Vietnam War in Louisiana
The war in Vietnam polarized the people of Louisiana just as it polarized people across the country.
The war in Vietnam polarized Americans. Divisions emerged along generational lines, with youth protesting a war that their elders had wrought. The United States’s engagement in the internal struggles of the Southeast Asian nation began in 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower provided financial support to French and South Vietnamese forces fighting communist Viet Cong rebels. US involvement escalated under the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, with a military intervention that ultimately sent more than 536,000 American soldiers into combat, and ended in 1975, when Saigon fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the divided country reunified into a communist state. Historians generally consider the conflict and the civil unrest it spawned as the defining theme of the 1960s, which witnessed not only antiwar protests but also struggles over civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights as well as the growth of a counterculture devoted to challenging the status quo.
While much of the nation debated the Vietnam War, the South faced its own internal turmoil generated by the struggle for racial equality. For many, civil rights served as the preeminent concern in the region, relegating most other issues to secondary importance. When southerners did confront post–World War II foreign policy questions, they did so as dedicated Cold Warriors. Politicians from the region tended to support America’s fight against communism abroad, just as they sought to ferret out people they considered domestic “subversives” at home, many of whom they believed orchestrated the drive to dismantle the institutional racism of the Jim Crow South. An overarching conservatism informed the political orientation of the region, making support for rather than protest against the war in Vietnam far more typical, and Louisiana—which had a substantial vested economic interest in the military—proved similar to its regional peers in that regard. On the whole, its citizens voiced rather muted concerns about the war as its national politicians proved key supporters of sustaining the conflict.
Boot Camps and Honored Medalists
Starting in 1962, Fort Polk, near Leesville, became a major infantry training center for the US Army. Young men from across the nation were transformed from citizens into soldiers on Louisiana soil; by the war’s end, Fort Polk had sent more of its trainees to Vietnam than had any other military installation. Massive B-52 Stratofortress bombers were deployed from Barksdale Air Force Base at Bossier City for prominent roles in major bombing offensives during the war, including Operation Arc Light beginning in 1965 and the Operation Linebacker bombing campaigns in 1972 and 1973. Other aircraft units and support personnel from England Air Force Base in Alexandria also took part in combat operations. In Lake Charles, the shuttered Chennault Air Force Base was reactivated for civilian use as a major military aircraft service base. During the war, Lockheed Aircraft Service Company employed more than five hundred workers there for maintenance and repairs to Air Force and Air National Guard aircraft.
Many thousands of Louisianans in uniform served with distinction, and 882 of them died in combat. The Medal of Honor, the United States’s highest military award, was given for meritorious action in Vietnam to five Louisiana residents: Air Force Captain Steven L. Bennett of Lafayette, Marine Corps Private First Class Raymond M. Clausen of New Orleans, Army Lieutenant Douglas B. Fournet of Kinder, Army Private First Class Milton A. Lee of Shreveport, and Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Novosel of New Orleans.
Although Louisiana contributed much to the war effort, dissent could also be found there—even if on a much smaller scale than that of other flashpoints of dissent, such as the University of California at Berkeley or Chicago’s Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Antiwar protests in Louisiana usually erupted on the campuses of state universities, a common development, considering the youth-oriented nature of the protest movement in general. Organized student protests in the state spiked in the later years of the conflict, as body counts mounted and politicians proved evasive about the success of American military operations. As the war dragged on without any signs of resolution, the likelihood of young men being drafted grew. Significant demonstrations took place at both Tulane University and Louisiana State University (LSU). Protests invariably focused on campus Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) facilities, which represented the most significant manifestation of the federal government’s war machine on most campuses. That the programs had no direct connection to the nation’s policymakers proved beside the point as protestors seized on the lone symbol of the military-industrial complex before them. Sizable anti-ROTC protests in April and May of 1969 at Tulane University represented some of the most intense of the state’s campus protests and resulted in the dismissal of five students and a professor. One year later, fires were set in ROTC buildings on the campuses of Tulane and the University of Southwestern Louisiana. More typical was the placid demonstration at LSU in Baton Rouge on May 8, 1970. Protest leaders there organized the demonstration in the wake of the deaths of four student activists at Kent State University who were shot and killed by National Guardsmen at a protest against President Nixon’s expansion of the war in Vietnam via bombing raids in Cambodia. More than one thousand protestors participated in the peaceful march from the LSU campus to the state capitol.
My Lai Connections
The massacre of Vietnamese civilians—including many women, children, and elderly residents—by American troops at the village of My Lai in 1968 also influenced public opinion about US involvement in the war, and Louisiana had several connections to that tragic event and its aftermath. Ron Ridenhour, the soldier who first called attention to the atrocities in a letter to federal authorities, later lived in New Orleans, where he became an award-winning investigative reporter. Ridenhour’s account of what he had heard from soldiers involved in the incident led to public disclosure of the mass killings, military and congressional investigations, and the conviction of one soldier, Lt. William L. Calley Jr. Representative F. Edward Hebert of New Orleans, a staunch supporter of the armed forces during his thirty-six years in Congress, chaired the congressional hearings from April 15 to June 22, 1970; his subcommittee’s 53-page report criticized the army for its handling of the massacre and its subsequent cover-up. Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his crew intervened in the attack and were credited with saving the lives of several unarmed civilians; castigated at the time but lauded many years later as a hero, Thompson settled in Lafayette after the war and worked as a veterans’ advocate and counselor.
Aftermath of the War
American forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973; as communist forces subsequently overran South Vietnam in 1975, thousands of refugees relocated to Louisiana. The Archdiocese of New Orleans played a significant role in helping the exiles resettle in the city. The state’s largest Vietnamese settlement was firmly established in eastern New Orleans in a subdivision known as Versailles, where decades later Ahn “Joseph” Cao emerged as the United States’s first Vietnamese American congressman, winning a surprise victory in 2009 as the first Republican to represent the city since 1891. Cao’s family fled Vietnam in 1975, when he was eight years old. Meanwhile, the war’s end precipitated changes at some of the state’s military bases. Fort Polk shifted its focus away from basic training for new soldiers; instead, it became the permanent home of one of the army’s infantry divisions. Barksdale Air Force Base remained a key installation, but England Air Force Base in Alexandria was eventually shut down as part of a major consolidation of US military bases.
As elsewhere, Louisiana was slow to recognize the contributions of its Vietnam veterans. Today monuments to those from Louisiana who served in Vietnam can be found at cemeteries in Avondale and Slidell, at the USS Kidd Veterans Memorial in Baton Rouge, and at the Eighth Air Force Museum on the grounds of Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City. The state’s most prominent memorial to its Vietnam veterans is a life-size bronze sculpture of three soldiers carrying a wounded comrade, located outside the Superdome in New Orleans. The sculpture was created by artist William Ludwig in 1984.
Robert Olen Butler, a novelist and professor at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, served in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971, first as a counterintelligence special agent for the army and later as a translator. The author’s first novel was The Alleys of Eden, published in 1981, whose protagonist is an American deserter who decides to stay in Vietnam. In 1987 Butler received the Tu Do Chinh Kien Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America for outstanding contributions to American culture by a veteran. He wrote A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain in 1992, a collection of short stories written from the perspective of Vietnamese émigrés living in Louisiana. It received a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993.