In August 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty outlawing nuclear tests. Almost immediately, the work my father was doing for a company with military contracts ended.
As a lad just starting eighth grade, I didn’t appreciate how international events could affect a kid in North Carolina. Twenty years after Dad’s death in 1985, one of his former employees tracked me down and filled me in. His insights — combined with hints Dad dropped as I faced the military draft in the late 1960s — came together while watching “The Vietnam War,” a documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.
That former employee told me after the treaty was signed, men in suits and uniforms swept through the secure design center Dad supervised and confiscated their drawings. The company offered several employees transfers to White Sands Missile Range, reassigning them from defense to space projects. As a result, I went to high school in New Mexico. My parents later returned to North Carolina to live. I attended college in Brownwood, and made Texas my home.
Dad served in the Navy during World War II, so I was surprised when he said he hoped I wouldn’t join the military like many of my friends did, but go to college instead. Mom told me privately she feared Dad would worry himself into a heart attack if I went to war. She knew I would have served if called.
Now, this Vietnam documentary on PBS convinces me Dad knew a lot he wasn’t telling. That’s the only way I can justify why a Navy veteran so immersed in the military was adamant that his son shouldn’t serve, at least not then.
Dad’s government clearance surprised me. Our car’s windshield had a sticker that got us into the base where he worked and where I visited school friends. One summer, we toured the Air Force Academy in Colorado. While driving in public areas, Dad saw a narrow road and made the turn. Soon, we approached a gate with armed guards, and Mom said we needed to turn around. But Dad slowed before the gate opened and the guards saluted. Dad “guessed” it was his White Sands identification.
My point is this: Like me, viewers of the documentary are discovering not only the what, but also the how and why, of the Vietnam War. The decisions leaders made here and abroad changed the course of history. More significantly, their decisions affected the lives of millions of families — in both the United States and southeast Asia.
Decades later, can we say the price we paid was worth it? Those who sacrificed the most may, or may not, think it was.
Did we learn anything? If we did, those lessons must be remembered because our education cost so much.
Ken Burns said in an interview that first, the nation learned we should never blame the warrior for the war. The soldier always deserves our support and honor, even if the cause doesn’t. Secondly, the tactics that won the last war usually won’t win the next one.
Forgetting such lessons puts our nation at great risk. Burns also offered a saying attributed to Mark Twain, the truth of which is validated in his remarkable documentary: History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.
Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at email@example.com.