January 27, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, which signaled the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s an especially appropriate time to remember the sentiments and experiences of those involved in and impacted by the Vietnam War. Though millions of people fit this criteria, I have chosen to highlight portions of letters written by Charles J. V. Murphy and James Mitchell Swan as they embody the divide of attitudes in the U.S. during the war.
Murphy (1904-1987) was a prominent U.S. journalist and former Air Force Reserve officer who corresponded frequently about Nguyễn Cao Kỳ with Colonel George Budway, who served as Commander of the Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam from April 1965 to May 1966. Kỳ was commander of South Vietnam’s air force when, through a military junta, became Vietnam’s prime minister for two years beginning in 1965. Although flamboyant, brash, and autocratic, Kỳ was able to end a cycle of leadership coups, and the U.S. backed him. Murphy, a war hawk, saw an opportunity to invigorate U.S. sentiment towards the war by writing a book about Kỳ. Although photographs of and interviews with Kỳ were gathered, the book never materialized. By 1971, Kỳ was largely sidelined politically. Nonetheless, the letters between Murphy and Budway provide valuable insight into the “pro-war” mentality. Budway donated the material gathered about Kỳ to the AHC between 1986 and 1987.
James Mitchell Swan was from Worland, Wyoming, and was drafted in 1968. An unpublished set of letters compiled by his mother detail his largely negative experiences and feelings on the war. He returned home in 1969 but died two years later in a car accident while attending the University of Wyoming.
I’m not sure whether to go hide again or go serve my country by picking up cigarette butts. – James Mitchell Swan, 1968
In much of the American press, in the “liberal” wings of both parties, in much of the assertive centers of the so-called intellectual world, the opposition to the Vietnam War has turned savage. Now the Negro leaders are shouting that white Americans must choose between them and the war, and the pacifists and neutralist liberals have joined in the shout. – Charles J. V. Murphy, 1967
I don’t believe in war at all. I don’t even want to think violence exists. All I want to do is go home, take a hot shower, forget this place, and go to bed. – James Mitchell Swan, 1969
The American public has wearied of the war. People don’t pretend to understand the political and military values––it’s all too complex, most say––all they care about now is ending the drain somehow. That means getting out. – Charles J. V. Murphy, 1969
I’m sorry Mother, for this lousy letter, but all I want to do is get out of this place, forget every involvement, and never let them do this to me again. – James Mitchell Swan, 1969
Where is our man Ky? Doesn’t the situation call for a hero? The man of indomitable will? Why do we not hear from him a clarion call to action. – Charles J. V. Murphy, 1972
Although the Paris Peace Accords marked the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the humanitarian crisis persisted. It would be a mistake to neglect the stories of the people of Southeast Asia who did and continue to bear the greatest cost of this war.
Post contributed by University of Wyoming student Cody Akin.