Friday, December 25, 2009

War and Beatles


She said she loves you!
And you know that can't be bad...
She loves you,
And you know you should be glad, oooooooo!

The Beatles touch down at John F. Kennedy International Airport on the afternoon of February 7th, 1964. Two days later, 73 million Americans watch "these youngsters from Liverpool" on the Ed Sullivan Show and the British Invasion begins. The Beatles' first American tour starts in August and cris crosses the country. (My own sister went to the show at The State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis and came back hoarse and red eyed.) Their concerts are nearly impossible to describe. Imagine thousands of teenage girls, most of them with tears in their eyes, screaming so loud no one can possibly hear the music. Hundreds faint from exhaustion and have to be carried out.

Lyndon Johnson is President and there are just over 16,000 American military "advisers" stationed in Viet Nam. The corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated the year before and during the ensuing political turmoil, the Viet Cong had increased their hold over the rural population to over 40%. South Viet Nam owes its very existence to American military support.

By the summer of 1964, thousands of NVA regular troops are pouring into South Viet Nam via the Ho Chi Minh trail to join with over 50,000 Viet Cong guerrillas and the fall of the country to Communist forces appears imminent. In August, 10 miles off the coast of North Viet Nam in the Gulf of Tonkin, the USN destroyer Maddox is fired on by three North Vietnamese patrol boats. There are no U.S. casualties. Backed by strong public support, Johnson decides to retaliate with the first ever bombing of North Viet Nam by 64 Navy fighter bombers. Two are shot down, and Lieutenant Edward Alvarez becomes the first American prisoner of war. In the years that follow, Lt. Alvarez will be joined at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" by over 600 downed U.S. airmen. Lt. Alvarez won't be released until February 12th, 1973, three years after the Beatles had broken up.


Everywhere people stare
Each and every day,
I can see them laugh at me
And I hear them say...

Hey you've got to hide your love away!

Despite repeated attacks on American forces in South Viet Nam (which by December of 1964 number over 24,000), and with an American public and Congress apparently hungry for a fight, Johnson holds off escalating the war until March of 1965, when he authorizes "Operation Rolling Thunder", with over 100 American bombers attacking targets in North Viet Nam. Intended to be short lived, the operation will go on for over 3 years. Also in March, 3500 U.S. Marines arrive in South Viet Nam to defend the American air base at Da Nang. 20,000 more troops are sent in April. By year's end, the U.S. will have over 180,000 troops stationed in Viet Nam, yet over half the countryside will be controlled by the Viet Cong. Over 90,000 South Vietnamese troops will throw away their weapons and desert. Almost 1900 kids are sent home in body bags.

By February, global sales of Beatles albums top 100 million. The Beatles' second American Tour starts on the 15th of August with the amazing concert at a packed Shea Stadium. 10 sold out concerts and 16 days later it ends at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Queen Elizabeth II appoints the "Mop Tops" Members of the Order of the British Empire. In protest, several MBE members return their insignia.


Father McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear,
No one comes near.
Look at him working,darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there...
What does he care?

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

The war in Viet Nam drags on. Anti-war protests begin to break out across the country. B-52 bombers, armed with up to 60,000 pounds of bombs each, are used against the North for the first time. By December, 389,000 American troops are in Viet Nam. 5800 of our soldiers are killed in action. The New York Times reports that over 40% of the economic aid going to South Viet Nam winds up stolen or on the black market.

In March, John Lennon makes his now famous comment that the Beatles are bigger than Jesus. From 1966 to present, world wide Bible sales average around 3 million copies a year. Revolver sells 1.2 million copies in 9 days - and eventually reaches over 5 million total. The Beatles begin their last and final tour of America in Chicago on the 12th of August and finish it 18 days later at Candlestick Park. From this point on, the Beatles will retreat to the studio.


Send me a postcard, drop me a line,
Stating point of view.
Indicate precisely what you mean to say
Yours sincerely, Wasting Away.

Give me your answer, fill in a form
Mine for evermore
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I'm sixty-four?

Now the pace quickens. In 1967, across America, hundreds of thousands march in protest against the war. Martin Luther King declares "the poor white man and the negro" bear the burden of the war's hardship. President Johnson makes repeated peace overtures but all are rejected by Hanoi. The fighting is fierce. Due to often indiscriminate bombing, civilian casualties in the North number in the thousands. At the end of 1967, Robert McNamara has resigned as Secretary of Defense after privately concluding the war is not winnable. By then, one million American servicemen will have fought in Viet Nam.

Energized by a blossoming protest movement, a counter culture begins to emerge. The Beatles are experimenting with LSD and Sargent Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - which includes the quintessential Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is released.


Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life...
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,
You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

The fiercest fighting of the war occurs in January of 1968 during the Tet Offensive, when 84,000 Viet Cong, backed by an unknown number of NVA Regulars, attack cities and towns across the South. The climactic battle is at Hue, where during the entire month of February, South Vietnamese troops and 3 U.S. Marine battalions retake the old Imperial City street by street and house by house. Over 5000 of the enemy are killed in this battle alone. Tet ends with a resounding South Vietnamese victory, but support for the war falters as the American public nightly endures graphic scenes of the savage, often confusing violence.

In March, over 300 innocent civilians are slaughtered by American soldiers at Ma Lai. Lyndon Johnson's approval rating falls to 36% and he announces he will not run for re-election. During 1968 over a thousand U.S. servicemen a month lose their lives. At the end of the year, we have nearly half a million troops in Viet Nam.

1968 is the Beatles' high water mark. Magical Mystery Tour is a mixture of psychedelic pop, influenced by the group's short and ultimately disagreeable sojourn in India with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Then follows the incomparable White Album in 1968. John Lennon, an early opponent of the war, begins to speak out and attracts the notice of the FBI. He is now preoccupied with Yoko Ono and tensions which will ultimately split the group apart begin to surface.


And when the broken hearted people living in the world agree,
there will be an answer, let it be.
For though they may be parted,
there is still a chance that they will see,
there will be an answer,
let it be.

Richard Nixon is inaugurated on January 27th, 1969. He has run on a campaign to wrest "Peace With Honor" from the seemingly endless war in Viet Nam. U.S. troop levels will peak in April of that year at 543,000 and steadily decline after that. But the war will go on until the Paris Peace Accords are finally signed on January 27th, 1973.

During these 4 years, the Nixon Administration's continued prosecution of the war divides the American public to an extent not witnessed since the days of the Civil War. American troops will mount attacks deep into Cambodia. South Vietnamese forces suffer repeated defeats, yet Nixon will claim Vietnamization a success. Starting in April of 72, North Viet Nam will suffer the worst aerial bombing of the entire war, along with the mining of its harbors and coastline.

By the middle of 1972, U.S. troop levels have dropped to 69,000, and by November of that year, only 16,000 advisers remain. On January 27th, 1973, Lt. Col. William B. Nolde is the last American soldier to be killed in Viet Nam.

The Beatles' last two albums are Abby Road, released in 1969 and Let It Be, in 1970. Both albums feature a number complicated themes - and a diversity which reveals that John, Paul, George and Ringo may have reached their limits as a group. And so it is. After Let It Be, the band will not perform together again. Paul McCartney will file for formal dissolution of the Beatles in 1970. But legal disputes will go on and the final dissolution will not take effect until 1975.

What did we learn?

The War in Viet Nam cost America over 58,000 killed in action and over 300,000 wounded in action. Of the wounded, 75,000 were classified as severely disabled and 23,000 as 100% disabled. The average age of those who served was 19.

These are the numbers, but they really don't tell us anything. On your computer, type in "Danny Fankboner" (funny name, that). What comes up first is a listing on for Private First Class Daniel Ross Fankboner, who perished in Viet Nam on 7 December, 1969. His name is listed on panel 15W, line 035 - and he was a friend. Of what importance was his life when weighed against the larger aims of greater men trapped within the vortices of history? I don't know.

Another friend of his leaves this message:


You were my first love. I remember you coming to my house party, as we called it then, and the shock of my parents when they met you!! We laughed so hard!!!

I have never forgotten you and never will. We were determined to make the world a better place, weren't we? Well you did, honey; you kept me free and safe.

I just wish you had not done it with such a great sacrifice. I will love you forever, Danny.

No one expected the South Vietnamese to hold out long after we left. Saigon fell in April of 1975 and we all remember the heartbreaking images of desperate people waiting to board the last helicopter to leave the roof of the U.S. Embassy. We left a lot of our friends behind.

To date, the sales of Beatles records have exceeded one billion units. John Lennon fought an order for deportation which had been obtained by the U.S. Government as a result of his anti-war activities. The order was finally overturned in 1975. But there remained one hurdle he could not overcome. On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman waited outside Lennon's apartment at the Dakota in Manhattan. When Lennon returned from a recording session at 10:59 PM, Chapman shot him four times in the back and he rapidly bled to death.

As a young man, I spent a great deal of my time protesting the war, but I probably spent just as much time listening to the Beatles. If we are indeed the sum of our experiences, over a million men and women fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia helped build the largest part of one side of who I am. Four kids with three guitars and a drum set built most of the other.

1 comment:

  1. He had a little girl with red hair in 1968. So sad he never knew