“A strange class reunion”

John Paul Vann headstone, Arlington National Cemetery, October 2017. It is interesting that his years of service in Vietnam are not on the tablet.

The Hayfoot and I went yesterday to Arlington National Cemetery. While she was taking in an event at Arlington House I ventured out to find the headstone of Lieutenant Colonel John Paul Vann. Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam has been on my reading list for some time. I have always put it off, probably because it logs in at nearly 900 pages and with everything else going on in life it seems like a large time investment. I began thinking about Vann again when reading David Hackworth’s About Face. Vann also plays a big role in the Lynn Novick/Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War, which is how I really go to thinking about him again. I have spent a chunk of this three-day weekend reading old newspaper articles about Vann, and watching interviews with Neil Sheehan about the lieutenant colonel’s life and times. When I decided to visit Arlington while here in DC for the weekend, I knew I had to track John Paul Vann.

One sees the overlap of America’s twentieth century campaigns in Vann’s and the neighboring tablets.

Vann arrived in Vietnam in 1962 and retired from the Army in summer 1963. He had done his twenty years but the real reason he retired was for having the temerity of explaining to his bosses why the war, still in its earliest stages, was not going well. Like moth to a flame he returned to Vietnam in 1965, working for the U.S. Agency for International Development. By 1971 he was with the State Department, having taken the job as director of the Second Regional Assistance Group in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. It was a big position: Vann was the civilian equivalent of a major general. He died in a helicopter crash in Kontum in 9 June 1972. Journalist Neil Sheehan attended Vann’s funeral at the Fort Myer Army Chapel on 16 June, and later remembered the event as like “a strange class reunion.” General William Westmoreland, in June 1972 in his last week’s as Army Chief of Staff before his retirement, was a pallbearer. So was William Colby was another. In attendance were Senator Edward Kennedy; Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 had given Sheehan what we now call the Pentagon Papers; columnist Joseph Alsop; Defense Secretary Melvin Laird; Secretary of State William P. Rogers; and General Edward Lansdale among others. They say one judges a man by the company he keeps and this is a disparate lot to say the least.

John Paul Vann in Vietnam

It was interesting to see Vann’s headstone in juxtaposition to the markers around it. Vann was in the Army during the Second World War, though he did not see combat. He was part of the corps on Army officers who served in WW2 and Korea and brought their institutional memory with them to Vietnam in the war’s earliest stages. There were strengths and drawback to that, though Vann seemed to have better knowledge and awareness of the facts on the ground than others, especially those in Saigon not in the field. Vann believed until the end that the war was winnable. How much of that was wishful thinking due to all he had sacrificed is something I do not know. John Paul Vann is one of the most fascinating Americans from that challenging era in our history.

(bottom image:USOM/Office of Rural Affairs, Saigon. Photograph VA041055, Ogden Williams Collection, The Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Great War in Broad Outlines continues

The other day I donned a t-shirt to work with my colleagues in installing part three of the “Great War in Broad Outlines” exhibit we are hosting over September and October. The exhibit is on loan to us from the Belgian Embassy in Washington. This was Part 3, which will be on display through October 10. The event is open to the public during regular library hour. These panels focus on the contributions of colonial troops fighting on the Western Front and the war in Africa.

The state of Philately in 2017

The Post Office Department issued Scott number 1343 in May 1968 during the 1960s unrest.

I was having lunch with someone a few weeks back who mentioned in passing that it seemed I was not as active with my stamp collection as I had been. It was pretty much true. The past few years have been so busy there was been little time. Now that the cooler months are here again I am going to carve some out. My interest in philately has always come in fits and bursts depending on where I am in my life, what I am doing, and how much physical and mental energy I have to expend on it. Last year I did manage to get to the World Stamp Show at the Javits Center here in New York City. About two years ago for the World War One Centennial Commission I wrote a pitch for a particular stamp, which then went into a larger packet that was sent off to the USPS for consideration. We’ll see what happens.

Over the weekend the same friend forwarded to me this New York Times article about a downsizing onetime stamp collector who donated his collection to Stamps for Veterans, a non-profit that sends donated stamp albums to VA hospitals. Like most collections, this one was not worth a great deal monetarily; the value, such as it was, rested in the hours put into gathering and sorting the stamps. That is no small thing and it’s no wonder the owner held onto his album as long as he did, even if it was just stuck in a closet. Hopefully some veteran is enjoying it right now.

When I was young I would go to the stamp store once every few Saturdays and sort through the bargain tins for what I might find. Ten bucks or so was about my limit. I have still them today. What makes stamp collecting unique is that there is no wrong way to do it. It is entirely up to the individual. Done well, a collection can become a manifestation of the individual himself. It is pastime that is going away. Email has largely replaced the letter as the form of communication. Bill paying too is largely done online and over the phone. Stamps today are mostly self-adhesive, which are not conducive to mounting. Personally, with contemporary stamps I buy for posterity, I stick mainly to First Day Covers. Most importantly however, has been the change in culture. Kids have more options with their time nowadays. Video games and other alternatives have diminished the interest in philately. Even the Stamps for Veterans program reflects this. It is primarily Korean and Vietnam War veterans, not contemporary vets, who are interested in receiving stamp albums under the program.

(image/Bureau of Engraving and Printing; Designed by Edward Vebell)


“against Hearst, Hylan, and the Hohenzollerns”

Charles Evans Hughes (left foreground), Theodore Roosevelt, and Henry Morgenthau (bow tie) endorse John P. Mitchel (light suit), 1 October 1917

New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel lost the Republican primary to William M. Bennett in his re-election bid in 1917. Unbowed, Mitchel decided to run as an independent. He had some strong supporters in his corner. Theodore Roosevelt, former Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, and Henry Morgenthau among others turned out at City Hall Park on 1 October 1917 to “nominate” the incumbent in what they were calling a “popular convention.” Ten thousand people turned out that Monday to see the speakers, which turned out to be something of a detriment to Mitchel; some observers noted that many in the crowd were there more to see Colonel Roosevelt than the mayor. In his own address to the crowd Mayor Mitchel vowed that he would “make the fight one against Hearst, Hylan, and the Hohenzollerns. I will make the fight against Murphy, Cohalan, and O’Leary.” Mitchel’s quote was a reference to John Francis Hylan, the Tammany-backed Brooklyn Democrat supported by William Randolph Hearst and his newspapers.

Mitchel, Hughes (behind Mitchel) Roosevelt, and former U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the Wilson Administration Henry Morgenthau, City Hall Park, 1 October 1917

The 1917 mayoral election would turn out to be a bruising four-way campaign between the Mitchel, Hylan, Republican William M. Bennett, and Socialist Morris Hillquit. The race was a microcosm of America itself in Fall 1917. Over the course of the next five weeks the four mayoral candidates would argue the themes that Americans were hashing out around the country. That very day of the Treasury Secretary (and Wilson son-in-law) William G. McAdoo announced the opening of the second Liberty Loan Drive that would eventually raise nearly $4 billion. For the bond drive there was a big parade in Manhattan. Against American involvement in the war, Hillquit came out against the drive. The race was on until the election in early November.

(images/Doris A. and Lawrence H. Budner Collection on Theodore Roosevelt, SMU Central University Libraries)



The Living Room War

Couple watching Vietnam War on television, 13 February 1968

Lynn Novick and Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War was again the topic of discussion today, some of it in person and some via email. I had a talk with someone who recounted to me their relative’s experience with the local draft board. When the Wilson Administration and Congress established the Selective Service in May 1917 they intentionally placed draft boards under the jurisdiction of local civilians. The idea was to avoid what had occurred just over fifty years earlier during the Civil War with the draft riots. Gone were the military head-counters, who were henceforth replaced with local leaders. These local officials sometimes knew the people about whom they would be making life-altering decisions. I suppose both systems had their benefits and drawbacks. The doughboy from Yonkers who is the subject of the documentary we are making for the Great War centennial served on his local draft board during the Second World War.

Another conversation I had was with an old friend of mine who told me a story I had never heard before. This person is in his mid-50s, about six years older than me, and thus with more first-hand memories of the Vietnam War Era. After he shared this with me I asked if I could post it here and he said yes. Here it is:

My first job was when I was about 10 or 11 and my family was living in New Jersey. It had to be either ’72 or ’73. A guy would pick up a bunch of us kids in a van and we would be dropped off in communities trying to sell subscriptions to the New York Times. One night, as I started my sales pitch, the man at the door cut me off and invited me into the townhouse as he and his wife were eating TV dinners and staring at the TV. The wife was crying the whole time I was there (not long) and they were watching the evening news hoping to catch a glimpse of their son or hear anything about his unit. In between the husband trying to console his wife he was explaining to me that he really wasn’t interested in signing up for the newspaper but asked me to stay until there was a commercial so he didn’t miss anything. I can only imagine that they ate dinner like that every night their son was oversees. That was a very profound and frightening moment for me and I am surprised that it had slipped into the recess of what’s left of my memory about the war.

(image/Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report via Wikimedia Commons)

Barbara Tuchman’s Vietnam War

William Shirer (left), Barbara Tuchman, and John S.D. Eisenhower at the Conference on Research and World War II and the National Archives, 14-15 June 1971. Tuchman was actively engaged in the discourse about the Vietnam War throughout the 1960s-70s. Tuchman gave her commencement address at Williams College the year after this photograph was taken.

These past two weeks I have been watching the Lynn Novick/Ken Burns documentary abut the Vietnam War. I have a few friends who have been watching as well. Usually in the mornings we email with a few thoughts on the previous night’s episode. For each of us, watching has been draining. Earlier today I was searching the New York Times database for some things relating to the war in 1967. The headlines read like a history lesson. Some of the names I came across in my very cursory search included Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Martin Luther King Jr., Secretary-General of the United Nations U Thant, Charles De Gaulle, William Fullbright, Senator Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee, Averell Harriman, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Needless to say all of these figures are now long gone, though Galbraith did not pass away until 2006.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 President Kennedy turned to historian Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August for inspiration. Five years later, for the 5 March 1967 edition of the Times, Tuchman wrote an extended piece about America’s entry into the First World War. Remember, there were still hundreds of thousands of living doughboys alive at this time just fifty years after Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany. I remember seeing historian Gordon Wood on television several years ago expressing his admiration for Tuchman, though he added that she often saw her work as a historian as offering “lessons” for current times. History indeed can offer guidance, but Wood seemed to be arguing that Tuchman thought history offered a stronger template than Wood believes it does.

I knew that Tuchman’s work was often anthologized and so when I showed up at work today I searched the catalog and found a book titled Practicing History: Selected Essays, published by Knopf in 1981. Sure enough, it contains that New York Times article from 1967 that I had come across in the Times database. The anthology also contains a 1966 address to the Chicago Historical Society titled “Is History a Guide to the Future?”, in which she lays out her ideas on that subject. Her thesis, in a nutshell, is that History is more craft than science but that through due diligence it can guide and inform a way forward, at least to a degree. Practicing History includes articles about the Vietnam War that Tuchman wrote for New York Newsday in early March 1968, in the middle of the Tet Offensive; and the New York Times in May 1972. Tuchman advocated for withdrawal and explained ways the United States might have done that. In June 1972 she gave the commencement address at Williams College. Her topic that day was the war. While she was personally against it, she emphasized that people should demonize neither the military nor the soldiers. She explained why the military remained important, even when led poorly by its civilian overlords. She was particularly against the movement underway to ban the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from college campuses.

(image.National Archives)

“We should feel even sterner indignation”

First Lieutenant (Dr.) William T. Fitzsimons was an Army surgeon and the first American Army officer killed in the Great War. He died in a German air raid near Pas-de-Calais on 4 September 1917.

In March 2015 I wrote a piece about Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway both beginning their careers with the Kansas City Star in October 1917. Colonel Roosevelt’s contract with the Star began on 1 October but he pounded out a few editorials, the first of nearly 120 weekly contributions until his death in January 1919, prior to his official start date. The first Roosevelt article was about Dr. William T. Fitzsimons, a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Reserve Corps killed in France on 4 September 1917. Dr. Fitzsimons was the first United States Army officer killed in the Great War.

I have been writing during the centennial about the career of Dr. Robert D. Schrock, a surgeon with Base Hospital No. 9. Lieutenant Fitzsimons was part of this same desire that many physicians had to tend the wounded. Like Schrock, Fitzsimons was from the Midwest, graduated from medical school just prior to the war, trained as a young doctor in New York City in the early 1910s (in Fitzsimon’s case at Roosevelt Hospital), and sought his way to contribute to the effort. Fitzsimons sailed to Europe on a Red Cross transport ship from Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal in early September 1914 and began working in a hospital in England on 1 October as a civilian volunteer. Dr. Fitzsimons returned to the United States after his stint, taught medicine at the University of Kansas for a time, and joined the military on 27 March 1917, about ten days prior to Congress’s declaration of war. He was sent to France right away.

First Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons (seated far left) in England, circa 1915. On 4 September 1917, the same day that Fitzsimons happened to be killed, the Kansas City Star announced that Theodore Roosevelt was joining its editorial staff. Roosevelt’s first piece was about Fitzsimons and published on 17 September, two weeks before his contract officially began.

Lieutenant Fitzsimons was on staff at Base Hospital No. 5 in near Calais by late August. On the evening of 4 September 1917 he was killed in a German air raid. Roosevelt’s tribute, his first article for the Kansas City Star, appeared on 17 September. Roosevelt hammered away at the two themes that would consume him in the coming months: German brutality and American unpreparedness. Fitzsimons was the first American Army officer to be killed in the First World War. Roosevelt’s tribute one of the first but not the last. Army Hospital 21 in Denver became Fitzsimons Army Hospital in 1920. Ten years after that the young doctor’s mother, Catherine Fitzsimons, traveled from Kansas City to the military cemetery at the Somme to see her son’s resting place. In 1955 First Lady Mamie Eisenhower dedicated an oil painting of Fitzsimons at the Colorado hospital named for him twenty-five years previously. Five years after that author A. A. Hochling published The Fierce Lambs, a history/biography of Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons, Corporal James Bethel Cresham, Private Thomas F. Enright and Private Merle Hay. The latter three of whom were killed later that fall, the first Americans killed in actual combat. Today some of the personal effects found on Dr. Fitzsimons when he was killed are on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

(image/top, Department of Defense; bottom, unknown)


Rededicating the Merle Hay monument

Merle Hay monument rededication, Governors Island: 17 September 2017

One of the most poignant moments at Camp Doughboy this past weekend was the rededication of the Merle Hay monument on Sunday morning. The color guard you see here are active service personnel currently serving in the First Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment. They had come from Fort Riley in Kansas and are the same men who had been in Paris this past July for the ceremonies there. The men in uniform behind them are living historians who had set up camp on the island for the weekend. I snapped the image of the new tablet a few minutes after the unveiling. I thought I would re-up the video we produced a few summers ago about Private Merle B. Hay. It is so good to see that the Hay tablet is back where it belongs.

Private Merle Hay tablet, Governors Island National Monument


Antietam’s 155th

Over the course of the day today at Governors Island, amidst the rededication of the Merle Hay monument, the author talks, and the rest of the programs, many of us noted that today is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It is hard to believe the sesquicentennial of that event was five years ago. While Americans were preparing for the Great War in summer 1917 they stopped to note the 55th Sharpsburg anniversary. Brooklyn held its own ceremony in Prospect Park on Saturday 15 September. As the headline notes above, there were still plenty of Grand Army Men around at this time. It is worth noting that what we now call Grand Army Plaza was still Prospect Park Plaza; the name change did not come until 1926. Some of the most prominent veterans at the 1917 turnout were Red Legged Devils from Brooklyn’s 14th Infantry Regiment. The juxtaposition of the two headlines, taken from the 16 September issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reveal how the country was looking backward and forward at the same time.

(image/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)