Dick Hoyt was born in Springfield, Vermont in 1927. He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17 as World War II was nearing an end. After serving in the military, Mr. Hoyt settled down to raise a family and teach history at Brookline High School. While Mr. Hoyt was against the war, his interview gives us the interesting perspective of someone who represents the average American during the Vietnam War.
Q: When and where were you born?
Mr. Hoyt: I was born in Vermont, Springfield Vermont, small town, in 1927.
Q: And so it was a small town. Did you hear a lot about the news around you?
Mr. Hoyt: Well, not really. I mean if you think about that age, that year, which means that I’m 80 years old, so I was young, going to high school and it was just at the start of WWII, 1940. I was always interested in the world at large and in fact when I was in high school I was one of these gung-ho social studies people who was trying to lobby for one world. At that time there was a man named Wendell Wilky who was trying to get everyone to get behind a one world so that you would have a world government, not just a United States government. We never have gotten that far; we’ve got the United Nations, but anyway that gives you an idea of what I was interested in during high school. During high school I was on the school paper, I was a circulation manager and I used to bundle up these school papers and put them in long white envelopes which had been cut apart and send them to the boys over seas. There were many who we were friends with, people who were a year ahead of me in high school who were called into WWII and some who died. That was a war that I hoped we would never have anymore after, but then 20 years later we had the war in Vietnam.
Q: So you felt this way as a teenager, and throughout high school?
Mr. Hoyt: I was right in the middle of it. There were people who were going at that time into the service all around me. There were shortages of gasoline, there was rationing for sugar, butter and other commodities. Everyone seemed to get behind that war because Hitler and Mussolini were riding hard Europe, so it was a very patriotic time. The old people, middle aged people, and young people were all doing things for the war effort; collecting scraps for instance which would be recycled to make guns and planes and ships. Women, who had been in the home all the time to that time, this is now right after the 1930’s and the depression, now got out of the house. They had to take the places in the factories. And I experienced that.
Q: So you said some of your friends were in WWII; were you just below the age that you could be drafted?
Mr. Hoyt: I went too, at the end. I was young; I was enlisted in the navy when I was 17. I was in, but not an awfully long time. I was in for over a year, but when I was in boot camp the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and a week later, 9 days later, on Nagasaki and I said to my buddies at the time in boot camp: “This is going to change the whole world.” I mean I don’t know, but I felt that it was such a change, and of course the war was over very shortly with Japan, it had already been over just before I went in the service because with Hitler, VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, had come.
Q: When you got back to the US after WWII, how old were you then and what did you do?
Mr. Hoyt: I was 18, actually 19 by that time. Well, when my enlistment was DOW, duration of the war- no set time, so I didn’t know when I was going to get out, but when I was stationed in Washington and I worked in the Bureau of Naval personal, and getting everyone else home and that was my job at the end of the war. So I was given the choice: I could get out and be discharged and I was so young when I graduated high school that I went a year to college, I made it and enlisted when I was in college. So then I went in for a little over a year and I had this choice of going back to college, that’s what I would really be doing, I would have 3 more years and at the time I had the GI Bill of Rights, so that was a good thing, I would get some pay from my college and the tuition by the way then, for your information was something like $565 a year. So the choice then was going to the atomic bomb tests in the south pacific. I had friends who were going, and they were all gung-ho because they wanted to get out of Washington. At that time it was a very interesting place to be stationed, but when you’re young and kind of adventurous and you wanted to see some action, no shooting action at that time as the shooting was pretty much over. So some of them did go out to these tests and I dare say that some of them died of cancer later on because they did not take the precautions that they might have if they had known. I went to a meeting at Brandeis last week with the man who armed the atomic bomb in Almoguerdo, New Mexico. He wired the connections up on the tower before it exploded and he talked to us and said the second bomb on Nagasaki should not have been detonated in his opinion, but General Groves, who was head of the atomic business then wanted to explode the second one. The first one was uranium 235, the second one in Nagasaki with a core was a ball of plutonium which, maybe you know all of this but I didn’t, and then it would all whoosh out and of course the people in the atomic tests were in danger, the radiation came out, they didn’t take the precautions. So anyway that’s a long winded way to answer your question, but I did not go and I went back to college.
Q: So in college this was before the Vietnam War still?
Mr. Hoyt: Much, much before because I graduated from college in 1949.
Q: So then skipping ahead a few years, where were you when you first heard of the idea of war in Vietnam? The cold war?
Mr. Hoyt: Well it was in the 1950s I believe it was 1956 or so, you would read in the newspapers there was a little television but not much then about the goings on, the struggle in Vietnam, between the North and the South, the North communists trying to get the South. You read about the corruption of Diem and Su, and I at that time that was when I, as time went on it wasn’t until 1964 when the United States really began to get involved in a big way, and I had been married in 1963 and in 1964 my first son was born. In those years ’64, ’65, ’66, and ’67 that was when the build up with all the American troops came. I think that the advisors were something like, to begin with Kennedy sent 25,000 or something like that. So, I think I was in the business of having a family and I was teaching and I had my hands full, making a living but I was always interested in politics, but I think I missed a few things, but I don’t remember. It was a time of great stress, a great division in our country, as I remember. When we moved here there were people, women especially, who were protesting vigorously, and some I know, they are still living, went on a bus for 8 hours to Washington and were protesting outside the Pentagon. One woman I know jumped over a fence and there were thousands of people protesting. Now I had mixed feelings.
Q: So what were these feelings as a person who’s trying to build your own family? What did you think was best for the country and what we should do in Vietnam?
Mr. Hoyt: Well at first, and I’m not sure of the time frame, but at first I began to think when some of these fellows were heading for Canada to get out of the service, I think there were a lot of people like me that felt that “well, it was twenty years later well we served our time, what are they doing?” It wasn’t everybody who was heading for Canada. I think I realized then, and I certainly realize now that it took a lot of guts to do that- to leave your family. I think that they were ambulant too, some of them felt that they were cowards and yet they did not believe in this war in Vietnam because it was a struggle between trying to contain communism and that’s what our leaders were saying that we were trying to do. I think that one of the lessons that comes through to me, especially in light of the Iraq war, is that our leaders don’t always level with us, don’t always tell us everything, they are afraid to for one reason or another, they are afraid that they wont get reelected or that the timing is wrong and they don’t want to publicize things that would get out to their allies. There are a whole lot of things that can be said about this, it made for a great part of distrust on the part of Americans toward their leaders. I’m sure that in eras past that was true throughout history. The leaders didn’t trust Lincoln.
Q: So you see a lot of similarires between Vietnam and Iraq?
Mr. Hoyt: More and more I do see the similarities. I will spell them out. The whole idea of trying to win a war when there is insurgency is a very delicate, ticklish thing to do. It was said it would take in an insurgency twenty army men for every one person. Have you ever heard this? The bottom line is we would never have enough army. We need much more army than we ever had in order to win a war. And then what does winning mean? I know that it was quoted by a man who won the Nobel Peace peace prize, no Lester Pearson, the prime minister of Canada, and Kennedy asked him what he should do about Vietnam-he said “get out”. This was very, very early. People who were farsighted said you could never win and this is coming true in Iraq where you have an insurgency and the insurgency is increasing.
Q: So we haven’t learned any lessons from Vietnam?
Mr. Hoyt: We did not. In fact, for myself I feel we should never have gone in there. At the time, I’m talking about Iraq, in this case of pre-emptive war, was unheard of, no it’s not unheard of because in some ways Vietnam was a pre-emptive war with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, and thats what we mean by lack of trust of leaders. President Johnson really knew that this was a pretext for going into the Gulf of Tonkin.
Q: So was Vietnam more necessary to enter considering the threat of communism?
Mr. Hoyt: If one buys into the idea that you are trying to beat back commuisuim, contain it so it wouldn’t spread, and that was what we were really trying to do. We were trying to use indigenous peoples over there in Asia but what we really didn’t know and I think this is true in Iraq, we didn’t know the background history. There was colonial occupation in Southeast Asia with the French in there and these various factions fighting for control so it was a civil war. This is a civil war in Iraq but I don’t know what the sides are. Coming at it from all sides.
Q: So you have feelings where people are moving up to Canada to avoid this war in Vietnam. Did you think we needed more troops or less troops in Vietnam? Did you feel it necessary for them to support and back the war in Vietnam?
Mr. Hoyt: I changed my view very quickly about young men going to Canada. I was with them as time went on. It is also true that the older generation thinks that the younger generation is not doing the right thing but if one looks at history, in many cases the younger generation are ahead of their time. People who are older get stuck in what they believe at the time. So, we changed in American society as a whole, we did change, very slowly; you could almost see it coming. A lot of people got sick of it. It went on for so long and they didn’t want to think about it any more. You start in the 50’s and it was 1975 when peace came. I wish I could describe for you how I felt. Life went on during the period of the Vietnam War as it is going on now. Pretty much normal. There’s a lot of talk of terrorists and all now. But we drive our cars and go to the supermarket and do all these things. In the Second World War it impacted people a lot more. It’s hard to put oneself back the way it was. But with the rationing, you couldn’t drive, and men being killed. You have to remember, there was a lot less population back then in the Second World War and even in the Vietnam War. We have grown steadily in population in this country, not so much in this town. We’re about 13,000 in this town and we were the same then in 1964.
Q: So during the start of when we entered Vietnam were you double the age of a lot of the younger generation of the Baby boomers?
Mr. Hoyt: Well at the start, in about 1964, I was 36.
Q: Did you feel as though they did not know exactly what was going on compared to what you were aware of?
Mr. Hoyt: It’s hard to generalize on this. It’s a good question though. It’s like the blind man and the elephant. Thinking people, who read newspapers, magazines and books knew it was a mistake to have been in there. Just as they knew it was a mistake to be in Iraq, they knew it from the beginning. But you do a lot of solganing, you say, support the troops, support the President, support this. They want to control things like solidarity which is desirable to be patriotic but an unthinking patriotism to me is really not good for anyone. I think when you have children, and I have three sons, my oldest son is going to be 43, he was born in 1964. I see in him a lot of change from when he was a teenager. Now he is a family man. So, we change. I feel for myself I was much more conservative when I was younger than I am now. At 80 I can afford to be more liberal but a lot of my colleagues, people my own age, go the other way.
Q: In terms of specific level during the Vietnam War, do you remember having any strong reactions to certain events like certain massacres, like when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, or anything going on at the time that made you feel strongly a certain way?
Mr. Hoyt: Things I thought were terrible. The Kent State shootings were dramatized. And it’s true that there were stories all the time of casualties overseas and much was made of the shootings at Kent State. But it was cold blooded murder really. You know that. The My Lai massacre was really bad. What was really frightening to me was that people felt sorry for Lt. Calley who was on trial. And I’ve talked with Vietnam veterans, who are younger than I am; they indicated that war is hell. You do a lot of things in a war situation that you would never do in your lives.
Q: So would you not put Lt. Calley responsible?
Mr. Hoyt: No I think he was responsible. These people who in charge of the prison in Iraq really needed to have the book thrown at them. They were really going overboard. You have to draw the line somewhere. There are certain things that happen. It was brought home to me the other day in the newspaper when this man in New Hampshire who was going to shoot the policeman and a passenger came by and picked up the policeman’s gun and shot him. Because what he was doing was, he shot the policeman and was taking his car and running over the body. And this man couldn’t stand it. I think it was a reaction, an instant reaction, which has to be done. I’m sure in Baghdad, there are things happening like this in Baghdad that are happening all the time, we never hear about. Things that you see that are such injustice so you go ahead. And of course one of the things about the Vietnam War, that young guys like you, maybe older, are trained to kill. That’s what it means to go in the service. We all had training with guns and I remember I never thought that much about this that the whole purpose of this was for killing. That was quite foreign to me. Even though my father had guns he was not that much of a hunter and I never really liked it. That’s what it means to be in a war. And yet there were instances in the holocaust where people killed or be killed. That’s what happened in all the wars I’m sure. Calley that was a bad one, that got a lot of play and a lot argument among people.
Q: When they decided to bomb Cambodia that’s when Kent State came up. A lot of protests started and escalated.
Mr. Hoyt: When you found out the background it was not necessary at all. It was rather political. People with long memories, when this recent business with Iraq came up and they wanted a surge, it’s like throwing good money after bad. You want to escalate. We didn’t get them there, we didn’t get them there, now we’ll get them again by putting more force in. That comes up a lot. That was a bad move. People in Wayland and around the country were marching for peace and talking peace. Then there are the macho types that say peace well they are just cowards, what’s peace? Are you going to let somebody run all over you?
Q: Where were you on this?
Mr. Hoyt: Where was I? For peace. I understand that having taught this Holocaust unit, by the way, in fact I helped start it; if you got somebody like Hitler running all over everybody, you really feel like you need to do something and so you do what you need to do.
Q: Peace movements- some people consider the 60’s a bunch of hippies but that’s what we look at today because as a history class we generalize things. How do you think the hippies and the youth movement of the 60’s played a role in the average man’s everyday life or even your everyday life? Did you hear about the hippies?
Mr. Hoyt: Sure. I had a niece that went to Woodstock. I think a lot more was put on it that really was true. Drinking, smoking pot, and dancing naked, and all that stuff. But, there was idealism among the young and I identified with that because when I was young I was idealistic although I wasn’t a hippie. But two of my children were quite up and coming and very idealistic.
Q: They were young at the time?
Mr. Hoyt: My oldest son was born in 1964 so by the time the war was over he was 10 years old, the other 9 and the other 7. So they missed it. It’s funny, my father was not in the First World War, he was born in 1900 and he just missed it. Then I came along and I was in the Second World War and I was thinking that I wondered if every 20 years of my sons would be… none of them ever were in the service. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be in the service or the Peace Corps or something. But, people who think a lot about the world and people who want to do something and I think that these wars were violating their sense of how things would be in a very deep way so they were trying in the way they knew to fight against it. And there are people still doing this today.
Q: So would you consider yourself more of an outside observer?
Mr. Hoyt: Yes, I think so. I was really getting my family going. But, I always felt that one needed to give back to the community. So, in some ways I tried to make up for it later. And then of course when you are starting out you are trying to make a living, and in those years it wasn’t always the easiest thing to do.
Q: As the war was ending, when Nixon’s plan peace with honor came out, how did you feel about the possible end of the war, or at least the possible gradual removal of troops?
Mr. Hoyt: I wanted to see the troops out. I was originally from Vermont, and Senator Atkins, said what we ought to do is to declare our victory and leave. And everybody laughed about it. But, there was some truth in that. Some people have brought that statement up again now as far as Iraq is concerned. People are very reluctant to cut and run. You don’t want to put your tail between your legs. I was not a great fan of Nixon. I think he was a smart guy. But he had a deep physiological problem. He wanted to retain power. I think we need to hand it to him because he made the overture to China and got us in the swim on that. If he hadn’t done that, who knows what would be happening now. But, he did escalate the war. I don’t know what would have happened if he wasn’t so secretive. He had to resign.
Q: He seemed more interested in his own political position than the wellbeing of the nation?
Mr. Hoyt: It’s hard to say. I think he goes back and forth on that. I think he wanted his place in history. He was born in meager circumstances and rose. He had a lot of lucky brakes. I knew somebody who worked with him before he was in politics and said he was not well liked. But he worked and worked and went up the rungs of the ladder. He was bright. But brightness isn’t everything.
Q: When the war was being handed over to the Vietnamese when troops were coming home did you know anybody coming come? Did you see a change in society with these troops coming home?
Mr. Hoyt: I think people recognized a mistake had been made and some recognized it faster than others. I knew quite a few folks in the Vietnam War. It’s sad to say but some of them came home very, very damaged. And had this syndrome. I knew a fellow who was in charge of the dog in the canine camp. He used to go out with the dog at night and sniff for the bodies. He saw a lot, and experienced a lot. He has to go to the VA hospital every week and he’s in a session, and if he misses it, it’s a counseling session; he has these screaming fits at night. And he wakes up screaming. He’s really damaged. And there are so many people that are really damaged. We had a man who shall remain nameless in this town, a very bright guy, and he had a very good job. I knew him quite well and he spoke in front of the church one day some years back. He was pleasant, nice, smiled, nice personality, always joking and being upbeat and in the middle of his speech when he was telling about his experience about Vietnam, he broke down completely. It was a very tough emotional experience for everyone, especially for him. His wife said she had never heard him talk about the war before. And as he started to talk he broke up. And I’m sure this is repeated hundreds and thousands of time. That’s what I’m concerned with in the conflict. People who are coming back, they survive all of the stresses of these elongated tours of duty and they come back, they are never really right physically.
Q: These people who were just returning home deserve respect from all?
Mr. Hoyt: Yes, definitely. And unfortunately after the Vietnam War they weren’t always. They were blamed for doing the job. One thing I read about. You may have read it, there were something like 5 million Vietnamese who were killed and 60,000 Americans. I don’t know what you conclude from that. We are impacted but the people who on the scene like the Vietnamese and the Iraqis they suffer a lot more than we do. It’s bad enough if one person is killed. I tried to reconstruct in my own mind, what did I remember from Vietnam prior to coming today. You only have vague impressions. And it gets mixed up with the current conflict somehow because there is a parallel. I hope we never have to go through this sort of thing again. Unfortunately, the Middle East is a place that has always had factions and the Balkans the same way. And we should have known history when we went in there. Our leaders should have realized that, they did not take history into consideration. What they would be stirring up.
Q: So, when we did go to war in Iraq what did you think about different functions from Vietnam?
Mr. Hoyt: I was never for a pre-emptive war. I couldn’t believe that. I thought that should have been the United Nations. When I was in high school, I was a great one for one world. Not the League of Nations. League of Nations had died but we were thinking ahead to what was going to happen after the war and we were going to have some sort of a world government or at least a lot of cooperation. So, we should have used the United Nations, and its going to be slow. Diplomacy is always slow. And we have dictators you always have a problem getting then under control. Sometimes you do need force. If you look back at Gandhi, who would have thought that Gandhi would have been successful in getting the British out of India? It did happen and I think its steady pressure and patience but Americans are not known for that. But you will be.
Q: If you look at our situation today, and if you were President and you could make decisions today as a history teacher and as someone who fought in the war, what would you do in Iraq? What would you do with the troops, continue to fight the war, increase troops, or continue to fight the war? Where do we go from here?
Mr. Hoyt: I don’t think we should increase troops. I think there have been men on the scene who are generals, there are some now, who have been in Iraq and are now retired and they are saying we should gradually move out or accelerate our moving out because we cannot do any more because the insurgency is growing. Our presence there makes the insurgency grow. That has been proven in the last couple years. Now that is documented it’s really folly to keep putting more troops in. A thing that troubles me greatly is the amount of money that it’s taking. It’s mortgaging our whole county for twenty or more years. In all areas. It’s costing them a lot of money as well as lives, as it did in Vietnam. It’s been kind of interesting to look back and see how withdrawal from Vietnam and the North Vietnamese taking over. So what’s been happening? People are going over as tourists to North Vietnam. There’s a big influx of people. That kind of thing. I’m not sure we’re going as tourists to Iraq right away but stranger things have happened. We’ve got to calm everything down. It’s a sure thing that if you pour more money, troops are money too, into an area, and then it means more conflict. Those people need to have their wounds made up and of course there are all these revenge things that go on after every war. I think it’s the thing to pull out. They have several plans on the table to have these benchmarks say by a certain time we pull out certain number of troops. And if we don’t meet that benchmark, or if the Iraqis don’t do certain things by a certain time then we pull out. Sooner or later we are going to be out and I’m sure to be prudent you can’t just say all right I’m going. Nobody’s really saying that. There’s a moment for everything, the right time to do something. And it’s a smart person and a smart country will seize that moment.
Q: Looking back at Vietnam, from the current day, you say you are more liberal now. Do you wish you had this insight back then?
Mr. Hoyt: No I don’t wish that. I think things evolve as you get older. You learn, I hope you get smarter. You learn from experience personally and from a society, one hopes. There is so much going on in our society. There is a problem with keeping the economy going and the problem of keeping people in houses. We have the younger generation that needs education - education is the answer. We need to put more money in education and keep it there. We would be able to do a lot more if we weren’t trying to overdo things with our role in the world. And yet there’s the geopolitics of it all. We have to be aware of competitions with places like China. China right now is having its problems. Trying to build up. I was in China two years ago. I was absolutely amazed that everywhere you look things are building up and success is spoiling people. People get a taste of what it’s like to live a good life and they want more. To have production you have to have people. Their population is growing exponentially and they’ve got to feed their people and they’ve got to find work for them. These are mammoth problems because China is so huge. It’s four times as big and it’s a threat. We always think of it as a threat. But, it’s also a boom for us because they can buy our goods, which we produce a lot of. As you can see, I think in terms of the world rather than my own personal things. I want the best for my children and grandchildren. But, I think we really need to think globally and if we had thought globally earlier, all the way along, thirty, forty or fifty years ago, but we are getting there. But if we are all educated to be global thinkers we will all be better off. The worlds all tied together now with airplanes and global communication.
Q: Do you think from these two wars do you think our future, we are pretty much the next generation, learned our lesson for next time?
Mr. Hoyt: One hopes. I think so. I have faith in the younger generation. If we can get communication as such. TV is a great educator and we have young people those programs that are very helpful and that change attitudes and that are beamed to all parts of the United States and the world to the back areas including the southern areas where they don’t have that great schooling. And places in the great west. If we can only get that education to them I think gradually things are changing. We have a much broader minded electorate and society I believe than we did when I was growing up. Certainly, but that was a long while ago. I was brought up in a very small town where the people tended to be narrow minded and had narrow viewpoints. Television has done a great deal for that. So have automobiles, better roads and so on. All I had to do was go to my home town in Vermont; it’s just a different place completely. It’s like a modern place, a city. They have a hard time getting jobs and I don’t want to live there. I’d rather live here. I always say Vermont is a wonderful place to be from. It’s beautiful. But I’d rather be here where we have it all. The countryside and in a few minutes you’re in the city. But people around the country have so many advantages with TV and all these electronic devices.
Q: Media is a good thing?
Mr. Hoyt: Yes. I think it is. We have to ride heard on it, we have to be really alert because it can impinge upon our freedom. We’re trying to censor this and censor that all the time to protect our young. Well the young sometimes know more than the older people, which you are probably finding out. Maybe it’s true that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but more knowledge is better. Let’s hope we will get smart soon. But, there are so many places in the world that don’t have these advantages. Then of course there’s the whole thing about religion which is another whole story. People say I believe this and I believe that. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t really know what they believe. You can’t go against the Islamic world. But, I get concerned about places, as an example, like Egypt where Mubarak has been in power as an autocrat for twenty-five years or more. His predecessor was assassinated and the Islamic brotherhood would get Mubarak if they could. It would royal the whole thing. They’ve got to protect these leaders. Mubarak can’t live forever and we have these allies, like Egypt has been an ally of ours. But I get concerned sometimes if I think of the worst. What would happen if he should be assassinated? What would happen if other things happen in the Middle East? That would set things off. It’s always a concern. We always had to be alert to possibilities that would be disastrous if they happened.
Q: Any last thoughts or points you would like to share?
Mr. Hoyt: Well, I’m very happy that you are studying this and doing this project and putting this on the internet. I’m hopeful that adults in the community will see what you’ve done and how much you know. Because, that’s always good. I think the dialogue between younger and older is always a good thing. I remember when I was very young, around ten, I used to sit and listen to stories from a man who was in the civil war, which was in the 1930’s. You bridge these things. He was an old man with whiskers and all that. But now I’m an old man. I’ve seen a lot in my lifetime. I can’t believe that I’m 80 years old because usually I thought that someone who was 80 ohhh. But this is a very good history project and you are fortunate to be in a school where something like this is being done and I’m sure you appreciate that. We can learn a lot of lesions from the Vietnam War and I have a thing on my agenda now and maybe you guys would like to do the same. David Halberstein who wrote The Best and the Brightest just was killed at 73. This book is a very good book. I’ve only skimmed it; I’ve never really read it well. But, my thing is I do want to get it and read it really well. When topics come we say I wish I knew more about that, we can read a book that’s good or listen to a TV show on that topic that focuses, and there are some great shows these days. They do a lot of good research to build those shows. So good luck. Thank you.
Q: Thank you very much.