Words in a time of war

At the age of 93 — three decades after retiring as a history professor at now-Southern Oregon University — Vaughn Davis Bornet has published another in a long list of books, this one compiling his many speeches in the Rogue Valley during the tumultuous years of the Vietnam War.

A retired U.S. Naval Reserves commander with a doctorate from Stanford University, Bornet called the war a mistake, one he found it hard to oppose publicly. So in speeches before groups on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and the Fourth of July, Bornet used his pulpit to explain the treacherous geopolitics of a nuclear-armed America and Soviet Union.

His new book, "Speaking Up for America in the Rogue River Valley During the Vietnam War," is a series of speeches delivered at then-Southern Oregon College, in Hawthorne and Lithia parks, at naturalization ceremonies, to the Campus Christian Ministry and before the Medford Rotary Club, where, at the end of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he said we must remain strong — and strong in our will not to use that strength.

"I had a hard time with Vietnam," Bornet said in an interview Monday.

"A lot of people still have a hard time saying we lost a war. People are abnormally evasive about it and call it 'the Vietnam era,' not the Vietnam War. But I'm doing what people who have guts do, to say it was a war, and we lost it. Not to say that is ridiculous and cowardly," he said.

An inveterate researcher, editor, author and collaborator with authors, Bornet in the 1950s worked at RAND Corp., assisting with Herman Kahn's "On Thermonuclear War," which proposed alternatives to massive retaliation and used game theory to envision endless world wars.

At RAND, a global policy think tank, Bornet notes he was appalled by casual discussions of the neutron bomb, which killed all the people but left a city intact for the conquerors, and by bullets made of plastic, so that surgeons couldn't find them and the wounded wouldn't be saved.

Bornet was a researcher-writer with the Ford and Volker foundations, Encyclopedia Brittanica and American Medical Association. With his wife, Beth, he came to Ashland in 1963 to teach at SOC. He served 20 years on the Oregon Committee of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The long list of books, monographs and articles he's written covers 14 pages and includes books on Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover and labor politics. He also collaborated on the best-selling textbook "The American Pageant: a History of the Republic."

Bornet said he was chosen for the Civil Rights Commission because "I was the most liberal Republican they could find ... a Hatfield-Packwood kind of Republican, though I can't vote for the kind of people they nominate now for statewide office."

Bornet's speeches and columns published in local newspapers often explained the Cold War policies of deterrence, which meant "a standoff, where we have weapons that can destroy you and you have weapons that can destroy us, so we will both be alert and prepared and not use our weapons."

Bornet noted, "It's a game, one we don't seem to be playing anymore. The Russians bragged last week they'll rebuild their nuclear force, but talk is cheap. They're always saying things like that."

Having been financially devastated as a boy during the Great Depression and then having survived World War II, Bornet said modern Americans have little understanding of rationing, sacrifice or fearing war might come to their doorstep.

"Back then, when you went in your kitchen or got in your car, you knew you were fighting a war — and you knew it when you sent a letter with a one-cent stamp to your son," Bornet said. "The American public today is not worried something will happen to them and they're not helping and they're sure not paying for it.

"In World War II, I never bought anything — not a radio or shoes, nothing."

Though Bornet opposed the Vietnam War, he said it was "shameful" when SOC students in 1966 tore down the American flag — "because a veteran will never do that."

In a talk to the Ashland Rotary just after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the Vietnam problem was still small, Bornet warned that America faced danger, not from the absence of weapons, but from their presence — but yet, disarmament was an equal danger.

"Above everything," Bornet concluded, "we must control our fears and subdue our passions. We must work constantly to make sure that our nation, while it may be armed to the teeth, clings anyway to its basic heritage of decency and humanity.

"We must not fail in this. If we do, we will also fail to retain on our side the nations and peoples who share our belief in the perfectibility of mankind and in the possibility of guaranteeing perpetual peace."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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