Q&A with Dartmouth President Emeritus James Wright


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‘I don’t like to hear talk of putting “boots on the ground.” We’re not sending in shoe leather, we’re sending in sons and daughters,’ says James Wright, former president of Dartmouth College and author of the book, ‘Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation And Its War.’

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As a high school graduate in Galena, Ill., James Wright did not think he would ever go to college. Later he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and still later he became a professor of history at Dartmouth College. He wound up serving as president of Dartmouth from 1998 to his retirement as president emeritus in 2009.

The son of a World War II veteran, he joined the Marines at age 17 and served from 1957 to 1960, primarily with the First Marine Brigade in Hawaii and Japan. He began visiting military hospitals in 2005, and his 2012 book, “Those Who Have Borne the Battle,” is about American war veterans and the struggles they have faced, both in the field and at home.

He made an extensive visit to Vietnam in 2014 in research for his latest book, “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation And Its War,” published in April.

Q. Did any of the people you interviewed for this book say, “Look, we’re trying to forget Vietnam. Why are you dredging all this up?”

A. Some of the people I talked to had never really talked about Vietnam before. I was really interested In telling the story of those who died in Vietnam and others who served in Vietnam. I interviewed families who’d had that knock on the door telling them that their son or daughter was not coming home, and that was a very moving experience. No one refused to talk to me. Most of the people contacted me.

I worked with the Vietnam Veterans of America, and VFW put up a listing that said I was working on the book. A few people got in touch with me and others followed up with people who served in combat units – Army infantry, paratroopers, Marine infantry.

Q. Considering the title of David Halberstam’s book about the architects of the early stages of the Vietnam War, “The Best and the Brightest,” you might wonder: If the Vietnam War is an example of what the “best and brightest” produce, that’s kind of scary, isn’t it?

A. It is scary. But we do have to recognize what the world view of the 1950s was. To the World War II generation, Munich was generally believed to be the reason we found ourselves in World War II, and because of Munich we had to stand up to aggression.

I think the mistake was in imagining Vietnam was like Austria and Ho Chin Minh was like Hitler. There is a real danger in not understanding historical experience, but there may be a greater danger when people think everything has to be looked at by analogy. Every situation is different. I think that’s what history tells us.

Q. Your book, while not lacking in statistics, presents stories of individuals, with their names and their hometowns – Herbert Sweat from Brooklyn, Dan Shaw of Dorchester, Mass., Rick Rajner of Toledo, to name a few. Was this an effort to put a human face on the war?

A. I think one of the great dangers in the world is in having to think only of military power, and we don’t put faces on people. I don’t like to hear talk of putting “boots on the ground.” We’re not sending in shoe leather, we’re sending in sons and daughters. I’m concerned about the way most Americans can distance themselves from war because such a small percentage is serving, and it’s not a representative percentage.

Q. You also write that among those serving in Vietnam, the talk was about survival and not an ideological or global struggle, or “protecting the shore of California in the jungles of Vietnam.” Stated that way, doesn’t that, as a rationale for being in Vietnam, seem absurd?

A. These guys grew up in the generation that was told if we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to fight them on the beaches of Los Angeles. They became disillusioned with that. The kids in the South Pacific in World War II had to fight the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But they were thinking about survival for themselves and their buddies serving with them. I don’t think in any war people are sitting around their foxholes at night thinking about making the world safe for democracy.

Q. Today we find a lot of people speaking and writing about the need to recognize the limits of power. In President Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address in 1961 there was the solemn pledge that we would “pay any price, bear any burden meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any expression of concern about the limitless nature of that pledge.

A. There was that sense in 1961 of obligation and responsibility. The U.S. came out of World War II as the strongest country and we felt we had to provide leadership and take responsibility for the world. World War II was a massive war to secure the unconditional surrender of the enemy. The wars we’ve been involved in since then have not been. There has been no equivalent of the army rushing through France liberating villages and going on to liberate Paris, or marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. You’re lacking that grand sense of purpose, that sort of metric of success, that great conclusion that leads to the surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri.

Q. President Kennedy also said about Vietnam that we could provide equipment and advisers, but it was their war and they had to win it. Did the South Vietnamese think it was their war or did they regard it as an American war being fought on their land?

A. I think clearly the government of South Vietnam looked on it as their war. The Vietnamese living out in the country probably didn’t even follow or know what was going on in or who was in charge in Saigon. They were afraid of the Americans rather than respectful or grateful to them. I think [the Americans] decided on a number of occasions that the Vietnamese army was not as engaged and didn’t fight as hard as Americans did, so the Americans decided they were going to direct the war in the field and were better able to do that. We have higher technology, are better educated, and we can show these backward people how to run things.

Q. You write in ironic understatement, “Civilian deaths and injuries, even if accidental, and destroying homes and property of noncombatants, were not steps toward winning either hearts or minds in pacification programs.” Shouldn’t that have been obvious?

A. It should have been obvious to the kids out in the field. I don’t think it was back in Saigon. They thought it was tactically necessary to deny the enemy these resources. Resettlement surely did not supply equivalent places. To be ripped out your place, out of your own land, where your ancestors’ bones are buried, and taken to a new place to live is not exactly a step up in the world. It’s more than ironic, it’s cruel, it’s immoral and it’s wrong.

Q. If today we were to draw a circle around our defensive perimeter, our national security interests, would it include the entire planet?

A. In many ways, it shouldn’t. In terms of economic and political security we have a stake in what happens around the world, but that doesn’t mean we have a responsibility militarily to police the world. We can’t just start shaking spears every time we have a problem.

Q. Critics of the Vietnam War often cited President Eisenhower’s previously forgotten warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Do we need wars to keep the economy going?

A. No, I don’t think so. There’s no major mobilization for war such as there was in World War II. We’re not talking about turning automotive plants to making tanks and personnel carriers.

Q. Is it your concern that today’s veterans aren’t adequately appreciated?

A. We appreciate them when we say, “Thank you for your service.” I don’t think we appreciate what we’ve asked them to do on our behalf. I don’t think we appreciate what we owe them for what they’ve done on our behalf.

Q. Given all the controversy about our Vietnam experience, both during and since the war, what do you see as the lesson of Vietnam?

A. I think the lesson is not to engage in military action unless you know what the results will be. Don’t ask the military to do things that are not military. [And] to recognize that we’re not talking about shoe leather when we talk about “boots on the ground,” when we’re talking about a war. We’re talking about kids.

As a high school graduate in Galena, Ill., James Wright did not think he would ever go to college. Later he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, and still later he became a professor of history at Dartmouth College. He wound up serving as president of Dartmouth from 1998 to his retirement as president emeritus in 2009.

The son of a World War II veteran, he joined the Marines at age 17 and served from 1957 to 1960, primarily with the First Marine Brigade in Hawaii and Japan. He began visiting military hospitals in 2005, and his 2012 book, “Those Who Have Borne the Battle,” is about American war veterans and the struggles they have faced, both in the field and at home.

He made an extensive visit to Vietnam in 2014 in research for his latest book, “Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation And Its War,” published in April.

Q. Did any of the people you interviewed for this book say, “Look, we’re trying to forget Vietnam. Why are you dredging all this up?”

A. Some of the people I talked to had never really talked about Vietnam before. I was really interested In telling the story of those who died in Vietnam and others who served in Vietnam. I interviewed families who’d had that knock on the door telling them that their son or daughter was not coming home, and that was a very moving experience. No one refused to talk to me. Most of the people contacted me.

I worked with the Vietnam Veterans of America, and VFW put up a listing that said I was working on the book. A few people got in touch with me and others followed up with people who served in combat units – Army infantry, paratroopers, Marine infantry.

Q. Considering the title of David Halberstam’s book about the architects of the early stages of the Vietnam War, “The Best and the Brightest,” you might wonder: If the Vietnam War is an example of what the “best and brightest” produce, that’s kind of scary, isn’t it?

A. It is scary. But we do have to recognize what the world view of the 1950s was. To the World War II generation, Munich was generally believed to be the reason we found ourselves in World War II, and because of Munich we had to stand up to aggression.

I think the mistake was in imagining Vietnam was like Austria and Ho Chin Minh was like Hitler. There is a real danger in not understanding historical experience, but there may be a greater danger when people think everything has to be looked at by analogy. Every situation is different. I think that’s what history tells us.

Q. Your book, while not lacking in statistics, presents stories of individuals, with their names and their hometowns – Herbert Sweat from Brooklyn, Dan Shaw of Dorchester, Mass., Rick Rajner of Toledo, to name a few. Was this an effort to put a human face on the war?

A. I think one of the great dangers in the world is in having to think only of military power, and we don’t put faces on people. I don’t like to hear talk of putting “boots on the ground.” We’re not sending in shoe leather, we’re sending in sons and daughters. I’m concerned about the way most Americans can distance themselves from war because such a small percentage is serving, and it’s not a representative percentage.

Q. You also write that among those serving in Vietnam, the talk was about survival and not an ideological or global struggle, or “protecting the shore of California in the jungles of Vietnam.” Stated that way, doesn’t that, as a rationale for being in Vietnam, seem absurd?

A. These guys grew up in the generation that was told if we don’t fight them there, we’ll have to fight them on the beaches of Los Angeles. They became disillusioned with that. The kids in the South Pacific in World War II had to fight the Japanese after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. But they were thinking about survival for themselves and their buddies serving with them. I don’t think in any war people are sitting around their foxholes at night thinking about making the world safe for democracy.

Q. Today we find a lot of people speaking and writing about the need to recognize the limits of power. In President Kennedy’s stirring inaugural address in 1961 there was the solemn pledge that we would “pay any price, bear any burden meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yet it is difficult, if not impossible, to find any expression of concern about the limitless nature of that pledge.

A. There was that sense in 1961 of obligation and responsibility. The U.S. came out of World War II as the strongest country and we felt we had to provide leadership and take responsibility for the world. World War II was a massive war to secure the unconditional surrender of the enemy. The wars we’ve been involved in since then have not been. There has been no equivalent of the army rushing through France liberating villages and going on to liberate Paris, or marines raising the flag on Mount Suribachi. You’re lacking that grand sense of purpose, that sort of metric of success, that great conclusion that leads to the surrender on the deck of the USS Missouri.

Q. President Kennedy also said about Vietnam that we could provide equipment and advisers, but it was their war and they had to win it. Did the South Vietnamese think it was their war or did they regard it as an American war being fought on their land?

A. I think clearly the government of South Vietnam looked on it as their war. The Vietnamese living out in the country probably didn’t even follow or know what was going on in or who was in charge in Saigon. They were afraid of the Americans rather than respectful or grateful to them. I think [the Americans] decided on a number of occasions that the Vietnamese army was not as engaged and didn’t fight as hard as Americans did, so the Americans decided they were going to direct the war in the field and were better able to do that. We have higher technology, are better educated, and we can show these backward people how to run things.

Q. You write in ironic understatement, “Civilian deaths and injuries, even if accidental, and destroying homes and property of noncombatants, were not steps toward winning either hearts or minds in pacification programs.” Shouldn’t that have been obvious?

A. It should have been obvious to the kids out in the field. I don’t think it was back in Saigon. They thought it was tactically necessary to deny the enemy these resources. Resettlement surely did not supply equivalent places. To be ripped out your place, out of your own land, where your ancestors’ bones are buried, and taken to a new place to live is not exactly a step up in the world. It’s more than ironic, it’s cruel, it’s immoral and it’s wrong.

Q. If today we were to draw a circle around our defensive perimeter, our national security interests, would it include the entire planet?

A. In many ways, it shouldn’t. In terms of economic and political security we have a stake in what happens around the world, but that doesn’t mean we have a responsibility militarily to police the world. We can’t just start shaking spears every time we have a problem.

Q. Critics of the Vietnam War often cited President Eisenhower’s previously forgotten warning about the “military-industrial complex.” Do we need wars to keep the economy going?

A. No, I don’t think so. There’s no major mobilization for war such as there was in World War II. We’re not talking about turning automotive plants to making tanks and personnel carriers.

Q. Is it your concern that today’s veterans aren’t adequately appreciated?

A. We appreciate them when we say, “Thank you for your service.” I don’t think we appreciate what we’ve asked them to do on our behalf. I don’t think we appreciate what we owe them for what they’ve done on our behalf.

Q. Given all the controversy about our Vietnam experience, both during and since the war, what do you see as the lesson of Vietnam?

A. I think the lesson is not to engage in military action unless you know what the results will be. Don’t ask the military to do things that are not military. [And] to recognize that we’re not talking about shoe leather when we talk about “boots on the ground,” when we’re talking about a war. We’re talking about kids.

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