My mom was right. Tricky Dick couldn’t be trusted.
On April 25, 1970, Nixon invaded Cambodia, expanding a stupid, unwinnable Vietnam war to yet another Southeast Asian nation.
Nixon wasn’t a guy to cut and run. "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation, the United States of America, acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world," he told the American people.
I felt rage and despair, along with millions of other Americans back in the States. After six years of fighting, the war had already gone on longer than World War II. Over 40,000 American soldiers were dead, along with a million Vietnamese. Our army in Vietnam was approaching collapse, individual units were avoiding or refusing combat, murdering their officers; they were drug-ridden, dispirited and near mutinous. That wasn’t some pinko propaganda in an anti-war rag – it was the professional assessment of Colonel Robert Heinl published in the Armed Forces Journal. Yet Nixon still believed we could win a military victory in Vietnam.
Two weeks later, on May 4, 1970, Ohio National Guard troops opened fire on unarmed American college students protesting at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine others. American soldiers were now turning their guns against American citizens who opposed the war. Nixon’s response was chilling.“This should serve as a grave reminder that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy.”
Eight million U.S. students answered Nixon by going on strike, shutting down high schools, colleges and even grade schools across the nation. Once again, my brother Gene back in Massachusetts was one of them. My dad sent me the story the News-Times ran on him when he organized his senior class boycott at his high school. Yes, Gene said, he knew his graduation was in jeopardy, along with his dream to go to Boston University. Yes, he knew many people in town – members of the Board of Education, the local police, even some of his fellow students – thought he was misguided, even a communist. But he felt compelled to speak up.
Suddenly, my ETV work didn’t seem very important.
“I’m sorry, Ajaan, I won’t be in tomorrow,” I told Mrs. Boonsom after I read the news.
“Khun Maitri, you’re not feeling well?”
I was feeling absolutely sick. I went looking for Big Boris.
Boris was already a legend in Volunteer circles. Son of Ukrainian immigrants, Boris scored an Ivy League education at Yale, where he zonked his brain during his senior year with pot, hash and acid, following psychedelic guru Timothy Leary’s advice to “turn, on, tune in and drop out.” He ended up in the Peace Corps in rural development, writing friends back home that he was busy “building privies, guzzling countless quarts of 75-proof Mekhong whiskey, and being chagrined by an instrument which plunged deeper and deeper into the venereal swamps of Southeast Asia.” He was several years older than us. His authority came from his age, brains, language proficiency and physical presence – at six-foot six and a pants-splitting 280 pounds, in Shakespeare’s words Boris was a “huge hill of flesh.”
I finally tracked him down at 2 AM in the morning at an all-night Bangkok market where he was seated on a folding, metal chair under a bare light bulb, playing Thai chess. Boris was surrounded by pig and chicken carcasses strung up on wires, the concrete gutters at his feet filled with blood and trash and empty beer bottles. A crowd of Thais ringed his table, grinning in amazement as he crushed all comers. He had been doing it all night long. He lifted a cheek and let out a fart. The crowd applauded. I told him we were planning a protest at the American embassy, and asked him to lead us.
“At ease, Michael, at ease,” he ordered. “We shall discuss this after I dispatch the last of these cunning heathen.”
He made a face and the crowd roared with laughter. It was almost dawn by the time Boris ran out of competitors, folded his board and agreed to join us.
The following afternoon, seven of us gathered at our house and voted to march on the American Embassy on Wireless Road. When the local press found out and ran the story, Thai Prime Minister Kittikachorn publicly threatened to shut down the whole Peace Corps program in Thailand if we went ahead with our march.
Delany begged us to reconsider. We weren’t just jeopardizing Peace Corps Thailand – we were threatening Peace Corps itself. Congressman Otto Passman from Louisiana ran the House foreign aid appropriations committee which funded Peace Corps. He was a rabid supporter of the Vietnam war. He told his constituents he was sure of two things: Peace Corps was filled with pinko hippies and foreign aid was a waste of taxpayers’ money. He wanted to gut both. (Passman later ended up being indicted for receiving $213,000 in bribes from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park – sort of a foreign aid program in reverse.)
Delany offered us a compromise. Drop the street protest and he would get us a face-to-face meeting with U.S. Ambassador Leonard Unger.
We retreated to the house once again where we spent the evening debating the offer. I believed Delany.
“I’m not ready to shut down Peace Corps,” I declared.
Terry wasn’t buying it. “Get real, for Chrissakes! Delany’s bluffing. Congress is not gonna shut down Peace Corps because seven guys protested in Bangkok.”
“Maybe, but Kittikachorn’s not bluffing,” I retorted. “Read the paper, Terry. We march, we’re gone – along with every other Volunteer in Thailand.”
Terry lit a cigarette and tossed the match into a glass. “Fuck him. Peace Corps Thailand closes, so what? All we’re doing is propping up a fucking military dictatorship.”
Robert jumped in. “You don’t care if it closes, but maybe other Volunteers do. They don’t get a vote?”
“Who gave you the right to play God?” Terry took a deep drag and ignored Robert’s question.
“Count me out. I’m not doing it,” I told Terry.
“You know the problem with you, Michael?” he said. “You’re a fucking intellectual. All talk. Do what you want. I’m marching. Anybody else?”
“I’m out too,” Peter announced. “We don’t have the right to send everybody home.”
Billy suggested a compromise. “What if we give Delany signed letters of resignation from the Peace Corps before we march? If Kittikachorn really does go nuts, Delany can give him the letters and say we weren’t Volunteers – we had already quit.”
Terry slammed his fist on the table. “What is the fucking matter with you guys?!” he yelled. “Nixon’s KILLING Americans back in the U.S. for protesting peacefully against the goddam war and you’re worried about the Peace Corps getting kicked out of Thailand?! FUCK IT! ”
Dave stood up. “Yeah. We all oughta go home. Join the fight there.”
“Nixon wants us to go home, dammit!” I said. “We see what’s going on out here, stuff people back home don’t see, never read about. He wants to keep America dumb. I’m staying and I’m gonna find out what we’re doing over here and I’m gonna make sure people in America know about it. You wanna go home? Go home.”
Terry flicked his butt into the pond and started for the door, giving me shove. “Fuck you.”
“No, fuck you.”
“At ease, gentlemen, at ease,” Big Boris boomed out. “ Terry is right,” he announced. “Peace Corps has a problem -- Exhibit A” He fished a news clipping out of his shirt pocket and tossed it on the table.
It was the front page of the Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper serving the U.S. military around the globe. It showed a photo of Peace Corps Director Joe Blatchford playing tennis with Vice President Agnew. Boris waited until we passed it around and everybody saw it.
“I think we all agree that our esteemed director is a tool of the Nixon administration which gave him his job.”
“Fucking right,” Terry snorted, glaring at me.
“In fact,” Boris continued, “he’s determined to get rid of Volunteers like us, especially young Terry there.”
Boris pulled a second newspaper clipping out of his pocket and dramatically unfolded it on the table. “I give you Exhibit B, handed to me by a staffer who shall remain nameless.” This one was a confidential memo Blatchford had circulated proposing a series of actions Peace Corps should take to eliminate activist Volunteers from Peace Corps and control public dissent by Volunteers against American foreign policy.
“The question is, do we let him get rid of us by marching, or do we thwart his evil plans and stay in Peace Corps? I say we stay and smite his faithful servant Leonard – after which we forward a report of our skirmish to the Washington Post to alert the home front that we are alive and engaging the enemy here.”