Mel had black hair and was of medium height. He was in his mid-to-late 20s. He seemed to know Vietnamese history and the history of U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam better than anyone else at Columbia. Mel had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Algeria, and his Peace Corps experience had caused him to first become disillusioned with the reality of U.S. foreign policy.
I had started to get disillusioned with Lyndon Johnson in early 1965, when he started bombing North Viet Nam on a regular basis. I was against militarism, but I was also a left-liberal anti-communist in my politics. I thought that LBJ’s policy of an escalated bombing campaign was motivated by democratic goals. I still believed the U.S. government’s line that communist North Vietnamese leaders were seeking to enslave the South Vietnamese by unjustified force. But I felt LBJ’s decision to bomb North Viet Nam daily was morally questionable.
The first anti-Viet Nam War teach-ins had been organized at colleges like the University of Michigan, shortly after the sustained bombing of North Viet Nam began. The educational TV station in New York City, Channel 13, had televised these early teach-ins. I had watched the teach-ins and had generally agreed with the left-liberal anti-war professors, when they had condemned the U.S. military escalation and had called for a negotiated peace settlement with the North Vietnamese.
But in April 1965 I had not gone to the first anti-Viet Nam War mass march on Washington, D.C. which National Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] had organized. My older sister had been at the demonstration, after having done Civil Rights Movement volunteer work in North Carolina during a college spring break. She was much more anti-war than I was at that time because she had talked to Movement radicals who knew what was actually happening in Viet Nam. I was still dependent on the Establishment mass media for my information about Viet Nam at that time.
My sister had stopped by my parents’ apartment, the day after the April 1965 anti-war march. And she and I had spent much time debating U.S. foreign policy.
“I don’t like the bombing of North Viet Nam, either. But the North Vietnamese don’t want to negotiate. And Johnson has called for unconditional discussions. He really does want peace,” I had argued.
“The North Vietnamese want to negotiate. But as long as Johnson keeps bombing North Viet Nam, there can’t be negotiations. If Johnson really wanted to negotiate, he would stop bombing North Viet Nam. Or work through the United Nations,” my sister had replied. “The U.S. doesn’t have any right to be in Viet Nam, anyway.”
“We can’t just get out and let the Communists take over,” I had said.
My sister had shrugged. “Anything’s better than war.”
I had thought for a moment to myself that maybe she was right. And by the time LBJ had started sending more U.S. troops to South Viet Nam in the summer, I knew that I wasn’t going to let myself get used as cannon fodder, unless I believed the war could be justified morally. In the ‘60s, my sister was bohemian and politically radical, most of the time. Periodically, our paths would cross for a few weeks at our parents’ apartment in Whitestone and we would talk in a deep way about the world and our personal lives.
So Mel’s presence at the Independent Committee on Viet Nam table at Columbia, as the war continued to escalate, reinforced, hardened and deepened my opposition to U.S. government policy in Viet Nam. Students would stop by the table and debate with Mel the morality of U.S. policy. I kept stopping by to listen to Mel discuss the Viet Nam issue whenever I saw a crowd around the table. Mel’s talk seemed more relevant and interesting than any of the classroom discussion that went on inside Columbia’s classrooms.
“We’re committing genocide in Viet Nam. Napalm bombings and carpet bombings are designed to kill civilians. The Geneva Accords of 1954 required an election to unify Viet Nam in 1956. Even Eisenhower admitted Ho Chi Minh would have won the 1956 elections if the U.S. and the Diem dictatorship hadn’t violated the Geneva Accords,” Mel argued passionately, day-after-day.
Sometimes he would be joined by other anti-war students around the table. Every three or four weeks the ICV would hold an anti-war rally around Columbia’s sundial at which Mel and a Columbia College senior with a Boston accent, named Dave, would stand up on the sundial, and patiently explain to other students who gathered there why U.S. military intervention in Viet Nam was an immoral crime against humanity, in violation of the Nuremberg Accords.
Supporters of the war in Viet Nam who came to the ICV table could not justify U.S. policy on moral grounds when confronted with Mel’s knowledge of the facts. Mel influenced me intellectually more than any Columbia professor did in 1965. His moral passion and detailed critique of U.S. foreign policy convinced me that the U.S. military’s role in the Third World was always anti-democratic and always violated the self-determination rights of Third World nations. Mel’s teaching at the ICV table and his personal dedication, at the expense of his career preparation and studying time, to raising consciousness about the war in Viet Nam caused me to completely question the U.S. mass media version of contemporary history. His teaching stimulated me to read more on my own, in order to find out the truth about the nature of U.S. foreign policy between 1945 and 1965
James and the Twenty-Seven Bicycles
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