What Would My Parents Think of this Election?

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My parents in the 1970s

W.J. Astore

In 1976, I remember my mom voted for Jimmy Carter for president.  It surprised me because I was a fan of Gerald Ford, the Republican candidate.  Both Carter and Ford were decent men, and their debates were informative and issues-oriented.  Back then, the big scandal was Jimmy Carter’s admission, in an interview for Playboy magazine, that he had lusted in his heart. What innocent times!  Two generations later, we have a Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who by his own words has done far more than lust in his heart.

My mom would have been appalled by Trump (as are many people today).  My dad, I think, would have found Trump objectionable and shallow.  One of my dad’s favorite sayings was “the empty barrel makes the most noise.”  He didn’t respect other men who bragged and bellowed about themselves.  And he didn’t like anyone who was a sore loser, those who, when they lost, resorted to “sour grapes.”  Even before Trump has lost (if he does), he’s already resorted to sour grapes, claiming the election is “rigged” against him.

I know my parents would be against Trump.  Would they be for Hillary?  I don’t know.  I think my mom would have voted for Hillary, respecting her struggles as a woman for equality and fair treatment in a man’s game (and politics in America is still very much a man’s game, despite important strides made by women).  My dad?  When in doubt, he voted for the Democratic Party.  As a firefighter, he was a union man who knew first-hand the hard experience of factory workers and the penury of a hand-to-mouth existence during the Great Depression.

Resuscitating my parents to vote in 2016: yes, it’s fantasy, one that I share with Tom Engelhardt, who wrote this telling article at TomDispatch.com on next week’s election and what his parents would have thought of the whole spectacle.  To me, two aspects of election 2016 are especially telling when compared to 1976:

  1.  On foreign policy and national defense, Hillary Clinton is running to the right, not only of Jimmy Carter, but of Gerald Ford, a moderate Republican.
  2. Donald Trump not only lacks the fundamental decency of Carter and Ford: he lacks any experience in public service.  His entire life has been dedicated to making money. This may qualify him to run a business, but it doesn’t qualify him to run a country and to represent a people.

A few more words on Trump and what his rise represents.  Trump is the candidate of casino capitalism.  He’s the logical terminus of a system that wants to run everything for profit, winner-take-all.  Such public systems and concerns as education, health care, the prison system, even the military, are increasingly run as businesses, often privatized, the operative words being “efficiency” and “productivity” and “growth.”

With so many sectors of American society being privatized and run as for-profit businesses, with corporations being enshrined as superpower citizens with especially deep pockets to influence public elections, with the media also almost completely privatized and also run for-profit, is it any wonder a candidate like Trump has emerged as the business leader to “make America great again”?  Americans used to call men like Trump “robber-barons.”  Now, some Americans treat Trump as a savior.

In America, we seem to measure societal progress strictly in terms of economic growth as measured by GDP and the stock market.  Such measures are indicative not of true progress but of our shallow desires, our preference for glitzy materialism.  Again, isn’t Trump the very embodiment of insatiable appetite, bottomless greed, and casino capitalism?

I know my parents — decent members of the working classes — wouldn’t have voted for him.  Hillary, I think, would have been their (reluctant) choice.  And I think they’d hope for better candidates in 2020, or, at the very least, a political process that takes vitally important issues like climate change seriously.

Seriousness of purpose is what we need in America, along with courage, honesty, and strength of mind. Let’s strive for those in the aftermath of this depressing election season.

American Reckoning: Why the U.S. Lost the Vietnam War

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W.J. Astore

Christian G. Appy, professor of history at U-Mass Amherst, has written a new and telling book on the Vietnam War: American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York, Viking Press).  Reading his book made me realize a key reason why the U.S. lost the war: for U.S. leaders it was never about Vietnam and the Vietnamese people.  Rather, for these men the war was always about something else, a “something else” that constantly shifted and changed.  Whereas for North Vietnam and its leaders, the goal was simple and unchanging: expel the foreign intruder, whether it was the Japanese or the French or the Americans, and unify Vietnam, no matter the cost.

Appy’s account is outstanding in showing the shifting goals of U.S. foreign policy vis-à-vis Vietnam.  In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. first supported the French in their attempts to reassert control over their former colony.  When the French failed, the U.S. saw Vietnam through a thoroughly red-tinted lens.  The “fall” of a newly created South Vietnam was seen as the first domino in a series of potential Communist victories in Asia.  Vietnam itself meant little economically to American interests, but U.S. leaders were concerned about Malaysia and Indonesia and their resources.  So to stop that first domino from falling, the U.S. intervened to prop up a “democratic” government in South Vietnam that was never democratic, a client state whose staying power rested entirely on U.S. “advisers” (troops) and weapons and aid.

Again, as Appy convincingly demonstrates, for U.S. leaders the war was never about Vietnam.  Under Eisenhower, it was about stopping the first domino from falling; under Kennedy, it was a test case for U.S. military counterinsurgency tactics and Flexible Response; under Johnson, it was a test of American resolve and credibility and “balls”; and under Nixon, it was the pursuit of “peace with honor” (honor, that is, for the Nixon Administration).  And this remained true even after South Vietnam collapsed in 1975.  Then the Vietnam War, as Appy shows, was reinterpreted as a uniquely American tragedy.  Rather than a full accounting of the war and America’s mistakes and crimes in it, the focus was on recovering American pride, to be accomplished in part by righting an alleged betrayal of America’s Vietnam veterans.

In the Reagan years, as Appy writes, American veterans, not the Vietnamese people, were:

portrayed as the primary victims of the Vietnam War.  The long, complex history of the war was typically reduced to a set of stock images that highlighted the hardships faced by U.S. combat soldiers—snake-infested jungles, terrifying ambushes, elusive guerrillas, inscrutable civilians, invisible booby traps, hostile antiwar activists.  Few reports informed readers that at least four of five American troops in Vietnam carried out noncombat duties on large bases far away from those snake-infested jungles.  Nor did they focus sustained attention on the Vietnamese victims of U.S. warfare.  By the 1980s, mainstream culture and politics promoted the idea that the deepest shame related to the Vietnam War was not the war itself, but America’s failure to embrace its military veterans.” (p. 241)

Again, the Vietnam War for U.S. leaders was never truly about Vietnam.  It was about them.  This is powerfully shown by LBJ’s crude comments and gestures about the war.  Johnson acted to protect his Great Society initiatives; he didn’t want to suffer the political consequences of having been seen as having “lost” Vietnam to communism; but he also saw Vietnam as a straightforward test of his manhood.  When asked by reporters why he continued to wage war in Vietnam, what it was really all about, LBJ unzipped his pants, pulled out his penis, and declared, “This is why!” (p. 82).

Withdrawal, of course, was never an option.  As Appy insightfully notes,

LBJ and most of the other key Vietnam policymakers never imagined that withdrawal from Vietnam would be an act of courage.  In one sense this moral blindness is baffling because these same men prided themselves on their pragmatic, hardheaded realism, their ability to cut through sentiment and softhearted idealism to face the most difficult realities of foreign affairs.  They could see that the war was failing.  But they could not pull out.  A deeper set of values trumped their most coherent understandings of the war.  They simply could not accept being viewed as losers.  A ‘manly man’ must always keep fighting.” (p. 84)

A few pages later, Appy cites Nixon’s speech on the bombing of Cambodia, when Nixon insisted the U.S. must not stand by “like a pitiful, helpless giant,” as further evidence of this “primal” fear of presidential impotence and defeat.

Even when defeat stared American leaders in the face, they blinked, then closed their eyes and denied what they had seen.  Beginning with Gerald Ford in 1975, America shifted the blame for defeat onto the South Vietnamese, with some responsibility being assigned to allegedly traitorous elements on the homefront, such as “Hanoi Jane” (Fonda).  As Appy writes, “Instead of calling for a great national reckoning of U.S. responsibility in Vietnam, Ford called for a ‘great national reconciliation.’  It was really a call for a national forgetting, a willful amnesia.” (p. 224)

As a result of this “willful amnesia,” most Americans never fully faced the murderous legacies of the Vietnam War, especially the cost to the peoples of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Instead, our leaders and government encouraged us to focus on America’s suffering.  They told us to look forward, not backward, while keeping faith in America as the exceptional nation.

Appy notes in his introduction that America needs “an honest accounting of our history” if we are “to reject—fully and finally—the stubborn insistence that our nation has been a unique and unrivaled force for good in the world.” (p. xix) American Reckoning provides such an honest accounting.  But are Americans truly ready and willing to put aside national pride, nurtured by a willed amnesia and government propaganda, to confront the limits as well as the horrors of American power as it is exercised in foreign lands?

Evidence from recent wars and military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere still suggests that Americans prefer amnesia, or to see other peoples through a tightly restricted field of view.  Far too often, that field of view is a thoroughly militarized one, most recently captured in the crosshairs of an American sniper’s scope.  Appy challenges us to broaden that view while removing those crosshairs.