Hylander Lecture Series Begins with Remembering the 1960s, Part 1
Apr 27, 2018 06:00AM ● Published by Pamela Johnson
Gary Hylander speaks at the Bellingham Senior Center
Gary Hylander returned to the Bellingham Senior Center on April 13 to speak to an audience of about fifteen, most of whom were ardent fans of Hylander, the history professor who is known for keeping his audiences spellbound, with both detail and insight and humorous asides. His program was titled “Remembering the 1960s,” but for any who have attended Hylander’s past presentations, they know the focus will be on politics, not popular culture. Hylander’s one salute to the “summer of love” was his paisley necktie. His lecture focused on “The War,” which in America in the 1960s could mean only one thing, the Vietnam War.
Providing some background, Hylander took us back to 1964 and Lyndon Johnson’s election victory over Barry Goldwater. “Johnson won that election by the largest margin of any president up to that point,” Hylander noted. He also asserted that Johnson had no wish to be a “war president.” He explained, “Johnson’s hero was Franklin Roosevelt—in fact, he wanted to outdo Roosevelt.”
Before the Vietnam War eclipsed all other political issues, Johnson coined the term “The Great Society.” He helped enact the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act and was instrumental in the creation of Medicare and Medicaid. Headstart programs and education-reform programs that provided funding for low-income students were also enacted in this time period. Housing and urban renewal legislation was passed, as were reforms that eased access for home mortgages for minorities.
Hylander said that Johnson wanted the Vietnam War out of the way so he could focus on his domestic agenda. But as many of us remember, the war came to absorb the attention and energy of America. While Johnson wanted to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam, his advisors, who held degrees from much more prestigious institutions than Johnson had, pushed for a continuation of the war, using what was known at the time as the “domino theory.” This theory held that if the U.S. allowed Vietnam to be taken over by the communists, it would be only one step in what would become an inexorable takeover of the world by this system of government. His Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, insisted that John F. Kennedy would never have “cut and run” from Vietnam.
Throughout the talk, Hylander went back and forth between the viewpoint of the Americans and that of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. He described how the Vietnamese knew that they could lose ten soldiers to every one that the Americans lost and thought that the Americans would go home once they felt their losses were too great. He also explained that America’s goal was to get North Vietnam to let South Vietnam alone, not to conquer N. Vietnam. During the 1960s, at least up to 1968, which was the focus of this first part of the lecture series, the bombing that took place was aimed only at targets within South Vietnam. However, the enemy was always elusive, with no “front” as there had been in WWII.
The Tet Offensive is a term many of us might recall, but Hylander helped sort out what was significant about this event. “Tet,” the Vietnamese term for the Chinese New Year, is a very important event for families throughout Vietnam; they make plans for the celebration months in advance. The Viet Cong used the increased travel that occurred during this time to move into strategic positions throughout South Vietnam, intending to launch surprise attacks deep inside South Vietnam. Hylander described how the U.S. Embassy was taken over for a short time during this Tet Offensive, and while the Americans were able to quickly restore order and retake the embassy, Americans were shaken, wondering how this could have happened.
In each of these presentations, Hylander takes an opportunity to reflect on popular culture, and what he described in this lecture was the importance of the press, and Walter Cronkite in particular, with his nightly newscast. Cronkite travelled to Vietnam and spoke with American soldiers--and returned troubled. In the spring of 1968 Cronkite announced during the editorial portion of his broadcast, “It is time for us to come home from Vietnam.” Hylander noted that when Johnson watched this news broadcast he said to those around him, “We’ve lost the war.” Johnson shortly thereafter announced that he would not seek reelection.
At the end of the presentation, local resident John Bell, of Hopedale, who served 20 years in the U.S. Army and had several tours of duty in Vietnam, said, “We never had the number of troops needed, or promised, to do the job.” For more information about Bell’s and other local area veterans’ stories, including several other local Vietnam veterans’ stories, visit the town of Bellingham’s website, in the veterans’ services section: http://www.bellinghamma.org/pages/bellinghamma_veteran/Vets%20Oral%20History. You will find there entire interviews that were recorded for the Library of Congress Veterans Oral History Project.
Hylander will return to the Bellingham Senior Center to continue his series on the 1960s on Friday, May 18, 10:30AM.