UTAHNS AND THE WARS IN INDOCHINA:
A CASE STUDY IN INTERNAL CONFLICT AND THE "WAR AT HOME"
Texas Tech University
Fourth Triennial Vietnam War Symposium
April 12, 2002
In early May 1954, the Salt Lake Tribune announced the surrender of the French military forces at Dienbienphu. Amid headlines that proclaimed "Red Hordes Grab Dienbienphu" and "Eisenhower Eulogy...Fallen Fort Freedom Symbol," there appeared a small article that stated "Ogden Pilot Perishes in Blast of Flying Boxcar over Indo." The Ogden, Utah pilot was Wallace A. Buford who died while flying over Dienbienphu with James B. (Earthquake McGoo) McGovern to drop supplies to the beleaguered French garrison. (SLT, May 8, 1954)
Similar in tone and content, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in April, 1975, "Cambodian Troops Give Up; Surrender Ends Long War" and "'Victors Clear' Phom Phen: Reds Chalk up South Viet Gains," while buried deeper in the newspaper's back sections were the simple statements "Utahns Perish in Saigon Crash" and "Memorial Rites Set." The Utahns were fifty-eight-year-old Orin Poulton and his fifty-five-year-old wife, June Poulton. Both were Defense Department employees who had boarded a Galaxy C5-A that held 243 Vietnamese orphans, 44 civilians, 16 crew members and 2 flight nurses as part of a program called "Operation Babylift." (SLT, April 17 & 19, 1975)
The deaths of the Poultons and Wallace Buford illustrate Utahn's long interest and involvement in the wars that America supported and fought in Southeast Asia after the Second World War; an interest and involvement that was to have enormously divisive consequences at home for Utahns as well as for those who served in the wars in Indochina. The conflicted home-front, or "war-at-home" nature of these wars for citizens of Utah serves as an instructive case study in the way Americans across the United States reacted to the nation's longest and most unsuccessful series of wars.
To understand the complexities of what the wars in Indochina did to Utahns, it is important first to acknowledge the essentially patriotic natures of Utah's citizenry. The earliest European-American settlers of the region ultimately to become the state of Utah were members of a church known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Some call these people the "Mormons." Mormons have long expressed their allegiance to the United States in Section 134 of a set of guiding principles they call The Doctrine and Covenants which proclaims, "We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside...." (D&C, 279)
As evidence of this commitment to the government of the United States, historian Allan Kent Powell observes of Utahns' home-front support of the First World War:
World War I helped bring Utah into the mainstream
of American life as much as anything during the first
two decades of the twentieth century. As part of the
national war effort, Utahns planted 'victory gardens,'
preserved food, volunteered for work in the beet
fields and on Utah's fruit farms, purchased Liberty
Bonds, gave 'four-minute' patriotic speeches,
collected money for the Red Cross, used meat substitutes,
observed meatless days, knitted socks, afghans, and
shoulder wraps, wove rugs for soldiers' hospitals,
made posters, prohibited the teaching of the German
language in some schools, and cultivated patriotism
at every opportunity.(UHE, 644)
While this patriotism has been deep, sincere and long-enduring throughout the twentieth century, the United States' activities in the Cold War called into question and strained Utahns' definitions of the concepts of loyalty and patriotism. This stress is clearly evident in Utahn's conflicted reactions to the Korean War, that undeclared, limited, and unpopular "police action" of the early nineteen fifties. In a statement by Benjamin Urrutia, a contributor to the Utah History Encyclopedia, one can clearly see a genesis of Utahns' troubled Cold War attitudes that surfaced as a result of 62 percent of the Utah National Guard's being called to serve during the Korean War:
When Utahns protested the large percentage of Utahns
called to active service while other Western states
like Oregon and Washington sent no National Guard
troops, Sixth Army Commander Lieutenant General A.C.
Wedemeier responded that he was concerned about winning
the war and that meant calling up the best troops
into service. Still the war was not popular with
Utahns and was a major factor in turning Utahns back
to the Republican party in the 1952 election after
voting for the Democratic presidential candidate in
the five previous elections. (UHE, 306-7)
At the end of the Korean War, as the United States begin to grope to find a workable policy toward Communist activities in French Indo-China, Utahns became increasingly interested in events there. In early 1954, World War Two veteran and later author of popular books on Utah's history, geography and trails, Ward Roylance, produced a nine-page typescript document called "Three Days in IndoChina." While it is hard to determine whether this short piece is fiction or nonfiction, it accurately describes the character of the Franco-Vietminh War from the perspective of a first-hand observer. Seeing a steadily increasing "Vietminh presence" in the northern delta region and the need for travelers to retreat to a city, town or French-Vietnamese guard post at dusk, Roylance stated that the war there was extremely brutal and that "...perhaps never in history has there been a more brutal and senseless war..." (Accn 1284) Once the United States began to send combat troops to fight in Vietnam, Utahns became increasingly interested in the escalating war. In the summer of 1965, Utah journalist, Hack Miller first went to Vietnam to assess the war for readers of his newspaper, the Deseret News. Of Miller's visits, Allan Kent Powell writes:
Less than five months after the first American combat
troops were sent to defend Da Dang, the popular Deseret
News sports writer and colonel in the Utah National
Guard, Hack Miller was in Vietnam; in a series of
articles over a two-week period in August and during
the month of March 1966 he described Vietnam, the war
and the activities of some native-born Utahns. (UHE, 613)
A few months after Hack Miller's visit, a Salt Lake City radio-station news director, Bruce Miller went to Vietnam. This second Miller, working for KALL, met more Utahns as he:
...helicoptered south to the well known Mekong Delta
area...flew north to the Da Nang region...moved among
soldiers of the famed 1st Infantry Division...[and]
traveled through the hamlets of Gia Dinh Province to
observe the life of the peasants as it is affected
by the war. (KALL, n.p.)
While there Bruce Miller met with Utah's U. S. Congressman, David S. King who warned that the war in Vietnam would be "a long, painful process." Miller also quoted another Utahn, an aide to a provincial chief, who affirmed, "...we made a commitment...the United States is committed to the defense of the Vietnamese people to a fight against Communism." (KALL, 1 & 18)
Perhaps the most grim early eyewitness report that a Utahn made concerning the war in Vietnam is found in Dr. Ray C. Hillam's article "What Guns, Bombs, and Lives Have Not Purchased: The Frustration of Vietnam" which appeared in the journal Brigham Young University Studies in the autumn of 1967. Hillam, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, lived in Vietnam from September 1966 to July 1967 as a Fullbright-Hays professor, then returned to Utah to declare in his article:
The war in Vietnam is frustrating to most Americans
who have served there because of its complexity,
protraction, and current stalemate. Frustration also
stems from the failure of not knowing what to do next.
Withdrawal is virtually impossible, even if desirable.
Continued military escalation will have little impact
on the [Communist] infrastructure unless it leads to
the kind of massive destruction most Americans
consider unthinkable. (BYU, August 1967, 59)
The complexities that Hillam and other Utahns itemized--the brutal, prolonged nature of the war, the stalemate, the United States' commitment to fight Communism--did more than simply frustrate Utahns and others throughout the nation. These circumstances divided the state and the nation deeply, An early manifestation of this division occurred in Salt Lake City in October 1965 when a small group of University of Utah students gathered downtown to protest America's "Viet Policies." This group, calling itself Student Action for Peace in Vietnam, numbered approximately two-dozen people and was peacefully confronted by another group called Young Americans for Freedom. While the two groups of nearly equal size faced each other, motorists occasionally drove by to scream "draft dodgers" at the protestors. (DUC, October 18, 1965)
The largest protest in Utah during the Vietnam War was the Moratorium of October 15, 1969. The Moratorium, part of a nation-wide protest movement, started as a teach-in at the University of Utah's student union. In all forty-two hundred people joined the activities. These protestors included students from the University of Utah and Brigham Young University, local high-school students, housewives, and members of the business community. After the teach-in the protestors marched to the Federal Building in downtown Salt Lake City, singing as they walked such songs as "All We Are Saying Is Give Peace a Chance," and "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." At the Federal Building a member of the protest group, a minister from the St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral read the names of the 300 hundred Utahns who had died in Vietnam and then ended the Moratorium's ceremonies with a prayer. (DUC, October 16, 1969)
Simultaneous to the Moratorium's march from the University of Utah to the Federal Building, a second, much smaller group met downtown at the City-County Building to hold a two-hour rally in support of the Vietnam War. Among these people was Salt Lake City Commissioner Jake Garn, a prominent Salt Lake City resident who ultimately became a three-term United States Senator and a general officer in the Utah Air National Guard. (UHE, 614)
As if to punctuate the lack of agreement on the Vietnam War in Utah, an editorial in the University of Utah's Daily Chronicle stated after the Moratorium, "Those who perhaps most sincerely would like to see the war end are still slogging through the Mekong Delta." The editorial also declared:
We can only conclude from the stacked desk we witnessed
Wednesday that those behind the Moratorium are so fearful that
greater merit might be found in another than their alternative
that they dared not expose inquiring minds to an examination
of all sides of the issue. (DUC, October 16, 1069)
Polarization among Utahns spilled over to the faculty of the University of Utah. Well educated, articulate, and experienced members of the this group could find little common ground in the prolonged debates that shook the campus throughout the Vietnam War. Dr. John Daniel Williams, for example, was one of the professors who felt the profound anguish of the war's divisive character. Educated at Stanford and Harvard, Williams, (popularly known among the University's faculty and students as "J.D.") became an instructor of political science at the University of Utah in 1952 and during the 1960s served as the director of the University's Hinkley Institute of Politics. (UUA Hist Rec, Williams, n.p.; UCat, 421; and DN. June 7, 1998) Liberal in many of his political views, Williams was once labeled as "too liberal for the Mormons and too Mormon for [Utah's] Democrats."(DN, June 7, 1998) Yet in 1965 he supported America's war in Vietnam as necessary to contain the tyranny of Communist expansion. (DUC, April 16, 1965) By the 1969 Moratorium, while admitting, "We all want out [of the Vietnam War]," Williams still maintained that, "[through our presence in Vietnam] we are aiding the dissenting minority... the 16 million South Vietnamese in their fight against the imposition of Communism by force of arms from North Vietnam with its 18 millions." (DUC, October 21, 1069)
One of Williams' earliest and most consistent opponents was history and political science professor, Dr. Helmut Callis. Born and educated in Germany, Callis first taught at Yale and then came to the University of Utah in 1947. (UUA, Hist Rec, Callis, n.p.) In a panel discussion with J.D. Williams in April 1965, Callis contended, "War in Vietnam runs against U.S. principles of freedom, and love of peace." (DUC, April 16, 1065). Also in 1965 Callis wrote a document titled "A Fifteen Point Memorandum About the United States Policy in Vietnam." In this memo he warned:
The more protracted the war, the more likely it is
that the Vietnamese will sympathize with the Communists
rather than the United States. As it has been shown in
the past, following the devastation and poverty of war,
Communism offers to the desperate impoverished masses
a radical emotional outlet and solution. (UUA Acc 272, Box 2)
Callis actively protested the war throughout its duration as illustrated by his signing a full-page declaration which ran in the University of Utah's Daily Chronicle in May 1972 after President Richard Nixon mined Haiphong Harbor. This lengthy declaration, signed by 153 people, proclaimed, "We believe the War is wrong morally (1), legally (2), economically (3), against our national self-interest (4). We believe the President's escalation will not end the War (5)." (DUC, May 17, 1972)
Beyond the University of Utah's campus, America's wars in Vietnam divided the larger populations of Utah. Citizens of high political and economic status within the state, leaders of respected national stature, accomplished community servants of renown found themselves drawn into immense disagreements over the Indochinese conflict. Two of the most prominent Utahns whose views differed greatly were former Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Marriner S. Eccles and United States Senator, Wallace F. Bennett.
Marriner S. Eccles was an early and forceful critic of the Vietnam War. Born in 1890, he served the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a missionary to Scotland as a young man. Back in Utah he helped create and then became president of a multibank holding company called First Security Corporation, had once been an influential policy maker in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal administration, and from 1935 to 1951, served first as the Federal Reserve Board's chairman and then vice chairman. By 1968, Forbes magazine called him "the blunt, outspoken Salt Lake City Mormon" who opposed the war in Vietnam as being "the main cause of unrest in our colleges, the inability to cope adequately with the causes of violence in the cities, and splits in our populace and our political parties." (Forbes, February 1, 1968, 28 & 32)
In a 1965 paper titled "Statement of US Position in Vietnam," Eccles outlined his objections to the war in terms that criticized not only the war itself but the presidential administration that was waging the war as well. "The decisions [to fight in Vietnam]," he lamented
were made by the President and a handful of advisers in
the White House, State and Defense Department without
debate or prior approval of the Congress. This is dic-
tatorship that has no place in our democracy. (MS 178,
By mid-1967 Eccles had begun a nation-wide speaking tour to deliver a message he titled "Vietnam--Its Effect on the Nation." In this speech he declared, "The most important issue before the country today is our involvement in Vietnam." Then he charged President Lyndon Johnson's presidency as being "incompetent and ill-advised," before concluding with a stirring visionary statement that called for the nation's withdrawal from Vietnam and a recognition that the United States needs to repent for its actions there. "While the hour is late," he announced:
it is not yet impossible to turn the page....Men and
nations have made new beginnings before. And out of
defeat, there has often come victory--and what a
victory it could be for this nation, so bountifully
endowed--to reverse its image, make itself loved and
admired and revered--so that it could stand before the
emerging peoples of the globe, as an example of what
they might wish to become. But the road is long--and
we must win much forgiveness. (MS 178, Bx 127)
It is important to note that this speech became so prominent that Vital Speeches published it in a September 1967 issue while a journal called War/Peace reprinted it in October 1967. (Vital, September 15, 1967; War October 1967)
In 1968, Eccles begin to deliver another speech which he titled "Vietnam: Politics and Hypocracy--A Tragedy of Errors." This time, quoting Senator Mike Mansfield who claimed, "We are facing today the most troubled days in the entire history of the Republic," Eccles called for the United States to:
close the door forever on this black chapter in which
we use our tremendous wealth and power to shatter,
crush and destroy. And with humility and energy turn
our gaze in new directions putting our vast resources
to work in the world to house, educate, build, create,
heal and inspire. (MS 178, Box 128)
The views of Wallace F. Bennett on the Vietnam War were very much in contrast to those of Marriner S. Eccles. Bennett, born in 1898, served as an Army officer in World War I, authored a book in 1958titled Why I Am a Mormon, became president of Bennett Paint and Glass Company, and served four terms in the United States Senate, beginning with his election in 1950. Political he was conservative, economically pro-business, and as a Senator he advocated a policy of strong national defense. (UHE, 39)
As early as July 1965, Bennett went on record as supporting President Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam as necessary to ensure that the citizens of South Vietnam will retain "their political liberty from the Communists." (MS 290, Box 22)
A year later he penned a nine-page memorandum to J. Willard Marriott, another prominent Utah businessman. In this memo he clearly defined the conflict in Vietnam as:
a test case between the West, with the United States
as the principal power, and the Communists to determine
whether 'Wars of Liberation' or 'Wars of Subversion' in
Western terminology, will be successful. If we can stop
this type of Communist expansion now, it will go far
in continuing the U.S. policy of containing Communism
elsewhere. (MS 290, Box 24)
Furthermore, in viewing Vietnam as a Soviet Union and Communist Chinese testing ground, Bennett argued to Marriott that the war in South Vietnam was really one of outside aggression in which "the Communist objective is to gain as much territory as possible and cause as many revolutions as possible. The ultimate objective is to isolate the West." (MS 290, Box 24)
Like Eccles, Bennett spoke to an audience beyond the people of Utah. Being in the United States Senate, his observations and opinions on the war in Vietnam attracted attention across the nation. On October 23, 1967 he delivered to the Senate a speech that he titled "Vietnam: 'World War III--Communist Style." U.S. News & World Report printed the full text of this message on November 6, 1967 and on that day John L. Harmer of the California State Senate, wrote to Bennett, declaring, "I read the speech as it was printed in U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT and felt it was the finest analysis of the situation that I have ever come across." (MS 290, Box 26)
In this speech Bennett affirmed his belief that the Viet Cong were embarking "on a grisly program of subversion and murder [in South Vietnam] for the purpose of wiping out all free local government and destroying its leaders." In addition he spelled out his conviction that the larger world of Communist powers outside Vietnam were engaged in an attempt to topple one weak nation after another and that United States could counter this domino-like threat by becoming a shield to South Vietnam and other Southeast Asia nations so that they would have the opportunity to "strengthen their own political institutions and their own national economies." (USN&WR, November 6, 1967, 112) Furthermore he elaborated:
To me, the war in South Vietnam is a part of World
War III, Communist style; another in the series of
little wars the Communists thought they could win
easily, by which they hoped eventually to extinguish
all political, economic and personal freedom in all
the world. (USN&WR, November 6, 1967, 113)
On February 22, 1973 as the war in Vietnam came to a negotiated end for the United States and as the fierce debate over that conflict began to subside, President Richard Nixon held a reception at the White House to discuss his views on the nature of the war and the results of America's participation in it. It was the United States' goal, President Nixon asserted, "to prevent the imposition on 17 million people of South Vietnam of a Communist government against their will, by force." "America did succeed," he exclaimed, "and...South Vietnam, that little country so far way, has a chance to survive without having a communist government imposed on it against its will." (MS 290, Box 37) It is significant to note that President Nixon invited Wallace F. Bennett rather than Marriner S. Eccles to this reception. Yet it is also important to observe that it is Eccles who most accurately described the Vietnam coflict when he proclaimed in 1967, "[Vietnam] has divided our country worse than it has ever been divided since the Civil War." (DUC November 27, 1967)
The wars in Indochina caused Utahns to split sharply over the issues involved in limited, undeclared and controversial Cold War confrontations. Utah's supporters truly believed that the United States had committed itself to a fight for freedom, liberty and democracy. They subscribed to the domino theory, fearing that the Communist nations such as the Soviet Union and mainland China intended to conquer the world patiently through small wars of expansion and conquest. They also expressed a belief that Vietnam was not a civil war but a battle imposed from North Vietnam by a force of arms that other Communist nations financed and supplied. The war's stalemate and the inability of the United States to formulate an effective policy frustrated Utah's supporters as they faced a growing opposition to the war.
For their part, Utahns who opposed the war genuinely believed that the conflict was ill-advised, shamefully immoral, illegal, divisive, and a tremendous misuse of the nation's bountious wealth and resources. The continuation of the war after a stalemate had occurred embittered Utah's protestors who became increasingly critical of the nation's leaders, labelling them as incompetent and hypocritical tyrants while calling the war itself a "black chapter" in American history.
While considering the divergent views of Utah's civilian residents, it is also appropriate to recognize the differing views of some of those Utahns who served in the American military in Vietnam. Howard Christie is one such example. As a career officer in the Marine Corps and later the senior editor of Scholarly Publications at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Christie once volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam. Years later, contemplating his willingness to serve in that war, he stated:
I saw the ugly strategy of terrorism on the part of
the Viet Cong unfold, grim and tragic episode by
episode, and had, along with a lot of others, strong
feelings that someone should help the South Vietnamese
hang on to what little freedom they had left. (Kill, 12)
Several years after Christie voluntarily went to Vietnam, Lynn Packer, a twenty-five year old Utah State University graduate and father of a three-month old daughter, left the United States to go to Vietnam as a draftee. When thinking back to his decision to serve in Indo-China, he remarked:
I was against the war at that point. It was clear
to me that the reasons for the war were largely
manufactured by the country's administration. The
administration view was that Vietnam was a bulwark
against communism and it was keeping communism from
spreading in Southeast Asia. But others and I knew
it was a waste of time, effort, money and lives. [Kill, 7 & 8]
In conclusion, the fact that Utah, a state populated by people who have been historically loyal and conservative citizens of the United States, became such a focal point of disagreement over the wars in Indo-China demonstrates how divisive the wars were. From Ogden pilot, Wallace Buford's demise at Dienbienphu in 1954 to Orin and June Poulton's deaths near Saigon in 1975, Utahns showed such strong interest in Southeast Asia that the polarization of their attitudes reflects the transformation of a foreign conflict into a war at home for the people of the United States.
Key to Citations in Text
ACCN 1282: Ward Roylance papers, Special Collections Department,
University of Utah Library.
BYU: Ray C. Hillam, "What Guns, Bombs, and Lives Have Not Purchased: The
Frustration of Vietnam," Brigham Young University Studies.
August 1967 (v. 8, n. 1)
D&C: The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ; The
Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints; The Pearl of Great Price. Salt Lake
City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982.
DUC: Daily University Chronicle. Salt Lake City.
DN: Deseret News. Salt Lake City.
Forbes: "An Interview with Marriner S. Eccles," Forbes. February
1, 1968 (v. 101, n. 3).
KALL: KALL's Bruce Miller from Vietnam. [S.l, s.n.. 1966?)
Kill: Dennis Roy, Grand Skabelund, Ray C. Hillam, eds., A Time
To Kill: Reflections on War. Salt Lake City: Signature
MS 290: Wallace F. Bennett Papers, Special Collections Department,
University of Utah Library.
SLT: Salt Lake Tribune.
UCAT: Catalog of the University of Utah. Salt Lake City:
The University, 1970/71.
UEH: Allan Kent Powell, ed. Utah History Encyclopedia. Salt
Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1994.
USN&WR: Wallace F. Bennett, "Vietnam: ‘World War III--Communist Style',"
U.S. News & World Report. November 6, 1967 (v. 63, n. 19)
UUA Acc 272: Helmut G. Callis Papers, University Archives
and Records Center, University of Utah.
UUA Hist Rec: Historical Record of Members of the Faculty, Helmut
G. Callis, University Archives and Records Center.
UUA Hist Rec: Historical Record of Members of the Faculty, John
Daniel Williams, University Archives and Records Center.
Vital: Marriner S. Eccles, "Vietnam: Its Effect on the Nation,"
Vital Speeches of the Day. September 15, 1967 (v. 33, no. 23).
War: Marriner S. Eccles, "Vietnam--Its Effect on the Nation,"
War/Peace Report. October 1967.