These are not your grandparents’ Sixties

I suppose you could call me a child of the 1960s. I was born in the early 60s, too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy or the start of Beatlemania, although I have studied both extensively. I remember watching on television as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. I remember classmates upset when they heard that the Beatles were breaking up. I also remember hearing something about a hippie concert in New York. (That summer I saw my first hippies. Several of them were in a car that drove down the road—long hair, colorful clothes, the car may have been a VW bug. One of them flashed a peace sign at me… a little short-haired boy standing in the front yard of his grandparents’ house.)

Last night I experienced two hours of that hippie concert in New York, thanks to a DVD player and a flat-screen stereo TV. Woodstock marks a high point for 60s nostalgia, combining peace, love, rock-and-roll, young people, drugs, sex, and politics. Plenty of timely idealism was on hand, as the organizers, musicians, and attendees showed that they could have a peaceful gathering to celebrate their culture (or counterculture, as the case may be). Yet the gathering also revealed contempt for authority (parents, police officers, and elected officials, among others), deliberate lawlessness (though it was nonviolent), poor management of the environment, and the arrogance of thinking that they were right and everyone else in the world was wrong. On the bright side, much of the music of Woodstock was epical and some was even profound; and the reaction to inconveniences of crowding, rain, and mud were largely hopeful and humane. On the dark side, much of the music of Woodstock was poorly performed due to poor planning and less than optimal conditions; and most of the investors lost money on the concert (except for those lucky enough to include recordings and the filmed documentary in their investment).

Some people older than me seem to want to bring back the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Many people younger than me seem to want to recreate the 1960s in the summer of 2020. Both groups are misguided. Donald Trump is neither Lyndon Johnson nor Richard Nixon. Nothing happening this summer compares to the Vietnam War. Rioting and violence are as counterproductive now as they were back then. From Birmingham to Ferguson, American citizens have gathered to protest racial inequality and injustice. When these gatherings are hijacked by vandals, arsonists, and looters, the protestors’ message is distorted and justice does not prevail.

Street protests did not end the Vietnam War. If anything, they lengthened the war, as the communist government of North Vietnam stalled negotiations to end the conflict, hoping that America would lose the will to fight and would withdraw unitarily. President Nixon brought an end to the war, keeping his promise to provide peace with honor, but serious negotiations only happened after his prospects for reelection became obvious in the summer of 1972, and they were concluded only after his determination to prevail was tested following the election late that year. Tragically, the United States Congress handed victory back to North Vietnam in the 1970s by refusing to enforce the treaty agreements that ended fighting in January 1973.

Fighting in Vietnam was part of the Cold War, pitting capitalism and freedom in the West against communism (actually socialism) and totalitarianism in the East. Both sides fought militarily, economically, and intellectually for decades, trying to prove that their way was right and the other way was wrong. Socialism and communism received support from many people in the United States in the 1960s, principally those who were also rallying under the banners of civil rights, anti-war, and rock-and-roll. Only one side in the Cold War had to build walls and guard borders to prevent its citizens from escaping. Over a twenty-four month period in 1989 through 1991, the Cold War ended, due to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Ironically, in 2020 some prominent Americans are speaking in support of socialism and of stricter government controls over the population, even though the bankruptcy of those ideas was clearly demonstrated thirty years ago.

Many of my favorite songs were written and recorded in the 1960s. I regularly feed my nostalgia for that time, the years of my childhood. But the legend of the 1960s created by our entertainment industry exaggerates the peace and love and artistry of those times, minimizing the fear and hatred and violence that also characterized those same years. The same entertainment industry wants to topple our present government. Again and again it insists that capitalism is bad, that freedom belongs only to the oppressed (and those who can identify themselves as oppressed), and that free speech belongs only to people who say the right things. Their arrogance resembles that of the Woodstock generation. Their legacy will be equally ephemeral. J.

Memorial Day–remembering the Vietnam War–part two

Japan surrendered to the United States in 1945, and French forces returned to take control of Indochina. Unlike the British Empire, the French at first had no inclination to grant independence to their colonies. As a result, the forces Ho Chi Minh commanded against the Japanese remained together to fight the French. Many other groups in Indochina also resisted the French—most of these groups were not, like Ho’s group, Communists. For about a decade the French struggled to maintain control over Indochina, but they eventually relented. Not wanting to grant independence, they had done no work to prepare the native people for self-government and leadership. With American guidance, Indochina was divided into three countries according to culture: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Vietnam was further divided into two countries. As the Yalta agreement had resulted in two Germanies—East Germany, which was communist, and West Germany, which was not—and also two Koreas—North Korea, which was communist, and South Korea, which was not—a similar divide was suggested for Vietnam. North Vietnam would be ruled by Ho and the Communists; South Vietnam would be governed by a group that was not Communist.

Vietnamese people were given sixty days to relocate. Ninety thousand left South Vietnam to join Ho and the Communists in the north. One million (out of a total population of thirteen million) left the north for the south. Others tried to move south before the deadline but were deterred by Communist forces. Ho followed the example of Joseph Stalin in dealing with political opposition—anyone who disagreed with him was arrested and imprisoned. Many of his opponents were killed; the rest were “re-educated” into Communism, often through torture.

South Vietnam therefore began its existence with a refugee resettlement crisis. Ngo Dinh Diem was the first leader of the South Vietnamese government. He aimed to provide a stable democracy, but under current conditions it was not possible to grant all the freedoms that Americans take for granted. Diem’s leadership managed to quell disturbances from several non-Communist groups that opposed his government, but he did not succeed in maintaining a government free from corruption and brutality. Meanwhile, by the end of the 1950s, North Vietnam had quietly entered southern Laos and established a series of travel routes known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Using these roads, North Vietnam was able to smuggle four thousand fighters and copious supplies to continue undermining the stability of South Vietnam.

By the summer of 1963, the military leaders in South Vietnam had decided to establish a coup to take power away from Diem. President Kennedy reluctantly agreed that Diem had to go, although he hoped for a peaceful transfer of power. Instead, Diem and his brother were killed during the military takeover. Three weeks later, Kennedy himself was assassinated, leaving American involvement in South Vietnam in the hands of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson and his advisors (many of them continuing from the Kennedy White House) recognized the need to support South Vietnam militarily to ensure its survival. Congress at first enthusiastically gave Johnson full permission to send troops to help quell disturbances in South Vietnam. Regrettably, the American plan was to wage a limited war, only engaging the enemy within South Vietnam, trying to distinguish loyal citizens from rebels and insurgents. Trained troops and military supplies continued to enter South Vietnam from the north by way of Laos and Cambodia. Over the next four years, Johnson sent more and more Americans to fight in South Vietnam, until half a million Americans were there by the end of 1968.

Meanwhile, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. President Johnson was not able to explain to the country why our soldiers were fighting in Vietnam. The purpose of the Cold war was to contain communism. Experts in the United States government feared that if all of Vietnam became Communist, Laos and Cambodia would do the same, followed by Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines, perhaps even India. (This was called the “domino theory.”) Some historians say that if South Vietnam lost to the communists in the 1960s, that scenario might have occurred in the 1970s. As it is, diplomacy and foreign aid helped keep most of those countries out of the communist sphere, with the loss of only Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

To be continued… J.