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Frontiers and Pioneers

It is no small wonder that the public response to returnees from Vietnam led to shame and silence on the part of the veterans.
Megan Shaw

Issue #25, March 1996

From the radiated crops of cherries and peaches that my grandparents grew on the banks of the Columbia River to the cockroaches my father was force fed in jungle survival training, the American mythology of pioneers has taken a toll on my family. My grandparents were frontierspeople, homesteaders and dustbowl refugees from Oklahoma who eked a living out of Oregon's dry desert landscape, eventually inching their way from sagebrush-bound homesteads closer and closer to water, finally settling in the 1940s on the banks of the Columbia River downstream from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The Columbia River is the most poisonous body of water on earth. Radioactivity flows ceaselessly from the upper reaches of the river to the Pacific Ocean. Although the primary elimination of waste into groundwater took place at Hanford between 1944 and 1972, leaking containers of contaminant continue to pollute the land and waters around it. The radiation brought with it to the people living downstream a culture of silence, acquiescence, and sickness.

This culture is also a byproduct of the collision between images of frontiers and pioneers with the reality of life in Western North America. Ironically it is also a proud and noble tradition from which pioneers draw a positive and self-sustaining historical identity. My grandparents lost their lives to this ideology, as did my aunt who died of radiation sickness by the time she was twelve.

My family's bodies were ravaged by research journal-caliber cancers as they fought the brave fight to tame the wilderness, using radiation treatments to stem the cancers that grew in them, contaminated by nuclear poisoning in the water they drank and the fruit they farmed. Though my great grandparents lived into their nineties, my grandparents had the unlucky fate of being in the right age group for their lives to span the peak of Hanford's radioactive output. My grandfather died at fifty, my grandmother in her mid sixties, and my aunt at twelve after seventeen operations to try to remove cancers just like those that had infected all of their diseased bodies.

In 1942 the government carefully researched sites for the production of weapons-grade plutonium for use against the Japanese during the Second World War. It settled on the sparsely populated northern farmed desert area of the inner great basin in eastern Washington state near the Oregon border. In 1943, the year my father was born, the US Army Corps of Engineers broke ground nearby on 570 square miles of land, in the process evacuating three townships and creating two new ones to house workers. This atomic agenda radically altered the quality of life for those descendants of the pioneers who lived on the fringes of American life in the rural Pacific Northwest; moreover, it enhanced the degree to which people living in the region maintained a pioneer tradition. Just as with the first settlers in the previous century, a new threat was registered and a new frontier was mined in the interests of an imperialist, war-driven American foreign policy. This frontier, full of uncharted physical features and processes, was a covert operation which exposed those in the area to grave health risks.

My grandparents' generation subscribed to the pioneer ethos. They were descended from white immigrants who had escaped poverty and religious persecution in Northern Europe, where Evangelical Protestantism was unfashionable and the economy was unstable. For them, the American Pacific Northwest offered a new start. It offered the same thing to immigrants from Europe who, having made homes as middle-class farmers in the South, were then displaced by the Civil War; and later, to the laborers whose jobs and ways of life had been blown away in the Oklahoma dust bowl and the collapse of the pre-New Deal American economy. My family transplanted these histories to little farms in Northeastern Oregon, where under the auspices of nuclear militarization their frontier stories reached an inevitable conclusion in the nuclear militarization of the Pacific Northwest.

Pioneer history has been radically glamorized in the media, both for its destructive properties and for its proto-Evangelical promise of rebirth. The Christians who envisioned the New World imbued the American ideology of the frontier with a rhetoric of redemption that exactly suited their moral vision of history. This imagery has helped define the American historical imagination of the twentieth century. Television and its relentless programming of historical dramas has assumed the task of promulgating this ideology. It has been highly effective in maintaining traditional forms of historical consciousness in which pioneers of the American west are portrayed as poor, honest, pious and self-denying stewards of a new and benevolent Zion.

But in reality, pioneering reinforced the same sense of social dislocation and cultural marginality which new European immigrants sought to escape by leaving Europe in the first place. In fact, immigrants played multiple roles in another hierarchy of exploitation, created by the militarization of the Pacific Northwest during the Cold War. By virtue of their geographical isolation, European immigrants to the Western interior were put in a position to be exploited by the US government to further its foreign policy interests in America's very own backyard. This tradition goes all the way back to when the Western United states was opened for settlement because the government wished to establish colonies in those areas that were being considered for colonization by the Russians and by the Spanish.

Government offers of cheap land grants were hardly generous, intended only to extend US state power. The pioneers' real price was paid in their lonely occupation of the land, their isolation, their confused condition of being completely (if distantly) subject to an anonymous imperial authority, and simultaneously playing the role of occupying foot-soldier, sent into unknown and hostile territory for a lifetime tour. For many people this life was, like the lives of those made ill by radiation in the following century, one of silence, acquiescence, and premature death.

As an historical tradition, pioneering came to have little meaning in the twentieth century, except as fodder for entertainment. It offered little to the descendants of the original pioneers, living on the same land. In one sense, the pioneer era ended by the 1940s, when phone lines, railroads and interstate highways linked so much of the United States together that it became hard to conceive of it as a geographically wild and open country. But the set of beliefs and assumptions about pioneering entered a new stage when confronted with high technology. In the case of my family, it turned the homesteading ethos into an ideology of death.

The intertwining of rural people's lives and minds with the dangerous vagaries of foreign policy became an inherited condition. It was passed, silently, from my great grandparents to my grandparents by simple virtue of geographic location. The physical impact of frontier isolation was felt severely in my family by my father, who later, ironically, did his best to maintain it. Unable to pursue a college education among the radiated waters of the Columbia, his parents and sister dead or dying, he moved a hundred miles away to college.

My father acknowledges that despite his participation in the Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen, and the drug culture of the '60s, he did not resist the government when his draft number was called. For one who survived both the traditions of pioneerism and the atomic age, the American military's Southeast Asian agenda provided a new way to participate within the pioneering tradition he grew up with. Of course, it remained the same losing battle for the same government whose policies destroyed his own life at home as it would continue to do in the rugged, foreign highlands of Cambodia and Vietnam.

But my father tried to be a revolutionary. As a small child, I was introduced to his childhood mentors who were legendary Wobbly labor activists. Before I was born my father had been the co-head of his university's chapter of the SDS. When he told me about it, he explained that his work had been within a historical context of leftist resistance. He and his friends, knowing that their phones were tapped by the FBI, would hold lengthy conversations planning meetings at someone's house, making veiled insinuations that illicit substances, as well as projects, would be present.

When government agents parked slyly on the street positioned to observe and raid the phantom meetings, my father and his friends would emerge from the house and stroll down the sidewalks, engaging the agents in friendly banter, offering them cigarettes, trying to waste their time. Then they would head off to the movies. Though only a sidebar activity to the real project of organizing students against the war, it was a slight engagement of the government officials in their own little game of cat and mouse. A year later he found himself being force-fed cockroaches in a jungle survival officer training camp in Panama.

In 1967 my father was drafted. Despite being married and having a baby, he was summarily enrolled in a year of officer training school and then shipped to Vietnam. The Vietnam war once again presented a new "frontier" for American expansionism as the western states and the atomic era had before. The mythic symbolism of the jungle as the origin of human consciousness worked on the American public to create an easily marketable mystique for the war. As lavishly detailed in numerous Hollywood productions, the Asian jungle is, for the American male, the last frontier on this world (although there remains the frontier culture of twentieth-century space mythology). The jungle survival training and realities that my father was subjected to seem almost calculated to shock and to be as radically different from survival necessities of North America as possible. But it was the allure of conquering new land and subjugating old peoples which seemed to beckon my father almost as though it were a calling. The enticement of American imperialism was so strong that like many other young American men indoctrinated by the frontier ideology, he abandoned his political commitments in order to succumb to the authoritarian voice of tradition, to heed its summons as though it were a command to fulfill his own destiny.

rat race Notwithstanding my father's work with the SDS, he was assigned to Special Forces and smuggled to Cambodia to sabotage the Ho Chi Minh trail. The trail laced its way from North Vietnam, through the hilly border regions into Cambodia, and finally into South Vietnam. Along this trail the Viet Cong Army carried the weapons and supplies that sustained them in their thirty year war against French and American forces. Although the US had agreed not to enter Cambodia, it settled on the sparsely populated highlands that straddle the border between Vietnam and Cambodia as the base for its sabotage operation. It assigned the Special Forces, men specially selected for their education and technical expertise, to work covert operations — that is, to monitor and bomb the trail. The officers and enlisted men who worked there were stationed in isolated areas for prolonged periods, and some formed relationships with the local Hmong tribes.

While posted to that region, my father spent time living in longhouses in the highlands among the Hmong. He formed friendships with them as much as with his fellow soldiers. He became close enough to them during his tour of duty that he was made an honorary member of the tribe. Upon entering the tribe, he was ritually congratulated (post facto) on his marriage to my mother with a feast involving the slaughter of an ox. And in honor of my birth, a baby girl's root gathering basket was woven for me.

To say that my father's time in Vietnam was horrific beyond description begs the question. It was in Cambodia that he says he fully recognized his role as a pawn. Somehow everything he learned about the war before he went there which compelled him to work in the SDS to stop it, did not resonate deeply enough for it to be a shock to him that he was never treated for exposure or allowed a day to rest, much less sent home after spending ten days crawling on his stomach through Viet Cong territory back to base from the wreckage of a helicopter crash which killed six of his friends. He was not only refused rest, but no honorable mention was ever made of his arduous search for his platoon's bodies.

This was the grisly reality of playing out the American pioneer mythology in my father's generation. One reason sentiment turned so severely against Vietnam veterans when they returned home is that veteran's stories and media reports to the American public about the war conflicted with the public's desire to frame the conflict within a socially acceptable ideology of frontierism, pioneerism, and bloodlust. As resonant as the war in the jungle was with multiple American histories of fighting for freedom against a worthy enemy, the experiences of individual soldiers combined with the mass media's exposure of the suffering of the enemy disemboweled the potential for a preordained conclusion to the morality play.

Prior to the Vietnam war, there had been a tacit agreement between the military and American society that if soldiers would do the work of promoting the nation's interests by risking their lives, they would be compensated by being classified as heroes upon their return. This phenomenon was most pronounced for veterans of the two world wars. But then much of the combat that American troops saw during those two wars had been fought on soil which the white-dominated culture recognized as its soil of origin — Europe — rather than frontier soil. The two world wars therefore did not lend themselves to interpretation through the frontier/pioneer paradigm in the way that Vietnam did. Thus it is hardly surprising that the public response to the veterans of those wars was radically different from the response to Vietnam veterans.

It is no small wonder that the public response to returnees from Vietnam led to shame and silence on the part of the veterans. They were in essence shunned by polite society, and the contract for a hero's glory was broken. For my father, this situation complemented the history he had inherited from his parents, suffering at the hands of radiation poisoning from Hanford. My grandparents were not shunned for their illness, but the deafening silence that surrounded their suffering allowed the radiation from Hanford, and the power structures that created it, to escape being held accountable.

Megan Shaw lives in San Francisco. Her website is

Copyright © 1996 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.