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Q&A: Ohio State History Professor David Steigerwald on the Vietnam War

Professor David Steigerwald (left) is the director of the OSU history department’s World War II study abroad program. WOSU intern Nathan Byrne (right) participated in the program last year, and the two took this picture together in Berlin, Germany.


PBS’ recent documentary series The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick sheds new light on that chapter of our country’s history. But what was happening in Columbus at the time, and how did national politics contribute to the Central Ohio climate?

That’s what Nathan Byrne set out to find when he began his WOSU Public Media internship, researching local Vietnam War history for Columbus Neighborhoods. Byrne recently spoke with Ohio State University history professor David Steigerwald to learn more about the Columbus context of the 1960s.



BYRNE: Dr. Steigerwald, tell me a little about yourself and why you became interested in studying the 1960s.

STEIGERWALD: Well, thanks for visiting, Nathan. I grew up in Dayton, the seventh of eight kids in a big Catholic family — kind of typical of the time period, I think, at least that part of the population.

I was one of the younger ones. And so my older brothers and sisters were of the age to have experienced the ’60s, sort of. My oldest brother went into the service, stayed stateside, was a psychologist, actually, at the air force base at Dover. The next brother avoided the draft by just about a couple of months because of the Nixon-era reformulation of the draft process and the drastic slow-down in the draft itself after 1970. But that’s not why I got interested in the ’60s.

As a historian, I got interested in the period because it’s just so incredibly interesting to read about. I mean, what’s not there? You have civil rights. You have urban riots. You’ve got the best of America; you’ve got the worst of America. You’ve got drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll, as they said.

But the social history of the period is also really interesting. Having grown up in Dayton, for example, what I remember is the beginning of deindustrialization and the first wave, really, of factory closures that so drastically changed the nature of Midwestern communities and Midwestern society. And that was a ’60s thing, to me.

When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to teach a class on the Vietnam War, and it was actually the very first class I ever taught by myself. And from that point on, I was just kind of hooked.

BYRNE: OK. Now with this being focused on Central Ohio and with what you know about the Vietnam War and the United States during the time, what would you say would be the areas in Central Ohio that were most affected, like, had the most soldiers pulled out of it, and would have experienced the most losses?

STEIGERWALD: There’s no reason to expect that Central Ohio was any different from any other part of the country. And so the white working class, or the working class generally, including what Latinos were here — and that wasn’t much of the population at that point — African-American men would have served disproportionately. So, too, I think the small-town guys in the communities around Columbus probably served out of proportion to their weight in the population.

So if we were to pick, say, a community that might have had many more men per capita or percentage-wise inducted through the draft or even those who volunteered — because remember a slight majority of men in Vietnam were volunteers, not draftees, 55 percent to 45 percent. I would think like a place such as Newark or Marysville or Lima, maybe, Marion, another possibility.

Those small, industrial cities that kind of combined industrial work with — and therefore the industrial working class — with small-town families, I think, probably contributed more men than other places, certainly the Columbus suburbs.

BYRNE: And this would be in contrast to places like Upper Arlington.

STEIGERWALD: Absolutely, right. So if you had well-to-do communities, you had young men who probably were college-bound anyway, and more often than not, that was the dividing line.

It was a working-class war, as Christian Appy called it — an excellent historian of the war. And it’s important remember that rural men and small-town men fit the working-class socioeconomic category, as well as the sons of factory workers. So that’s really the way to anticipate or intuit who paid the disproportionate weight of the Vietnam War.

BYRNE: OK. Now based on that and how you would believe that Central Ohio would be no different from the national average, you could say, or what would be the norm when it comes to who would’ve been partaking in the war, mainly the lower working class and rural areas, would you say that Columbus and Central Ohio in general would’ve followed the same national trend for the anti-war movement and even pro-war organization?

STEIGERWALD: Ummm, well, that side of things was a lot less uniform than we all think. So, you know, people forget that the anti-war movement was deeply rooted in traditional Christian pacifism, not in college students with tie-dye and smoking reefer, as much as that became associated with the movement in some minds.

And so really the places where the anti-war movement was rooted in, were places with traditional strongholds of Christian thought. I think Philadelphia and the Quakers, for example, just as a way of illustrating, New York, the northeast with a long tradition of liberal Protestantism — those are the places really where the foundation of the anti-war movement rested, not so much here in Central Ohio.

This was a very, very conservative place. Columbus has the reputation of being — though it’s shedding this reputation — but it still has a reputation of being a Midwestern Cowtown. It deserved that reputation in the 1960s.

It was basically a city under the domination of a couple of very white families, very wealthy families who controlled a lot of the organs of public opinion. Columbus had some history and tradition of progressive Christianity, going back to Washington Gladden, who had this church out on Broad Street.

But that really wasn’t Columbus. For the most part, this was a deeply conservative place. And so you wouldn’t have expected much in the way of the anti-war movement appearing here, and the truth is that on balance, even with this massive state university and the role of universities in the movement, it wasn’t a stronghold of anti-war sentiment.

Now I say that knowing that there was plenty of anti-war activity here on campus. And I also say that knowing that the campus wasn’t so stodgy as I think I might have just implied.

As a matter of fact, a free speech movement developed here on campus in 1964, completely independently of what was going on at Berkeley at the very same time. The issues here were local and revolved around a rule on campus called the “speakers rule,” where the administration could say yes or no, thumbs up or thumbs down, on anybody appearing on campus. It’s a controversy sort of being replayed now on campuses in interesting ways — almost the obverse, in fact, of how it worked itself out in ’64.

So there was a spirit of activism partly here and pretty early. But it wasn’t anti-war, and this is a distinction that needs to be made because the activism that emerged — the real activism here — was more localized, and it was a reaction to conditions really on campus, as opposed to growing discontent, metastasizing discontent over the war.

So by the time OSU students were out on the Oval protesting, the war was, you know, a fever pitch, as you know, but that’s not really why they were out there. African-American students were out there because they didn’t have a department of African-American studies, for example. People who were tired of being treated like they were nothing but a number were out there because they resented the bureaucratic domination of the administration.

These things were independent from the war and more related to the broad cauldron of change in the ’60s that primed people for activism.

BYRNE: OK and lastly, what song would you say would bring the Vietnam War to your mind and why?

STEIGERWALD: Wow, so this is a very — I mean, you’re asking a kind of personal-taste question, right? So I refuse to answer on the grounds of not free speech, ummm. So I like Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” in part because Ochs was a local boy. He got his start over at Larry’s on High Street, which is no longer there, having been buried by the campus development over on that part of the street. And so I like that song.

Then there was one I remember as a little boy: Edwin Starr’s “War,” which — at the time, I was in school. I was being bused. So I was a white kid in an overwhelmingly African-American school. And this was playing on the black FM station, right. So I was hearing it all the time around the kids I was going to school with, and so oddly that’s a song that probably not many people would invoke. But personally, it’s kind of the one I remember from the time.

Then of course, there are the other standards like “Fortunate Son.” But, you know, I didn’t know Phil Ochs when I was a kid; I didn’t know Phil Ochs when I was a college student. I discovered him later as a student of the period, right. And “Fortunate Son,” I don’t really remember until it popped up in — where? — Forrest Gump or one of the war movies, probably Oliver Stone’s.

BYRNE: All right. Thank you for your time.

STEIGERWALD: You’re welcome. Thanks for coming in.

Related Video

Vietnam War Part 2 Preview

Next time on Columbus Neighborhoods, we continue the exploration of Columbus’ connections to the Vietnam War. Watch at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 12 on WOSU TV.