John Parsons Wheeler
West Point, 1966
Be Thou At Peace
Posted by John Swensson on January 16, 2011:
Excerpts from a speech I delivered today, 15 January, to the Silicon Valley Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution :
MARTIN AND JACK
Martin Luther King would be 82 years old today, the 15th of Feb. He died at the age of 39 accomplishing enough in that lifetime to be, in my judgment, the second most influential American of the 20th Century, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt. By influence I mean influencing the way we live today. Rights for Blacks, women, and other minorities, including the recent most welcome repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell were all influenced by Martin Luther King's spirit and his actions, and, finally, his sacrifice thru assassination. Lyndon Johnson, another very influential American, was able to get the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 through the filibustering Congress, playing on the memory of John F. Kennedy. And in 1965 he got the Voting Rights Act thru the Congress, which outlawed literacy testing and gave every American the right to vote. But the Civil Rights Movement and the Antiwar movement eventually ran on the same batteries, and on 4 April, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King turned on the war and thereby the President who had done so much for the cause of Civil Rights.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: "A time comes when silence is betrayal." That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
It is wonderfully and melodiously Martin Luther King. I love to listen to his speeches, and, this weekend, my students in my Critical Thinking about Viet Nam Course are analyzing this sermon. What they may eventually find is that this sermon is full of weak arguments, illogic, fallacies, and bad facts. King's advisors who pushed him to deliver this sermon also provided a lot of erroneous information, such as the benevolency of Ho Chi Minh's land reform, which was so extreme and caused so many landowners to be killed that Ho Chi Minh eventually apologized to his nation.
The comparing of our admittedly ill advised Resettlement areas, or Agrovilles, to Concentration Camps was wildly off the mark and weak, inflammatory rhetoric. So it was not King's finest sermon, not his finest hour, and many of his white supporters across the nation, who had preferred him to the more extreme Malcolm X, deserted King's Civil Rights movement. Lyndon Johnson was devastated that King had turned on him, and then, after TET 68 on Feb 27 the most trusted man in America, Walter Cronkite, went on television with his own personal editorial
"to say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion" and "it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could."
That was the end for Lyndon Johnson -- he had lost King, Cronkite, and was losing middle America -- and he abdicated his reelection bid at the end of the month following. TET 68, when the Viet Cong got onto the grounds of the American Embassy, was a military victory, but a psychological defeat.
On April 4, 1968 King was shot long range by a sniper.
News of his death was greeted with an outpouring of grief and rage. Riots erupted all over the country, primarily in black urban areas. At least 110 cities experienced violence and destruction in the next few days, resulting in roughly $50 million in damage. Of the 39 people who died, 34 were black. The worst riots were in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Over 22,000 federal troops and 34,000 national guard were sent to aid local police -- the largest ever called to deal with domestic civil disturbance. (JoFreeman.com)
I drove up to DC from Ft. Bragg NC on Friday evening. Gas stations were locked with attendants inside with shotguns. You got out of the car, showed your money and pumped your own gas. 10 miles south of DC I saw a red glow in the sky. It was Washington Burning. In Richmond the following Monday I made a wrong turn and paused behind a stopped bus. A group of young African-American males jumped on the hood of my Opel Kadett and I pulled my pistol out of my glove compartment. Fear was everywhere.
It is that fear that King worked against and, as an aside, the same fear that President Obama so eloquently addressed this week in his speech at the memorial service in AZ. No matter what your politics, I encourage you to go to YOUTUBE and listen to that oration as eloquent as King ever was, and that is saying a lot.
Jack Wheeler would have been 66 today, though today is not his birthday. But Jack Wheeler was found in a landfill, his body having been dumped there by a garbage truck. Security Video tapes show him wandering in a daze, holding his shoe and saying that he had been robbed of his briefcase and he was cold. The police initially said it was murder, but it is also possible that he was struck on the head causing brain damage or may have had a stroke. We do not know and it does not matter.
Jack Wheeler was a giant. He was a plebe in my squad and lived across the hall from me at West Point. Smarter than I, he earned the distinction of Star Man, someone who was in the top 5% academically.
He was a former chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, former senior planner for Amtrak (1971-1972), held various positions at the Securities and Exchange Commission (1978-1986), former chief executive and CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, consultant to the Mitre Corporation (2009-death), member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a presidential aide to the Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush administrations, as well as other positions in the US military, the US government, and US corporations. He also wrote the book TOUCHED WITH FIRE: THE FUTURE OF THE VIETNAM GENERATION. The book about Jack is Rick Atkinson's THE LONG GREY LINE: the American Journey of the West Point Class of 1966
After Jan Scruggs had raised $144.50 for the Vietnam Veteran's memorial, Jack asked to join him, and they founded the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Fund. They soon recruited a young ex-Marine Captain and author by the name of Jim Webb, the current Senator from Virginia. Jack Wheeler made the Memorial happen. He led the fund raising, the fights, the racial objections of those who maintained that an Asian woman and Yale student Maya Lin should not have been the designer of a memorial to American boys. Martin Luther King would have recognized the objections for what they were. That wonderful Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, whose detractors initially called it "the black gash of shame" happened because of Jack Wheeler. Before he died Jack was working on a day of reconciliation when across the country citizens would work to return ROTC to the college campuses. He was a dreamer who lived his dreams and achieved much. We do not know the causes of his death, but we do know the contributions of his wonderful life.
Jack and Martin both fought injustice, both did great things, and contributed to our own humanity . They were the Sons of the American Revolution, not biologically, but in the spirit of their accomplishments.
Jack, we will miss your spirit, and we thank you for your many contributions. And we will get ROTC back on the campuses.
Your friend, John Swensson, USMA'65