forced out of Vietnam. The civilian population in the USA would no longer tolerate the deaths of their children. Then the US resorted to bombing Vietnam from the stratosphere to avoid being shot down.

It is said that the USA dropped more bombs on Vietnam than they dropped in the whole of World War II. Still, the enormous violence inflicted on Vietnam wasn’t enough to defeat the Vietnamese nationalists. The cowardly bombing didn’t work.

Finally, the North Vietnamese Liberation Army, founded by Ho Chi Min, defeated the US puppet regime in the South and the South Vietnamese regime’s US advisors and collaborators had to run for their lives. Two million Vietnamese died before Vietnam finally achieved its independence.

A sideline comment:

John D. Rockefeller’s munitions company, Rockwell International, was responsible for making most of the American army’s contemporary rifles. I actually remember evening news reports during the war where correspondents and investigators were trying to unearth the black market routes and connections of military gear traveling illicitly from South Vietnam to North Vietnam.

It was well known that American soldiers were being killed with American weaponry. North Vietnamese military installations had US weaponry made by Rockwell International. Some of this weaponry was captured from the US and their puppet forces, but not all. The pointless search for this underground supply route found nothing.

Now for the details: allegedly, Rockwell International, using loopholes in the maritime and border laws, were able to increase their sales by selling to both sides. It is said that Rockwell disassembled their guns and rifles and, allegedly, listed them as machine parts. Only concerned with making a profit, they sold weapons to Russia. The weapons were then shipped through to China and then into North Vietnam to be reassembled.

The military industrial complex made fortunes from war and they were unscrupulous. They wanted to keep the war in Vietnam going. Purportedly, Rockefeller’s company was selling weaponry to both sides of the war and making many millions.

The bastard was almost unanimously elected as Gerald Ford’s Vice President.

Those of us who lived through those times, who experienced and participated in the war against Vietnam, or who determinedly stayed out of it, have had to come to terms with it.

We know that much of what is now taught in some institutions as a reliable historical account of the Vietnam war is absolute bullshit.

Time has passed. I’ve been working hard in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities for the better part of 52 years, now and I’ve not found any other intervention as powerful and as necessary for folks in the eclectic population of the USA as literacy acquisition.

Being able to read and understand more about the world and about history is vital to adults in the USA, where we have a very high rate of illiteracy. Being able to read and inform themselves might also help a lot of people decide to conscientiously object to participating in any further unjust wars.

*I got a great deal of this analysis from a visiting lecturer at the college of Wooster, which I attended from 1969-1973. He was an iconoclastic historian, connected with one of the universities in Southern California. Sadly, I cannot recall his name.

Thomas Gilbert, conscientious objector, Quaker, adult literacy teacher and mystic

Thomas Gilbert has spent the better part of the last 52 years in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Over the last 30 years he has produced a program for teaching full literacy skills to those within this population with Aspergers, autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, dyslexia, traumatic brain injury, ADD and ADHD.

He has tutored over 50 individuals from northern Ohio long term, one-on-one, in one-hour weekly sessions in a cooperative learning style, taking many people from the level of beginning emergent literacy skills to independent reading. He has logged more than 10,000 hours tutoring in the process.

Thomas’s web site on literacy acquisition is www.literacyforanyone.com It is 100% free to use and share and download. Thomas also dabbles in writing poetry, short stories and novels He has composed simple musical compositions for piano. Thomas also has a deep curiosity about metaphysics and mysticism.

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