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Bobby Muller

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Bobby Muller was born and raised in Great Neck, Long Island. He attended Hofstra University for Business Administration. He then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and his commission began the same day he received his bachelor's degree. He quickly rose to become Combat Lieutenant leading a Marine infantry platoon. While leading an assault in Vietnam in 1969, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. After returning from Vietnam, he became a peace activist and a strong advocate for veterans' rights. A few years later, he received his law degree from Hofstra University and founded Vietnam Veterans of America in 1978 and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in 1980 to fight for fair treatment of war veterans. He co-founded the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines as well as the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign and Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. Then, in 2004, he founded Alliance for Security.


McKiernan Interviews
Interview with: Bobby Muller
Interviewed by: Stephen McKiernan
Transcriber: Benjamin Mehdi So
Date of interview: 8 July 2019

(Start of Interview)

SM: Alright, here we go. First question I want to ask you is um, when you think of the 1960s and early 1970s, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? And please use words or adjectives as to why you picked your thoughts.

BM: Hmm. Well, the (19)60s and early (19)70s were a major cultural and political upheaval. We had been in this extraordinarily unique status, following World War Two, as the world's leading military and economic power, and had felt tremendously self-confident, good about ourselves, and had a lot of things going on around the world. Under our control direction, I think if I recall properly, in 1964 76 percent, of the public trusted, our political leaders, and political institutions to do the right thing in all, or almost all of the time well, with the civil rights movement, creating the first really true significant two-sided protest joined shortly by the protest against the Vietnam War, was a very different experience for America. And certainly, the older generation, the establishment itself was terrified by the upheaval, and the rejection of what was considered the values of the time by a younger generation that wanted nothing to do with it. I think the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, both serve to wake up a lot of people in what had been a complacent society, in the fact that there are real problems here. And change is going to have to take place. The establishment put together an extraordinary effort to [inaudible] wipe out the activity itself as well as the memory of what happened during that period of major social political upheaval. So, that is what I think of-

SM: One of the things I am very curious, Bobby, about your awakening. Could you talk a little bit about your upbringing where you grew up, and, um of course, went to college, and then those years leading up to your becoming a Marine.

BM: Look, I was a jock. When I was in high school, the only thing that mattered was sports. So, when I graduated high school, I went to State University of Portland, upstate New York, was a Teacher's College as a Phys-Ed major. After a couple of years, I realized that did not have a very profitable future. So, I switched Hofstra University, on Long Island and a business agenda. I had basically no political awareness of what was really going on. Other than having felt good, that at least the rhetoric of particularly the Kennedy years, which I was in college at the time, talked about freedom, equality, just things that were right. So, I continued in my own little world. The only problem was that when I was getting ready to graduate in (19)67, there was the inevitability of a draft. And there was no question that that upon completion college, I was going to get drafted. Well, I did not want to wind up under Leadership, to some imbecile. So, I figured I would take initiative and enlist, and have not been kind of a macho kid. And with the reputation of the Marines being, you know, tougher than the rest, leadership, etc. I consider what the hell I will join the Marines. And I tell people all the time, that I think the most significant movie that I saw, coming out of the whole Vietnam era was Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. And I refer to the first half, which was an extraordinarily accurate depiction of Marine Corps basic training. And I can vouch that it is an incredibly effective propaganda mechanism, transformational mechanism, that takes a bunch of people who might be misfits. Or not particularly motivated and transforms them into very different people. It was a very effective process of indoctrination and training. So, whereas I joined the Marines fairly nonchalant, just to avoid being drafted. By the end of my Marine Corps training. I was convinced that we were fighting the righteous fight in Vietnam. We had to repel communists. And I was very eager to go. It was as simple as that.

SM: Bobby, uh I, when you were shot in Vietnam, and injured. I have asked this to a couple other Vietnam veterans at the moment they were injured, and several of them are in wheelchairs, when you were injured, what went through your mind? Besides I want to serve maybe I want to survive, and I want to live, do you, do you re-

BM: I cannot adequately convey the certainty that I felt that I was going to die. I do not know how long I was conscious. But I remember I was on my back. And from when I grabbed my stomach, and I did not feel anything. I knew that it was a serious injury. And my first thought was that my girlfriend was going to be really pissed. Because she had been opposed to the war and certainly opposed to my going into the Marine Corps. That lasted around two seconds, because then I realized that I was dying. And as I said, I cannot adequately describe how powerful the feeling was of having a life slip away. And the absolute certainty that I was going to die. And my last thoughts were, I cannot believe it, I am going to die on this shit piece of ground and fucking believe me [inaudible]. Lights out. What I can tell you is that I absolutely Experienced dying. Wow. I had a series of miraculous events, such as having med-evac choppers in route before I got shot, having virtually instant medical evacuation. And with my luck on that particular afternoon, the hospital ship, the USS repose was the furthest north that it would go and was in the process of turning around to go back south. But I got med-evac back, to the hospital ship, which was an extraordinary provider of trauma and emergency care. And they had written in my medical records that had I arrived one minute later, I would be certainly die. Wow. the bullet went through both lungs. So, both lungs collapse, as well as severing the spinal cord um. At the T five level, which is mid chest, and they did a remarkable job apparently. I woke up absolutely amazed that I woke up, I was stunned that I was still here. And I was on what they call a strike referring in intensive care. And I do not remember how many tubes I had sticking out of me. Something like nine, I chest tubes on both sides. You know, I had tracheotomy done a whole lot of stuff. Um. But I made it and we all intellectually know that we are going to die. But we do not actually emotionally connect to that reality. Well, having emotionally connected to dying, by experiencing dying- I will tell you that there is absolutely no regrets whatsoever, in being a paraplegic and simply overwhelmed, um. And thrilled that I got dealt back into the game that I was convinced I had left. Now I got shot a little over eight months. But I had gone out in the field, seven other marine lieutenants. And I found out that all seven had been med-evac. Before me,

SM: Oh, my goodness, wow.

BM: And I remember in training, they told us that over 85 percent of junior officers, such as myself, okay. [incoherent muttering] So yes, it was a major hit. But I have seen a lot of people with much lesser injuries die. And the fact that I made it was remarkable. I think it is hard to tell time because the lights never went out in intensive care. Somebody was always screaming, particularly, you know, the amputees in the burn cases when they were changing dressings, etc. But I think something like two days later, the doctor came over to me, and [inaudible] I said, “What are you thanking me for?” He said, “Because we are pretty confident that you are going to make it now.” And you boosted the morale of the staff around here.

SM: Wow.

BM: So, [chuckles] that was that-

SM: Well, Bob that was a tremendous explanation, and-an- One of the things I would like to talk about is when did you know you were against this war? And uh We have talked about this before, but I want to have an I want to hear your voice talk about it again. And that is when you came back to American and were in the hospital. And some of the things that were happening in that hospital you were very upset with? And just if you could talk about that, and what were your act-

BM: I do not I do not remember having one political conversation while I was in Vietnam. It did not matter. Because when you are in the military, it is not something where you could decide, hey, I do not like what I am doing. And say I quit there is no quitting. So, you are in it. And the reason people fight is basically because of the people that they are with. And it was us versus them definitionally and no real discussion. However, there were a lot of incidents in my tour, that made no sense to me, in terms of how member I was operating, basically, northern night corps. How People when we were operating around villages generally looked upon us with either fear, or, or hatred on their faces. The villagers supported the enemy, which was obvious, and sometimes, you know, we would get ambushed from people inside the villages, etc. And after having spent, uh I think a little over four months, five months with the Marines, I got transferred to Mack- and worked with South Vietnamese military and I was as an assistant advisor on a battalion level and my experience with South Vietnamese was an absolute reluctance on their part to fight. Contrast it with the stunning tenacity, of basically what we were fighting North Vietnamese Regulars.

SM: Right.

BM: And, you know, having to sleep every night with a dying commander, and on guard because a percentage of the troops on our side were in fact uh, on the other side. And when we were out in places that were remote, you know, in the morning x numbers of troops would be missing well, there is only one thing you are- you are going to be doing when you are out there, and you leave your unit, which is join the other side, go home. So, but at the time, would not have helped to really question all of that or get into a discussion about it or go home. So [grunt] um, at the time would not have helped to really question all of that or get into a discussion about it, because like it or not, next day, you are going to go out on a mission, you are going to go out, and do what you got to do. So why make it more difficult? But definitely question, what it is that you had to do, when inevitably you are going to be doing it the next day. When you come back, and you know, on the hospital ship, they sent the psychiatrist and presumably to talk about the fact that be paralyzed. But the first question I asked him was, how come I can sit down amongst a bunch of dead bodies just a couple of days prior, chow down, and not the effects. And he explained that your mind has its own defense mechanisms. And when you are under extreme circumstances, those defense mechanisms come into play, to allow you to endure the situation. He said, I assure you get back to states. And if you should see somebody, get hurt, hit by far, whatever, you will be just as sensitive as everybody else because those mechanisms will have gone. And I think that is important, understanding that I have because those defense mechanisms that allow you to endure what goes on at war also enable you to do things that you would otherwise never do. [grunt] So it kind of works both ways. And I learned that I transformed as an individual, in the course of my tour, I call it going down a dark path, and you change. But when you come back to society, which is normalized, and you think about the things you did, with normal sensitivities, you are going to feel awful and guilty about it. Although at the time, it was not such a big deal, because it was simply part of the game. And I think that is why a lot of Vietnam vets have an awful lot of guilt about what they did in the time when they were in what I would call an altered state of mind.

SM: Right.

BM: And reflect upon it, you know, with normal sensitivity.

SM: Wh-When you came back, Bobby, you eventually became part of that organization, Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Vietnam. And of-of course, we all know the speech that John Kerry gave before Senator Fulbright's Foreign Relations Committee, where he talked about the atrocities and the killings and all the terrible things that are going on there. And um just when, whe- you when you came home to America, were in the hospital, what-. An-And you were evolving there you were seeing things you did not like when you were serving there, but you are not going to do anything while you are over there. But when you came home, was there a specific point that said, I got it this war is this is a bad war. And uh and then when John Kerry spoke, was he telling the truth on all the things he was saying?

BM: Of course, he was when I came back. Um. That is when you can start to reflect on what you have gone through in a way that you do not allow yourself to do when you are involved day to day. The hospital that I was in was the Veterans Hospital in Bronx. And my ward was one of three wards that handled spinal cord injury patients. And back in uh, (19)70, or (19)71, I am not quite sure. Um (19)70 um. Life magazine came in and focus on my ward. And made it a cover story uh. For Life Magazine, which at the time was a major publication [grunt in agreement]. And the cover of the magazine was split. Top half was colored photograph of troops being evacuated from Cambodia when we have gone into Cambodia. And the bottom half was black and white picture of a quadriplegic, sitting in the shower uh, shower chair uh, pretty dismal [grunt] the article portrayed some pretty bad conditions. Uh. The place was basically an orphanage at some point in the latter part of the 1800s [grunt in agreement]. So, it was a physically completely depressing building. The ward was overcrowded um, understaffed and conditions were shown to be deplorable in many ways. And I think the article referred to it basically as a medical slump. Not all VA hospitals are the same. But my particular hospital was pretty bad. Um, plus, it was not geared to the kind of care and treatment that I required. Because less than 10 percent of patient care in VA hospitals at that time was for anything to do with a service-related condition. And service related could mean you had an accident on Interstate 95. But if you are on active duty, your injuries are considered service connected. I guess that actually combat related injuries, were certainly less than 5 percent of the care. So, it was overwhelmingly uh more of a geriatric and poor people hospital. And they were there pretty much in the discretion of the VA. So, they shut up. And we, the younger generation guys came back, needing rehabilitative care, while essentially the hospital was a glorified nursing home. So, when Life Magazine did its cover story, it turned out to be the second largest selling issue Life magazine ever put out. And I was the spokesman for the ward and wound up doing a lot of interviews. Get Phil Donahue at the time when he was still out in Ohio. Today show. I got a fair amount of separate spokesman. We had congressional delegations come through. And also, Vietnam um vets against the war stopped by and said, “Look, you know, in addition to talking about what is going on in the hospital, why do not you consider talking about what is going on with the war.” And I had thought like so many that I had just been dealt a bad hand. And my experience was just an unfortunate one. By talking to other Vietnam vets. I realized that it was not just me. But most of them had the same kind of experience. And we started reeling with that process known as rap groups. Now to share our experience and gain an understanding, a much better understanding of the larger reality of what was taking place in Vietnam and asking the questions that we never asked on the front end might. Okay, so why are we here? Well, what has happened. And it does not take very long to realize that what was being said publicly, was totally contrary to the realities that we experienced. So, you know, by ending the isolation, by having a communalized process of peer support, sharing turns, understanding a whole lot more, we became a uh much more radicalized and angry. And yes, what DVA W did, in opposing the war was unprecedented. what Terry said, absolutely. Represented, our shared feelings. I myself, as you know, was thrown out of Republican national convention. In (19)72, for young Nixon during his acceptance speech, and I cannot tell you how devastating it was for all of us that in (19)72, not only did this guy who we have been consistently condemning as a war criminal, got reelected. But he got reelected with the largest mandate of any president in US history up until that time. So that was very difficult.

SM: When you are talking about the Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Vietnam, um what, what did you think of what of the antiwar movement that was going on in America when you were over there? And secondly, when you came back, uh I would like your thoughts on this, too. Bobby. Uh. Some of the activists that I have talked to who were antiwar, were never anti soldier. They were antigovernment and anti-leaders who sent the military to Vietnam. And so, a lot of the protesters that were against the war in Vietnam, were not only trying to save American boys from being killed over there, but also saving millions of Vietnamese citizens, which is another topic of discussion. And some of the people th-that I have also talked to have said that when they go to the Vietnam Memorial, yes, they they-it is in remembrance of those who died in Vietnam, who served our country with distinction. But it is also they cannot help but also reflect on that one or 2 million Vietnamese citizens that also died in that war that we never talk about. Uh Just your thoughts on that. The antiwar moveme-

BM: Bu-But at that time, I do not think there was a whole lot of awareness of how damaging the war was to Indochina. And it was a slow shift, to begin to view the troops separately from the war, that was not the way things were necessarily back at the time. The veterans that did speak out, were very welcomed by the entire movement, because we added a very critical element uh of credibility, been there and reporting firsthand. But there was still animosity towards many of the returning troops. And as time went on, you know, to just go back and think about I think it was in 1971, when CBS did a uh nationwide documentary called Jolly Couple. They had sent a crew that spent time with an Army infantry company that knew it was being filmed. And on camera, guys was smoking dope. Uh, at one point, the company commander told some, troops, to go up and put a cordon around an armed personnel carrier that has been damaged and on camera. They said, “Hell no. You can buy another one of them, you are not going to buy another one of me.” So, you saw the military um basically, revolt, and essentially quit. But we also had emerging Mai Lai. And stories of, you know, indiscriminate killing atrocities. Drug use and the fact that we will not consider all that stable when we came back. I remember that at one point, they asked for five sides out of my company to work with the CAP program Combined Action Platoon, where you have guys actually going into the villages and living with the Vietnamese. And they said, we needed at least five guys with a high school diploma. And company clerk went through the records. And he said, we have got one guy out of 155 with a high school diploma. So, you know, we had the average age, as you know, of the combat soldier, was 19. But that includes, you know, the NCOs and others. Basically, all the guys in you know my unit in my, my platoon were 18, except for the sargent and the one guy. So, you had a very vulnerable group put into an insane situation, having to deal with killing people making decisions about when to fire or when not to fire, having significant civilian casualties, having the people next to you die and be severely wounded, etc. So, Vietnam vets were shocked when they came back. The guy who was considered the most decorated hero of Vietnam, was a guy by the name of Peter Crochevsky. And Peter was a gunship uh pilot, uh Cobra, I believe, and basically knocked out of the sky, I think nine times. So, he has more air medals and all of that than anybody else. When he came back, he went to school full time to convert his pilot's license, the fixed wings. So, he could get into commercial aviation and work full time. And nobody would hire him. And that was a great example of how many events no add a ladder state after the atrocities had been reported on the uh lack of discipline, rebellion within the ranks, smoking dope, getting in cases hooked on heroin, which was cheap and easy. So, for the vets. It took quite a while. After years later, I had started Vietnam veterans America, the Washington Post, the Op Ed. Ed-Editor, was a guy by the name of Phil Jalen. And I got introduced to him, who was sympathetic. He did a big op ed piece on me back then, even when photographs saying Vietnam veteran advocate arrives. And for a period of time, he said they grant an unprecedented number of editorials and op ed pieces in support of what we were advocating, the Vietnam vets. And he said the response was absolutely uh unprecedented [grunt]. He said, normally, if we do a piece and we criticize an agency, you know, they call and they want a chance to rebut what we said. He said the response to this unprecedented campaign of advocacy was total silence. He said it was just remarkable. So, he said, we have got to take up, I think the level of discussion uh to the world so, and he set up a meeting that was co-sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, headed up at the time by Winston Lord who had been Kissinger’s deputy, and McGeorge Bundy, uh who is president of the Ford Foundation. So, we had the Ford Foundation and the Council on Foreign Relations, co-sponsor, a meeting where they invited 25 or so of the top leadership in America from media to corporate, etc. and gave me a real opportunity to make a pitch. And uh this was 1979 and McGeorge Bundy at the end of my presentation said. “Bobby, what you are doing is laudable, it is very deserving. But you are simply not going to get support.” He said “I will help you, because I have some discretionary authority as head of the Ford Foundation. But you have to understand that Vietnam is a negative, recollection for people-people feel embarrassed, people feel ashamed, people feel guilty. And they are just going to want us to get about the whole thing and move on. Unfortunately, that means that you also are going to be left behind, and you are not going to get the support that you deserve and what you are advocating for.” He did not say that to be a son of a bitch, he said that just lay out a reality [right]. And what he said was true. Because, you know, having done five media appearances in one year on Good Morning America, you know, having been written up in New York Times and editorial is the leading advocate to Vietnam vets, you know, I got to meet a lot of the political leadership and business leaders that had been involved in the war. And basically, none of them were responsive. Nobody wanted to help us. And the efforts to get a Vietnam veteran group going brash six times where I said, that is it, we cannot go on. And when the last one happened, that is it. That is, it. That particular day, um I got a call from Bruce Springsteen's manager. Uh John Landau, said, you know, Bruce has been following the Vietnam vets, he cares about it a lot. And you want to help them to get together. So, literally, the next night, he was doing a concert. In Jersey, I was up in New York, so I went. To the concert, talked to him for maybe 20 minutes and five minutes, laid out my spiel, he said, okay, let me think about it. Next day, he calls me, he said, “Can you come to Los Angeles next week?” I said, “Sure, what is up?” he said, “I want to do a benefit concert for the Vietnam Vets. And you got to be there.” And the fact that he gave us that concert, where he had gotten guys out of veteran’s hospitals, etc. Alongside the stage, um he built up platforms where guys, uh in wheelchairs directed from in all sorts of medical devices were there. And for the first time, he uh went out before the concert, and said, why he was doing it. That, you know, we have been neglected, we had to be recognized. We deserve proper treatment, invited me to come on stage, I gave a little pitch. And then he gave what many considered is perhaps the best concert he has ever given. Uh, the fact that Springsteen put us in the public light the way he did, changed, everything. Everything. We went from being totally ignored, to all sudden, you know, being kind of popular. And within 30 days, I think we had a concert by Pat Benatar who was big at the time, Charlie Daniels gave us a tremendous infusion of uh money, Bruce, that night gives 100,000. But we were okay. after that. And without him, there would not be a coherent veteran’s organization of movement. And that is really what made the difference.

SM: You know, Bobby- [another thing]. Oh, go ahead, continue.

BM: The other thing was when the hostages returned from Iran, they were given a ticker tape parade in New York. And that was the first time that our phones uh ran off the hook. People were out at contrast between the reception that the returning hostages got, and the non-reception the Vietnam Veterans got, and both the House and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee told me that for the first time, they got bags of mail from the public saying “help the Vietnam veterans.” You know, at that point uh things change because while Vietnam would not be discussed at social events, etc. At the end of the hostage crisis, you know, people have talked about well, okay, uh we obviously have some adversaries in the world. What are the values that we are going to actually stand behind and, and protect? And those questions which then became the topic of social discourse, had to use the last time we went to war, which was Vietnam as a reference point. So, for the first time opened up the discussion of, okay, what are we going to do in the world? What are going to be the values that we are going to stand behind? And what do we are not going to- I gave a speech. I think it was on [inaudible] with uh mayor [inaudible] City Hall. And part of what I said, in a totally impromptu speech. Made it is the quarter of the day in New York times the next day, as well as being part of a front-page story. I said, You people ran a number on us, I was addressing the general public from the steps of City Hall said you people ran a number on us your field, you are hanging up and your uneasiness made it impossible for us to talk about. If we brought it up, you tend to walk away from the conversation. And the fact that they made that the quarter of the day, I think, indicates that it was recognized as a fair representation of where things stood at the time.

SM: You know, but that at very same time, Bobby, I was starting my career in higher education. And I worked at a high university, and I learned very early on that affirmative action. Vietnam veterans are part of it. Because when we, you know, people, obviously, Vietnam veterans were not being hired, and the universities themselves added that particular group, um the ones that are being discriminated against, so-

BM: So that came later on, you know, you got to remember that Johnson uh wanted to recode the GI Bill, because the Vietnam vets and when they started with the GI Bill, they started at uh I think it was $100 a month, a stipend, whereas the Korean War veterans had been getting $110. So, you know, there really was not support. There is what I have consistently referred to as an iron triangle in Washington. And that triangle consisted of the agency itself, the Veterans Administration, the congressional committees in House and Senate, and Veterans Affairs, and the traditional established veterans’ group, Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, etc. and, they will all populated by World War Two veterans. And they really did not see us the way they saw their war or themselves. They saw us as part of a counterculture generation that rejected the war that we went to fight. And they were not sympathetic at all. Plus, there was a budgetary conflict, the claim money that needed to be allocated basically, for the older veterans in a way of pensions, not compensation, which is what you get for service interest group but pensions for all the people that fell on hard times. And an expansion of, you know, VA medical care, designed primarily for the older, more geriatric patients, and our needs for you know, a decent GI Bill, foreign assistance programs, you know, counseling, assistance, etc. You know, lost out in the lobbying process, to a shared sense amongst that Iron Triangle of the World War Two generation types that took care of their needs before they took care of our needs-

SM: Do-do you see that what you have just been talking about for the last 10 to 15 minutes has a direct tie to the building of the Wall in Washington DC in 1982? Because if [stuttering] you see that video that when the wall was finally opened in 82, and that some of the times when people make comments on that first November 11, is that now, Vietnam veterans are accepted, and-and it seemed to change everything. what you have revealed about-about-about the rock musicians, is what that is, that needs to be known more Bobby, that needs to be known a lot more. Yeah, it would be it would be, it would be a great column for you to write a newspaper about Bruce Springsteen. And-an-

BM: this has been written about so many times. Um, that, you know, as I have said, had Bruce not come and put us in the public light, and got, as a result, other musicians that wanted to chip in and help us out the way that they did, um we never would have made it period. When the Vietnam Memorial was designed or proposed, I was against it. I said, you know, it is very easy to give money to memorialize the dead, it is known, harder to get money for political programs that need to be enacted that a costly to help the vets. As turned out, the wall became um a very powerful event. Because when it was opening up, I was in DC, you can see, you know, guys coming in, individually, in many cases from places. And it was the first kind of mass gathering of Vietnam vets. And that was a turning point in giving collective expression to the expense. So, the wall was cathartic. But it also served as a particular point to galvanize, for the first-time veterans from across the country, who recognize that there was a lot of solidarity, and you know our respective experiences, and facilitated um the coming out of the Vietnam vets. Just like when I described it to take great for the returning hostages from Iran. A lot of vets said hey- hey, what about us? Even my mother called and said, what is going on? We have one of those former captains here, where she was in Texas. And they gave him a Cadillac, a lifetime pass to the ball games. What did anybody ever do for you? So, like I said, the anger at the contracts. Uh generated an out of public demand to help the Vietnam vets and also brought a lot of Vietnam vets out to say, “Hey, what the fuck?” So? Yeah. I- Th-Those events, I think they are turning hostages with ticker tape parade. What Bruce had done in bringing money and putting this favorably in the public spotlight, in generating support, along with the wall being galvanizing event. All served kind of changed the game a bit.

SM: Yeah, you know, Bobby, when you look at your life, and the organizations you have been involved in or helped create, every one of them is really helping others. In- Obviously, you went to serve your nation in Vietnam, you came back home, and you saw the experiences you have out and became, went against the war. But there is something within you as a person where you have taken on such major issues, and you have devoted your life to that. Could you just briefly explain from the Vietnam Veterans against the War to uh you know, the Vietnam Veterans of America to your landmine, the Nobel Prize, I mean, everything you are involved in is about giving back and helping others how did you get into this mold?

BM: I think overwhelming the majority of the Vietnam Vets came back and said, well, that was fucked, tried to put it behind them and get on with their lives. I could not do that. I was stuck in a hospital for a year. So, it was not something that I could just walk away from. And I saw it many times, I said, I have not gotten injured as severely as I did, I might very well have been like the others and said, you know, let us get on with life. And I think a lot of people, while the vets may have been reluctant, to some extent, to speak out, out of respect for the guys that died, who paid a severe price, and they did not want to deny them of any meaning or purpose to what they went through. However, nobody can speak for the dead. But I was in a position to speak for the living that had been severely damaged. So, I had kind of like, more of a unique opportunity. Because here I was, you know a Marine who shot, assaulting an enemy position on a hill um maximum credibility, and, you know, with the wheelchair, you know, you would always be brought up to the front of any parade, and you would be the one that media would want to talk to. And the more you got into it, the more you realize that, oh, this was not just, you know, an innocent mistake, um. There was a reason why we fought. And you recognize as you went along, that our government lied, our government was criminal, that people like Nixon and Kissinger should be tried as war crimes. And it was no longer you know, 1964, where, you know, 77 percent of the public trusted, you know, our political leadership, we came back, and certainly, myself and a lot of my friends have ever since that day, that war with our own government, we knew that our government was corrupt, lied, and was doing awful things. And once you get the wakeup call of something like Vietnam, where you have to confront, you know, okay. Uh. The questions that you never would have asked on the front end, and many people never asked period, you learn more and more, and then you say, okay, you got to hold this government accountable, you got to be aware of what- it is doing. And one step naturally led to the next step. And certainly, when I became aware of legislative disparity between what prior generation of veterans were provided, compared to what we as Vietnam veterans were afforded, it was an outrage. And, you know, once you start to speak to that believe me, I never intended to have a membership organization, but under the banner of Vietnam veterans, America, you know, veterans in communities around the country, all by themselves, one chaplain selected or not, but there was a membership. [laughs] And, you know, I started the organization in actually the very end of (19)78, and stepped down as president in (19)87. But by that time, had created a very uh substantial and sound, financial basis to the organization, had gotten a congressional charter, validating the VA, as you know, a nationally recognized veterans’ organization that could represent veterans have office space and VA facilities, and so on so forth. And I left to deal no longer with the veterans’ issues, but with the larger concerns of war and peace, and that was what I did through, get on the Veterans America Foundation. And having led the first group, they were four of us to return to Vietnam after the war. which we did in 1981, uh was a transformative trip. Because you got to see Vietnam, in peace instead of war, you got to meet the Vietnamese as a people and not potentially enemy. Their need was extraordinary. Our policy towards Vietnam was completely wrong and worked very hard on trying to get a- um process going between the two governments, which was not taking place at the time, because eventually uh, there is going to have to be an acknowledgement that the world is open to reconciliation. And that helps um a large part of the agenda of getting a vets- veterans America Foundation and um was critically needed. And I think what we did, as a non-government organization not carrying the baggage of diplomatic representatives who have to carry the government's line, we gave the Vietnamese Foreign Minister, [inaudible] the opportunity to do some stuff with us, he said, I cannot go to my government and ask to help the American government, because they are still basically adversarial to us. I can go to our people and say, we want to work with the American people, not the government, because they suffered in the war, like we did. And that process led to situations uh where even though they did not like it, US government had to get involved with Vietnam, because of the challenges that we had represented. For example, the Vietnamese saying, we found more American remains, we would like to turn them over to you, come to Hanoi. And I said, well, would you be willing to work with our government to return the remains, so that they are treated with you know the proper respect that they need to be, and uh the government threatened to bring charges against us. But sending Montgomery, um who had been the chairman was chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, had already held hearings on the POW MIA issue. He knew it was a crock of shit. And he said he was very high in the reserves. He said, If the government is going to work with you, I will get you military transport through the reserves and get it done, which forced the government to then contact Vietnam and opened up the communications that led to an increase in programs and so on and so forth.

SM: Couple things I want to ask you.

BM: Okay, Steve, we only got a little bit of time left here. Then, I got to go.

SM: Okay. Can I have three questions? And then that will be it. The first question is, um, Robert McNamara. He was uh obviously a lightning rod during the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. Yet you became a friend of his in later life, because you went on the stage with him, I think and debated him. How did you evolve and change your opinion?

BM: Oh-no, we, we did not debate. We were in agreement.

SM: Oh, okay.

BM: Particularly after my experience in Vietnam, in Cambodia. And, you know, my first 10-day visit, shortly after the Vietnamese had gone in, show what genocide meant. And I came to understand, I was there for 10 days, then went to this torture center, that when you get to that level of energy, of genocide and conduct, uh nothing is going to stop it. Due to horror of what it was doing. Something external had to come in and stop it. And I was convinced that with the increased technologies that we have, if people of that kind of mentality, connect with the technologies that are available, we are going to basically eliminate life as we know it on the planet, which is exactly what McNamara was sent you know, his experience back from World War Two, Cuban missile crisis. And believe he talked to me a great length about how absolutely pure luck prevented a nuclear war between us and the Soviets over a missile crisis. So, he and I, the odd couple, we were both saying, you know, we have got to fundamentally change how we handle conflict. And we cannot allow the continuance of nuclear weapons. Um, because, inevitably, if we continue to have them, they are going to be used. So that was why he and I got together, because the odd couple was basically saying the same thing. Okay, next question.

SM: This- the next question is the other question I like to ask and that is healing. The Vietnam memorial was built hopefully to heal a nation as Jan scrubs book states. How important has it been in terms of healing the nation itself? And why do you see such tremendous divisions still in America today, that many people say go back to that era of the (19)60s and (19)70s, uh the divisions, the divisions had never changed?

BM: Well, I-I-I-I-I am not that sure that the Vietnam Memorial provided that much for healing process, as it provided a place for people to come together and a little bit more collectively um, come to reflect and consider what had happened? I think with the passage of time, you know, history has, made it is good, that we were absolutely wrong. In what we did, you may have been able to debate in the (19)60s and (19)70s, and maybe at some point into the earlier part of the (19)80s. But at this point, uh the historical judgment is in, and you cannot deny we were wrong period and the conversation. Yeah, there are a few that still think I could have won, but they are, they are just flat wrong.

SM: And my last question, and this is the scene that we always remember, the helicopters off flying off the embassy in-in Saigon in 1975. And, but I reflect back on the Paris Peace talks of 1973. And I, to me, and I do not know how you feel it is the peace talks were a farce, because here they were meeting in Paris, and then when it was all over the peace talks, you know, the war would come to an end. And then we saw what happened North Vietnam just kept coming throughout all of South Vietnam, and then they end up taking over, it is-I- Just your thoughts on see the feelings of when the war ended in 1975. Seeing the helicopters-

BM: I-I-I understand that in uh, uh 1971, you know, Haldeman was the assistant to Nixon, along with Haldeman. Haldeman maintained guard, which he comes. And he talked about, I do not have the page um. But there was also a wonderful column written by Maureen Dowd about it, that Nixon said um, “You wanted to end the Vietnam War.” And Kissinger said, “You cannot do that. If we ended now, the probability that by the (19)72 election, the North will have overwhelmed the South um is not going to be good politically. So, to preserve political viability, you have to carry the war phone.” Now, that is Haldeman's diary. And when you realize that Kissinger continued the war for several years, just to maintain political viability, for Nixon's reelection um, what more needs to be said. The other thing I would say to you is what I said to you when we met one time, you have to read the book Hanoi’s War because it will give you a very different understanding of what was going on-on the Vietnamese side. So, without reading that book, I think you are going to be significantly wrong in your impression to what was going on. And I found amazing that not that many years ago and it came, you know, on this anniversary date of whatever it was the Vietnam you know was so critical of general [inaudible] for Tet Offensive and so on and so forth. But the point of view and fun fact: Hoi Chi Minh had nothing to do with the leadership of Vietnam for a good while before he died. He was maintained his status as a figurehead [inaudible] vehemently opposed the TET offensives. And, you know, when he lost the debate of Lumley to Lees Wanda was in charge [inaudible] actually left the country during the Tet offensive as further demonstration of his complete lack of support. But what happened? So, I think if you want to do some commentary on what was actually going on, understanding that Kissinger prolonged war for years, simply for political viability, and a better understanding on the Vietnamese side, if you read Hanoi’s War it would be important. Okay. All right. One more quick question.

SM: No, I just just-just your final thoughts on um where we are as a nation today, and why we cannot seem to get over the-the divisions that took place in the (19)60s?

BM: Well, the (19)60s um have been wiped out. People do not remember, the whole Vietnam era, certainly not going to need the lessons that it paid for in blood and despair by millions of people, they really still do not know what we actually did. Um, and, you know, you have got other issues, not Vietnam, that are really increasingly and will continue to create substantial social distress and divisions within our country. Uh, because you have got the dismantling of a lot of globalization stuff uh. Because of people you know like Trump, you have climate change, which is already in evidence is having a profound effect um, generating refugees, and if you do any deep reading at all, you are going to realize that this is now unstoppable and will uh absolutely um within the foreseeable future, end civilization as we know it. And if you have not had a chance, I would get on Netflix, and watch a very good eight-episode documentary narrated by David Attenborough called Our Planets. It is on Netflix. And if you have not read the book, The Uninhabitable Earth, you absolutely need to. And you realize that the issues that we are facing, because climate change, loss of biodiversity, artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber capabilities, warfare vulnerabilities, etc. The ability to genetically alter and weaponized a virus, that those are the concerns that need to be recognized uh. etc. So I think the whole Vietnam experience is basically in the history books and forgotten. I do not think, at all, that that is uh what is driving anything in politics today. Other than the fact that after Watergate, that basic confidence that the American public had in its political leadership institutions, plummeted, and has never come back. So, I think as a society, we view our relationship with government um very, very differently. And there are people that can exploit it in different ways, as we are seeing, and it is all going to get worse. And Vietnam is barely a footnote in the process. Steve, I got to go because I have to run someplace and good luck to you with the project-

SM: Thank you very much Bobby and we got to have lunch again.

BM: Okay.

SM: Take care bye. Thank you.

(End of Interview)

Date of Interview



Stephen McKiernan


Bobby Muller

Biographical Text

Bobby Muller was born and raised in Great Neck, Long Island. He attended Hofstra University for Business Administration. He then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and his commission began the same day he received his bachelor's degree. He quickly rose to become Combat Lieutenant leading a Marine infantry platoon. While leading an assault in Vietnam in 1969, he was shot and paralyzed from the waist down. After returning from Vietnam, he became a peace activist and a strong advocate for veterans' rights. A few years later, he received his law degree from Hofstra University and founded Vietnam Veterans of America in 1978 and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in 1980 to fight for fair treatment of war veterans. He co-founded the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines as well as the Nuclear Threat Reduction Campaign and Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform. Then, in 2004, he founded Alliance for Security.





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Binghamton University Libraries

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The 1960s; Marines; Vietnam; Anti-War; VVAW; Vietnam Veterans Against the War; VA; Affirmative Action; Treatment of veterans; Climate change.



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Stephen McKiernan's collection of interviews includes more than two hundred interviews with prominent figures of the 1960s, which were collected between the mid-1990s and 2010s. The collection provides narratives of people who were actively involved in or witnessed events in the 1960s, an era which spurred profound cultural and… More

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“Bobby Muller,” Digital Collections, accessed May 28, 2024,