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Genesis of a Fatal War, pt. 4
The 1960s’ Unheeded Lessons

American cover stories, May 18, 1970 and April 12, 1971

This is the fourth in a series of related essays marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq War. Part one is available here, part two here, part three here.

Obnoxious and largely inaccurate nostalgia over the “Greatest Generation” aside, World War II established the United States as the superpower it hasn’t stopped being since, economically and militarily. The Korean War was the true beginning of the Cold War, which created in this country what we now know as the national security state and the twin dominance of the military establishment, the us-and-them mentality that keeps the United States on a war footing so corrosively, but without which there would be no military establishment. We took a break from the madness in the 1990s, but the same idea returned in 2001. Instead of the war on Communism, we have the war on terror. In both cases, the nation’s leaders positioned themselves and the national discussion in this frame of mind: You’re for freedom and for America if you’re against Communism. No gray areas. Therefore everything that opposed some American value, whether opposition to segregation or opposition to inequality, was opposition to the American mission, making you a disloyal American. It was a neat, powerful way to ward off change. That’s what the conservatism of the 1950s was all about. It’s also what conservatism today is all about. By conflating everything liberal as anti-American or America-hating, it attempts to discredit opposition whether or not it has anything to do, say, with the war in Iraq .

But World War II had also started something that the polite conservatism of Dwight Eisenhower and the rabidity of Joe McCarthy couldn’t stop. World War II sped up the great black migration north, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement. The GI Bill started that great experiment in mass higher education as millions of returning soldiers went to college. So those progressive forces moved not necessarily in concert but together against the reactionary forces of the Cold War establishment, the Red Scare types, the supposedly benevolent imperialism of Vietnam. We got the 1960s as a result.

Thanks to the conservative resurgence that began with Ronald Reagan in 1980, the 1960s took a severe and mostly undeserved beating. It was supposedly the decade when the country began “slouching toward Gomorrah,” in the words of Robert Bork, the former federal appeals court judge who tends to slouch toward anything suppressive and autocratic. But the conservative story-line about the 1960s is bankrupt. Iraq and the Bush years have exposed conservatism for the duplicitous opportunism that it’s been. Ronald Reagan is crying on the cover of Time because he sees what’s coming. It’s a matter of time before the 60s experience a resurgence of their own — as a model of constructive self-doubt and social renewal.

The 1960s are the last time the nation really questioned itself about its role in the world and its purpose as a nation. The wars in Vietnam and on America’s streets were unhealthy symptoms of a nation in trouble. But they provoked healthy soul-searching. Who of that angriest generation doesn’t remember distinctly the kind of traumas that reverberated here because of what was going on over there—the Tet Offensive, Walter Cronkite’s “We Are Mired in Stalemate” declaration on CBS in February 1968, the My Lai massacre exposed in November 1969, the killings at Kent State in May 1970, the “hard hats riots” in New York City a few weeks later, the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam, the escalation into Cambodia. All of those things did something to the country even as the country was trying to do something about Vietnam.

Martin Luther King anticipated that national soul-searching as far back as 1967 when he had this to say about the Vietnamese in his famous Beyond Vietnam speech: “They must see Americans as strange liberators. […] For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam . […] The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy—and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us—not their fellow Vietnamese—the real enemy. […] What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe ? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?”

Replace the word Vietnam with the word Iraq, and you get a picture that has hardly changed. It’s not about land reform this time. It’s about democracy. It’s not even about democracy anymore. It’s about security. And in fact it’s never been about security, WMDs, terrorism or even regional stability. It’s always been about oil, otherwise we’d be invading places like the Congo and the Sudan, where literally millions of people have been killed in civil war and ethnic cleansing. Why isn’t the national conscience so eager to go over there and create free and democratic republics? Well, first off they’re black. Second, there’s no oil, or not much anyway. The Sudan has some, but the oil conveniently flows where the blood doesn’t. So Martin Luther King was onto something when he referred to “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”

It would be another six years after King’s speech before Richard Nixon removed ground troops from Vietnam, and eight years until that last helicopter flew off the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. The war provoked a rethinking of America’s role in the world and of the American presidency. But then came Gulf War I, which essentially rehabilitated the United States as the world’s policeman, and then came the second Bush, and then came that 9/11. For a moment there, we did have the glimmer of a nation stopping to wonder: who are we, what are we becoming, who could possibly want us such harm that we don’t quite understand? And for a moment, the world’s solidarity, Iran and China and the entire club of dictatorships and tyrannies among them, was with the United States.

But just as Bush was to squander a world of good will in the aftermath of the attacks, he also squandered a chance at redefining American purpose in the world. He reduced absolutely everything to that Manichaean view of the world as good and evil, us versus them, us being the virtuous saviors of the world, them being the evil ones out to destroy us and the world. That’s not to say that the acts that had targeted the United States weren’t evil, and that there wasn’t a world of good to defend against them. But all of a sudden we were caught in the juvenile world of comic-book and superhero babble at a time that evoked something closer to Dante’s Inferno or Paradise Lost. There was no national discussion, no questioning. Can any of us think of a single great speech delivered in the last six years that comes anywhere close to the kind of self-reflective themes Martin Luther King tackled in his Beyond Vietnam speech?

Instead, we had the House of Representatives passing the Iraq War Resolution by a vote of 296 to 133, the Senate by a vote of 77 to 23. Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, the majority leader at the time, John Edwards, John Kerry, Bill Nelson, Jay Rockefeller, Joe Biden, Max Cleland, who would later go around in his wheelchair campaigning for Kerry and bashing Bush over the Iraq war, Harry Reid, the current Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer—they all voted for the war. Only one Republican Senator voted against it. That was Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, and ironically he was defeated by a Democrat in the last election. Yes, there were a few Democrats voting against the war, and even some of them trying to make an impression from the floor of the Senate: Barbara Boxer, Robert Byrd, Russ Feingold, Florida’s Bob Graham and the late Paul Wellstone. But they weren’t even voices in the wilderness. They were treated like curiosities, like radicals, and in some cases called disloyal, anti-American, part of that liberal left that just wants the worst for America. Where were the debates? Where were the discussions?

Subversion doesn’t happen only against governments. The most effective purveyors of subversion are governments. They subvert the truth. They subvert history. They subvert the healthy will to doubt, to question, to oppose. The Bush administration did all those things in the last six years. The country may be slouching as a result — back to the healthy subversions of the 1960s. It’s about time, although the malfeasance of the Reagan-Bush-Bush axis over Iraq remains the overriding subversion of any attempt to return the nation to a healthier, more humble, more questioning self.

Next: Saddam Hussein, Ronald Reagan and the Gassing of Iran.

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