Posts Tagged ‘the Vietnam War’

A President’s Surprise Visit to the Lincoln Memorial

During this morning’s bike ride I not only rode by The Lincoln Memorial, but I also rode back in history.  As I paused at the memorial, I went back in time as I thought about this day in 1972.

Today is the anniversary of one of the strangest things to happen during President Richard Nixon’s time in office.  And that’s saying something when you think about some of the other things that happened during his time as commander in chief, such as the time, when he was still running for president, when he appeared on the politically charged, sketch comedy TV show “Laugh-In” and awkwardly asked, “Sock it to me?”  By the way, for the rest of his life Nixon contended that “appearing on Laugh-In is what got him elected.”  Other incidents during his presidency include: the time he met in the Oval Office with Elvis Presley, during which the King of Rock and Roll lobbied to be deputized as a federal agent in the War on Drugs, and; the time he declared to a roomful of newspaper editors during a press conference in Disney World at the height of the Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook.”

It all began days earlier, on April 30, 1972.  The anti-war movement was shocked when President Richard Nixon announced a major new escalation in the Vietnam War – the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.  It took many people by surprise inasmuch as he had addressed the nation just ten days earlier, outlining his plan for the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from Vietnam, seemingly signaling that he was serious about his promise to get America out of the war.  Near the end of his announcement about Cambodia, Nixon appealed for calm, especially on America’s college campuses.  He nonetheless expected blowback.  And that is exactly what he got.

Campuses across the country exploded in dissent, culminating on May 4th when National Guardsmen unleashed a 13-second, 67-shot barrage of gunfire toward student demonstrators at Kent State University, killing four students and wounding nine, one of whom was paralyzed from the waist down with a bullet lodged in his spine.  In the tense days following Kent State, more than 450 U.S. colleges, universities, and even high schools were disrupted by strikes.

Locally, impromptu rallies erupted all over the D.C. region, and a major demonstration was planned for May 9 on the National Mall.  Law enforcement entities went on alert, mobilizing all available resources including the entire D.C. police force and 5,000 military personnel from the 82nd Airborne Division who were stationed in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House, which was encircled by D.C. transit buses parked bumper to bumper as an additional security barrier.

The above information is provided to give a sense of what a highly-charged and volatile atmosphere existed nationally, and especially here in D.C., at that time.  Because it was within this setting that one of the most bizarre moments of Nixon’s presidency took place when, in the early morning hours of May 9, 1970, the president made an impromptu visit to The Lincoln Memorial.

At approximately 4:00 a.m., Nixon was awake and listening to a composition by Rachmaninoff as he took in the majestic view that The White House affords of the Lincoln Memorial.  He also observed students protestors beginning to gather for the protest planned for later that day.  Inspired to visit the hippie contingent, Nixon asked his valet, Manolo Sanchez, if he wanted to take in the Memorial up close at night.  The Secret Service was astonished but adhered to the orders of their commander in chief to take the impromptu trip. Nixon, Sanchez and approximately four agents took the presidential limousine to the foot of the Lincoln Memorial.

It was there that Nixon engaged a small group of students.  He began by acknowledging that most surely thought of him as a real “S.O.B.”  Irregardless, he explained that they all shared the same goal – stopping the killing in Southeast Asia.  And despite varying interpretations of his recently announced invasion of Cambodia, his overall actions proved this contention as he did more to extricate the U.S. from that conflict than his predecessors. During his discussion with the protestors, he also spoke about his views as a pacifist, given his Quaker background. Nixon explained that he changed after WWII to a view war as only useful as long as it was necessary.

The discussion also vacillated with lighter subjects, which was the socially awkward Nixon’s attempt to communicate with young people on their terms.  He spoke about the benefits of traveling and dating while young.  Nixon discussed the Syracuse football team with students from New York, and surfing with a student from California.  This was a leader not naturally at ease with people.  Yet it was Nixon who was willing to open a dialogue with individuals naturally opposed to him in a manner few with such power have ever attempted.

As the sun began to rise, Nixon, having exhausted both himself and his welcome, began walking back to the presidential limousine. As he did, a student Nixon describes as “a bearded fellow from Detroit” rushed up and asked if he could have his picture taken with the president. Nixon instructed the White House doctor to take the student’s picture with the president.  “He seemed to be quite delighted,” Nixon says of that bearded fellow from Detroit. “It was, in fact, the broadest smile that I saw on the entire visit.”

The president along with Sanchez and his entourage, including the Secret Service agents, whose numbers had increased during the course of the visit, then departed.  But they did not return to the White House.  Not yet.  Sanchez had never seen the famous “well” of the House of Representatives, either. Having roused security there, the President was sitting at one of the House desks as his valet took to the same podium used for State of the Union addresses.  From there, and now also with press secretary Ron Ziegler in tow, the presidential entourage proceeded to the Mayflower Hotel on Connecticut Avenue for breakfast, before heading back to the White House.

There were no news crews or fanfare. There was no prepared speech, talking points, or plan on what to do when Nixon arrived. And all that remains are a few photographs and the recollections of those involved, including Nixon’s, as can be heard on the video below.

           
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

On this day in 1957, U.S. military personnel suffered their first casualties of the Vietnam War when 13 Americans were wounded in three terrorist bombings of Military Assistance Advisory Group and U.S. Information Service installations in Saigon. The rising tide of guerrilla activity in South Vietnam reached an estimated 30 terrorist incidents by the end of the year and at least 75 local officials were assassinated or kidnapped in the last quarter of 1957. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning for the U.S. By the end of the war in 1975, estimates for the total U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War are 58,286 killed in action or non-combat deaths (including the missing and deaths in captivity), 153,303 wounded in action, and 1,645 missing in action.

In addition to U.S. casualties, estimates place the number of deaths for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Viet Cong at 1.1 million, while 220,357 were killed in action from the Republic of Vietnam. It is also estimated that 4,407 from the Republic of Korea, 487 from Australia. 351 from Thailand, 37 New Zealanders, and 30,000 Laotian Meo/Hmong were killed.  Additionally, estimates place the number of civilian deaths between 195,000-430,000 in South Vietnam, and 50,000-65,000 in North Vietnam.

In remembrance of the events of this day and in honor of those who served and sacrificed, on this lunchtime bike ride I rode to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Located in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall, just northeast of the Lincoln Memorial (MAP), the Memorial Wall is the best-known part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial complex, which also includes The Three Soldiers Statue and The Vietnam Women’s Memorial.

The Memorial Wall is comprised of two gabbro walls which total 246 feet 9 inches in length. The walls are sunk into the ground, with the earth behind them.  At the apex where they meet which is the highest point, they are 10.1 feet high. They taper to a height of only 8 inches at either end. One wall points toward The Washington Monument, the other in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial, and they meet in the middle. Each wall has 72 inscribed panels, with the two very small blank panels at the extremities remaining blank.

Inscribed on the panels are the names of servicemen who were either confirmed to be killed in action or remained classified as missing in action when the walls were constructed. The 58,272 names, which includes 8 women, are listed in chronological order. The names include approximately 1,200 who are listed as missing. The names of the missing are denoted with a cross. If they return alive, although this has thus far never occurred, the cross would be circumscribed by a circle. If their death is confirmed, a diamond will be superimposed over the cross.

The wall is made from highly reflective stone so that when a visitor looks upon it, his or her reflection can be seen simultaneously with the engraved names. This is meant to symbolically bring the past and present together. However, if you are unable to experience and see the Wall in person, there is a half size replica called The Moving Wall, which periodically visit hundreds of small towns and cities throughout the country from April through November, spending five or six days at each site. Veterans groups have subsequently created additional traveling replicas, which include The Traveling Wall created by the American Veterans Traveling Tribute, The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall by Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, Inc, and The Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall by Dignity Memorial. Fixed replicas have also been built in Wildwood, New Jersey and Winfield, Kansas.

There are also other resources and virtual versions of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall that can be found online, including The Virtual Wall Vietnam Veterans Memorial , The Wall of Faces  and The Wall – USA.  These sites are intended to “bring the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to your home to help remember the sacrifices of the fallen and their families.” 

So take a few minutes to visit D.C.’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, or one of the travelling or virtual walls, and remember the 58,272 individuals who are honored, including the ten different people on the wall who were killed on this day during the war.  They are John Dominick Arquillo (age 21), William Olen Austin (19), John Thomas Baker (20), Alexander Beard (28), John David Belles (20), Guy Lester Bellew (35), Gary Lee Binder (20), Murray Lyman Borden (25), Robert White Boyd (23), and John Wesley Brooks (19).

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

The Three Soldiers

The Three Soldiers


The Three Soldiers, also known as The Three Servicemen, is a bronze sculpture created by Frederick Hart.  It is located in Constitution Gardens adjacent to the National Mall near The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall (MAP).  Along with the Memorial Wall and The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, The Three Soldiers statue is part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial complex.  Created to complement and bring a more traditional component to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the soldiers depicted by the statue appear to be looking at the Memorial Wall containing the names of more than 58,000 of their fallen and missing comrades.  Dedicated in 1984, it was added as part of the Memorial two years after completion of the Wall.  But like most things in D.C., the installation of statue was not without disagreement and controversy.    

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who won a national competition held to select a design for the memorial.  However, despite the selection of Lin’s design and its many supporters, her design also met with many negative reactions.  Several Congressmen complained, and Secretary of the Interior James G. Watt refused to issue a building permit so that construction of the Memorial could begin.  Also, Vietnam veterans were divided in their opinions about the memorial’s design, much like the country itself was during the war.

The Three Soldiers sculpture was commissioned to stand beside the wall in as a compromise, an attempt to appease those who wanted a more traditional memorial.  The designer of the Memorial Wall, Maya Lin, was so displeased with the addition to her design, that even after the decision was made to place the statue a distance away from the Wall so as to minimize the impact on her design, she still refused to attend the dedication of the sculpture when it was unveiled on Veterans Day in 1984.

Controversy continued when it was discovered that Hart, who had placed third in the original memorial design competition, was paid four times as much for The Three Soldiers statue as Maya Lin had received for the prize-winning design of the Memorial Wall.

Today, most visitors to the memorial complex are unaware of the controversy that went into it.  Along with the Memorial Wall, the sculpture now serves as a symbol of our nation’s honor and recognition of those who served and sacrificed during the Vietnam War.