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Flowers, Thorns and Thistles—Lessons from 1968
By: Andrew L. Hogue
It is a fact in history as well as a promise from biblical scripture that “whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” In taking a retrospective look at the last forty years, this fact becomes more and more evident to me. Reviewing the political wins and losses of each of the two major political parties—the Republicans and the Democrats—I feel it an accurate conclusion to state that this present political climate is one whose beginnings are found not in 2008 but in 1968. I would like to point to some less costly and priceless lessons we ought not to have forgotten from our recent past.
While not yet born in 1968, I can look upon the pages of history and recognize the year as one as pivotal in American History, especially American Political History. I’m sometimes amazed that we have remained as disingenuous to our past as we have—meaning that we would have faired much better had we admitted our positions—failures and successes—instead of trying to abandon or escape them without making account for them.
In 1968, the Vietnam War raged at its worst, our confidence in our president to conduct the war—and his confidence in himself as well—prompted him to end his time in the White House and not seek reelection, the hope and optimism of an entire generation was snuffed out as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s lives died far too soon. A political comeback by former Vice President Richard Nixon and the ensuing clash over which Democrat would face him in the fall erupted in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. In their time, these events brought upheaval in the worst proportions to the nation as a whole. No matter what position you took—pro-war, anti-war, Democrat, Republican, rural, urban—it had to look as if the nation you loved as at its worst and perhaps nearing its end.
I know in my heart that the Vietnam War was a tragedy for America. It rendered us almost impotent abroad and divided us at home. Planned and led by the brave men and women who had won World War II, but fought by a generation not nearly as hardy or battle-ready, and protested against by a mix of these, Vietnam will perhaps forever be the war we cannot outlive in our nation’s consciousness.
Whether the Domino theory that General Eisenhower, President Kennedy and others used to justify the war was valid, or just an early version of “there are WMDs in Iraq,” we may never know. What do we do know is that both the Americans who saw the war as a necessity, the Americans who gave their all fighting it, and the Americans who suffered mightily to end it and bring our GIs home safely, all sowed promises to the future that they could not deliver on and its has and is costing our nation a great deal today.
Many veterans and military men active in Vietnam maintain today that the war yet “winnable” when we abandoned our cause there. Others cannot grasp a clear idea of what a victory in Vietnam would have looked like. Policies designed by the leaders at the top rendered the war unwinnable. One example of these politics included the structure of the draft system. By choosing the poor and un-colleged to fight the war while the rich and well favored could sit it out in college or fly in champagne brigades stateside, you ensured both a well stocked supply of fodder and elected bodies willing to keep sending them into battle. Still, lacking a clear “Pearl Harbor” moment, Vietnam did not have the ranks of volunteers that were needed to wage a war of the magnitude.
The bitter reaction to these policies led many to protest the war. Again, these were mostly benefactors of the World War Two generation’s sacrifices and many no doubt had selfish reasons for protesting the war (i.e not wanting to go and die themselves). Still others were conscientious objectors. Conscientious objectors have a long history in our nation. Many of the protestors were men and women that had fought and bled in the jungles of Southeast Asia and having lived, barely lived in some cases, to tell the tale were determined to do just that hoping to prevent others their experiences.
One very simple lesson of the Vietnam era that we failed to learn was that Americans who do not have a personal interest in the war, have no concern for the execution of the war. In the absence of a national draft in 2008, we simply do not have the compassion and concern for what our men in arms are experiencing in the battle-torn places where they are presently engaged. For some this is a great thing, or others it makes miserable people out of us. (In referring back to a previous note, when our neighbor is suffering, we ought to suffer with him, not abandon him to his personal grief and concern until we are faced with it ourselves.)
In 2008 and beyond I believe it would be of great benefit to the community of our nation to require all high school graduates to complete some measure of community service and for all college graduates to spend some mandatory time in some community-building organization or armed services. Giving back to our nation causes us all to realize that our home is our castle and when our castle is in need, we ALL rush to its defense. So many of our greatest achievements in the 20th Century were bred out of the service our men and women in uniform experienced in the siege of world war. They all felt their responsibility and gratitude for the opportunity to reclaim America—to reaffirm our creed and zeal.
I don’t believe it was “cut and run” or any similarly dishonorable slogan that was really in operation when educated and well respected people stood up to say that our time in Vietnam was over. I believe that people can oppose a political regime and be as patriotic as the next person—sometimes more. Our nation was born out of resistance to an oppressive and imperial political regime—why should we unwelcome diversity in opinions today? Yet we do! Part of this was born in this era of 1968!
While Senator Robert Kennedy lived and campaigned for the Oval Office, and Dr. King crisscrossed the nation preaching nonviolent resistance to illegal laws, our nation had just begun seeking new means to resist that neither Kennedy or King would have endorsed. It was these methods of protest that caused so much alarm. Too often fraught with profanity, enhanced by drugs, or sexual promiscuity that smacked traditional family values in the face, these new methods sat as square opposites to the traditions of protest our nation had experienced prior.
Toward the end of his life former Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X had abandoned his racist black power roots for a more peaceful truly Muslim lifestyle. No longer did he advocate “by any means necessary” or would he have called further losses of life as “chickens coming home to root” as he once did. Still others did not experience this change of heart. After the 1965 murder of Malcolm X and the last years of King and Kennedy, the heart of the protest movements in American grew much more volatile and mean-spirited, never more evident than at the Democratic Convention in 1968 and the race riots also of that year and in the years following. Because Dr. King’s doctrine of nonviolence was largely abandoned and the powerful and stirring voice of Black Power adopted instead, and instead of sit-ins and peaceful occupation of college buildings, protestors blew up draft registration buildings and disrupted troop deployments.
Our lesson from the Vietnam era protests include that it probably isn’t the act of protest itself that is so disgusting to so many Americans—most Americans I believe would admit having the urge to protest something in the course of their lives—Gas prices for example—but the METHOD of protest should be considered and probably should be something in proportion to what is being protested. In other words, if you’re protesting Gay Rights, don’t be callous and disgusting enough to marry that with opposition to the Iraq war and by desecrating the funeral rights of honorable war dead. Shock value did not work as a protesting method and we learned that over and over.
Having whispered that all manner of vice and depravity were going to unleashed on the city of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention, protesters had law enforcement on high alert. Granted, both the mayor, city officials and law enforcement, National Guard and otherwise should have suffered for their overt reaction to the presence of protestors, some measure of accountability ought to go to those that tried the patience of the law and order of Chicago. I maintain that the protestors had every right to be there. They had a grievance that was protected by their First Amendment rights but that article states “peaceably to assemble for redress of grievances” and not by any other means. They did not have the right to create a clear and present danger for themselves by whispering about all the damage they would do if given the chance.
That same year the Richard Nixon that promised America, and especially the press that they wouldn’t have “Nixon to kick around anymore” made a full comeback and received the nomination of his Republican Party as president. This wasn’t the hope and optimism of Kennedy but it was a solemn vow to integrity, law and order in the United States of America.
By pitting himself against the dishonor of the Anti-war elements that often engaged in lawlessness, not of the civilly disobedient brand, and by appealing to a portion of America that had not been loud or boisterous in either Civil Rights, Anti-War or the Women’s Movement, Nixon won the election against a much hated Democratic rival in Hubert Humphrey, the sitting Vice-President. He was the champion of family values so longed for in this time.
Had the positions taken by Nixon not been so pronounced, so laden in the promises of law and order and weighted by the force of his personal integrity, the events of the following several years would not have been so detrimental the nation. A bad man made worse is not perceived nearly as horrible as a good man gone bad and this is how Nixon portrayed himself. He was the man on the white horse, bent on bringing honor and dignity back to the White House.
We have had the same claims made to us in recent years. The stupid and immoral personal judgments made President Clinton—an otherwise fair to great president—ushered in the George W. Bush era. He, too, came in on a white horse determined to be the Christian Knight of the 21st Century.
In the years that began with his election in 1968 and ending with his resignation in 1974, the White House suffered a great string of national indignities unprecedented in our history. Not only had it become a den of thieves—literally—and political dirty tricksters but also the refuge of a tyrant. Secretive, paranoid and “imperial,” Nixon behaved as if he believed that the U. S. Constitution and rule of law applied up to but not including the Executive Branch of the Government.
The Protest Culture had given steam to Nixon’s claim that a great “Silent Majority” would awaken and select him as their standard bearer. In 2000, the sordid personal life of Bill Clinton and the dramas of several summers had prepared an electorate that desired more personal responsibility in their President. In the years that following both men’s ascension into office, it has been clear that nothing could have been farther from these men’s objectives that Christian teachings on justice, integrity, honesty or common morality.
We do not learn our lessons from history. We do not study our history. Our lesson should have been that every man is human, he will have flaws and he cannot see any further past tomorrow than we can ourselves. Even by being surrounded by the so-called best people, he may not know any better than we do about how to proceed.
1968 hasn’t ended. It won’t end until the parties in this war realize that we must be a community of believers again. We have to arrive where we started believing that every person’s life means more to us than we can say and that when our neighbor’s life suffers, we automatically gravitate toward honest—unfeigned—compassion and consideration for them. We are still fighting a culture war of sorts.
In the absence of King and Malcolm X, African-Americans got a mixed bag from Louis Farrakhan, Stokely Carmichael, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton. White Americans are no longer segregated from their black neighbors in their daily lives—except on the Sabbath—and instead are only segregated from them in economic, social and electoral status. Here we are locked together in two Americas.
America where the spoiled assume the right to protest anything, anyway they want to because they feel mistreated in the slightest way. They don’t believe in sacrificing for anything bigger than themselves and wouldn’t survive a “Great Depression” without murdering, killing or stealing from their own neighbors.
America where those that protest are looked up as a miserable lot that ought to be shipped off to the frontlines of a war, their reputations and good names destroyed. America where our troops volunteer for the front lines in the defense of our flag, but aren’t always sent on missions where our flag is in jeopardy.
America where racial tensions are omnipresent yet only talked about during presidential campaigns or with a wag of the head and a sad rebuke during the occasional explosive race riot. America whose most well known ambassadors are Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, yet as whole do not share their lifestyle or values.
America whose yearning for spirituality often calls them to vote for a president who expresses a love for Christ, yet in his or her more character-revealing moments encourage torture, imprisonment without trial, and war without provocation. America where we permit the termination of life before birth but waste money on the rehabilitation attempts on hardened criminals. Who deserves the chance again?
America where we sometimes can’t tell the difference between our neighbor and our enemy but pray for neither. America where we talk of true love and matrimony but mistreat both with rampant divorce and by supporting homosexuals. America where men still make more money than women—and usually do less—and where children are no longer treated as gifts from God but commodities to be traded, shared or sold out on.
America where we say we revere the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence yet live as though we have never read them. That’s true of biblical scripture, too!
It’s our home and we love it but we don’t yearn to defend it in all the ways its needs defending. We need one America again where we can vote for people that have our best interest at heart because they know that having our best interest at heart is in their best interest as well.
I love America. I know from her history that we were once a people whose interest in the welfare of one another preceded the welfare of our selfish self. We wanted our neighbor to be fed, clothed, sheltered and happy because it was in our best interest. Our own peace might be disturbed if he was hungry, wet, cold or sick. Now too often we concerned with our own peace as if we can long exist as a house divided. We tried that, too, remember how that turned out? Our government needs to be less involved in our lives, our churches need to pick up the banner of charity again, and our communities ought to be served by our own people.
In 1968, we began to lose sight of that beloved community we once had. In 1968, it was only beginning to slip away. Then in rapid succession, events of great magnitude occurred that changed us forever: the unpopular escalation of a misunderstood war, the high profile murders of purveyors of hope and optimism, the implosion of the Democratic party—the dominant party since FDR—the value-based comeback of Richard Nixon that resulted in Imperial politics and disaster for the nation and finally the end of the hated war in Vietnam.
Our world is fraught with the thistles and thorns sowed in 1968. Forty years since the Democratic Convention in Chicago and perhaps the Dems will nominate an African-American. Thirty-five years since Watergate and the Republicans may nominate a Vietnam War veteran. In the course of the campaign, however, look to hear many of the echoes of 1968 because they are there and it would behoove us to learn they lessons they hold for us.
If we don’t we are about to begin the cycle anew—unpopular war, loss of hope and optimism, comeback of traditional values only to have them undermined by their presumed champion, end of the war. How many times will we endure this before we break the cycle?