TURNING DOWN FIFTH AVENUE New York City United States Military Academy Corps of Cadets May 19, 1962
Nothing thrills like a snappy stroll down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue on a sunny May afternoon. Today is such a day: Armed Forces Day—Saturday, May 19, 1962—a day to parade down Fifth. Twenty-four hundred of us will step off at noon—as the oldest service academy, West Point always leads parades. Again, we will march for our benevolent citizenry—the people who pay our educational way, our salaries ($111.15 per month), and our enormous overhead expenses, hundreds of thousands of dollars. In eighteen days, six hundred of us will graduate as second lieutenants. Our salaries will double. We are the fortunate ones, and today, and every day, these are the people for whom we polish and shine. They are our collective rich uncle who stakes us to a four-year university experience of a lifetime. They are the taxpayers, the genuine owners of West Point and America, and today is a triumph of spring, a perfect day for a parade, our final gig in New York City.
In our passage to become soldier-statesmen, we are kept well-informed. Early each morning we receive the papers--The New York Times and the Herald Tribune. They are delivered to our room by a plebe, one of those indefatigable first-year cadets learning the art of subservience. Thus, I was able to learn that the fledgling New York Mets had again routinely lost in Milwaukee. The front page held a warning—KHRUSHCHEV SAYS U.S. TROOPS RISK FIGHTING IN ASIA. So much for current events. We must now march to breakfast. We always seem to have such little time. Our buses leave at 7 a.m. * * * Only now, decades later, does old news seem relevant. The Mets are peopled with has-beens, two of whom had hit home runs to no avail—Gil Hodges and Frank Thomas. The team will finish dead last this year and is seven years away from being in a celebratory parade. Khrushchev is now less than two years away from being ousted by Leonid Brezhnev. For Khrushchev, this is the Kremlin’s equivalent of finishing dead last. Forced into retirement, beset by depression, the man the free world fears will spend most of his retirement years crying. No parades for him either, though he will prove more correct about Asia than all our politicians and generals with illusory domino theories dancing in their heads. Meanwhile, someone said at breakfast that President Kennedy will be in the city today. To raise funds, not to watch a parade. His trip coincides with an evening fête in Madison Square Garden, where Miss Marilyn Monroe will sing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” None of us had been invited to provide military support for our civilian commander in chief. We will see him at West Point in eighteen days, when he speaks at our graduation. He will become an honorary member of our class. Congratulations, Mr. President.
What we didn’t know then was some superficially good news from troublesome Southeast Asia. A week ago, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, on a two-day visit to South Vietnam, made a one-day helicopter barnstorm of the entire country. Accompanied by Paul Harkins—the commanding general in Vietnam—and Ambassador Nolting, he flew from the problematic Mekong Delta to the “temporary” North/South border, the 17th parallel. At his closing press conference, McNamara professed to being “tremendously encouraged” even about the vastly problematic Strategic Hamlet Program. The Secretary had found “nothing but progress and hope for the future.” Asked by a reporter how a man of his caliber could be so positive about a war that the United States had just begun to fight, McNamara said, “Every quantitative measurement we have shows that we’re winning this war.” McNamara seemed eager to escape Vietnam to tell President Kennedy the good news about progress and further progress and staying the course, bold words all. Bold words and bare lies would constitute the framework for all future press conferences, belittled by journalists as “Five O’Clock Follies.” Harkins thought we’d be out of Vietnam in a year. It will take eleven more. We cadets remain ignorant of these issues. We have a parade to perform. * * * It is relaxing to ride in a comfortable convoy of buses from West Point to the swank digs of Upper East Side Manhattan. We form ranks in the shadows of 1140 Fifth Avenue, a residential bastion overlooking Central Park. The entire corps of cadets, twenty-four hundred of us, fills 95th Street stretching beyond Park Avenue. We will march a little over two miles down Fifth to the southern end of Central Park. Afterward we will be free in the city, returning to West Point at 1 a.m. on the same diligent buses. There was not much time.
It is not just our eighteen days to our graduation; it’s eighteen days until something for all the cadets: eighteen days until the end of the harassment of plebe year. The soon-to-be senior class has eighteen days until their class trip. And the new junior class has eighteen days until experiencing a month somewhere with Regular Army units. Eighteen-day countdowns prevail like clocks in our brains, things anticipated, every time an ending, every time a beginning. We live on countdowns. It’s synonymous with hope. Ask a plebe this very morning how many days until his graduation and he’ll tell you, “Sir, there are 1,113 days until my graduation.”
“The end is where we start from,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Every West Point graduation is an ending and a regeneration. The military academy—The Long Gray Line—ad infinitum. Seemingly an immortal, inexhaustible institution, while we, its products, are definitely not. Miss Monroe will die in August; Kennedy will be murdered next year in November. But this day is too fine to think future thoughts. Instead, take comfort in the music. One of the songs we learned— “Army Blue”—says that upon graduation, “our future is a cloudless sky.” Like today, only better. * * * Glittering steel dress bayonets affixed to our shouldered M1 rifles, we step off. The West Point Band leads the line of march, playing Sousa’s rousing “The Thunderer.” Wheeling left onto Fifth Avenue, we gather our precise interval and liven our step. We will march past priceless museums and posh residences, through sidewalks jammed with people. This parade is different. New York City surrounds us. We are no longer separated from viewers by the grassy expanse of The Plain at West Point. Now, the people are our corridor, our conduit. We march through them, their smiles and applause speeding our way, the air all flutes, drums, and goodwill. Close up we feel their big hearted affection, hear their approving words, and feel their joy. Children on their fathers’ shoulders waving flags; older women, heads nodding, seem almost in prayer, perhaps remembering parades of times past, loved ones, lost ones. We keep our eyes set dead ahead. Oh, what handsome, disciplined boys they think we are. We know it’s just the uniforms and the precision of it all. And that soon everything will finish.
We march through the heart of what’s now called Museum Mile. There, art treasures abide safely stashed within elaborate Gilded Age architecture—the mansions of Carnegie, Warburg, Guggenheim, and Frick, the so-called “robber barons,” the oligarchs of an earlier age. We pass the Cooper Hewitt on 91st Street. Its art collection resides in Andrew Carnegie’s old mansion. A block farther south brings us to the Jewish Museum housed in banker Felix Warburg’s five-story, multi-pinnacled townhouse. Two more blocks and we pass the ascending helix of Frank Lloyd Wright’s otherworldly Guggenheim. * * * How vulnerable we were then, marching in nineteenth-century uniforms, preparing for twentieth-century wars. What if we had been able to see beyond the glitter and glint of parade? Who could? But we were not naive. Like Khrushchev had earlier cautioned, we sensed some worrisome things were afoot in Asia. West Point, the institution, never seemed to mention a word to us. The word? Vietnam. * * * His last name was a four-letter word, first letter “F.”
Bernard Fall, Austrian born, a French citizen by war-refugee passage, Vietnam scholar by passion, he towered over the bureaucrat-advisers that roamed the corridors in Washington spouting about domino theories, democracy, and duty. His 1961 book, Street Without Joy, was a prophetic analysis of the French bloodbath in post-World War II Indochina. It was quietly available in the Cadet Bookstore. I bought a copy and read it over the summer of 1961. Fall’s “street” referred to the treacherous Route 1 that ran from Hue north to Quang Tri. With the ominous dedication “TO THOSE WHO DIED THERE,” Fall laid bare the perils for America that lurked in plain sight. Remember and learn, he cautioned, from all those “who had to walk down the joyless and hopeless road that was the Indochina War until 1954.” This is how it was for them and how it will be for you Americans who follow, he warned. And as it would be for him. With ridiculous irony, Fall would be killed by a land mine on the same joyless street, Route 1, near Hue in 1967.
“Once more, the enemy has been kind enough to give us the recipe of his victory,” Fall had written. “The West is still battling an ideology with technology,” he admonished. He minced no words, citing “the bottomless pit” of the South Vietnamese insurgency. He warned that “the Vietminh and its allies throughout the Indo-Chinese peninsula have lost nothing of their fearsome ability to fight and win a prolonged jungle and swamp war against superior forces slow to throw away the traditional ‘book.’”
Fall’s nontraditional book could have saved millions of lives. He wrote of the superior mobility of the soldiers of the Vietnamese resistance over the mobility of large mechanized units. He described the impossibly difficult terrain in Vietnam, wrote of the incessant ambushes and being overrun by the enemy hordes, the so-called “human waves.”
Fall warned that military might can only go so far. Political victory in Vietnam’s revolutionary war required support from the local population. This never happened. Without this, the struggle would be lost. By 1965, Fall had concluded that the United States had lost the war. It took seven more years for the United States to realize its catastrophic folly.
Robert McNamara had the gall to lament in his retirement memoirs that “our government lacked experts for us to consult to compensate for our ignorance.” Yet again, he lied. Bernard Fall had been widely published in scholarly publications and mainstream media since 1952. He was teaching in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, surely in plain sight. Fall was important enough to be under surveillance by the FBI. But not important enough to be able to meet the criminally ignorant McNamara. “Know your enemy!” cautioned Sun Tzu in The Art of War two and a half millennia ago. No one knew Vietnam like Bernard Fall. * * * One cadet marching down joyful Fifth Avenue this brilliant afternoon is Tom Reach, a cheerful son of the Southland from Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta. Sent to Vietnam as an adviser in the fall of 1964, Tom was the first member of our class and the first member of this parade to die in Vietnam. Ninety cadets marching today will die in Vietnam. * * *
Brilliant sunshine plays on glinting bayonets, and the band strikes up “The Official West Point March.” We pass the mammoth Metropolitan Museum of Art. It stretches four city blocks with a broad plaza and majestic entry steps that front Fifth Avenue. The museum houses a huge share of the world’s artistic treasure. Some swell place, New York, where nature and wealth cohabit in near-perfect harmony. Fifth Avenue, where both sides of the street are the sunny sides: east, the towering opulent apartments; west, the bowering pathways in the park.
We just passed the Frick Museum and its magnificent front lawn. Ten more blocks until parade’s end. Soon comes the posh Pierre Hotel and then we will turn left at 60th Street, proceeding east to our staging area on Third Avenue.
If we had only marched one more block down Fifth, we would have entered the Grand Army Plaza fronted by the Plaza Hotel. In the center of the plaza a gilded General William Tecumseh Sherman sits astride a gilded horse led by a gilded angel named—what else?— Victory. Sherman, a heroically brutal Union Civil War general, famously said, “War is hell!” He should know—gilded angel notwithstanding—having contributed his own hellish full measure by burning and plundering a wide swath of Georgia from Atlanta to the sea. Given his penchant for “total war”—targeting civilians and private property; arson—he was hurrahed by some historians as the first modern general. He also fought quite valiantly against virtually helpless Native American tribes. He further displayed his “modernity” by eradicating buffalo herds. War is obviously hell. But when Sherman had telegraphed President Lincoln after taking Savannah on December 21, 1864, he had said much more about his state of mind:
"I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell."
Words for all seasons; words for all wars, all widows, all widowers, all children everywhere—all these living, suffering victims of modern warfare. As for Sherman, apparently unconvinced of the truth of his famous aphorism, he continued his “modern generalship” against the Modoc, Nez Percé, and Sioux nations. “We must act with vindictive earnestness,” he said in 1866, “even to their extermination, men, women, and children.” Neither gold nor sun can cast a favorable light on the hell of this general’s profession of arms. * * * We turn left onto 60th Street and head east to our buses. Directly behind us, and three long city blocks west of Fifth, another hero poses, this one perched grandly atop a 76-foot column in the exact middle of Columbus Circle. He is Christopher Columbus, another great slayer of indigenous people.
We should better know the people parades celebrate. * * * Our buses are parked where the Third Avenue Elevated Railway, widely called “The El,” recently operated. The cobblestone street bears the scars. Abandoning formality and our weapons, we store our gear. We switch to wearing dress gray tunics, a more modest look than the full dress coat with the shiny bellhop buttons.
This evening we take the subway to Brooklyn, out near the sea. Our classmate comes from Manhattan Beach, and his generous family has arranged a gathering for his friends. His house is across from a seawall upon which we now sit drinking Schaefer beer from ice-cold cans. We sit looking out. The day has been long and evening has finally come. New York Bay lies before us. We can almost feel the far-off robust sea. Farther out, the lights of Breezy Point flicker and fade. Tonight the moon is full and so are we. Its watery shimmer makes ghosts of us. “Land’s end,” someone says. “Parade’s end,” says another. We keep looking out
As published in The MacGuffin Journal, Winter 2019, VolumeXXXV, No. 1