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1968: A Strange Time In America

Written By: Marc Kelley

Ever since the Chinese spy balloon was allowed to sail across our country, anxiety and feelings of uneasiness have crept into the minds of many of our citizens. For many of us feelings such as these have not been felt for decades. Feelings which have been pushed to the back of our minds, having long ago been resolved, but obviously not forgotten. To say the early 1960’s was a strange time in America is an understatement. Our country was divided in a much different way than we are today, but we were divided nevertheless. Trust in the Government, or rather the lack thereof was a common topic of conversation in many circles. In still other circles patriotism abounded, American Pride was on full display and harsh words were often levied at those who would speak ill of the United States. The story which follows is true, the time was 1964. The Cold War between the Communist’s and the free world played out daily on the social media of the time,our morning newspapers and the evening news brought directly into our living rooms by our newly purchased TV’s. 
Perhaps growing up in this time is indeed the cause for the things we feel today. In 1964, home was Great Falls, Montana and our neighborhood was just outside Malmstrom Air Force Base. Everyone we knew was either in the military or worked on the base in some capacity. There were four of us who hung out together back then, and just like the kids of today who play in the front yards and in the streets of their neighborhoods, we were nearly inseparable. We were all the middle kids in our families, not old enough to be heard, yet too old to ignore what we saw play-out on a daily basis. My friends: Daniel the curious one always asking questions and searching for the answer to why things were the way they were. Brian, the athlete and teammate who played beside me in every sports team through every season of the year. And Ritchie, the daredevil always building ramps and jumping his bike, believing he was indeed the next Evil Knievel. If you were looking for one of us, you would find us all together, at least until the streetlights came on.
The four of us saw the world in the same light and believed America was the best place on earth. We never missed a single airshow at the base and all had posters of The Blue Angels, The Thunderbirds and the Golden Eagles plastered on the walls of our bedrooms. These shows were not the shows kids get to see today; but rather, an opportunity to get up close to the fighters and actually crawl around inside the bombers and allowing us to imagine we were part of the fight for America. We would often be awakened and rush outside in the middle of the night, as the F-106 interceptor’s known as the The Delta Darts routinely flew mock missions off the tarmac of Malmstrom AFB. Many a night the whole neighborhood would be awakened by the sonic boom of the jets as they broke the sound barrier overhead. To us, that sound meant we were safe. Safe… because no one in their right mind would mess with the USA.
Up until 1964, the war in Viet Nam was relatively benign in the minds of most Americans. US involvement had been limited to waging a proxy war against the Communists. We sent advisors and Special Forces to train the South Vietnamese fighters and opened the arsenal of democracy, supplying only enough weapons to the South Vietnamese Army to slowly bleed the Communist’s who backed the North Vietnamese Army. So long as Americans were not dying on foreign soil in large numbers, the military industrial complex was allowed to flourish and record profits for their stockholders. For most this reality was acceptable; however, just as it is today, the concept of never letting a good crisis go to waste was embraced by the very people who had no dog in the fight, and certainly would not send their own sons and daughters to die in the jungle, known as Vietnam.
On August 2, 1964, three North Vietnamese torpedo boats began to harass the USS Maddox as it gathered signal intelligence from the Gulf of Tonkin located in South China Sea. The Maddox responded by firing a series of warning shots over the torpedo boats. In response, the North Vietnamese launched several torpedoes and opened fire on the Maddox with machine guns. The Maddox defended herself and in the end, all three torpedo boats were damaged and six North Vietnamese sailors were killed. The only damage recorded by the Maddox was a single bullet hole from a NVA machine gun burst. On August 3, 1964, the USS Turner Joy joined the USS Maddox and continued to gather intelligence. The next day the Commander of the Maddox, Captain John Herrick misinterpreted radar signal intelligence and reported his task force was under attack by the North Vietnamese Navy. It would take our government until 1985 to declassify information on what would become known as The Gulf of Tonkin incident. The truth of the matter is, there was no North Vietnamese attack on August 4, 1964 and our intelligence community simply “misinterpreted” the information from the Maddox. However, it would be the Gulf of Tonkin Incident which would be the catalyst to take America from a proxy war into a shooting war in Vietnam.
On August 10, 1964, the hawks in Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving then President Lyndon Johnson the authority to assist any Southeast Asian country whose government considered it to be under threat from any Communist aggression. Within just a few months of Congress’s action, the US began sending troops into Vietnam in large numbers. This decision would ultimately send over five-hundred-fifty thousand American Troops into Vietnam and cost more than fifty-eight thousand American lives.
One day, not long after President Johnson sent our troops into the jungle, Ritchie came running over to the house. He carried with him the photo we have all seen before…a Marine Corp Private, wearing his dress blues with an American Flag as a backdrop. The picture was of his oldest brother Joe who had just graduated boot camp at Parris Island. Joe was a good Marine, disciplined, tough, and smart and it wouldn’t take long for the Marines to send Joe to Viet Nam. I can still hear Richie reading the letters his brother sent to him…telling him not to worry, he was doing just fine in the Marine Corp he loved so much.
Ritchie lost his Brother Joe, then a Staff Sergeant in 1968, during the siege at Khe Sanh, and I lost my friend who would never again be the same. Losing a young person to the brutality of war leaves a hole in each of us. A hole which heals over time, and is replaced by a scar we will carry until the end of our days here on earth. These are the thoughts and the memories which come rushing back into our minds when we see unknown objects allowed to fly over our country. Our anxiety rises as we watch our politicians, so cavalier in their rhetoric and condescending in their tone, repeating the same ideology which got us into Vietnam. As usual, these people have no dog in the fight and are simply enriching themselves as stockholders in corporations who profit by producing the weapons of war.
I once sat in a lecture hall listening to my history professor as he explained the significance 1968 had on our country and telling us an entire course should be taught on this single year in American history. Just as the Civil Rights Movement had gained a true foothold with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and real progress was beginning to be seen, Dr. King was gunned down as he stood on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. In response, our cities erupted into violence with looting and arson used by many as a means to express their frustration. The upcoming Presidential election became a referendum of the war in Vietnam, pitting young Americans against the older Americans, they called “The Man”. On June 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy won the Democrat Party’s nomination for President and was seen as a bright light of hope for our country. However, on June 5, 1968, RFK was assassinated by a Palestinian dissident angry over US support for Israel. 
Not all of the news coming out of 1968 was bad. On October 11, 1968 the US Apollo Space Program launched Apollo 7 and Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham became the first US Apollo Program Astronauts to orbit earth, moving us just one step away from achieving President John F Kennedy’s challenge to our country “to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.” The people of our country drove a nail into the coffin of the American Independent Party led by segregationist George Wallace. With the defeat of Wallace America could be heard clearly, racism is not now and will not in the future be tolerated. America’s silent majority believed the words of another politician as he spoke out against Communism, promising to restore peace and honor to America. It would take until 1975 for President Richard Nixon to actually make good on his promise to end the war in Viet Nam and when he did everyone asked was our nations sacrifice worth the cost?
None of us would be the same when 1968 was finished with us. It is in this harsh reality where the feelings of anxiety and mistrust for politicians remain for many who lived through this turbulent time. Watching as our politicians and military leaders alike allowed a Chinese Spy balloon to drift across our most sensitive military installations, conjures images and fears from a bygone time. It is in this reality is where the motivation is found for many to speak out and identify the many similarities from 1968 which we are experiencing in 2023, and begs the question, when will we begin to see a turn from the negative news and once again begin to nurture the great American spirit which will get our nation back on the right track?
Wyoming News
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