WARS AND RUMORS OF WARS
Anthropologist Margaret Mead recounts in her biography her reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She writes that she took the only copy of the manuscript she had been working on for years and “tore up every page,” because she felt that that one event would change the world so drastically that nothing she had said would now apply.1 She went on to coin the phrase “generation gap” to distinguish between persons born before the bomb and those born after it.2 Although, by a strict application of her definition, I am on the pre-bomb side of the generation gap, I see myself as being culturally aligned with the post-bomb group, the “baby boomers,” since it took me so long to get through college that, by the time I dropped out, my classmates actually were baby boomers. I was too young during the war to remember anything about it but I do have a memory related to the bomb that indicates the depth of its effect on my generation. It is possible that it is my earliest memory.
At the age of four, after presumably overhearing a lot of parental conversation about the “big bomb,” and somehow knowing the shape of an ordinary bomb, perhaps from comic books or magazines, I was standing alone one day in our front yard in Cleveland when the sky began to be filled by an enormous dark shape I had never seen before. I watched it emerge from behind the houses down the street, slowly revealing itself. I was at first curious, then terrified when I realized that it was a gigantic bomb. What else could it be than “the big bomb?” Certain of my imminent death, I began to scream, rooted to the ground by fear, unable to even think clearly enough to run. My mother soon appeared and, to her credit, did not on this occasion humiliate me by laughing, but explained to me that it was not “the big bomb,” only the Goodyear blimp, a big balloon shaped like a bomb.
Aside from this memory, which supports Mead’s “generation gap” concept, my experience of World War II consists of what happened after it. My Marine Corps uncle returned from occupied Japan in uniform with two presents for me, a tiny toy tea set and a kaleidoscope, something else I had never seen, which I enjoyed for a day or two before my brother took it away from me and tore it apart. I tasted butter for the first time and did not like it and I saw my first toy balloon, rubber to make balloons not having been available during the war. Since my parents were devoted moviegoers, I was taken to the movies early on. War movies were a special favorite of my father’s, perhaps because he had not been allowed to leave his steel-working job to fight. I remember going to sleep during movies full of screaming bombs, roaring airplanes and machine guns.
Images of war were all around me in my early childhood and the mystery of war has concerned me almost without ceasing during my lifetime. There has been no time in my life when war—the one we’re fighting, the one we’re about to fight, the one we just missed fighting, the one that may kill us all—has not been an issue. My training as a Baptist did nothing to lessen war-related anxiety when I learned that, according to Matthew 24:6, the end times would be preceded by a time of “wars and rumors of wars.” In the earliest presidential election I can remember, I chose my candidate not only because he was the Democrat, but because the other guy had been a general. I assumed, being only 10 at the time, that a general would be more inclined towards war, an incorrect assumption in Eisenhower’s case, as it turned out.
In addition to my Goodyear blimp nightmare, there were the images of the concentration camps that began to emerge after the war in the Movietone news reels at the movies and in Life Magazine, to which we subscribed. I did not know what to make of the cruelty or of anti-Semitism, in general. All the main players in my religion, I realized one day, were Jews—Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Joshua, Moses, Elijah, David, all Jews. Were Jews what the war had been about? Was it like the Civil War and the slaves, with one side fighting to free them and the other fighting to keep them enslaved? I asked my father what caused World War II and he had no good answer. I could not wait to make it to the sixth grade so that I could study history and World War II. Maybe there would be an explanation there.
My particular focus on what Jews had to do with World War II was heightened by an incident that took place when I was about 11. My mother was, by then, no longer a maid on Miami Beach, but working as a seamstress at a dry cleaners near the Opa-Locka Marine Air Base, altering uniforms. The owner of the store was Jewish and my mother was very fond of him and his family. She took me to the store on at least one occasion so that I could meet him and I was impressed by his kindness to me.
In my quest to understand anti-Semitism, I asked my mother how Christians could hate and mistreat Jews when all we talked about in church were Jews. She said that the Jews in the Bible were different, that they, except for the Sanhedrin, were not the ones who had killed Jesus, a position basic to the rationale for anti-Semitism. But, perhaps because she had taken some flak during the war for having German ancestors, and certainly because of her personal experience working for a Jew she liked, my mother seemed to go out of her way to protect and defend Jews and to praise the Dutch for having tried to protect Dutch Jews. At one point in my life she even went so far as to lie to me that the Germans in our ancestry had actually been Dutch, though it is possible that it was not a lie and she had somehow confused the German word for German, Deutsche, with the Dutch people.
Then there was an incident that made it all very personal to me. One very hot day, I was alone with my mother at home. While she worked around the house, I stayed in my bedroom picking out tunes to play on my sister’s violin. I had pretty much mastered “Santa Lucia,” and was moving on to “Amazing Grace.” There was a knock at the door and I stopped playing to listen to the interaction. It was an unfamiliar male voice. I gathered that it was some kind of door-to-door salesman. We had little truck with any such but the Avon lady, so I assumed that my mother would send him on his way quickly but, oddly, she invited him in.
I heard concern in her voice and soon I heard her in the kitchen making iced tea. I spent a few seconds pondering this new situation, but in the end, the pull of the violin won out and I went back to playing it and singing an occasional verse. I did, however, abandon Amazing Grace and go back to the song I knew better, Santa Lucia, a staple of beginning violin books. I could not read music to play the violin, but I had heard it played and knew some words from the beginners book left over from the three violin lessons I had had.
After a time, my mother came into the bedroom and asked me to come into the living room. She said the man, selling silverware, had been near sunstroke from walking around in the heat and that she had brought him inside to rest and have some ice tea. He had heard me playing the violin and asked to see the musician. I was brought into the living room and introduced to a small, round man who seemed very old to me. He had a very thick accent that I did not recognize but knew was not a Spanish one and, unlike anyone in our neighborhood, he wore a suit and tie, rather than lightweight fabric and short sleeves. It was, after all, Miami.
As I stood quietly beside his chair, he told me that he had once had a daughter who had played the violin, but that she had died at about my age. My mother, standing slightly behind him where he could not see her but I could, put a finger to her lips, instructing me to be silent and listen to him. He said that he had enjoyed hearing me play and sing because it had reminded him of his daughter. Then, reaching into his pocket, he brought out a beautiful red gold locket on a matching chain and said that it had been his daughter’s, but he wanted me to have it.
My mother and I both protested at the same time, saying that I could not possibly accept something that meant so much to him, but he insisted that I take it, saying that it should be worn by a little girl like his daughter and that he would enjoy it more, knowing that a little girl was wearing it. My mother finally gave in and nodded to me that I could accept it. I was by now awestruck that such a thing could be happening to me. As he placed it in my hand, I caught a glimpse of numbers tattooed somewhere near his wrist. My mother, to my great surprise, had bought a set of silverware from him, pieces from which I still possess. After he left, I asked her about the tattooed numbers and she told me that it meant that he had been in a concentration camp. I asked her why she had bought silverware from him, since I knew that that was a fantastic purchase for us. We were a stainless steel kind of family. She said that I could not imagine what he had been through and she had bought it because he clearly needed some help.
My father had the locket appraised by a jeweler to whom he told the story of how I came to have it. The jeweler said that the locket was entirely consistent with the man’s story, that it looked very much like an item that could have come from Europe, that it had a very high gold content and that if I could keep it into adulthood, it would qualify as an antique. Unfortunately, my sister borrowed it and lost it, to my great sorrow, but the whole incident remained vivid in my memory throughout my life and probably contributed to my morbid fascination with the third Reich. It was probably also my first contact with a Jewish person other than our next-door neighbor Norma, who we knew had been born in Poland and left before the invasion, but who may or may not have been Jewish. I was to be disappointed when I reached the sixth grade and discovered that World War II was such recent history that it was at the end of the history book and we ran out of time before we got there. The same thing happened in every history class I took after that, so that I was always on my own to try to understand it.
Before Vietnam, the only war I could remember was the Korean War and my only memory of it had to do with Sunday School. Baptist children learn early to lead prayer aloud in Sunday school class, in large part imitating prayers said aloud in church by adults. In my memory those prayers always ended “and be with our boys on the front,” a phrase which I only dimly understood as meaning the soldiers fighting the Korean War, which I knew was taking place somewhere near China. When I was asked one Sunday to lead the prayer and I finished with that phrase, my Sunday school teacher said, “Very nice, but we don’t have to pray for the boys on the front anymore because the war is over.” Once again, I had no conception at all what the war had been about, other than it had something to do with Communists.
Aside from World War II books and movies, those experiences had been my entire relationship to war, before the Vietnam War. However, I was an extensive reader and moviegoer so that I certainly did know more about World War II and Nazis than my fellow students when I arrived in Georgia for my freshman year in college. Like most Americans I assumed, based on the books and the movies, that whatever war we might be fighting, we would be the ones fighting for the right. I had often wondered if I had the kind of courage I read about in the books and saw in the movies. How brave would I have been had I been in the military or living in Europe or Asia during World War II? I had no idea.
The cold war
Although I had been an avid reader of the Miami Herald, which we had delivered to our house, my awareness of current events took a steep decline when we moved to Central Florida in 1954. Aside from the fact that reading newspapers would have been one more indication of my geeky-ness, we lived too far away from town for newspaper deliveries and I cannot remember even seeing a newspaper rack anywhere in Groveland. We did have a TV set and my parents did watch the news, but I was usually at that time of day washing up the dinner dishes or doing homework in my room. I am sure I must have heard the phrase “Cold War,” but I am also sure that I could not have defined it. The extent of my knowledge of Communists started and ended with the TV show “I Led Three Lives,” about a double agent.
I was, however, alert to anything having to do with the atomic bomb. I remember well the “duck and cover” drills that occurred occasionally at my elementary school. I remember trying hard to get my father to build a bomb shelter in our backyard and being told that you cannot build anything underground in Miami because of the high water table and, anyway, it was absurd to imagine that either a shelter or ducking and covering would provide any protection at all from an atom bomb. My dad was a very realistic fellow. I knew that there were too many atom bombs and I knew that there were scientists who feared that a nuclear war could wipe out most life on the planet. There was no way for me to separate that knowledge from the fire and brimstone talk of the “end times” to which I was subjected most Sundays at church. It seemed obvious to me that parts of the Book of Revelation could easily be describing a nuclear war and I believed from childhood that I could well be a member of the last generation.
My most vivid memory of the Cold War centers around one week that happened shortly before my high school graduation. First, I saw the movie “On the Beach,” describing Australian survivors of a global nuclear war. Then, I read the book Alas Babylon3 a copy of which had been sent to me by Roy. It is a post-apocalyptic story set in Central Florida. Bombs are dropped on Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville, leaving rural Floridians, such as myself, to work together or die. Part of the description of how the survivors first know of the bombs is that the radio station in Orlando suddenly goes dead. Then, in the same week, an American spy plane, piloted by Francis Gary Powers, was shot down over Russia and a pending summit conference between President Eisenhower and Russian Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev was canceled, amid talk of possible war.4
There came a day at the end of that fear-inspiring week when I was alone at the home of the friend with whose family I lived that year. I was making dinner in the kitchen while listening to my radio, tuned to a station from Orlando. Suddenly, the radio went dead for no apparent reason. The electricity was still on. I knew that this was it. I ran from the kitchen into the dining room, got under the table and waited for the big flash of light. It never came. After a while, I got out from under the table, chagrined, and grateful that I had had this experience alone so that there would be no teasing from my friend or her sisters. The radio came back on and I never heard an explanation for what had caused it to suddenly die and send me into a panic.
My next opportunity to contemplate my possible death in a nuclear war was during the Cuban missile crisis. By now I was considerably more sophisticated on current events then I had been when I had dived under the table in Groveland. I had been thrown out of two colleges, had lived with my boyfriend for six months in Philadelphia and was living with my parents in Lakeland, working as a waitress while I tried to figure out what to do next. On one of the crucial days, perhaps the day of President Kennedy’s TV address or perhaps the day the naval blockade turned back the Russian ships heading for Cuba with missiles, my boss kept the radio on all day in the kitchen. Every time I picked up an order, I heard a snatch of the ongoing crisis.
The phrase I kept hearing was “90 miles from our shores,” referring to the distance between Cuba and, I assumed, Key West. I picked up that the missiles in Cuba could hit any target on the East Coast, but they kept repeating the 90-mile distance and I was in Florida. I knew there was at least one military target in Miami because I had lived down the street from it. I could not help thinking, irrationally, what if they aim at Miami, their nearest target—and hit Lakeland, instead? But, this time, there was nothing to do but keep serving food. It was not until decades later that the full extent of the danger, or a more full extent, became widely known, but what I did know certainly added to my own generalized feeling that I might, indeed, be a member of the last generation on earth.
I had, by the time of the missile crisis, been exposed to much conversation about Communism during my semester in Tallahassee. There was a lot of back-and-forth about Cuba, the House Un-American Activities Committee, the wisdom of bloody revolutions in general, the accusations that civil rights protests were instigated by Communists infiltrating civil rights organizations. I was a listener only when these conversations took place, knowing that I was far too uneducated on the subject to express any opinions. I only knew that, in the opinion of people I respected, there was much more to the subject than that Communists are evil minions of the Devil. I gathered that there was an actual philosophy to be understood separately from the actions of Stalin and that bad things that happened in Communist nations did not necessarily have anything to do with Communism as a philosophy, or, more accurately, with socialism.
By the time I arrived in Berkeley, I had already been accused of being a dupe of the Communists as a member of the Free Speech Movement, so I knew personally how inaccurate such accusations could be. I was nobody’s dupe and I was sure of that. When I was presented with a loyalty oath to sign in order to work for the university, I did so without complaint, since it was sign it or don’t work and if I don’t work I don’t get to go to school. What did surprise and shock me was the several -pages-long list of organizations that I had to swear I had never been a member of, or known any members of, including such innocuous-sounding ones as the Romanian Folk Dance Society.
Since red-baiting was such a prominent feature of the environment during the Free Speech Movement, the wider Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement, the following information might prove educational for some people. In my lifetime of activism, I have met, to my knowledge, five people who actually were, had been or claimed to be members of the Communist Party. All five are women and all five repudiated the party soon after the 1960s. Only the first one had any influence on me. Before I was arrested in the FSM and when I was a student at Oakland City College and one of the founders of SLATE there, this woman said to me, in the middle of a discussion about the Civil Rights Movement in the South, “its not just the South, its not just the states, its not just the U.S. government. Its the capitalistic system. The whole thing is rotten to the core and will eventually implode,” or words to that effect.
This was a major new idea to me. I still had some faith in the federal government, which was the only force for justice in the South I had just left. I had known before that statement that she claimed to be a Communist and had been keenly observing her to see if anything she did matched the picture presented in the various forms of anti-Communist propaganda to which I had been exposed. That was the very first thing that fit the picture, but I have to say, it was a perfectly valid idea for a social scientist to think about and I did think about it and I now think the whole capitalistic system is rotten to the core, as are the economic and political systems of Communist countries and that both will implode eventually for ecological reasons, unless something changes in both systems. It is industrialization that is the problem in both cases, but I digress. . . .
Later, at Berkeley, I read Karl Marx, described by my advisor, Gerry Berreman, as the greatest social scientist of the 19th century,5 and found that, having been raised a Christian, I agreed with him on just about everything, including his characterization of religion as the “opiate of the masses.” It all certainly squared with my understanding of the words of Jesus Christ and with my experiences at the Bible college in Georgia. Today, I would add to his work much that has emerged from human ecology and the women’s movement, but I still agree with Gerry about his status as a pre-eminent social scientist. His analysis of capitalism is being proven as I type. His concepts of the profit motive, vested interest, materialism, class warfare, the dialectic, and so forth, seem even more relevant to me in 2017 than they did in the 1960s.
And, please note, those people known as Communists departed greatly from Marx’s work and Marx has been irrationally and hysterically badmouthed in many ways for a long time. Also, please note, I am a devoted follower of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. but was never a “follower” of Marx, in any but the academic sense.
In one of life’s strange little twists, I became reacquainted with my former Communist friend at the 30th reunion of the FSM in Berkeley, where she was passing out feminist flyers. I would not have recognized her if her name had not been printed on the flyer. When she handed it to me and I saw her name, I immediately looked up and asked a question and recognized her voice. I could hardly wait to corner her later and introduce myself and ask her if she still thought the capitalistic system was rotten to the core and would implode.
She was a trifle chagrined that I remembered that phase of her life and hastened to explain that she had been only quoting from the sayings of her then-boyfriend and had gone way past the point in her life where she allowed herself to be so influenced by the men in it. But, I never could get her to answer my question, though she did say that she had renounced the Communist Party soon after she broke up with the boyfriend. She would not confirm or deny whether she had actually been a member of the party but our subsequent conversation left me in no doubt that if she ever really had been one, she certainly was not now.
We reminisced some about our days at Oakland City College and caught up on the intervening 30 years, both of us delighted that the other was still an activist. I gave her a copy of my book and we parted, both somewhat bemused, I think, but certainly cheerful. I do not know what she might have been thinking about me, but I was thinking about her, “this nice, maternal, harmless looking lady is someone I was supposed to be afraid of? Ridiculous!”
My basic stance all through the 60s and to this day is non-violence, which I see as antithetical to the historical positions of the Communist Party. I wavered briefly on non-violence during my Vietnam Day Committee (VDC) days, but I snapped right back and dropped out of everything when it seemed to me that I had gotten closer to violence than I wanted to or than the situation required. And, the only Communist I met through my political activity in Berkeley was Bettina Aptheker, whose former affiliation is no secret, and I actually met her through mutual friends, not any political organization. There were no discussions about Communism anywhere around me in Berkeley, although conversations about socialism were plentiful. I never met a Communist through any organization and Communists were viewed by my academic and activist colleagues as, pretty much, fuzzy-minded patriarchal old fuddy-duddys hopelessly stuck in an ancient paradigm.
War? What war?
The first time I heard of Vietnam, it was in the caption of a photo of a Marine coming out of a burning hut holding an infant. I saw the magazine containing the photo lying on a coffee table in the lobby of the women’s dorm at Norman College, Norman Park, Georgia. It was probably a Life Magazine, although my research in the Life Magazine online archives has not turned up the photo I remember. I was probably waiting for my date. I cannot remember if the picture was inside or on the cover, with the caption inside. It caught my eye, in part, because my brother-in-law was a Marine and I was unaware that there was any current conflict to which he might have been sent.
According to the caption, the Marine pictured was one of a number of U. S. “advisors” to one side of a civil war in Vietnam. I was shocked by the picture, the very first one in what would become a grim years-long series of such photos. I cannot remember if the baby was alive or dead, but I was drawn by the starkness of the contrast between it and the Marine and the implication that the baby had been taken out of the burning hut. And, I was interested to learn a geographical name entirely new to me. I asked myself then, where in the hell is Vietnam? How is it possible that there are U.S. Marines there and I have never even heard the name of the place? Am I really that ignorant? I thought, for the first, but not the last time, what on God’s earth could possibly be worth the death of this infant? What in the hell are they fighting about?
It was a question that was never answered to my satisfaction. In Georgia, I looked at the picture just long enough to have those thoughts and then I put the magazine aside and did not really think about Vietnam again until I spent some time after my expulsion from FSU in 1962 living with my sister on the Cherry Point Marine Air Base in North Carolina, where I dated a Marine who would later be sent to Vietnam. Although he was not supposed to be talking much about it, he did, in fact, talk about it, but not much of what he said sank in.
The next I heard of it was when my brother-in-law passed through the San Francisco Bay Area on his way there. He came over for dinner with me and my husband, following my sister’s request that he check in on me, since he was going to be passing by so close. I was quite astonished when Mike began to ask him about Vietnam, about whether he had thoughts about the justice of the war that he was about to go and participate in.
I had had no idea that was coming. If I had, I would have headed it off, just because I knew how committed Harry was to the Marine Corps and I would have felt it not my place to put him on the spot. I do not remember what happened after that, how he reacted, but I do remember not being satisfied with the way we said good-bye to Harry. It was my first experience of seeing the war questioned, person-to-person, and my first inkling of how questioning the war would set me against my family, eventually alienating me from them even more than I was already.
I did not understand until 1965 that there would be a student movement opposing the war. I did read newspapers sporadically and watched TV until I left both it and my husband, but my entire consciousness was filled with the Civil Rights Movement, my academic career and my divorce. Sometime early in the Spring semester of 1965, the war was thrust back into my full awareness by no less a personage then Mario Savio. Now a student at Berkeley, I never missed a noon rally, most of which had to do with the ongoing processing of the FSM bustees and negotiations between the FSM leadership and the UC administration.
Then, there was a rally that celebrated some kind of turning point for the FSM. The feeling of that rally was, well, the FSM is over and we won, it’s all settled. My feeling was, okay, I am glad that’s all settled so now I can go on with my life. I have a vivid memory of Mario speaking, probably at the end of a group of speakers. I was even leaving the rally before it was quite finished and I was listening to Mario as I was walking away. I was on the steps of the student union when I heard Mario say something like, “Now, all of you people who are out there at the edge of the crowd walking away, don’t think it’s all over. We still have a war to stop.” I remember stopping dead in my tracks, looking around quite startled, and asking myself, “War, what war?” It turned out that it was the Vietnam War. I had forgotten all about it.
Since I told that story as one of many interviewees in the documentary film Berkeley in the 60s, I have been contacted by people wanting to know which speech of Mario’s my memory is associated with. According to one list I was directed to, Mario only made four speeches during that semester and none of them seemed to me to fit my recollection. My explanation for this is that Mario spoke far more often during that semester than four times and, as far as I was concerned, anything Mario said could be considered a speech. Since his closing remark about our having a war to stop was spoken almost as an afterthought, and probably most people there had been paying attention to the war all along, it is not surprising that no one but me remembers it.
I only remember it because I happened to be one of the people walking away, so it felt like Mario’s remark was aimed directly at me, and because the idea of stopping a war, especially one I had not been thinking about, had never occurred to me. Sometime after Mario’s appeal and before the first teach-in, I saw a picture of a Vietnamese Buddhist priest who had set himself on fire to protest something having to do with the war. That was another picture related to the war that got my full attention. I was stunned that anyone could or would set themselves on fire and I resolved to learn more about it.
1Footnotes are located in the blog entry entitled Footnotes for Chapter Six.
© Jentri Anders, 2016