It’s hard not to see a tremendous similarity between today’s America and the America of the mid-1960’s. The country was and is divided – severely so. In the 1960’s the source of this division was the War in Vietnam. Today it is divided by many more issues. If there is one thing that unifies these two periods in our history it is the involvement of young people in the political process.
The protests against the Vietnam War were categorized by biased reporting by the mainstream media of the time and generally characterized as the activity of “hippies” and other ne’er-do-wells when it began to evolve. As President Lyndon B. Johnson increased the number of American soldiers in Vietnam to its greatest level of 535,000, as the war began to affect more American families with the losses of their sons, the protests swelled through the mid-1960’s to climax at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968.
America brought the war home to what was then America’s “Second City.” The protestors, generally supporters of Senator Eugene McCarthy or Senator Robert Kennedy whose brother President John F. Kennedy had escalated the number of troops in Vietnam from less than one thousand to 16,000 came unarmed, to be battered by the Chicago Police under the direction of then Mayor Richard J. Daley.
The country realized that this was no longer about a small group of “radical misfits.” This was not about burning draft cards or burning bras. This was a war against Americans fought by other Americans.
Fortunately, there was no dropping of napalm, the flesh-searing chemical compound developed by Dow Chemical, which we liberally used in Vietnam, ultimately killing or disfiguring thousands of innocent civilians along with our intended targets, the Viet Cong. We personalized the chaos in Chicago by applying police night sticks to the protestors who tried to voice their opinion and their rage against the war.
Beyond the hundreds of protests and rallies and sit-ins which had grown in number across the country as we continued to send more and more of our young men to their deaths in a war which could not and would not be won, the brutal response of the “authorities” at the Chicago Democratic convention was a true turning point in the minds of many in mainstream America.
It would take seven more years after the convention before our troops finally withdrew from Vietnam. It would take four more decades before Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy would admit something that most of the country already knew, “Vietnam was America’s greatest mistake.” The concept of the “domino theory” which it was believed would cause southeast Asian countries to fall victims to communism have long since been dispelled by the evidence of history.
People, wherever their location and whatever their skin color have rejected that economic system. Even those countries which provided a nascent home for communism, the former Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China have moved away from the musings of Karl Marx and Mao-Zedong. Today’s Vietnam has a vibrant and capitalist-based economy and is flourishing.
It took the events in Chicago at the convention of “The Party of the People” for many of us to realize that it was only the party for some of the people. It was willing to include only those of the people who heeled to the party line. It accepted only those who fit into the mold that its leadership had determined was appropriate. It was welcoming – but only to those who met the standards that those in control of the political machinery had set forth in their agenda.
The protests against Vietnam were at first viewed as an anomaly. As they grew in size and number and frequency, the political authorities began viewing them as an annoyance. When they built to a crescendo that swept across the country they were viewed as a threat – a challenge to the entrenched politicos and their ability to retain control of their fiefdoms.
The protests changed American opinion and ultimately forced those in political power to exit our shameful undertaking in Vietnam, leaving millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians dead. The rosters of the deceased included over 58,000 Americans.
Toady’s America is again divided – but without the single-focus that Vietnam provided. We are divided over economic and social issues. We are divided because it is to the benefit of those in power to keep us divided – to divert our attention from the fact that our leaders are only leading us further and deeper and faster into the abyss of mediocrity and failure.
We are divided because we are still at the stage of denial and are willing to hope and believe that the sops that are being strewn by Washington will be effective in staunching the blood flowing from our deep wounds. We will ultimately emerge into the step after denial and that is acceptance – acceptance of the reality of the true nature of our politicians – and their motivations – which have little to do with the welfare of this country’s citizenry.
It is fascinating to see to whom the young men and women in this country are rallying in their support for President of the United States. Ron Paul is the oldest of the candidates in the race. He carries a message which is different than any of the others of either party. He is genuine – and the young people of this country, in their short lives, have already been able to differentiate between a genuine message of hope and the hopelessly fetid sausage that is being cranked out of the meat grinder by the rest of the field.
Those of us who remember the Vietnam protests need to get off our comfortable duffs and dust off our consciences. We have proven that it is possible to change the path which a country follows – and that though it may take some time – that change can be achieved through the cohesive efforts of millions of us unified in a common effort. We can start a movement. And the young may well be heading up the parade.
Sometimes it is true, “A little child shall lead them.”