“Kissinger’s first visit to South Vietnam was in October 1965, less than a year after Lyndon Baines Johnson decided to escalate the war with ground troops. There, he was briefed by Daniel Ellsberg, then stationed at the U.S. embassy in Saigon. Kissinger took Ellsberg’s advice to not waste time talking to top officials but seek out Vietnamese or Americans who had been in the country for a long time. ‘I was impressed that Kissinger actually acted on my advice,’ Ellsberg recalls. And what Kissinger learned troubled him deeply: Washington was relying on corrupt, unpopular, and incompetent Saigon allies. North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia made a military solution impossible, and the one pressure tactic the United States did have – the bombing of North Vietnam – would soon ‘mobilize world opinion against us.’”
– pg. 33, KISSINGER’S SHADOW, by Greg Grandin, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2015
On New Year’s Day 1969, there would have been, at most, 30 or 35 native university graduates in British Honduras. At least five of these graduates participated in an unprecedented demonstration that New Year’s night in front of the Eden Theater on North Front Street. The graduates were demonstrating against the Vietnam War, which had reached Belize by way of a John Wayne propaganda film extolling the American war effort in Southeast Asia.
The university graduates I remember from that New Year’s night would have been Assad Shoman, an attorney who led the internationalization of Belize’s independence campaign in the 1970s and later became a doctoral scholar; Said Musa, an attorney who served as Belize’s Prime Minister for two terms, between 1998 and 2008; yours truly; Derek Courtenay, one of Belize’s highest ranking attorneys; and Lionel Del Valle, an economist who was trained at the University of the West Indies (UWI). Shoman, Musa, and Courtenay had been trained in the United Kingdom, and myself in the United States.
Del Valle, known as “Lion” to his friends, has been deceased some years now. When I discussed him briefly in one of these columns a few years ago, one of his family members wrote that I should let him rest in peace. I can appreciate such a perspective, but the fact of the matter is that the demonstration was a public event and we were all grown men.
Today in Belize, there are thousands and thousands of university graduates, but they and the tertiary educational institutions here do not participate in any activist events designed to increase the regional and international consciousness of the Belizean people. In fact, the humble little UBAD Educational Foundation (UEF) has done more in the last few months to stimulate educational discourse than the mighty University of Belize, with its multimillion dollar budget. Some of you will remember that UEF organized the lecture visit to Belize of a UWI Rastafarian professor, followed by the visit of the New York City Commissioner of Health.
Regionally and internationally, 1968 was the most controversial and explosive year in my generation’s lifetime. You’re looking at events like the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy, the murders of thousands of students at Tlatelolco just before the Mexico City Olympics, the uprisings at the UWI main campus in Jamaica following the Shearer government’s refusal to allow Professor Walter Rodney to re-enter the island, and violent student/ youth demonstrations in European countries like France, Germany, and Italy. It was in the last few weeks of 1968 that Shoman and Musa began to organize the so-called “Ad Hoc Committee For The Truth About Vietnam,” pointing towards the New Year’s night demonstration.
The Vietnam War, which began to escalate in 1965, created opportunities in the United States military for young Belizeans who were longing to go to America. These young Belizeans had very little idea of what was really happening on the front lines in Vietnam, but on the American university campus where I began school in September of 1965, the American college students were very much aware of the danger to their lives which Vietnam represented. At that time, all healthy American citizens were eligible to be drafted into the U.S. military once they reached 18 years of age, and they had to serve two years in the armed forces. Almost all the students on our campus were figuring out how they could dodge the draft and avoid Vietnam. 90 percent of the students at Dartmouth came from fairly wealthy, or very wealthy, families.
Visiting New York City beginning in 1965, and working there in the summer of 1966, I remember running into one particular young Belizean who had been drafted, trained, and was preparing to go to Vietnam. He was engaged to the daughter of a prominent Belizean family in Brooklyn, and it seemed to me he did not realize how dangerous Vietnam was. I had to open my big mouth. The Belizean draftees used to tell us that the training in the U.S. military was such that after you had been trained, you actually wanted to go to war in order to do the things you had been trained to do.
As the years have gone by, I have grown to believe that there were a lot more Belizeans in the American military and actually in Vietnam on New Year’s night in 1969 than I thought at the time. The statistics have never been made available, but suppose, for argument’s sake, that there were 100 Belizeans fighting for the Americans and their personal futures in Vietnam at the time, would that have made a difference for the organizers of the demonstration?
At the time of the 1969 New Year’s demonstration, general elections would have been due by March of 1970. As it was, those elections were held a little early, in December of 1969. Looking back, I can see that I personally had little interest in the electoral dynamic featuring the ruling People’s United Party (PUP) and the Opposition National Independence Party (NIP).
In early 1968, the Seventeen Proposals had been released. Copies were sent to me in New Hampshire from the British Honduras Freedom Committee. But by the time I arrived home from school in June of that year, all the fuss had died down. The excitement in Belize, it appeared to me, had to do with ladies softball and the Belize team’s success in Caribbean competitions. Across the border, meanwhile, there was a bloody civil war going on in Guatemala. No one in Belize cared: the British were still here in numbers, and life was, as they say, copacetic.
Every year when the anniversary of the 1969 demonstration rolls around at New Year’s time, I look forward to reading some insights and reminiscences from the principals, or perhaps from observers, but no one ever says anything. At the time, Ad Hoc was pretty big news. In fact, I have been told that there was actually a pro-American counter–demonstration, a demonstration against the demonstration, led by one Rupert Cain. I didn’t see Babush’s activities, because I only demonstrated the first night. What the Ad Hoc Committee did for me personally, in retrospect, was push me into public life. Looking back, we can see that Ad Hoc led, indirectly, to the formation of UBAD five weeks later. With respect to me and public life, that’s not where I wanted to go. Plus, I was too young. But, such is life.
Power to the people!