Tag Archives: socialism

How the War in Vietnam Politicized Me, by Paul Krehbiel

29 Jun

Paul Krehbiel is the author of Shades of Justice, a coming-of-age memoir set in the 1960s. It is available at autumnleafpress.com. Paul lives in Pasadena, California, and has been a labor activist and organizer most of his life.

In the early 1960s I was in junior and senior high school in a suburb of Buffalo, populated by a mixture of white-collar professionals and blue-collar workers.  Our community was virtually all white. I played sports, did art, hung out with my friends, went to parties, and spent time with my girlfriend. My neighborhood had a bully, who was a couple of years older, and who tormented my peers and me. I was aware of the civil rights movement, especially the sit-ins and marches in the south, and was sympathetic. The disparities in wealth in Buffalo were very clear, with the Black community depressed, and many white communities – but not all — living comfortably.  I wondered why bad people existed, why we had racism, and why there were rich and poor people.

VietnamWarGIsInWater

The war in Vietnam was heating up by 1966, the year I turned 18 and graduated from high school. I registered for the draft, as required by law, but started thinking, wasn’t there some way to resolve disputes without going to war. These thoughts deepened when a guy I knew in high school, who was a year older, came back from Vietnam paralyzed from the waist down and in a wheelchair for life. Suddenly, wars weren’t just some event in my history book from the past. I realized that I could be drafted and sent to Vietnam whether I wanted it or not, and be forced to kill people I didn’t know and had nothing against, or be killed or injured myself. I had to find out more about the war so I could decide what to do if I was drafted.

I grew up in what seemed like a typical family. My dad worked in a small surveying business started by his dad, and my mom worked in our home taking care of my two younger brothers and me. When I raised these social justice questions with my parents, they didn’t know the answers, or the responses they gave seemed unsatisfactory. My dad said that the government knew more about these things, and if called to serve in war, we had to do it. He had served in WWII, and I knew the Nazis had to be stopped. But, Vietnam seemed different. How was a small, poor country on the other side of the globe a threat to us or anyone else?

I went to a community college in Clearwater, Florida to major in art, and to get out of Buffalo’s cold winters. There I saw the starkness of racism. Blacks were segregated in poor housing and neighborhoods, and I saw a shantytown in a nearby rural area of collapsing shacks and mud roads. At the first dance of the semester, I danced with a Black student, and the white students near us stopped dancing, formed a circle around us, and glared. One angry white student asked me if I wanted to start a race riot. It was tense.

I saw scenes on the TV news or in magazines of dead Vietnamese women and babies on the ground lying in pools of blood, and turned strongly against the war. I saw the war as a crime of murder against both Vietnamese and the young American men forced to fight.  In 1967 I made a pen and ink drawing for an art class to protest the war. I drew an ornately carved coffin with a flag draped over it, next to an Army recruiting sign. The sign read: “Join the Army, a Proud Future Could be Yours.” I put a line through “Proud” and wrote “Dead.”

Vietnam-JoinTheArmy

I knew that I would not go to Vietnam, and decided to go to Canada.  Some people said that if I refused to be drafted I should accept the punishment of breaking the law and go to prison. But, why should I go to prison, I responded. I had done nothing wrong. The government leaders who launched the war in Vietnam should go to prison.

I applied and was accepted at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and began there in the fall of 1967. I hadn’t been drafted yet and hadn’t broken any laws, so I came back to Buffalo on weekends to see my girlfriend, and to work in the summers. I had one job in an auto parts factory where the working conditions were bad. I got active in the union, which was the beginning of my lifelong involvement in the labor movement. In 1968, I supported two war resisters who took sanctuary in the Buffalo Unitarian Church, and I went to Chicago in August to protest the war outside the Democratic National Convention.

 

DraftEvasionTorontoI spent a year and a half in Canada. In the fall of 1968, I was working in a metal fabricating plant making furniture. While operating a punch press machine, I lost two fingers in an industrial accident. The machine had jammed and the safety guard was defective. It was difficult studying sculpture with missing fingers, so I returned to the US and contacted my draft board. I was classified medically unfit for military duty.

I had friends who were students at the University of Buffalo, so I began sitting in on classes. There was a very active anti-war movement on campus, along with other social justice causes. In January 1969, I attended night school and became heavily involved in the Buffalo Draft Resistance Union, and later in Students for a Democratic Society. I attended and helped plan anti-war demonstrations and other political activities on campus, and switched my major to Philosophy. The Philosophy Department was a home for left-wing students, teaching assistants, and some full-time faculty. I started reading Marx in my classes.  By the end of the spring semester, I was a socialist.

Advertisements