as long as there is a willingness
to contemplate what is happening."
– Marshall McLuhan
Ann Vosovic is growing impatient. What were the greatest events of the 1960s? What were the greatest accomplishments of this period? What people had the greatest impact on America? The coffee has gone cold. One would expect a veteran educator like her (who, coincidentally, spent most of the 1960s either in school or teaching around the country) to at least be enthused about a decade which saw the rise of the education establishment to the forefront of the political arena, but her answers all seem to be soured by cynicism. It's getting late. When asked for a final thought about the 1960s, Ann takes a sip of her coffee and says:
Spontaneous and terse, wrought with the fury of a beat poet, Ann's reply reads like the battle cry of a lost generation, who cherished not free love but free life, whose heroes were not King and Kennedy, but X and Nixon, Ellsberg and Hoover. She is not alone.
For many Americans, the idealism of the sterile 1950s quickly dissipated with the onset of the Vietnam War. While civil rights, rock and roll, and a general dissatisfaction with black and white era conformism all played a big part in escalating national tensions, it was the fight against Communism that would ultimately lead to the emergence of a new breed of citizen, a disillusioned one, all too wary of the alleged "American" government. These were ordinary people struggling to make sense of it all, never able to recover, to recover from the crushed dreams, the broken promises, the voice of Allen Ginsberg in the back of their heads crooning, "Well, while I'm here I'll do the work – and what's the work? To ease the pain of living… Everything else, drunken dumbshow." With every body bag deployed to Southeast Asia, casualties of the war on idealism mounted – from the battlefield, at home, and even within the ranks of the government itself – and a new age of enlightenment (and with it, distrust) was born.
"American soldiers were the victims of their own Christian ethics," remarks Ann, alluding, in part, to her husband Larry. With the threat of the draft ever so present, Larry enlisted, preferring to go in as an officer, and eventually spent 1965 in Vietnam as a supply officer with the 101st airborne. Larry is a funny guy, full of entertaining quips and anecdotes characteristic of an English teacher, but like so many men of the Colonel Kurtz era, he is also resentful and suspicious.
"I'm not a hawk at all," says Larry, "but I do believe that if you declare war, you win it."
For some, like author Tim O'Brien, it was the draft that did it, the fear of being labeled a coward and the need to save face. For others, it was the recklessness of the strategy and the realization that this was all they had going for them in life. However, it is the opinion of this writer that, for Larry and the majority of army men, idealism met reality not before or during the war (though these factors are significant), but upon returning from the war only to find that the country they had supported would not, in turn, support them.
"I had just survived a shelling at the Saigon air base and 24 hours later I was on the streets of Oakland – no de-tox time, no decompression, no here-let-us-take-care-of-you-for-awhile," recalls Larry.
Feeling like fish out of water, Vietnam vets wallowed in poverty, watching their tribunes (JFK, RFK, MLK) being bumped off left and right while victory slipped away in front of their faces. The antiwar movement, coupled with the growing volatility of the media, did little to ease the culture shock. Depression set in, and soldiers were forced to confront the question of whether the cause was really worth the effect.
The story repeats itself over and over. Fate leads man to enlist. Man goes to war. Man witnesses relentless indiscretion. Man returns home. Man witnesses relentless indiscretion. Man puts one and one together. Insights ensue.
Wallace Terry, for one, argued in "Bloods" that a one-year shift was simply too short to fight a winning battle, and that "we was killing more of our people than the Vietnamese were" (329) when "we would have done a lot better by getting them hooked on our lifestyle" (333) instead. Accounts of mass water buffalo homicides and "stupid harass and interdict fire that only harassed American troops trying to sleep" only added to a hard to swallow but foregone conclusion. In the words of Larry: "I settled into realizing the morass we live in – I taught kids that they could be all that they could be and their greatness might move the world's consciousness a micromillimeter – and the world really is a kinder gentler place than it was in 64 when we did as we were told and trusted government."
Berkeley student Mario Savio spent the summer of 1964 in the south, participating in the fight for black civil rights. What he saw and heard there would fuel his rise to the forefront of the free speech movement, an outspoken critic of the establishment, and the precursor to several new left factions, including the antiwar movement. These groups consisted of people who did not need to go to war to recognize the truth that Larry stumbled onto above. They saw it through their experiences in dealing with racist politicians, aggressive policemen, and conventional America in general, which had trouble accepting what was different, and, in some cases, right. The Vietnam War, then, gave demonstrators of different causes a platform to unite under. It was the embodiment of all that was wrong with America, the conviction of Malcolm X condensed into seven words: "The chickens were coming home to roost" (Farber 166).
The more the government tried to stop the internal hemorrhaging, the more the facade of a rational benevolent daddy figure crumbled. Rather than responding to public opinion, they ignored it and continued to fight the fight, prompting the now full-fledged antiwar movement to counter with increasingly militant demonstrations.
Marches begat the Columbia uprisings which begat the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention until tensions reached their peak one day in May 1970 at Kent State University, when "National Guardsmen panicked and shot into an angry crowd, killing four students" (Farber 232).
Ann notes that "the shots at Kent State tore through the American consciousness, ripping apart the fabric of the fantasies we were all living. We were forced to confront the reality of what we had become. Rather than love it or leave it, it was love it or we'll kill you."
Not even Nixon could have dreamt up such a perfect affront to our nation's citizens – killing in the name of peace – and the deaths of two at Jackson State College a few days later would serve as the final nail in the coffin.
Of course, none of this debauchery probably would have ever transpired had Kennedy taken the advice of his Secretary of State for Economic Affairs George Ball, who defiantly objected to intervention in Southeast Asia as early as 1960, asserting that "to maintain the fiction of an independent South Vietnam […] would mean that in 'five years there will be 30,000 American soldiers fighting in Vietnam'" (Farber 131).
An overly confident Kennedy was quick to blow off Ball's prophecy, and the pipe dream carried over to the Johnson and Nixon administrations, though not without suffering a few hits for the team. The ins and outs of war-related deception had also taken their toll on government employees who were tired of hypocrisy tainting their souls.
Johnson watched a slew of his advisers exit over the war, including Ball and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, the Benedict Arnold of the atomic age, a guy "who had been so sure that American technological might would crush the backward Vietnamese enemy" (Farber 165). Moreover, Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg went so far as to leak the Pentagon Papers – an incriminating report on US Vietnam policy – to the New York Times in a political coup d'etat for the disenfranchised American.
This is not to say that Washington suddenly had a change of heart. Like most of America, these particular men, as Ann puts it, just "seemed to get it that we were past rhetoric."
"Was the war Dick's dick?" (Vosovic, Ann) Was it Johnson's johnson? Was it simply a long-drawn-out symbol of American virility at the expense of millions of easily acquired male cells? There is no denying the genius and the will of the Vietnam War – the ability of the government to convince so many people to die for an idea. However, there is also no denying the failure of the government to realize that the times they were a changin'. The age of Rosie the Riveter was over. Larry points out that "existentialism had a revival" in the 1960s and naturally, a philosophy based on making one's self clashed with a country used to selling ideas and lifestyles to its citizens. Adds Ann, "When forced to admit errors like My Lai, we were always offered a scapegoat, an underling that was sacrificed in the belief that the public was stupid enough to believe that one man acted alone no matter how many bullet casings were found." What's more, the news media, protected by the first-amendment, only exacerbated the problem. A cloud of disillusionment soon shrouded America; a cloud that to this day has not been lifted, for the government has yet to win back the trust of its people. Kennedy and Nixon were both immortalized when they died in 1963 and 1994, respectively. But lest we forget that, according to Joseph Stalin, "A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic."
Farber, David. The Age Of Great Dreams. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Vosovic, Ann. Personal Interview. 30 Dec. 2000.
Vosovic, Larry. Personal Interview. 31 Dec. 2000.
Terry, Wallace. "Bloods." The Vietnam War. Rpt. In GEDCL 60A Course Reader. Ed. Staff. Los Angeles: Academic Publishing Service, 2000. 339-412.