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Two Days in October | Article

The World War II Generation and Vietnam

From the Collection: Vietnam War

Attitudes shaped by World War II were not always a good fit in the Vietnam era. Decisions that might have previously gone unchallenged now generated substantial protest.

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One of the unique pieces of equipment brought to Vietnam by the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), December 31, 1957. Courtesy: NARA

World War II and Duty
One of the key lessons veterans took from what Studs Terkel has dubbed "the good war" was a sense of duty. As famously enunciated by former torpedo boat commander John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address, Americans should "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." And so when the military requested that Dow Chemical produce napalm for the Vietnam war effort, company leaders said yes. As Dow director of public relations Ned Brandt recalled, "the board chairman, the CEO, and I think most of the board members had served in the armed services of the United States during World War II," making it "rather natural that when your government wanted you to make some stuff, even though it was very nasty stuff, that you made it without any question."

World War II and Devastation
But duty was not the war's only lesson; veterans also noted the destruction wrought. Joe Kauffman enlisted in the infantry and witnessed the bloody fighting in Italy, where he came to the conclusion that "War is stupid. We were stupid. The only reason we won is they were more stupid than we were." After the war, Kauffman became a leader in the Peace Corps and unsuccessfully tried to have young men be allowed to choose between the conventional draft and service in the Corps. As dean of students at University of Wisconsin, Kauffman spoke out against the Vietnam War and encouraged students to engage in peaceful demonstrations. "Not enough young people are protesting," he said. Kauffman's boss, Chancellor William Sewell, had also seen the horrors of World War II when he visited Japan after its surrender. Sewell, a Navy lieutenant who had worked for the Selective Service System, was assigned to assess the effect of Allied bombing raids on civilian morale, and his interviews left him with an in-depth knowledge of the devastation that incendiary bombs, a forerunner to napalm, had caused. Those images stayed with Sewell at University of Wisconsin, where he organized one of the nation's first teach-ins against the Vietnam War.

Under Attack
Dow did not use the napalm, only manufactured it, and the company's leadership was perpetually perplexed about why they were the subject of protests rather than the Pentagon. Even more galling to World War II veterans were the taunts from students calling Dow recruiters "good Germans." When the Dow board voted in 1967 to continue producing napalm, it rejected "the validity of comparing our present form of government with Hitler's Nazi Germany." But the decision produced dissent; respected company marketing director Bill Dixon vigorously maintained that making the product was just wrong. And President and CEO Ted Doan found the napalm issue not only consumed his business life, but also followed him home. Doan's wife Donalda turned against the war, and their youngest son was a conscientious objector. Dow's chief executive was discovering that many people now felt there were other duties than simply obeying the government.

A Generation Gap
Joe Kauffman was also facing an ironic situation. Denounced as a "fascist" during a sit-in of his office in February 1967, Kauffman angrily told students that he was one of "only two people in the room who had actually fought fascists." Kauffman and Sewell's antiwar views meant nothing to the deminstrations, who saw them as just another part of the "establishment" that allowed Dow to recruit at the University of Wisconsin. Never mind that Sewell had voted to ban Dow from campus during a faculty debate; never mind that Kauffman had once wished for greater student protest. It's "nothing personal," a student told him, "but the chancellor is [President Lyndon] Johnson and you're [Secretary of Defense Robert] McNamara." And so both Kauffman and Sewell, who had seen the horrors of war abroad, found themselves presiding over bloodshed at home. After the violence of October 1967, Sewell faced a further irony. In a hearing at the state capitol just a few blocks from campus, the man who had summoned police to disperse student protest found himself defending student rights against legislators who wanted an even tougher crackdown.

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