The 1960S: WKU alumnus discusses the Vietnam War, conflict and race
(Editor’s note: Edwin Watkins, 68, was a freshman majoring in history at Western Kentucky University during the fall 1967-spring 1968 academic year. He turned 18 on New Year’s Day in 1968 and signed up for the draft. At the time, a man could get a student deferment if he attended college and be deferred from service until he was too old to be drafted, according to the Selective Service System. Watkins discussed the Vietnam War, conflict and black students at WKU during his time at WKU.)
By Olivia Mohr
Prior to Congress’s draft reform in 1971, the same year Watkins graduated from Western Kentucky University, Watkins said the draft board system was “fairly corrupt.” According to the Selective Service System, state and local boards used a “quota system” to assign men to the draft, and conflicts of interest often arose because the boards determined who to draft. Watkins said men who got out of high school late also were treated poorly by the draft board system.
“If you had connections, you didn’t go,” Watkins said. “And if you were a little late getting out of high school, for example, if you were of age, you were going.”
Watkins said a friend of his from high school was a credit or two short of graduating high school, so he had to attend an extra year, and when he finished, he was drafted.
Watkins is originally from Knox County in Corbin, which he described as a poor area. He said a far higher percentage of soldiers came from poor areas like Knox County and from inner-city, low-income areas.
During Watkins’ sophomore year at WKU, the draft system changed to a lottery system under President Richard Nixon. This happened in 1969 and meant 366 blue-plastic capsules containing birth dates were placed in a glass container and hand-drawn to determine which men between the ages of 18 and 26 were going to be selected for the draft in order of the draw.
Watkins said the men drawn earlier were the ones drafted based on the Department of Defense’s assessment of troop needs. His birth date was the 305th drawn, so his chances of getting drafted were less likely. He believed he wasn’t going and “loved that.”
Though Watkins started college in an effort to avoid the draft, he grew to enjoy WKU, and once he earned enough credit hours to graduate in 1971, “Why not?” he said.
He began work as a history teacher at Henry Clay High School in Lexington. He is now retired and lives in Bowling Green.
Though Watkins got a high draft number during the lottery, some people he knew got lower numbers, including his roommate, who wanted to serve. However, his roommate passed ROTC and served as a training officer but never ended up leaving Kentucky. He served as a training officer in Fort Campbell and Fort Knox but never went to Vietnam, Watkins said.
Around the time Watkins graduated, he said “well over” 500,000 American soldiers had been sent to Vietnam.
“A lot of them weren’t coming back, and the ones who did come back were messed up, and many remained so to this day, just the whole horror of the thing,” he said.
Before the truth about the Vietnam War was made public through the release of the Pentagon Papers, which the New York Times first published in June 1971, Watkins said he “wasn’t gung-ho” about the war but “certainly wouldn’t have been out protesting against it.”
He just knew he didn’t want to fight in it.
“That’s the only reason I went to college initially,” Watkins said. “I was scared to death.”
Later his view changed, he said.
“It quickly became apparent to me that it was just a huge waste and bunch of bull, and a lot of guys were dying for no good reason at all, and it’s just a disgraceful thing,” he said.
Black students at WKU
Where Watkins grew up in Corbin, there were very few black people.
“When I came [to WKU] in the fall of (1967), I don’t think I’d ever seen a black person up close — maybe on a football field, but you can’t tell much as they run past you,” he said with a laugh. “I’d certainly never been in the same room with one or spoken with a black person.”
He thought the same was probably true with the black students too — that they didn’t have much experience interacting with white students — because both white and black students at the time spent the beginning of their lives in segregated schools.
“It was a meeting point for all of us — kind of a melting pot, I guess,” he said.
Watkins said WKU’s basketball team helped white and black students come together. It was before some bigger schools would recruit black players, he said, but WKU recruited several. Though he doesn’t remember much racial tension with the basketball team, he said there was racial tension when he came to WKU basketball games when he was in high school. His first time at a WKU basketball game was as a senior in high school the winter before he began attending WKU.
During every time out of every game “there were almost as many Confederate flags waving as Red Towels,” he said. “And they played ‘Dixie’ a lot.”
He said those things didn’t happen during his years at WKU, but he said the events were an example of how “strange” things could be during the 1960s.
Conflict and assassinations
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in early April 1968, Watkins said it happened right as spring break began, so he didn’t see the immediate reactions of black students on campus. However, when students returned from break, he said there were some demonstrations on campus by black students.
Though Watkins does not recall the demonstrations being violent, he said after King’s assassination, race relations grew more tense and distrustful.
Watkins recalled thinking that more radical, militant “Black Power” activists would take over the Civil Rights Movement after King’s assassination because they already criticized King’s peaceful approach.
“White racists had demonized Dr. King, so they had no trouble demonizing these genuinely militant activists,” Watkins wrote in an email interview.
When Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in early June 1968, just two months after King was assassinated, Watkins said in the email that his death “was devastating to young people.”
Watkins said he believes that had Kennedy lived, he likely would have been elected president instead of Nixon, and the war would have ended quickly.
“It was just stunning news,” Watkins said in the email. “Of course, we were used to assassinations by this time. It felt like we coming apart at the seams. It felt a lot like we feel now after the latest mass shooting.”