The following speech was delivered by Dr. Ben Novak on the steps of Old Main at The Pennsylvania State University on November 11, 2009 at the invitation of the Penn State Office of Veterans.
Colonel Switzer has just spoken to you on the meaning and importance of honoring Veterans Day. It is given to me to tell you about another time, when things were different, a time that to you may seem very far in the past, but to me and the others who lived it, remains as vivid, and in some ways as terrifying as the wars, we fought in. It is about how soldiers and veterans were treated during the Viet Nam war.
I come from a family of immigrants from Central Europe. At that time, all that such immigrants wanted to prove was that they were Americans. So, when I was growing up in the 1950s, Veterans Day—which was still called “Armistice Day”—was a very special day, on which my family trekked to the cemeteries in the morning to decorate the soldier’s graves and hear “Taps” played, and then drove downtown to Main Street to watch the parades and hear the speeches. The entire town was there, and all the veterans put on their old uniforms—even when their uniforms bulged and their buttons popped off due to their later-acquired beer and sausage bellies. But, God, were they proud to be veterans and Americans.
When I arrived at Penn State in 1961, the first thing I did was report to Army ROTC. We had the universal draft then, requiring every able bodied male in the country to serve in the military forces. At Penn State, every male student had to be in ROTC for at least two years. But I wanted to be an officer, so I signed up for all four years. The highest glory one could achieve in life, I thought, was to be an officer in the United States Army.
Back then, in the early 60s, we were preparing for a different kind of war. Not one in which we might lose five thousand men over eight years, but one in which we would likely lose twice that number in a single day. If the Russians ever poured through the Fulda Gap, the order to our troops in Germany consisted on only five words, “Two weeks to the Rhine.” Which meant that our entire army of tens of thousands in Germany at that time, was to hold to the death—almost certain death—wherever they were, in order to slow down the Russians to buy enough time for the US to send reinforcements to France and whatever we still held of Belgium. And if either side dared to use a nuclear weapon, or even fire a missile, our strategy was expressed in three words, “Mutual Assured Destruction”—MAD—which meant that there would be no Pittsburgh or Philadelphia or even State College to return to; they would be under mushroom clouds, and it would be raining radiation.
That war almost came in 1962, when we faced down the Russian fleet bringing missiles to Cuba. You cannot imagine the fear of war that gripped this campus, as every ROTC student followed the news on the radio, expecting mobilization orders any minute. But President Kennedy stared down Khruschev, and Khruschev blinked. That happened many times as I was growing up. Over the Berlin Blockade, the Hungarian Revolution, the building of the Berlin Wall, Czechoslovakia, and many other occasions. Air raid drills were held several times a year in every school I attended growing up.
But that kind of war was avoided. Wise leaders devised a strategy to fight the enemy, not in the heartland of Europe, but around the fringes of the Communist empire—what Ronald Reagan later called the “Evil Empire.” And that called for a lot of small wars instead.
So, we got Viet Nam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution was passed in 64. The first combat troops landed at Danang on March 8, 1965. I graduated a week later, at the end of the Winter Term. Two weeks after that, on April 1st, 1965, the first Antiwar demonstration was held in Washington, and that is when the hate began.
I received a deferment to go to Georgetown Law School, and was living in Washington during all the major demonstrations in the capital over the next four years. Further, my brother had become a well known opponent of the War; and a priest who taught me in high school was now one of the prominent antiwar organizers in Washington. So, through them, I met many of the antiwar leaders, and had entrée to many of the antiwar planning sessions. This never affected me—I knew I would be in that war as soon as I graduated from law school. Nor was I a spy in the “movement.” There was nothing secret about it, and the major problem discussed was usually how to get more publicity for what they wanted to do.
But I said that was when the hatred began, and I saw it happen. The movement wanted to split the county into those who supported the military, and those who opposed it. I watched draft cards being burned in DuPont Circle, saw soldiers spit at on the streets of Washington, DC. Heard hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the Mall shout, “Hey, hey, L-B-J, how many kids have you killed today?”
After I graduated from Law School, and went to Officers Basic in the fall of ‘68, I was not immediately sent to Viet Nam, but was sent back to Washington, and stationed at Fort McNair not far from the capitol building. I lived in the District, and had to commute to Fort McNair each day in uniform. Believe me, that was not fun. One never knew when one would be insulted, or spat at.
Finally, after only about sixty days of that, I walked over to headquarters and asked to be sent to Viet Nam. It was simple: I decided I would rather be among the spat upon than the spitters. And, if those who served were “guilty” in the eyes of these people, I wanted to be in the dock with them —I wanted to be just as “guilty.” And I became so. On my way to board the military flight to Viet Nam, demonstrators shouted “Murderer!” at me in the streets of San Francisco, because I wore the uniform of my country.
It was not a fun time for soldiers. And when I returned from Viet Nam, I found it was not a fun time for veterans either. While in Viet Nam, the Dean of Students, Raymond O. Murphy, wrote me a letter offering me a job as Assistant Dean of Students at Penn State. So, by the end of August 1970, I was back at my Alma Mater, with an office in Old Main—right behind where I am standing now— first floor third window from your left.
And that is where one really learned the depths of hatred. Because I was a veteran, there were those who would not talk to me, people who refused to shake my hand when introduced. I was told I was not welcome at some social gatherings, and when I was invited, there were always those who slighted me, or made disparaging remarks about having been in that war. Veterans were made to feel pretty low. I was glad I had decided to be “guilty,” because their “innocence” was insufferable.
Just a little before, in ’68 I believe, the Penn State Veterans Club was formed. Not to celebrate their service to their country, but just to find a place where they were not put down. As an attorney, I helped them buy a house on Nittany Avenue in ‘71, and was often there myself on Friday evenings. It was a lot better to be among them. In the early 70s, there were as many stories of slights and insults received on campus as there were war stories. And, frankly, those stories were harder to tell than those of being in the war itself.
Well, that was then, and this is now. I am so happy that those days are gone. Now all of us can stand on the Penn State campus, here on the very steps of Old Main, and be among those who honor Veterans and celebrate America again.
Thank God that so many of you are here today, to do what ought to be done on this day.
And thank you, each of you, for being here. It means a lot.