Discussion of our January/February Issue

Feedback from our readers

Smithsonian Magazine

Whatever you think about the events of 1968—the subject of our special January/February issue—they should not be forgotten. “I was 16 years old in 1968 and each of its larger-than-life events rocked me to the core,” Valerie Baker-Easley of Broomfield, Colorado, recalls. Joan Murray of Old Chatham, New York, doesn’t think the year “shattered” America. “‘Enlightened,’ ‘liberated’ or ‘expanded’ would have been more accurate. 1968 was a year of growth...that made us bigger and better.” Other readers complain we omitted the good things, such as the debut of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cost of living far lower than today’s and, says John Sens of Newfolden, Minnesota, “a modicum of cooperation between parties in Washington.” But Wendy Thomas of Sparta, New Jersey, speaks for many: “Thank you for this provoking review of events from 50 years ago that both in their turmoil and triumph continue to change the world.”

Remembering My Lai

The Ghosts of My Lai” does not give nearly enough credit to Hugh Thompson and his helicopter crew for their actions on the day of the massacre. They not only evacuated some villagers, as your story states, but also stopped the killing by threatening to fire upon Calley’s troops who were committing the atrocity. Thompson was never truly recognized for his heroism and moral strength. He and his crew are true American heroes.

— Air Force Lt. Col. Steven G. Schwartz, retired | Colorado Springs, Colorado

I can muster no compassion or forgiveness for Calley and his men who murdered the civilians of the My Lai hamlet. Soldiers are taught that they should refuse to obey an unlawful order. Any word that came down the chain of command dictating the eradication of the My Lai hamlet and its inhabitants, who were noncombatants, was obviously unlawful. All those up the chain of command exhibited gross dereliction of duty by attempting to bury the incident. High-ranking officers at battalion, brigade and division level escaped any charges or punishment although the details of the My Lai massacre were common knowledge—and ignored or whitewashed. The incident put a stain on all of us lifers who served, often for multiple tours, as I did, in Vietnam.

—Fred “Ted” Raymond | El Mirage, Arizona

Exploding Populations

Charles C. Mann’s apparent conclusion (“Back When the End Was Near”) is that Paul Ehrlich was a foolish prophet of doom who has been proven wrong by our wonderful scientific progress. Rather than an “outlier,” as Mann dismissively suggests, Ehrlich’s prediction that we are rapidly destroying the planet with too many souls has been validated by the increasingly obvious evidence of global climate change. And this does not even touch on the secondary effects: desertification, habitat loss and extinctions, resource depletion, pollution, population migrations, and political fallout such as wars and anarchy. Ehrlich may have been imprecise about the time scale and how the effects of bulging populations would manifest themselves, but the thrust of his analysis is unassailable. Unfortunately, discussions of the impact of swelling populations are either ignored or considered taboo due to religious traditions.

— Carl Mezoff | Stamford, Connecticut

Mann provides a convincing history of Ehrlich’s alarming “projection” (widely taken as a prediction) and carefully points out there were things unknown to Ehrlich, since they appeared in fields of study far from his, that obviated the conclusions. It is a timely reminder that it is difficult for scientists to make accurate predictions since their fields of study are limited, not to say narrow.

— Terry Goldman | Los Alamos, New Mexico

Disturbance at the DNC

As a volunteer at the 1968 Democratic Convention, I’m disappointed that there was no mention of the brutality on the part of the demonstrators (“Rage Against the Machine”). I personally saw a police car overturned near Lincoln Park, Hubert Humphrey pelted with campaign buttons as he entered the Conrad Hilton Hotel, and bags of garbage thrown from the hotel windows when Eugene McCarthy, after he lost the nomination, gave a speech at Grant Park telling the demonstrators to “take to the streets.”

— Patricia Elen Costello | Lexington, Massachusetts

Pageant Protest

In “Dethroning Miss America,” you say that activist Florynce Kennedy “chained herself” to a Miss America puppet during the Atlantic City protest. Actually, I helped her. I also chained Bonnie Allen to the puppet. Many women who contribute to history, particularly black women like Bonnie, are ignored, even by historians. I hope others will keep digging for deeper truths about historic movements and their participants.

— Peggy Dobbins | Port Lavaca, Texas

Gone Too Soon

In 1957, my uncle Henry broadened my musical horizons by dropping a 78 on the turntable, smiling at me, and saying, “Get ready.” Five seconds in and I’m transfixed, goose-bumped and changed forever, by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” (“Fallen Angel”). Life, I’m happy to say, has not been the same since.

— Jack Grimshaw | Lake Forest, California


I enjoyed Andrew Chaikin’s clever detective work in “Houston, We Have A Photo.” But technically the first “earthrise” photo (dubbed by NASA, “the photo of the century”) was not taken by astronauts—it was taken by an unmanned space probe, Lunar Orbiter 1, on August 23, 1966.

— James Kloeppel | Urbana, Illinois


Editor's note: At Ms. Caplan's request, we replaced the letter to the editor originally published in the March issue with the one below.

When I read the Smithsonian Magazine article about the My Lai massacre whose author wrote that that massacre led to Vietnam War veterans being called baby killers, I wrote to ask that the editor publish a letter from me. I knew that it is widely assumed is that huge numbers of people in the antiwar movement indulged in that name calling, and I knew that the truth was different and far more complicated.

I care a great deal about veterans. My late father was a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and inspired partly by him and by my concerns about veterans of all eras, I had more than a dozen years ago begun listening to veterans, subsequently starting the Listen to a Veteran! project that consists of having one nonveteran listen with complete attention and their whole heart to whatever any veteran wishes to say. My book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans, grew from listening to veterans and considering it the civic responsibility of every nonveteran to listen and bear witness to veterans' experiences, since veterans have served in our name and constitute a tiny and often unheard portion of the population. It also grew from my concern about the huge -- and harmful -- gulf that tends to separate veterans from nonveterans, largely due to nonveterans' utter lack of information about what it is like to serve in the military...and then come home. I have been moved and pleased by the changes made in the lives of both veterans and their nonveteran listeners by the listening sessions.

Our documentary film, "Is Anybody Listening?" isanybodylisteningmovie.org is about this work, told primarily through veterans' own words. Veterans have often said about the film, "This is what I want my loved ones -- and the nation -- to know," and nonveterans have often said the film humanizes veterans for them. Nothing has pleased me more.

When I first contacted a Smithsonian editor, she told me they would print no letter longer than 50 words. I was concerned about being unable even to come close to doing the subject justice in so brief a letter, but there were things I wanted to communicate, and the only other option offered was to send no letter at all. I knew the subject was complicated and sensitive, and my unease about a 50-word statement turned out to be justified, because it conveyed only a fraction of what I wanted to convey, and I regret that it caused upset to a goodly number of people, because it included the statement that a scholar had found no evidence of the name calling. Let me explain.

My work with veterans in the past dozen years has been completely apolitical. One reason that in the Listen to a Veteran! sessions, the nonveteran does not speak, ask questions, or give advice but truly just listens is our core belief in the importance of the veteran's humanity and the nonveteran's openness to it, regardless of the political (or religious or any other) views of either.

My first personal contact with information about war came from my father. Later, I participated in antiwar marches and other events during the Vietnam War, where, in contact with hundreds of speakers and thousands of attendees, I never once heard a critical word spoken about anyone serving in the military. What I did hear was great concern about the importance of letting service members know as much as possible about the war itself, since they were being sent to risk their lives for it. Recently, in the book The Spitting Image by the scholar Jerry Lembcke, I read that he searched for evidence that Vietnam War veterans had been called baby killers or been spat on. One of my specialties as an academic is research methodology, so I was deeply skeptical when I read his statement that he had found no evidence that either had occurred. I thought, "How can you prove that something never happened?!" But when I saw that his approach had been to read every media report he could get his hands on from that era and a great deal of personal correspondence from Vietnam War veterans and had found no mention of either kind of event at the time, I found that to be significant.

But what is also important was that author's description and the documentation by others that several U.S. Presidents, cabinet members, and major military leaders had purposely, vigorously promoted images of mistreatment of returning Vietnam veterans and that they did so as a way to try to distract the populace from questioning about the purposes of the war and how the war was really going. Their aim was to shift the focus to victimized veterans and make it look as though the antiwar movement was rife with people who were doing that victimizing, thereby promoting the ongoing prosecution of the war and making it seem that even to question the war was to dishonor its veterans. I don't believe in setting people up against each other in these ways and certainly not for such purposes.

Another important piece of this matter is that many Vietnam War service members have reported being devastated that they were given orders that led to the killing of babies...and old people and other noncombatants. Some were aware in advance what was happening, and others fired when ordered to do so, then were horrified to see who the victims were. My work with Vietnam veterans often includes bearing witness to the resulting, intense moral anguish they continue to suffer to this day. These haunting incidents were exactly why some service members began to resist the war, even while still in the military and then once they left, and their first-person accounts were in no small part responsible for the winding down of the war.

The Smithsonian editor simply refused to allow me enough space to make all of this clear, and you can imagine my shock and dismay when my 50-word letter was published on the same page as three other letters, one of which was about 50% longer than mine, one of which was 2 1/2 times as along, and the third of which was longer still. When I asked why this had happened, the editor who had communicated with me said she had been given the 50-word limit by the person who actually handles the Letters to the Editor, but no one apologized or took ultimate responsibility. I asked to be allowed to send a longer letter and was told that I could send it but that they would not publish anything further from me in the magazine's hard copy. The Managing Editor got involved at that point and kindly offered to remove my 50-word letter right away from the online version of the magazine and publish a longer letter from me...but only online. I asked how many people read the online version in contrast to the hard copy, and she said she did not know but suspected I was right in assuming that far fewer read the online one.

The best I could do was to write this current, longer letter to try to clarify. As I write this, I have now received letters directly from 14 people who identified themselves as Vietnam War veterans and each said that they had been called a baby killer. One or two said they had been spat on or knew another veteran who had been. I wrote to tell each that I appreciated their having taken the time to write to me and describe their experiences. I was moved and grateful -- but not surprised, given my past experiences with veterans across all spectra -- by how utterly civil they were. None was insulting. All aimed to give me information about their direct experiences. And when I wrote to explain that I planned to write a longer letter to go online but that it would take some time, because I was dealing with medical problems of a close family members, several sent me beautiful, caring messages about that.

The editor with whom I was first in touch forwarded to me just one letter she had received, and it was quite different in tone from those I received directly. I asked her to put me in touch with that letter-writer and to forward to me all letters received in response to mine, but she has done neither. [Editor's note: Smithsonian does not divulge reader contact information to anyone but, at Ms. Caplan's request, we provided her information to letter writers on this subject who wished to contact her.]

Sometimes there is no simple way to reconcile two conflicting kinds of reports, but perhaps there is a way in this instance. There are the questions of the occurrences themselves and also of who carried them out. First, let's consider the occurrences themselves. On the one hand, that scholarly study turned up no examples of spitting and name calling, and that fits with my own experiences during antiwar protests and avid reading of newspapers and magazines during and soon after the Vietnam War. On the other hand, 14 veterans wrote to me to describe such treatment. I assume that both are true, and both matter. My experience working with victims of many kinds of violence and trauma has taught me that sometimes, when victims of mistreatment think of telling someone else what happened, their feelings range from humiliated to terrified about how people will react. Often, they fear that to speak of it would make it more terribly real. And from my experience with veterans, I know that most are reluctant to speak of their own suffering, although they are quick to report with compassion the suffering of other veterans. Finally, I have documented with hard data the fact that nonveterans typically do not want to listen to veterans, so veterans' sense of this might well have added yet another reason for those who were mistreated to have held back in speaking of it. The only way to find out how widespread the name calling was would be to do a massive survey of Vietnam War veterans.

As for the matter of who meted out such demeaning treatment, it is well documented that those in charge of prosecuting the Vietnam War wanted to set up the service members and veterans against people in the antiwar movement, especially when they saw that some people who had served and become disillusioned about the war had joined the antiwar movement and brought passion, energy, and important information to it. So those in power promoted the notion that antiwar activists were calling the veterans names and spitting on them. In fact, some citizens who supported that war demeaned veterans for having "lost" the war. And I did hear antiwar activists freely use the term "baby killer," but it was directed at President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the others who kept the war going and deceived service members and the populace about their rationale for it, what they were doing, and how it was actually going.

And here is another part of the picture: Numerous Vietnam War veterans have told me over the years about specific instances of antiwar activists welcoming them home, expressing joy that they had come back safe, asking what kinds of help they might need, and sometimes saying how much they regretted the government's having deceived them about the war in which they had risked life and limb.

As you see, the subject is complex and layered, but I hope this letter will help move the discussion forward.

Paula J. Caplan, Ph.D.

Associate, DuBois Institute, Hutchins Center, Harvard University

Founder & Director, Listen To A Veteran!

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