Thomas Phillip “Tip” O’Neill, Jr. (1912-1994) served as a Representative for Massachusetts’s Congressional delegation from 1953-1987, including ten years as Speaker of the House (1977-1987). He was also a Boston College alumnus (’36). O’Neill donated his Congressional papers to Boston College in 1988. The collection, which sprawls across 428 linear feet of shelf space, includes not only legislative memos and drafts, but also photographs, news clippings, plaques, trophies, and a collection of donkey-themed bric-a-brac. It also contains many letters from constituents. During O’Neill’s decades-long Congressional tenure, some of the defining events of the American post-war period occurred, including President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and Watergate, but no single event cast its shadow over the midcentury American political landscape quite like the Vietnam War. The highly controversial conflict in Indochina inspired seven boxes of correspondence from Massachusetts residents eager to express their opinions on the war and Tip’s stance on it. Arranged chronologically, the Vietnam subject files form a record of civic participation in the political process.
Readers familiar with O’Neill’s strong opposition to the war in later years may be surprised to learn that he shifted to an anti-war position in late 1967. Prior to that, O’Neill’s stance was decidedly more equivocal. He sometimes hedged his responses to his constituents’ anti-war letters, expressing concern while also refusing to take a definite stand: “I know of no American who is at ease with the thought of wars, but I know of no American who would willingly yield to Communist aggression. It is my firm belief that we must stand strongly behind our President who alone bears the awesome task of protecting our freedom.” O’Neill’s attempts to navigate the controversy surrounding the war could sometimes embroil him in difficulties.On January 7, 1966, he spoke at a rally in support of U.S. policy in Vietnam in the Massachusetts State House. Organizer Larry Straw wrote him a thank-you letter in which he hoped that “news of these rallies will reach the President and give him strength to make the necessary policies to see that freedom prevails in South Viet Nam.” However, many more letters took umbrage to one particular quote that O’Neill delivered at that rally, as reported by the Boston Herald: “I believe in academic freedom, but not as it is expounded by kooks and commies and egghead professors.” This remark would return to haunt him as multiple letters quoted it in outrage at its characterization of dissenters from official policy. O’Neill’s letters to President Johnson around this time reveal how beleaguered he felt by the barrage of anti-war activity. He informed Johnson on July 18, 1967, “I found the climate of my own District changing rapidly with reference to Vietnam,” adding a note of surprise that the 3,000 attendees of a recent Cambridge Peace Fair “were mainly from a solid middle class social and economic status and there was no evidence of the youthful agitators [he] had expected.” A year and a half after his controversial remark, he found the growing crowds of dissenters harder to dismiss.
Two months after sending that letter to Johnson, O’Neill officially repudiated his earlier support for the President’s war efforts. The September 1967 edition of his newsletter to his constituents, Report from Washington, opens with an essay, “Vietnam: Solution or Stalemate?” in which O’Neill reverses years of his defensive posturing on the issue:
“By August of this year, more than 12,000 young Americans had been killed and 75,000 had been wounded in an exotic land 8,000 miles from home… As a citizen, Congressman, and father, I cannot help but wonder whether this may not be too high a price to pay for an obscure and limited objective. Nor am I alone in my doubts over the growing U.S. involvement in an inherently civil conflict. Judging from the thousands of letters I have received in the past few months, the great majority of you are also upset by the specter of further escalation and an ever-widening war…”
The “thousands of letters” O’Neill received regarding the war up to that date were a trickle compared to the deluge of communication, expressing both support and condemnation, that followed this announcement. The September 1967 letters directly responding to that newsletter occupy two folders in the collection: “Opposition” and “Support.” To give some quantifiable idea of the relative volume of correspondence in each category, I weighed the respective files. The “Opposition” file comes to six ounces; the “Support” file, almost exactly two and a half pounds, or six and two-thirds times greater than the opposition. Both sides invoke the dead. In the “Opposition” file, one constituent writes, “I spent ten months, six of which were in the ‘field,’ the rest in so-called safe areas. Five of my friends died there, two directly for me. I would be very dismayed if we were to halt the bombing of North Viet Nam.” In the “Support” file, another writes, “I have known four boys so far that have been killed in Vietnam and they have ranged from the ages of 19 to 21. It seems now that the parents of this country raise children to have them killed.”Tip O’Neill’s position shifted at a time when public opinion as a whole tilted further away from supporting the United States’ involvement in the ongoing conflict. Further developments as the war progressed continued to trigger surges of letters from constituents, up to and even after the war’s termination in 1973. I will explore what the O’Neill Papers contain regarding these developments in my next post.
- Eric Pencek, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD Candidate in the English Department
- “400 at Rally Here Back Viet Policy.” Boston Herald, January 8, 1966. Box 296, Folder 2.
- MacLeod, Stanley. Letter to Tip O’Neill. September 6, 1967. Box 297, Folder 1.
- Murphy, Mary. Letter to Tip O’Neill. September 5, 1967. Box 297, Folder 2.
- O’Neill, Tip. Letter to Irene J. Westing, January 6, 1966. Box 296, Folder 2.
- —. Letter to Larry Straw, January 18, 1966. Box 296, Folder 3.
- —. Letter to Lyndon B. Johnson, July 18, 1967. Box 296, Folder 8.
- —. “Vietnam: Solution or Stalemate?” Report from Washington, September 12, 1967.
- Straw, Larry. Letter to Tip O’Neill, January 8, 1966. Box 296, Folder 3.