Will the Vietnam War Ever Go Away?

It’s not much fun returning to Vietnam.

I don’t mean in person and, no, I did not fight in that sad war. It’s the war we don’t like to think about but can’t quite forget.

In going through, reviewing and cataloging past shows of mine from that awful time (in preparation for a PBS special, “Dick Cavett’s Vietnam,” airing Monday), two things stand out. I’m surprised at what a vast amount of Vietnam was either a planned or unplanned part of the shows of those years. And it’s fascinating how much we all may have repressed or, mercifully, just forgotten.

The memory is jogged in a hundred ways, viewing and hearing all this again. Even minor things come back to the mind’s ear, like John F. Kennedy, with his tin ear for other languages, saying “Lay-oss” for Laos.

More significantly, how many of us have forgotten those two haunting monosyllables, “My Lai,” and the round-the-world headlines: U.S. SOLDIER: “I SHOT BABIES.” The infamous Lt. William Calley lives and breathes. He was convicted on 22 counts of murder, but was eventually pardoned by Richard Nixon.

Will the Vietnam War Ever Go Away

In one of my old shows, the very personable Barry Goldwater is asked by me if he is pleased by the current heavy bombing raids.

“No, I’m not,” the affable gent replies. “They’re not bombing enough.”

One of the best comments on the war back then on my show came from Warren Beatty. The highly intelligent and well-informed actor warned that this country must get out of the habit of relying on “experts” on matters like the war. Experts like those depicted in David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest.” Experts such as Robert McNamara, a businessman, and the clueless Gen. William Westmoreland.

Beatty, clearly with intellectual equipment of a higher order than most of our politicians, made you wonder if more actors should be in charge. (Wait…was there, once?)

Until re-seeing one of the old shows, I actually had forgotten having asked Henry Kissinger what he would say to a father who wondered, “What did we get out of this war that was worth the death of my son?”

Henry fuzzes the answer and seems more concerned about blaming other administrations — Kennedy’s in particular — than in answering directly. A sense of absent concern for the human cost is distressing in Kissinger. Why didn’t I just say that of course the boy didn’t die for nothing — he died for a hideous, world-shaking case of criminal political ineptitude and miscalculation by people, including you, sir, who should have known better?

Unsettling isn’t a strong enough word for seeing, again, Kissinger’s boss, The Great Unindicted Co-conspirator himself, Richard Nixon, campaigning on an emphatic promise to end the war.

Elected, he widened it.

I’d even forgotten that, incredibly, Westmoreland pleaded for a whopping 50,000 more troops to be poured into the bloodshed. And more incredibly, he got them.

Protests exploded. Alas, the generous gift of soldiers was apparently not enough to prevent “Westy” from being immortalized as “The General Who Lost Vietnam.”

I remember hearing a disgusted World War II vet asking, “Who’s running this damn war, anyway? The Marx Brothers?”

As it happens, Groucho Marx, in a departure from hilarity, weighed in quite brilliantly against the war on one show. He said he no longer liked to watch the news: “They show you a battlefield and there are boys lying there dead and injured. I don’t want to see that when I go to bed at night. I have enough problems going to bed without that.”

Can we have forgotten what a bombshell the Pentagon papers were? Daniel Ellsberg was a particularly eloquent guest. The same Daniel Ellsberg whose psychiatrist’s notes Nixon’s team of Three Stooges burglars tried to purloin.

Ah, and here’s Jane Fonda, gorgeous and infuriating to hordes of her life-threateners, but, who, as it turned out, happened to be right about the war.

I’m a friend of Jane’s. She can never satisfy some of her durable bloodthirsty critics, of course, but she has impressively described and tearfully apologized for what she came to see as her own deep foolishness in certain appalling actions at the time. She has admitted she will never live down her shame at some of her — as they’re called in acting — “bad choices.”

It’s great to view again one particular tape. Nobody was more moving on the show than the great Senator Wayne Morse. His reasoned and passionate excoriations about the war and those who concocted it played to a hushed studio audience. He was riveting. I’ve never seen an audience so rapt. “We violated one section in Article F, another of the charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords,” he told me. “We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.”

Sometimes a story of a single minor incident stays in the mind vividly. It’s the kind of story you’d prefer never to have heard. A party of U.S. soldiers making their way along a road passed a small farmhouse. The curious family stood watching them pass.

One of the soldiers casually shot their cow.

This story makes me cry.

Their cow. She was not only vital to their lives, of course, but lived with them in a portion of the house. A pet and beloved family member, shot by that brave warrior.

I should like to meet the shooter.

Sadly, you can’t forget those two nauseating syllables, Kent State. A crime that stinks to high heaven. Of the four students shot dead by National Guardsmen, a couple were reportedly on their way to class, and not even part of the demonstration.

One of my favorite historic figures, Bob Hope, was another casualty of Vietnam. His heroic and dangerous flights all over the globe to entertain and thrill fun-starved soldiers with laughs and pretty movie stars have been deservedly lauded. (Those shows made top-rated and highly profitable TV specials.)

Poor Bob stayed on too long. I’ll never forget the night on the show that returned-veteran John Kerry shocked us all with the report that Bob Hope had been booed at Danang.

Richard Zoglin explains in his fine biography of Hope that Bob never “got” it. The troops who had loved him before were now sickened by the war and by his continued fervent support of it. He lost much of his public that way, too. He never got over it.

It’s stirring watching the impressive Gen. Wesley Clark saying, in a more recent interview, that he had supported the war, and then questioned it, finally wondering aloud, “How much did we learn? Not enough.” Then he mentions the words “Afghanistan” and “Iraq.”

At long, long last the war was ended.

Not by a president or a Congress or by the protesters. Someone said it was the only war in history ever ended by a journalist.

“The Most Trusted Man in America,” Walter Cronkite, not always a critic of the war, went to see the damage of the Tet offensive, came back, and said on his news broadcast that we had to get out. The beleaguered Lyndon Johnson’s reported reaction: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

I sometimes wonder how many people have forgotten — or how many young people are astonished to learn — that we lost that war.

Sadly, in one of George W. Bush’s favored phrases, we cut and ran.

The great invincible American war machine went down to ignominious defeat. And just what did we achieve? We had been assured by powerful intellectuals that we “had to stop Communism somewhere.” So we made our dashing entrance into another country’s business, forgetting that the place already was half-Communist.

Now it all is.

The host of The Dick Cavett Show — which aired on ABC from 1968 to 1975 and on public television from 1977 to 1982 — Dick Cavett is the author of the forthcoming Brief Encounters: Conversations, Magic Moments, and Assorted Hijinks and of Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets. The co-author of Cavett (1974) and Eye on Cavett (1983), he has also appeared on Broadway in Otherwise Engaged, Into the Woods and as narrator in The Rocky Horror Show, and has made guest appearances in movies and on TV shows including Forrest Gump and The Simpsons. Mr. Cavett lives in New York City and Montauk, N.Y.

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