Heather Bowers, Daily Vidette Staff
Issue date: 2/7/08
The day of May 19 was the anniversary of the birth of Malcolm X. In
1970, the students, faculty and administration at ISU decided to
commemorate the Civil Rights activist's life by lowering the flag to
half-mast. This prompted some problems.
Nearby construction workers in Normal decided to take it upon
themselves and raise it back, causing then ISU president, Samuel
Braden, to order them off campus. However, the workers threatened to
return with hundreds of supporters.
Soon, cars and trucks filled with campus and State police in full
riot gear surrounded the flagpole and stood in reserve in Cook Hall,
waiting for trouble that never came.
This is just one of the stories at the McLean County Museum of
History's Vietnam era exhibit, "A turbulent time: Perspectives of the
Headed by guest curator and history professor Ross Kennedy, the
exhibit, which opened Jan. 26, features stories, photos and hands-on
displays of life in Bloomington-Normal during the war.
According to Kennedy, the project took three years to research,
design and complete.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors are greeted with the mellow
strains of Simon and Garfunkel and the rapid fire of retro news
reports announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and
updates on the war.
Featured in the displays are stories from community members who
witnessed the events that unfolded from the late 40s to the end of the war.
When putting the display together, Kennedy was surprised to find out
that Bloomington-Normal residents were more liberal during the 1960s
than he thought.
"[Bloomington-Normal] was somewhat less conservative in the early
1960s than I expected. On Vietnam, [Bloomington-Normal] was pretty
cautious. When [President] Johnson did decide to intervene in a major
way in Vietnam in 1965, [Bloomington-Normal] rallied around him," he said.
Not everyone supported the war. One Bloomington resident, Mimi "Cha"
Smith noted the opposition of war tactics.
"We're going to bomb for peace? Now that isn't really the way to
change people's minds about communism," she said.
Those same bombs and other weapons killed 25 servicemen from McLean
County. One of those men, private first-class Raymond Witzig, of
Gridley, Ill. was killed in action. His uniform and various medals,
including the Purple Heart, are proudly on display.
Smith remarked about the growing protest movement in the area and the
relationship between students and the police.
"We sort of egged on the cops to fight," she said.
Others, however, were not as amused. Terry Garbe, Normal resident,
expressed his opinion on the lack of knowledge behind the protests.
"By that time, I was pretty pissed at the anti-war, the whole
hippie-dippie anti-war crowd. I don't even think that most of them
knew what the hell they were protesting," he said.
Normal resident Phil Dick also commented on the demonstrators.
"There were the demonstrator types, but there was also the hippies.
The hippies weren't demonstrator types. Those were people who were
just on the fringes and were partying types of people more than
anything else," he said.
Students from both ISU and IWU led marches and protests throughout
the duration of the war, with some turning violent. Fires were set
and gasoline bombs were found near the ISU police station. Museum
volunteer and Bloomington-Normal resident Elsie Schalk said she
remembers the time period well.
"There was just a lot of unrest," she said.
Besides the drama on the home front, the exhibit also features an
interactive draft, where visitors answer questions to see if they
will go to war and read a draft notification letter.
Bloomington resident Chuck Witle said he remembered when he was drafted.
"I got a draft notice and I realized that I'd probably end up in
Vietnam…I didn't want to go…I wanted to go to college…My dad was kind
of pleased because he thought it would help me grow up. And in
retrospect, he was right," he said.
Further down is a recreation of a soldier's "hooch", or living
quarters. In it are items from the period that soldiers would have
sent to them from home including gum, radios, rosary beads and the
complete opposite, Playboy magazines.
Navy pilot and soldier uniforms, along with an M-16 rifle, are
encased in glass next to soldiers' rations.
Visitors can also crawl over replicated sand bags into a small bunker
and don hippie clothing and movement signs that read "Bomb Hanoi Now."
Kennedy believes that it is important for students to learn about this era.
"The Vietnam era very graphically shows how foreign policy decisions
have major consequences for people's lives. The war cost millions of
Vietnamese lives, almost 60,000 American lives and well over $1
trillion in today's currency," he said.
He also believes that early ignorance of the war stretches into this decade.
"Such indifference was not just limited to Vietnam; it extended, and
extends today, to foreign affairs in general. Perhaps had there been
more public pressure for a thorough debate on the war, U.S. policy
might have been different," he said.
"A turbulent time: Perspectives of the Vietnam War" will be on
display at the McLean County Museum of History through 2010. For more
information, call (309) 827-0428 or visit mchistory.org.