Every Drop Is Needed
Jeffrey S. Victor
© Copyright 2021 by Jeffrey S. Victor
Outsiders in a Small Town
My wife and I were both “outsiders” when we arrived in the small town of Jamestown, in rural Western New York, in 1965. We had been married only months before in Michele’s village in France. I was from the Long Island suburbs of New York City. We came from quite different cultures, religions and life experiences. Yet, at a deeper level, we were bonded by the same basic values. Michele and I had a very unusual way of meeting. We were pen pals from our teenage years from our high school language classes, me from my French class and Michele and from her English class. This was a time before the internet when people actually wrote letters. Never expecting to meet, we confided in each other about our teenage experiences. A fortune cookie might say that you can never know where tricks of fate will take you. We have now been married 56 years and we feel that we were very lucky to have met by an accident of fate.
We came to live in Jamestown, so I could take a job as a professor teaching sociology and psychology courses in the local community college. Jamestown was once a thriving and vibrant manufacturing center for furniture and tools. It was undergoing rapid deindustrialization. Many factories and stores had closed. The wages of factory workers had not kept up with prices. Many houses were also not kept up. The bulk of the population had changed from prosperous blue-collar and lower-middle class, to poor working class and just plain poor people. The shopping was limited. There certainly were no shopping malls at that time. Instead, there were Woolworth, Murphy’s and Grant’s -- five-and-dime stores that were once the mainstays of rural America. Today, they are all gone and so are their replacements, Kmart and Sears. In the fifty-six years we have lived in Jamestown, the economic situation has become increasingly worse.
Socially, the town’s people were dominated by provincial small-town Anglo-American values and taste, in everything from food to home decoration to furniture. There were no foreign food restaurants, unless the two pizza joints count as foreign.
Almost everyone we met was conventionally conservative, politically and culturally. Almost everyone worried about being thought to have a “different” opinion. We heard people express racism and homophobia, without the least embarrassment. A few wealthy families, mostly factory owners, dominated politics. Workers who tried to organize unions were blacklisted and would never find jobs in town. Most of the local people had gone to the one city high school, stayed in town and knew each other, at least indirectly. People like us, who did not grow up in the town, were regarded as outsiders.
There was a lingering attitude of McCarthyism, long past its time. Any criticism of the nation’s military or foreign policy was regarded as suspicious of Communist sympathy. So, it is not surprising that the overwhelming opinion in Jamestown about the Vietnam War was that the war was necessary to stop Communism. Americans had a patriotic duty to support it. I recall young people coming to our door to collect money for gifts for our soldiers in Vietnam. To oppose the war in public was widely seen as being very unpatriotic.
Michele and I were both naïve about the possible dangers of coming out publicly against popular opinion about the war in a small town. We discovered that in small town America, one gets along by going along. Small towns have powerful conformity pressures in face-to-face relations which do not exist in large cities. The dark side of the easy familiarity and warm sense of community in small towns is the conformity pressure to “fit in” with prevailing opinion. They are two sides of the same coin.
out against the strongly held beliefs of the majority in small towns
can result in a person being subjected to informal ostracism and
harassment by strangers. It may even result in harassment by local
authorities. The problem was worse for Michele, because she grew up
in another country with a different culture, one that cultivates
resistance to “groupthink” and individualistic critical
Why Did I Resist Prevailing Opinion?
By spring 1966, only a year after I began teaching, my opinion about the Vietnam War had changed. I had been a strong supporter of President John Kennedy and his macho “stop the Communists policy”. Even though I couldn’t be drafted because of my job deferment, I felt compelled to try to stop Americans from needlessly dying in a useless war. I am still unsure why I felt that way. I certainly didn’t think of myself as a political “activist”. I did not and do not now think of myself as being a particularly courageous person. I wasn’t raised in a political family. I was not a “red-diaper” baby from leftist parents, as were many prominent anti-war activists. My opinion about the war began to change after a student in one of my classes asked me: “Would you be willing to give up your life to stop the Communists in Vietnam?” My answer in silent thoughts was “no”. It began there, in that dialogue.
As a psychologist, I know that “motivation” is a very slippery concept. In general, motivation refers to what causes a person to act the way they do. It is easier to identify the motives of other people, than one’s own. So, it is really difficult for me to identify the roots of my decision to act against popular opinion. Maybe it was my usual skepticism of authority and conventional wisdom, since my teenage years. Maybe it was the training I had in scientific critical thinking in graduate school that required questioning of assumed “facts”. Maybe it was because of the information that I learned how many (but not all) American soldiers regarded Vietnamese in racist ways. It was their expression of grassroots American racism. I suspect that part of my motivation came from growing up Jewish, with a hostility to racism and ethnocentrism. My wife may be right in telling me that it was my “stubbornness” that kept me going. Anyhow, in the end, it was, for me, a moral choice, a matter of conscience, based in my sense of right and wrong.
Michele strongly influenced my changing views. She saw America’s Vietnam War as an anti-colonialist, nationalist struggle for Vietnamese independence, recalling the French experience in Vietnam. It was quite natural for her to warn me: “What happened to the French in Vietnam will happen to the Americans.” She said, “You Americans shouldn’t be so arrogant”. She was right … as usual.
I was particularly influenced by Michele’s experience of living in a country occupied by a foreign military power. Michele had personal experience with the sadism that can happen when soldiers from a foreign nation, Germany occupied her country. As a very young child, she saw horrible atrocities happen in her hometown. She was only about two-and-a-half years old, when a horrifying event happened. She was in pre-school. The time was in mid-August 1944, after the Allies had landed nearby in Normandy and they were closing in on her hometown, Elbeuf, in Normandy. The Germans were very nervous, because they were trapped between the British and Canadians in the north and the Americans, under Gen. George Patton, toward the south. Canadian and American soldiers liberated her town on August 26,1944. A few days before, her pre-school teacher had warned the children not to stick their tongues out at German soldiers. Previously, a child who did that and was shot on the spot. She remembers walking hand-in-hand with a little boy. A German soldier grabbed that boy next to her and demanded that he drink liquid from a bottle he gave him. (Much later, she learned that it was lye.) The boy died writhing in agony in front of her. While the boy was dying, the soldier pointed his machine gun at people watching them from the windows of apartment buildings.
I knew that during the war in Vietnam, sadistic behavior was committed more than has been reported in the national news. I learned that from several anti-war Vietnam veterans who were students in my classes, with whom I became friends. The Mai Lai massacre was just one well-documented example. One veteran, a door gunner in a helicopter, told me how he and others had fun trying to shoot off the heads of Vietnamese farmers working in the rice fields. Another told me about an event that deeply disturbed him for years. He was involved in burning down the “hutches” of Vietnamese, with people in them, because they refused to move from the perimeter of an American airbase.
The nature of my job as a college professor influenced my desire to oppose the war. My job as a college professor of sociology required me to read a lot about the history and cultures of other countries, especially those in the news. I had always been interested in foreign cultures since my childhood, growing up with foreign-born grandparents with whom I was very close. (Perhaps that is one reason that I married a woman for another country.) I knew from my reading, that the Vietnamese were fighting against America for a national identity and independence. I also knew that the historical enemy of the Vietnamese was China, and not France or the United States. I knew from my reading that the American military and our government was lying to the American public that Americans were winning the war and that it would be over very soon. (Just like in later years, during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Finding Support, Getting Organized
In the 60s, the mainstream media reaching small towns via radio and television was full of implicitly pro-war “news”. Attempting to remain non-critical of the government during a war, the mainstream media constantly reported messages like: “The American military says that we are on the verge of defeating the Viet Cong”. At the time, most people in rural areas could only believe the television news reports showing opposition to the war existed only among weird “hippies” and “leftists” in big cities. Therefore, the goal of local anti-war protest groups across the country was to change prevailing public opinion by showing that opposition exists, where none would be imagined to exist.
Along with a few like-minded friends, I organized public events that might be covered in local newspapers and radio. Sometimes we ‘created events’ to get news publicity. For example, I got started in 1967 by organizing public debates at my Unitarian Church about current moral issues. In small town, it was an event possible to attract a sizable number of people and get covered in the local newspaper. Later, in 1968, I circulated a petition asking for an end to the war, signed by 53 professors at my college, which was sent to our Congressional representatives. In 1969, along with a several sympathetic colleagues, I organized an all-day, community-wide ‘teach-in’, featuring people from the staff and community, including Vietnam veterans. A telegram from our U.S. Senator, Charles Goodell, commended to event. The situation began to change. By the end of 1969, more and more people helped me to organize. For example, I worked with a Catholic priest and a Presbyterian minister to organize a community-wide ecumenical peace service at the local Presbyterian Church. A huge crowd of 400 people attended the service, which a significant gathering for a small town. On the same day, we organized for bus load of local people to travel to an anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. (where some of them were tear-gassed). The real turning point came on May 7, 1970, with the shooting of students at nearby Kent State University, where some students from Jamestown attended. I and a few friends organized a day-long ‘teach-in’ about the war, which was covered on the scene by the local radio and newspaper. That was followed by a march of 200 local people from the college to the Jamestown city hall, where the crowd war addressed by the sympathetic mayor. (See the attached photograph.)
was emotionally necessary for me to find support from others and
avoid becoming isolated. I was fortunate to be part of a supportive
religious group of people in the local Unitarian church. The national
association of Unitarian-Universalist churches took an official
national position opposed to the war in Vietnam on moral grounds.
Some Unitarians in nearby Buffalo even organized an “underground
railroad” to help draft resisters get established in Canada.
Years later, I met a few of them, when I visited Unitarian churches
After Nixon was elected President in 1968, repression of the anti-war movement intensified, became more systematic and often involved illegal activities. Such repression involved illegal break-ins of offices and homes (even before the Watergate break-in was revealed), widespread tapping of telephones, funding of local police counter-intelligence efforts, and placing false information in newspapers about antiwar activists. The Nixon government also sought to use the mass media to arouse public anger against antiwar protestors. These national efforts to repress dissent even reached down into small town America and made the harassment worse for people who publicly opposed the war. By “harassment", I mean any form of harmful persecution by the larger community, aimed at stopping a person’s unpopular expression.
I felt a lot of stress at times, when I had to deal with nasty reactions from some others and official harassment by authorities. I frequently brought home my feelings of stress and irritability. As a result, Michele and I displaced our tensions by arguing over trivia. She frequently told me that she wanted us to leave “this crazy country”, to live in France. We were recently married and it was a trying time for the strength of our relationship. I felt torn between my relationship with her and my stubborn desire to continue. I felt responsible to stand by other people who were helping me; to offer an example and provide support. It was a difficult, painful time. I must say that I was naive not to expect to become a target for abuse.
In a small town, such hurtful reactions from others commonly takes the form of malicious gossip and sometimes face-to-face ridicule. A few of my conservative coworkers began to ridicule me to my face. For example, I remember one who frequently greeted me with the sarcasm, “Ho Ho Chi Min,” when I passed him in a hallway. According to gossip related to me by friends, some of my coworkers stereotyped me as a “hot-headed radical”. Some even reacted to me as if I was emotionally unstable. A few of my coworkers sometimes greeted me in the faculty cafeteria as “Mr. Radical”. It was a friendly epithet, I am sure, but nonetheless unwanted. It was not how I thought of myself. Even some townspeople, total strangers, stereotyped me as that “radical” at the college.
One of the most harmful forms harassment in small towns consists of threats to one’s employment. In small towns, such abuse for unpopular identities is used against Afro-Americans, homosexuals and labor union organizers. It can also be used against people who hold unpopular religious and political beliefs. At one point, I was vilified in a local newspaper editorial as a “Communist sympathizer”. There were also letters to the editor calling upon the college to fire me, labeling me a “Communist”. The local radio talk show, hosted by a very conservative woman, presented a discussion and call-in program about what should be done about the “Communist” professor at college. (I later learned, via connections, that she was a member of the supposedly secretive John Birch Society.)
At one point, things got really hazardous when a member of the college board of trustees, a wealthy and prominent person in the community, took my wife aside at a social event and advised her to divorce me. She even offered to have her lawyer husband, a former mayor, handle the divorce. Michele was not about to consider the idea, but the threat to us was felt. Soon afterwards, the president of the college met with me to suggest that I “might be happier elsewhere”. Fortunately, I was protected by tenure and didn’t need to leave my job. After that, my wife wanted both of us to leave the country, perhaps recalling what could happen to people in Nazi occupied France who held the “wrong” political opinions.
Local vigilantes can be a danger. The local John Birch Society group spied on my activities. (The John Birch Society was an extreme right wing, secretive anti-Communist organization. It was organized into “chapters,” imitating secret cells in the Communist Party. Although, it was really not very secret.) My car was followed at times by one of their amateur subversive hunters. I could see him in the rear-view mirror of my car. I was able to confirm this vigilantism years later, by one of my students who did a field research project in one of my courses. He volunteered to join the local branch of the John Birch Society.
I also received anonymous letters containing vague threats like: “We know where you live.” I discovered the author of one such letter, when he made the mistake of enclosing it in an envelope with his business logo. He was a prominent insurance agent, extreme conservative and regular participant in a local radio talk show that had discussed having me fired from the college. He was rumored to be the boyfriend of the woman talk show host. I learned later that both participated in the local John Birch Society. It is a paradox that in a small town, one can learn things about others that would be impossible in a large city.
The 1960s and `70s were still a time when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoid suspicions of Communist influences in the anti-war movement affected the FBI. His long shadow affected the FBI during the whole era of the Vietnam War. His Counterintelligence Program’s (COINTELPRO) methods included infiltration, burglaries, illegal wiretaps, planting forged documents and spreading false rumors about key members of target organizations. As part of their COINTELPRO program, the FBI also encouraged local police to keep an eye on suspected “subversives”. I was not involved with any anti-war organization from big cities or large universities, but the local FBI agent and the local police were convinced that I must have been working with some radical group. One day, a friend from church who was active in anti-war work in Buffalo, asked to use my telephone when he was visiting me. He heard a click on it, when he began to make a call. I often heard the same sound but presumed that something was wrong with the phone. My friend told me that the click indicated that some amateur authority, probably the local police, was tapping my phone.
I eventually learned that a local Jamestown city police detective had been spying on me. I learned that from an undercover cop who had signed had up for one of my courses. He told me that he was assigned to find out if I preached the violent overthrow of the American government. Fortunately, he was more interested in getting an education than playing a spy. He advised me never to go to any party where illegal drugs were being used, because I was being “watched”. It was the practice at the time to arrest anti-war activists on drug charges. Some anti-war protestors were put in prison for as much as five years on drug offences. I knew enough in the 1960s not to use any illegal drugs for that reason. Many years later, I met the then-retired detective, when he had become a bus driver who drove my son to high school. I asked him directly if he had spied on me. He told me, “yes, you were being watched”. He tried to console me by telling me that it “wasn’t anything personal.” My thoughts were that it wasn’t anything personal for him, but for me it was very personal.
A local FBI agent spied on me directly. I learned about his spying from his wife, after she divorced him. She joined my Unitarian Church, in part because her former husband warned her to stay away from it. We met there and became friends. She told me that she would go with him to anti-war demonstrations, so he could seem to be on a family outing. I thought that his efforts were ridiculous and a waste of taxpayer’s money.
The most bizarre experience I had was my encounter with “Tommy the Traveler”. During the fall of 1969, I met a rather strange visitor to my college. Two anti-war students introduced me to him. He was in his late 20’s or early 30s, neatly dressed in a suit jacket and tie. (His appearance was a tip-off.) He talked about wanting to start “the revolution now” by “killing the pigs”. My reaction was that this guy must be either a crazy fanatic, or a police undercover agent. So, I said little and quickly walked away. Later that day, I learned that he had offered to obtain guns and bombs for those two naïve students.
Months later, in June 1970, I saw a picture of the same man on a national television news report. There was a student riot at Hobart College, which is near Jamestown. Someone had fire-bombed the ROTC building. Afterwards, students saw this man with police leading a narcotics raid on campus, which led several students to be arrested. Several hundred angry students surrounded two police cars, with the stranger inside one, and held him and the police prisoners. He had provoked the anger of students, when they learned that he was an undercover agent and had urged them to make bombs and destroy buildings.
The undercover agent was identified as Thomas Tongyai, dubbed “Tommy the Traveler” by students. He was reported to be a narcotics agent hired only by a local county sheriff’s department. It was later reported that Tongyai had been traveling for more than two years across rural Western New York State, visiting many college campuses while acting as an undercover agent for an unidentified “government agency.” Tongyai traveled as a salesman selling veterinary drugs from 1967 until mid-1969, when he was fired. The FBI sometimes hired traveling salesmen to conceal undercover work. The FBI probably paid Tongyai, as part of their COINTELPRO program. New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered a grand jury investigation of Tongyai, because of his dangerous and illegal activities. However, he was never convicted of committing any crime even though he provided students with arms and bombs.
Time changes perceptions. When I retired, an editorial in the local newspaper praised my contributions to the community. The same newspaper in 1968 had published an editorial suggesting that the college fire me. I also received a nice letter from the mayor of Jamestown lauding my influence in the community. Coincidently, he was a former student at my college, when I taught there. Before my retirement my colleagues regarded me as an elderly scholar. I feel a bit of ironic amusement, in the sense that few people now remember when I was widely labeled a “radical”. I went from a kind of pariah to a respected elder scholar.
Can one person make any realistic difference in the face of overwhelming majority opinion? Isn’t it futile? In 1964, a few years before I got involved in anti-war activities, I attended the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. There, I participated in a small discussion circle with folk singer Pete Seeger. I asked him: “Isn’t it useless for one person to try to stop the war in Vietnam?” He responded: “Every drop is needed to fill up the bucket.” I always kept that in mind when I was feeling depressed, thinking that my efforts were futile.
I feel proud of what I did? No, not really. When I think about the
kinds of dangers many people have to face, I don’t think that I
particularly courageous. I only feel that I did what I needed to do
at the time to face myself. Do I have any regrets? I regret that in
later years, our government seems to have learned nothing about
sending our soldiers into foreign countries, where our leaders don’t
understand the foreign culture and its history, such as Iraq and
Afghanistan. As a teacher, I wonder if there is anything in my
experience which might be useful for other people to learn,
especially young people. Maybe it is to avoid letting other people
define your identity for you. In other words, don’t let other
people get inside yourself and define who you are in negative ways.
You don’t have to see things the way that most other people see
them. Keep a heathy skepticism about popular opinion. But, be careful
not to be contrary about everything. Also, maybe I can offer a bit of
psychology. If some people are hurtful to you, don’t let your
resentment empower your aggressive-destructive side and weaken your
|1970, May 8: The day after the Kent State shooting of students by the Ohio National Guard about 200 people marched from the college to downtown Jamestown, to hear Mayor Stanley Lundine speak to our gathering in front of Jamestown City Hall, lending public support to the anti-war movement in Jamestown. Note the black armbands and diversity of age groups. Lundine later became a US Congressman and Lieutenant Governor of New York State.|
was employed at Jamestown Community College in New York State for 36
years from 1965 until 2001, teaching sociology and psychology
courses, on a full-time basis. I continued to teach part-time for 16
more years. I have published two books, nine chapters in edited books
and 24 articles in popular and scholarly magazines. My first
book was a textbook for college courses in Human Sexuality.
second book, Satanic Panic: The Creation of Contemporary
is a sociological research study of rumors and claims about secret
criminal satanic cults and false accusations of such crimes.
The book received the H. L. Mencken Award from the Free Press
Association for the best book of 1993 that deals with the protection
of individual rights against abuses of power. My book has
used in many criminal cases involving false accusations of crime,
supposedly committed by people in satanic cults.