Rabbi Moshe Abramowitz, recently back from a tour of duty as a U.S. Army chaplain in Vietnam in 1972, was walking with his wife in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood. The war in Vietnam, by then unpopular among most Americans, was winding down; the rabbi was in uniform. “I was treated terribly by people on the street,” he remembered. “People spat on me.”
Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow, a Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivor who had come to the U.S. after World War II, joined the army and eventually led a Green Berets unit in Vietnam, experienced similar hostile reactions when he was back in the States. “People were uninhibited” in criticizing his role in the military, he told The Jewish Week. “They felt that morally I had lost my compass. It bothered me.”
Irving Ruderman, a politically active 1969 graduate of Columbia University, declined to join the Armed Services. The draft of all young men was still the law of the land; he applied for Conscientious Objector status “on halachic grounds.” As a Modern Orthodox Jew, he says, he “could not take part in this kind of killing” — he considered the war unjust. He never got his CO status; the draft board’s case against him got indefinitely delayed, the war ended and the draft was abolished.
The memories of Abramowitz, Shachnow and Ruderman offer a glimpse into how the war played out in the Jewish community, which, like the rest of the country, was divided over Vietnam. All of the debates surrounding the war in the late 1960s and early ’70s — it took the lives of 58,000 U.S. soldiers and cleaved American society — will come into sharper view a half-century on with a new and sweeping documentary by Ken Burns that airs beginning Sunday.
Burns, who established his reputation with “The Civil War” on PBS in 1990 and later added 20 award-winning documentaries on such subjects as baseball, jazz and “The National Parks,” will present “The Vietnam War,” whose first episode airs on PBS on Sept. 17. The 18-hour/10-part series (which will repeat beginning on Oct. 3) features 80 interviews, with soldiers who fought on both sides of the war, Gold Star mothers, diplomats, anti-war activists, as well as Burns’ usual blend of historical footage, contemporary music and an original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose.
In today’s era of divisive political discourse, the old memories have largely faded —besides the ubiquitous references, as casualties mount in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the ongoing wars as “another Vietnam.” For younger Americans, born after the war ended in 1975, it’s a chapter in history books.
The documentary is certain to fuel a national discussion on the conflict that began on a limited scale as an element of the Cold War between the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union, escalated by the early 1960s under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and drew widespread protests in this country; U.S. forces withdrew in 1973, and the war — fought by the armies of North and South Vietnam — ended two years later.
The war was not intrinsically a Jewish issue. But it was in many ways very much a Jewish issue, with members of the community on both sides of the divide citing Jewish motivation for supporting or opposing the war.
For Shachnow, who had found refuge in the U.S. after surviving the Shoah, gratefulness to the nation that took him in was a reason he joined the army. For opponents of the war, which included a disproportionate number of Jews, the Shoah also played a part. “We had grown up with the stories of the Holocaust,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, who was a prominent anti-war activist while a college student and fledgling university professor in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Jews of his generation, he said, asked, “how could the people” in the U.S., who knew what was happening in Europe, “stand by and let this happen?”
Rabbi Sanford Dresin, a now-retired army chaplain who had studied at a right-wing Brooklyn yeshiva — “I was doing it lishma,” for its own sake — while many Orthodox Jewish men enrolled in so-called draft dodger yeshivas to escape the draft through deferments for divinity students, said he enlisted in the military to make a point about Jewish loyalty to this country.
In Jewish circles, “there was a great diversity of opinion on the morality of the war,” said Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University. His school reflected that split — Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the philosophical leader of the Modern Orthodox movement, was “very much a hawk,” a believer in the Domino Theory, that if South Vietnam fell to Communism, neighboring countries would be next. Other YU faculty members, who had “lived under Communism,” also supported the war, Gurock said. But many students took part in anti-war demonstrations.
The war presented the Jewish community a conundrum, said Steven Bayme, director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee: How could you “be a hawk on Israel and a dove on Vietnam?” It was politically risky, especially in the years when Israel appeared to face an existential threat in the Middle East, to lobby the U.S. administration for support for Israel while opposing military action in Vietnam.
For many sections of American Jewry, choices were clear-cut; some fought in the war, others marched against it.
“I was very patriotic. I felt it was my obligation” to serve, said Zvi Webb, an insurance company owner from Monsey in Rockland County who found religion in Vietnam when he was an army lieutenant in 1969-70. Known then as Hank (short for Harrison), he approached a colonel about taking off Saturdays to observe Shabbat on a combat base in the demilitarized zone. Turned down, he earned officers’ respect for disarming a soldier who had barricaded himself with a hand grenade. “Nobody ever bothered me about Shabbos after that,” Webb said.
Like many members of the charedi community, he doesn’t watch much TV, but the Burns documentary is certain to kindle memories among people who served in the war, he says. “Whenever you start to talk about it, you tear up.”
“It’s going to be used as a trigger” for discussing, and more deeply understanding, the war, says Rabbi David Saltzman, a Navy lieutenant who served as a chaplain in Vietnam.
Jewish vets tell stories of inspirational chaplains they met, and of sacrifices they made to attend Passover seders in the field or High Holy Days services in Saigon.
An estimated 5,000 U.S. Jewish troops served in the war; about 300 died. The website of the Jewish War Veterans organization has a separate section for Vietnam Veterans.
“It was a war,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “that was fought by people who could not get out of that war.” It lacked the urgency of the century’s earlier world wars, its soldiers often held here in low esteem. “Even the World War II vets looked down on them,” Sarna said.
Like other soldiers who wore their uniforms while back in the States, Bob Cirkus, who served in the army in Vietnam in 1965-67, says he was spat upon and called a “baby killer.”
The criticism at home “didn’t have much of an effect” on the morale of the soldiers in Vietnam, said Terry Bresnick, a platoon leader and general’s aide there in 1970-71. “I had a mission to do. We went with a purpose” — to defend democracy in South Vietnam.
Back home, the news reported on indiscriminate killings of Vietnamese civilians, a bombing campaign against neighboring Laos and Cambodia and poisonous defoliants used on the Vietnamese countryside to destroy the hiding places of North Vietnamese Viet Cong resistance fighters.
“It was a war we had no business being in,” said Rabbi Lerner, who was “the most well-known defendant” in the 1970 “Seattle Seven” trial on “conspiracy to incite a riot” charges. He spent two months in jail; the FBI, he said, subsequently trailed him, scuttling possible teaching jobs at universities. “It definitely ruined my life – it ruined my career in academia,” said Rabbi Lerner, who went on to become founding editor of Tikkun magazine.
Nevertheless, the rabbi said he was “very proud” of his involvement in the anti-war movement. “There wasn’t any other Jewish choice.”
On this coast, Ruderman, who was arrested “many, many times” for taking part in anti-war demonstrations, echoes Rabbi Lerner’s sentiments. “I felt I did the right thing.”
Do veterans of the Vietnam era see a similarity between that war — a “quagmire” that a conventional army could not win against underground resistance fighters who melted into the civilian population — and the current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan?
To some degree?
“There’s a very strong element of futility” in all three wars, Rabbi Abramowitz said. And the persistent questions: Is there a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel? When will the war end? How do you tell friend from foe? The latter makes soldiers’ jobs more difficult, the rabbi said. “Your friends, your enemies, are indistinguishable from each other.” They speak the same language, often dress alike. Just as in Vietnam. “Everyone looked the same.”
Rabbi Dresin said he senses a common sense of mission and purpose among the soldiers. Today’s wars in the Middle East are supposed to “democratize” those countries. “Nonsense,” he said. It’s not happening in Iraq or Afghanistan. “The same thing with Vietnam.”
Rabbi Dresin, who served as an Army chaplain in Vietnam in 1969-70, says he found a surprising amount of respect for the anti-war activists among the Jewish soldiers he met there. The Conscientious Objectors “are the heroes,” they would tell him. The people taking a stand against the war took matters into their own hands, they would say, “We just let things happen.”
On the eve of the Burns documentary, veterans find a changed atmosphere in this country.
While Jason Kaatz, a resident of Bellerose, Queens, who was an aviator in Vietnam, says he still finds “a lot of anti-war sentiment,” other vets encounter more respect.
“Time heals all wounds,” Gen. Shachnow says.
Sheldon Goldberg, a retired Air Force navigator from Silver Spring, Md., who befriended a self-described draft dodger while studying for a master’s degree during the war at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a liberal hotbed, says he senses “a renewed sense of pride in the military. I have people coming up to me thanking me” for serving.
Other vets interviewed by The Jewish Week report similar experiences. “The public realizes we weren’t really the bad guys,” Cirkus says.
The veterans of the current wars are being treated differently,” Rabbi Abramowitz says. “Thank you for your service,” strangers tell him and other past and current members of the Armed Forces. “People say that today to anyone in uniform.”