I took this photo with my Instamatic on Oct. 15, 1969. I was in Hartford at the anti-war demonstration known as the Vietnam Moratorium. That day, 90,000 peoples joined protests around Connecticut to stop what they were doing and concentrate on the enormous costs of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. There was no business as usual that day, for millions of people around the country.
For many folks of my generation (that’s right, boomers) the Vietnam War shaped how we viewed our government’s place in the world, and we weren’t happy about it.
In our eyes, the war and its leaders were exposed as criminals, an opinion I still firmly hold. I was less concerned, at the time, with the soldiers who came home in boxes than with the deadly U.S. foreign policies, the violence of poverty in north Hartford and the massive inequalities exposed by the civil rights movement.
But this sign made me stop and think.
Barry Jackson was one of the 612 Connecticut men killed in the war. He was an African American from Bloomfield, killed on March 18. His father Allen attended the October rally in Hartford with the hand-made sign that caught my eye. It read “My son was killed in Vietnam- For what?”
Barry had won a number of medals, “but these medals don’t make up for his life,” Allen Jackson explained. Barry should not have gone to Vietnam because, in Mr. Jackson’s mind, “it’s an illegal war.” Allen Jackson thought his presence at the Moratorium might help open the eyes of other people.
The local American Legion and the VFW condemned the protests, arguing that dissent would only endanger U.S. combat troops. An ever-increasing number of soldiers disagreed. Many Vietnam veterans saw the Moratorium as a time to finally speak out publicly against the war they had survived.
At least 60 Vietnam veterans joined the Hartford rally. One young vet who had been wounded in the legs and chest told a newspaper that he marched because “you find you’re not fighting for anything, you’re just fighting to save your life.” Vietnam was a suicide mission, he said.
Forty vets at Mattatuck Community College in Waterbury made their anti-war sentiment known during a school event. In Enfield, Navy veteran Richard Howland and WWII veteran Eugene Sweeney addressed the local peace rally. Veteran George Smith and former Marine captain Newbold Morris addressed a West Hartford crowd. Dean Erickson told protesters in New Britain “over there I was shown that the Vietnamese do not want foreign domination, and that’s why I’m here now.”
In 1969 alone, ten thousand American troops were killed. A total of 58,313 died overall. During the week of the Moratorium, Connecticut fatalities grew as well:
–Marine Pvt. Richard Stolarun, 19, of New Britain, died of his wounds on Oct. 12.
–Lt. Thomas Frazier, Jr., 20, of Granby and Army Pfc.Charles Bachman of Norwalk were both killed in action the next day.
–Mr. and Mrs. Norman Manning received their son’s Silver Star that week. James had been killed in July after having been awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
–On Oct. 16, Pfc. James Dufault of Moosup was killed in combat. Dufault became the 466th Connecticut resident to be killed in Vietnam.
This Memorial Day we remember the troops who have been sacrificed, on too many battlefields, to maintain our country’s imperial dominance around the world. There is no corresponding holiday for the civilians killed in the war (six million from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) or the wars since then.
Allen Jackson would want us to keep asking: For what?
Steve Thornton is a retired union organizer who writes for the Shoeleather History Project.org.