Legacy of a War

This is a year of golden anniversaries of events that changed the nation: President Lyndon Johnson’s first address about a Great Society; passage of the Voting Rights Act; deadly unrest in Watts, which soon would spread from Los Angeles to other cities. It is also half a century since the United States greatly expanded its involvement in the Vietnam War. At Princeton this year, there have been two student theater productions relating to the war. 

Today’s Princeton students may view the war with academic interest; for those of an earlier generation, the anniversary is more personal. A Princeton chapter of Students for a Democratic Society was created in the fall of 1965, the Princeton Draft Resistance Union in 1967. Campus activism relating to Vietnam became more intense as the war came nearer, in 1968, when LBJ restricted graduate draft deferments. On May 6, 1969, PAW published a black-bordered page (at left) with photographs of seven young alumni who had died in the war. It was, PAW said, only “a tentative list.”

In an essay on page 30, Professor Julian Zelizer points out that in many ways, the war has never ended. He was referring to government decision-making, but as Merrell Noden ’78 wrote in a PAW article in 2005, it’s true in other ways. Noden spoke to alumni who fought in the war or chose not to. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about it,” John Gore ’68, who served 366 days in Vietnam, told him. Ultimately, 24 Princetonians died, losses that linger in 24 families. Another, Dick Gratton ’68, died decades after his two tours, Noden wrote, “by his own hand ... surely a casualty of that war, one of those who saw too much too soon.”