One problem in the United States in the middle 1960s was that white college students had a very good idea of what was going on in Vietnam (and later Laos and Cambodia), and they were generally determined to avoid the military draft in any way they could.
The American military draft was abolished in 1976 or so, but previous to that all able-bodied American males had to register for the draft once they reached the age of 18.
What was going on in Vietnam was that the war between the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies against the Viet Cong infiltrating from communist North Vietnam began to escalate rapidly under U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965. The American Pentagon needed bodies, especially for the ground war in the Vietnamese rice paddies.
Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title in 1967 because he refused to register for the draft. Ali well knew that if you were not actually killed or disabled in Vietnam, you would end up hooked on drugs or mentally crippled in some kind of way.
My sense was, when I would visit Brooklyn on breaks from college in New Hampshire between 1965 and 1968, that the average Belizean youth man did not really know what was going on in ‘Nam. I have friends who tell me that our young men didn’t care what the reality was in Vietnam: they were that desperate to stay in America, qualify for their documents and benefit from the Bill for G.I. Rights.
My personal opinion at the time was that I would rather go home than go to fight in Vietnam. It was because of my difference of opinion with the majority of Belizean young men in New York that I realized that I must have had a class advantage of some sort. Why would Belize seem like my option between 1965 and 1968 when almost everybody else from my Belizean generation was willing to go to Vietnam?
For those of you younger Belizeans who would like to get an idea of what the Vietnam War was like, I can recommend a couple movies, because I have seen them both – “Full Metal Jacket” and “Forrest Gump”. I believe “Apocalypse Now” is also a Vietnam War-inspired movie, but I haven’t seen it myself.
Vietnam was probably the place where the United States and Communist China fought their first surrogate war against each other, the U.S. supporting the South Vietnamese and the Chinese supporting the Viet Cong/North Vietnamese. (Thinking about it, it is quite likely the case that the Korean War, which began in 1950, was the first such surrogate war between the Americans and the Chinese. But I am no expert in these matters.) The Vietnam War began to escalate big time in 1965, for sure.
Vietnam had been a French colony, but the North Vietnamese army, led by the brilliant General Giap, had defeated the French in 1954 in the historic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Western powers, featuring the United States, sought to prevent the unification of Vietnam under the North Vietnamese leadership of Ho Chi Minh. The American military felt that if Ho Chi Minh unified Vietnam, then other Southeast Asian countries like Laos and Cambodia would also fall to communism. This was the so-called “domino theory.”
For many years previous to 1965, there had been American “military advisers” supporting the South Vietnamese military in different ways, but, to repeat, an American escalation in involvement in Vietnam took place in 1965, and the Vietnam War became an American war.
In September of 1965, I was a young Belizean student beginning school at a prestigious American university in New Hampshire. In effect, though I did not know it at the time, I was an American asset. I had been given a scholarship by the American State Department.
I was very grateful for the scholarship, because of a development which had taken place at the new, expanded St. John’s College Sixth Form as we students entered the last year of “Advanced Level” studies in September of 1964. A new student had joined our class, out of the blue. He had been previously educated in Jamaica, in an education system which was superior to ours. He was the son of a Jamaican who worked in the civil service of British Honduras and was married to a Belizean lady from a high ranking family which was close to the leadership of the ruling People’s United Party (PUP).
This young man would win the 1965 British Honduras Open Scholarship for our class, and then go on to become a Rhodes Scholar. So the evidence is that he was gifted and trained.
When the American Consulate here offered their first scholarship ever to Belizeans in late 1964/early 1965, I became one of five finalists, and ended up being awarded the scholarship. I did not know if I would have won the Open Scholarship competing against the Jamaican-trained student. That is why I say I was very grateful to the American government, and glad to get out of Belize and go to the United States.
There were very intelligent Belizeans from my generation who could not get a scholarship, and decided to take the Vietnam option. One of them was the late Gerald Patten. He was a classmate at Wesley College of my brother-in-law, Jeff Scott. In a conversation a year or two ago, Gerald’s name came up, and I told Jeff that I had met Gerald briefly during the primary schools quiz competition around 1958 or so. I was representing Holy Redeemer Boys School and Gerald was representing Wesley Primary.
I dedicate this column to the memory of Gerald Patten, and to all those brave Belizean young men who participated in the living hell that was the Vietnam War. Their stories need to be told.
Power to the people.