Wednesday, March 30, 2005

A mind is a difficult thing to change: interlude

Part 4 is percolating. But this isn't it; not yet. I'm finding it slow going, perhaps because it deals with the Vietnam War. Astounding how that event casts such a long shadow even now--or perhaps especially now.

I think Part 4 will be out soon, soon. But, in the meantime...

I was thinking about whether there were any formative defining political events that occurred in the years between the 50s and the commitment of regular US troops (as opposed to Green Beret advisors) to Vietnam. Naturally, the first thing that came to mind was Kennedy's assassination. But I'm not going to deal with it in any depth because, although it was certainly a dramatic and heart-wrenching event, I don't think it was an event that caused any sort of political change. The ramifications of Kennedy's assassination had nothing to do with policy or changing parties or political beliefs. Most of us reacted on an intensely personal emotional level.

I think it must be difficult for anyone born afterwards to understand the profound shock inherent in Kennedy's assassination. Those of us who'd grown up in the 50s were well aware--perhaps hyper-aware--of the threat of atomic war (as I've discussed in Part 3), but I think I can speak for most of us when I say that something on the order of Kennedy's death was almost literally unthinkable, right up till the day it happened.

I was fifteen years old at the time, and, like most others, I can vividly remember the exact moment I heard the news. The details are not interesting--I was a sophomore in high school, in school when I heard he was shot, then sent home early to have my mother tell me the news that he was dead--but the sense of fear and unreality and downright sorrow were profound. In fact, I cried almost unceasingly for four days, right up to and through the funeral, and I was hardly alone.

What was I weeping for? Many things, including Kennedy's wife and children. But I think it was really lost innocence--my own--that I was weeping for. Despite the atomic fears of the 50s, and then the Cuban missile crisis, our sense was that all threats would come from outside. We had a sense of security within this country, a sense of internal personal safety from our own countrymen, that was as powerful as it turned out to be false. Kennedy's death tore the veil away and exposed the ugly reality--violent death, hideous and bloody, could come unawares, even on a sunny untroubled day, even to the great, powerful, young, and beautiful, even without a missile to be seen in the sky.

Life magazine published stills of the Zapruder photos, but in those far more protective days they left out the most horrific ones, the frames in which Kennedy's head seemed to explode. But we had seen Oswald murdered, live, on TV, and that was a further assault on our sense of security. It seemed that the world had opened itself up to chaos.

We had heard of assassinations before; after all, there was Lincoln. But that was fusty old history, not reality. But now the two intersected, and now--even though we would never have described it that way--now we, too, had entered history.

Where we remain, today.

[ADDENDUM: For Part IVA, go here.]

14 Comments:

At 4:02 PM, March 31, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

So we entered history, did we? And where were we, or you, before? Never-never land? Whose fault is that? Your comments only reinforce my belief that in tandem with American 'exceptionalism' goes American naivete. We are so rich, so secure, and so far from everyone else that we'd like to forget the rest of the world exists...and is not like us. We have always been 'in history,' albeit in a very privileged part of it. That's something to be thankful for, certainly, but it's something to keep in mind when you start trying to analyze what's going on. The fact that we, as nation, prefer to forget this is one root-cause of our worst blunders in foreign policy.

 
At 7:14 PM, March 31, 2005, Blogger Bryan J Weitzel said...

Lichanos,

And we are so different from the rest of the world... how? How often does the Chinese farmer even think of the "idea" of America? Or the Nigerian tribesman? Or the Brazilian businessman? Or the Canadian? Are any of them so consumed with The United States of America that they think of us in anything but general terms or even just a background idea that they have a general concept of where we are on the globe.

The truth is that the vast majority of people on the planet really only care about living there own lives. Personally, I don't see anything wrong with that. If I get too worked up about what I see going on in the rest of the world, I'm going to want someone to do something about it. And that is exactly what the left is mad at the right for today. The left is always saying we should do something, and when we do, they don't like what we did. So I'm going to stick with answering reference questions, helping people find the book that they want, and in my own time I'll work on my photography. I'll let France take care France from now on.

(I'm not really serious when I think this: but sometimes I kinda hope that in twenty years the Germans invade France again just so we can say "Sorry, it's not our place to get involved.")

 
At 9:06 PM, March 31, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

Bryan,

Yes, you're right about the mental priorities of people, and there is nothing wrong with that at all, but when one begins to make statements about philosophy, politics, or policy, presumably one is trying to think rationally, and this means making an effort to think in ways that might not be the same old same old of everyday. Otherwise, who would care to listen?

Is it only the Left that rants about what we should do in the rest of the world? I think not. Some 'conservatives' would like to bomb the hell of some places, invade others, subsidize politicians in still others, and pressure yet others on their family planning policy. I don't begrudge them the right to try to do that, I just don't like their policies.

As for the day dream of Germany invading France, don't you think that might have repercussions for the USA if they did? If Iraq was a threat, well, then...?

Either we decide to think straight when we think, or we just rant and rave. Take your pick.

 
At 10:40 PM, March 31, 2005, Anonymous neo-neocon said...

lichanos: the "we" who entered history refers to "we who were children or teenagers at that time." Surely you can't fault them for naivete--although I'm sure you can try.

 
At 12:33 AM, April 01, 2005, Anonymous Erich Schwarz said...

Lichanos,

America wasn't (and, as far as I can tell, mostly still isn't) in "a very privileged" part of history -- just in "a relatively decent and sane" part.

Which isn't going to keep a lot of people from whingeing about You Spoiled Americans Just Don't Get The World's Angst, of course.

Anyhoo. I was too young to see, let alone remember, the Kennedy assassination. But I'm just barely old enough to remember it (and the murders of MLK and RFK, five years later) casting a long dark shadow over American politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The assassinations of the 1960s did, indeed, induce radical despair in a way that's difficult to recapture now without either memory or considerable historical imagination.

 
At 8:22 AM, April 01, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

I certainly don't expect children and teens to be above naivete regarding history, but it seems to me that much of our adult population has not learned much from their maturity in the real world. Look at how people talk of the Vietnam War, for example. It still makes many powerful people blush with embarrassment that we lost it, instead of wondering why we were there, and if there is anything reasonable we could have done differently. My point was not to diss teenagers - my point was that America as a society oftens acts on an immature point of view appropriate to teens and pre-teens. Of course, so do other nations, but is that an excuse?

As for the comment:

-America wasn't (and, as far as I can tell, mostly still isn't) in "a very privileged" part of history -- just in "a relatively decent and sane" part.-

Well, if the rest of the world is sunk in Hobbesian brutality, isn't it a bit of a "privilege" to inhabit a "decent and sane" part of it? Quibble with the word if you like, but I thank my ancestors practically every day for their decision to emmigrate here. I can't begin to list the places I'm glad I DON'T live, even if I had a comparable socio-economic position there. Pakistan, Uganda, Kazahkstan, India, China,Brazil...I'll take my privileges gladly.

 
At 10:47 AM, April 01, 2005, Blogger Bryan J Weitzel said...

Lichanos,

You said: "As for the day dream of Germany invading France, don't you think that might have repercussions for the USA if they did?"

Yeah, probably. But it's still a nice fantasy sometimes. I know we could never "really" abandon them to their fates.

But you bring up another point that I find interesting. You said: "Look at how people talk of the Vietnam War, for example. It still makes many powerful people blush with embarrassment that we lost it, instead of wondering why we were there, and if there is anything reasonable we could have done differently."

The reason we were there was because Kennedy and Johnson were unwilling to abandon Southern Vietnam to the Chinese backed communists. The reason we lost was because they didn't have the stomach for a real war and they tried to control the scale of it. Unfortunately, when you go at things piecemeal, and place limitations on your military that prevent them from winning (do not bomb in the north? do not go into Cambodia when that is where the enemies supply line is?) is it any surprise we lost?

While I don't agree with the way the war was waged, and I am definitely not a fan of Kennedy or Johnson, I think what they "wanted" to do was the right thing. We shouldn't have abandoned the south to the communists any more than we should abandon the French to the Germans.

What should we have done? Well, we only had two choices: do nothing or... go to war to win. Sanctions and Diplomacy weren't going to do a damn thing in that situation.

"Limited Warfare" is the worst option and always will be. Anytime you try to limit the scope of conflict, the best option for your opponent is to escalate matters. This is for two reasons: 1) you're not prepared for it. 2) It's not what you want.

 
At 11:28 AM, April 01, 2005, Blogger Lichanos said...

BJW;

"... it's still a nice fantasy sometimes. I know we could never "really" abandon them to their fates."

Nice to know you realize their fates and ours are intertwined. And just what's your problem with the French, anyway? Get over it.

As for Vietnam, considering the millenium of enmity between China and Vietnam, maybe we shouldn't have been so eager to assume that the "Chinese backed Communists" would be such a threat to us. After all, most of NV's aid was from Russia, who had their own problems with China. And they won, and now look - they want to be capitalists. So what was the war about if not poorly thought out policy options based on foolish ignorance of geography and history?

 
At 10:41 AM, May 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bryan J Weitzel:
(I'm not really serious when I think this: but sometimes I kinda hope that in twenty years the Germans invade France again just so we can say "Sorry, it's not our place to get involved.")

Actually, that's exactly what you did say at the time.

 
At 12:01 AM, May 18, 2005, Blogger John Moreschi said...

I just discovered this post about Kennedy. There is a very interesting book from the '90s (Generations) that postulates a huge cultural shift from the post-war Ozzie and Harriet world to the sex-drug-and rock and roll world of the '60s happened with the shock of the Kennedy assassination.

The cultural shift would have happened anyway around some other event because the boomers were coming of age and were going to change the culture dramatically, but the JFK assassination was the marking point of the dividing line.

 
At 2:56 AM, February 05, 2006, Anonymous texasneo said...

hello fellow neo cons i come from the state of texas and really feel that there is a social battle , that we are going to have to fight in this country. We
may have to engage in civil war someday to keep what we have or risk losing it all.

 
At 12:08 AM, July 20, 2006, Blogger mjk said...

lichanos,


The war did cause the communists to know we were serious about resisting their expansion, and I think limited their expansion elsewhere. If we had won perhaps more people in Vietnam would thank their ancestors practically every day for their decision to emigrate there. Instead over a million people were killed in that region after the war, and had to live under those regimes for 30+ years. If the Nazis had won, there is a very good chance they would not still be in power in France, that does not somehow make their occupation acceptable.

 
At 11:45 AM, March 23, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

I'm surprised that you don't count the civil rights movement a signficant formative event.

Perhaps your politics were already in line with it just as you were already afraid of nuclear war before the Cuban Missile crisis. However, I would have thought that events as significant as these would have intensified your previous commitments.

 
At 6:12 PM, November 03, 2008, Blogger Leofwende said...

Though we are admittedly too young to remember these events, my husband has made note to me several times in the past weeks that Kennedy's assassination actually opened the way for Johnson, whose policies pushed far more to the left than Kennedy was leaning, mostly in the form of economic initiatives, welfare programs, etc.

I'm not sure I would consider myself a neocon; more a libertarian-conservative; socially liberal/moderate, fiscally conservative. I'm somewhere in between on foreign policy.

 

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