Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

"Curiously Uninvolved": Social Work and Protest against the War in Vietnam

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

"Curiously Uninvolved": Social Work and Protest against the War in Vietnam

Article excerpt

This article reviews four leading social work journals from 1965-1975 for content on the War in Vietnam and the social issues arising from it. It finds that social work's major journals carried nearly no articles, letters, editorials, or short subjects related to the war and concludes that the dominant discourse constructed in the journals excluded meaningful engagement with the war or protest against it.

Key words: Vietnam War, peace, protest, anti-war movement, sixties


And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam. And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates. Well, there ain't no time to wonder why. Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Country Joe and the Fish Feel like I'm Fixin" to Die Rag, 1965

You all know me and are aware that I am unable to remain silent. At times to be silent is to lie. For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence.

Miguel de Unamuno, Salamanca, Spain, 1936

In 1968, according to historians Zaroulis and Sullivan (1984), the balance tipped against the United States' military effort in Vietnam. Sentiment against the war raged among students, clergy, business leaders, teachers, and civil rights activists. Citizens increasingly reacted with skepticism to administration assurances that the nation could have both guns and butter, noting that monthly expenditures for the war exceeded annual expenditures for poverty programs (Zinn, 1967). In Vietnam morale among the troops was plummeting. Jackie Bolen, from rural West Virginia, wanted to go home. "You don't know what it is to have to kill men or to watch your friends die," he wrote his grandmother. "Grandma, I don't know what I ever done to deserve the hell I am in" (Marannis, 2003, p. 145; Terry, 1984). Television coverage of the Tet offensive of January and February gave Americans a chilling premonition that perhaps the war wasn't winnable. And Lyndon Johnson announced in March that he would not run again for the presidency. The number of U.S. dead was 14,000 and rising.

Despite all this, in 1968 four of social work's leading journals, Social Work, Social Service Review, Child Welfare, and Public Welfare, published among them in total one article (out of 149) that was related in any way to the conflict that was pulling the country, indeed the world, apart. None of the journals' 181 editorials, book reviews, letters to the editors, and short subjects mentioned the war either. It was as if it did not exist. Dennis Saleeby (1998), recently discharged from the air force and a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, commenting thirty years later about his experience, observed that the School of Social Welfare was "mostly and curiously uninvolved" in campus protest against the war (1998, p. 653).

This paper attempts an initial exploration of social work's relationship with the Vietnam War by reviewing four leading journals for the years 1965-1975 and assessing them for content on the war. It concludes with an analysis of the construction of a dominant discourse in the profession which excluded not only protest against, but also any real engagement with the war.

War and Social Work: A Review of the Literature

From the beginning war and social work have been deeply intertwined. War has an enormous impact on social programs, contracting some and expanding others. It provides the context in which social workers' service to soldiers, their families, veterans, and refugees takes place. Finally, it nearly always precipitates a fierce philosophical exchange within the profession. Yet in social work literature the topic of war is marked by a great and gaping hole. Historians outside of social work, Theda Skocpol (1992), for example, have explored the relationship between war and social welfare policy (as in the provision of soldiers' pensions), and within social work there have been a few studies of social service efforts in particular wars (Chandler, 1995; Maas, 1951; Daley, 1999). …

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