Nixon, Vietnam, Watergate

Try to Remember

Richard Nixon, three days after resigning on 9 August 1974I am convinced that Americans have the attention span of a two year old. So, just for the record, this guy is Richard Nixon about whom more in a moment.

Our short attention span is illustrated by how easily and quickly we jump from crisis to crisis, news story to scandal on a daily, hourly, Twitter-influenced schedule. It can be enough to make your head pivot. Today it’s the sad story of Robin Williams or the glamorous life of Lauren Bacall. Day before we armed the Kurds. The day before that it was Ebola, or maybe another rocket attack or, wait, didn’t that Malaysian airliner go down in Ukraine, or was that the Indian Ocean? Let’s impeach Obama for doing too much and then criticize him for not doing enough. An unarmed young black man is shot and killed. Hasn’t that happened before? Did the president speak or is he playing golf? Or did I misremember?

Everything happens at once and everything is portrayed as being just as important as the next thing. CNN has taken to issuing email alerts announcing that it will soon be sending out an email announcing something really big.

Combine this NADD (news attention deficit disorder) with the unbelievable American capacity for historical amnesia and you have a society that lacks perspective and increasingly exhibits little sense of who we are, where we have been or, heaven help us, where we might be headed.

Amid all this noisy clutter anniversaries of two of the most significant events in the second half of the 20th Century slipped by recently with mostly just passing notice. Both events, a 50th anniversary – Congressional approval of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and Nixon’s resignation 40 years ago in 1974 – hold profound lessons for two current and persistent American dilemmas: our role in the Middle East and political dissatisfaction at home with a wounded president in his sixth year in the White House.

Rather than a defining moment in American history that caused presidents and members of Congress to forever say: Wait, this might not be what it seems, the incident in the summer of 1964 in the Tonkin Gulf off North Vietnam is mostly forgotten 50 years later. Forgotten by almost everyone, perhaps, but the hundreds of thousands of Americans forever changed by the war that followed. Tonkin_Gulf_Resolution

There is still debate about exactly what happened when U.S. warships on patrol in the Tonkin Gulf allegedly came under attack from North Vietnamese patrol boats. There is no doubt that President Lyndon Johnson, convinced that a domino effect would tumble one Southeast Asian country after another to Communism, seized on the incident and twisted it as necessary to gain Congressional approval – the Tonkin Gulf Resolution – allowing him to ramp up American military involvement in a way that still amounts to one of the most fateful – and wrong-headed – decisions in our history.

In a thoughtful recent Politico piece on the lessons of the 50 year old incident, Zachery Shore argued that one of the great failures of the Tonkin Gulf was U.S. unwillingness to assess and attempt to understand the motives of the Vietnamese. We barged in without knowledge and fled a decade later leaving behind vast amounts of blood and treasure. “Did Americans learn from Tonkin?” Shore asks.

“The lead-up to the most recent war in Iraq had a depressingly reminiscent feel,” he says in answering his own question. “A president seemed intent on invading, presuming to liberate a foreign people that perhaps were not as eager for American liberation as Washington thought. The president failed to fully consider their point of view, just as the public failed to ask how long we would need to stay or how welcome we would be. And in 2002, when George Bush requested a congressional blank check, only 23 Senators and 133 Congressmen voted against the Iraq War Resolution. The great majority in both houses of Congress went along uncritically, only later regretting their insouciance. How many Americans today feel that the war in Iraq warranted the cost in lives and treasure? The question was never whether Saddam was a bad man; it was whether the Iraqi people truly wanted what America hoped to give them. The answer required thinking hard and learning much about the other side.”

Oregon Sen. Wayne Morse with Lyndon Johnson

morseOf course, only two members of the United States Senate – Wayne Morse of Oregon and Ernest Gruening of Alaska – voted NO on LBJ’s resolution, a Congressional sanction for war, in 1964. Their wisdom stands as a stark reminder that it has become easy ever after for us to go to war and to think that our awesome military might holds a solution to every problem from refugees tragically stranded on an Iraqi mountain top to a raging civil war in Syria. The Gulf of Tonkin also reminds us that an advanced case of American hubris caused another American president to tragically think we could invade a country in the middle of the Middle East, depose a dictator who had ruled with savagery for decades, knit together the tribal and religious factions left behind, and see Jeffersonian democracy flourish amid the death and destruction. Did Americans learn anything from Vietnam’s Tonkin Gulf moment? Sadly, not much, which bring us to Nixon.

Forty years ago this month Richard Nixon flew off to political and personal exile in California barely days before he almost certainly would have faced a broadly bipartisan effort to impeach and convict him for an actual crime, obstruction of justice, related to the Watergate break-in.

Most Americans have forgotten, or never knew, that Nixon gave up the presidency only after a delegation of Republican1406945855000-GoldwaterRhodesNixon wise men, including Barry Goldwater, went to the White House and told their president that the jig was up. The point is obvious. You don’t remove a president, as the tin hat wearing Tea Party crowd wants to do today, without a serious, bipartisan debate and agreement over the alleged “crimes” of the chief executive. Impeaching Obama is a sixth year sideshow ginned up by cable news “analysts” equipped with more hot air than brains and aided and abetted by a political class that doesn’t know its history. (Arizona Republic photo)

The spate of new Nixon books marking the 40th anniversary of his demise should be occasion to reflect on the man, his deeds and misdeeds and once again wonder, as historian David Kennedy has written, how he “was ever allowed to ascend to the presidency in the first place.” Rather we get a new CNN poll showing that, as in all things, Americans are sharply divided about Tricky Dick’s Watergate crimes.

“Fifty-one percent of those questioned” in the CNN survey, “say Watergate was a very serious matter because it revealed corruption in the Nixon administration, with 46% saying it was just politics – the kind of thing both parties engage in. The 51% is unchanged from 14 years ago, when CNN last asked the question.” In other words, our sense of what constitutes acceptable political behavior, and the level of unacceptable behavior that could lead to impeachment, has sunk so low that the real crimes and unbelievable abuses of power that drove Richard Nixon from the White House are, to 46% of Americans 40 years later, just politics as usual.

The same CNN poll shows a substantial generational divide over Nixon and Watergate. Older Americans generally think it was serious stuff, younger people not so much. Both young and old agree that their current government can’t be trusted to do the right thing most of the time. I’d like to know under what rock those 13% who think otherwise have been living.

This has been a summer of big anniversaries, including 70 years since the Allied invasion of Normandy, a monumental event that less than a year later helped precipitate the end of World War II in Europe. While visiting the invasion beaches in June I overhead an American father sketching in the details of the war in Europe for his daughter who appeared to be in her early 20’s. Dad described the significance of the invasion of France in 1944, but also correctly pointed out, as many historians now contend, that it was the fearsome, bloody fighting on the eastern front that ultimately hastened the end of that awful war.

“So we were fighting the Russians?” the daughter said. Her dad explained that, no, we were on the same side with the Russians fighting against Nazi Germany. This lack of even elemental knowledge on the part of many Americans of our fairly recent history is a function of, I fear, a culture that values opinions and sensations more than facts and knowledge.

It would be wrong to read too much into that little overheard story this summer in Normandy, but it doesn’t leave me particularly optimistic when I think about what happens when our short national attention span collides with our historical amnesia. If we don’t understand our history and aren’t able to put our present challenges in some historical context we can’t possibly apply all the valuable lessons of our checked past to help us make our way in today’s very messy world.

The lessons of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Richard Nixon with Watergate, George W. Bush with Iraq apply anew to this our latest summer of discontent. Failing to appreciate the lessons of our own history, or at least debating what those lessons are, ensures that we will have the opportunity to make the same mistakes over and over again.

Baseball, Civil Rights, Otter, Pete Seeger, Politics, Television, Watergate, World War II

If I Had a Hammer

media_5e1a5316516c4ed4913d398868313742_t607This picture – former Vice President Henry Wallace with folk singer Pete Seeger in 1948 – likely didn’t do Pete much good when he was summoned in 1952 to name names before the communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). To Seeger’s eternal credit he refused to play the silly game, was held in contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail.

The New York Post – as ridiculous as a newspaper in those days as it remains today – offered the headline: “Dangerous Minstrel Nabbed Here” in a story about Pete. Seeger had a particularly American attitude about a Congressional committee asking questions about his friends and associations. It was none of their business. Only a technicality kept him from prison.

Still for 17 years at what should have been the very height of his career Pete Seeger was on the entertainment industry’s blacklist, labeled a subversive and condemned as a mushy-headed pinko who couldn’t bring himself to admit the evils of Stalin. Much the same happened to Wallace, a brilliant, decent man and an awful politician who was too liberal for the times that ushered in Joe McCarthy and destroyed or badly damaged the careers of Pete Seeger and so many others.

Curious thing about the United States, as Adam Hochschild wrote recently in The New York Review of Books, “anticommunism has always been far louder and more potent than communism. Unlike sister parties in France, Italy, India, and elsewhere, the Communist Party here has never controlled a major city or region, or even elected a single member to the national legislature.”

When Henry Wallace ran for president the year he was photographed with Pete Seeger his Progressive Party, with American Communist support, captured an underwhelming 2.4 percent of the popular vote. Americans have never – even in the darkest days of The Great Depression – warmed to communism, yet the word and the association has always been awesomely powerful in our politics.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union made anticommunism passe, generations of American politicians, including presidents from Truman to Reagan, made fighting communism the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Careers were made and destroyed – Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas and their 1950 U.S. Senate race come immediately to mind – as a result of “The Red Scare.” Nixon and his henchmen dubbed Mrs. Douglas, a liberal California Congresswoman, “The Pink Lady” a label that had immediate and positive electoral impact for Nixon.  What she called him – “Tricky Dick” – was arguably the much more accurate and lasting label.

In the days before the National Rifle Association intimidated presidents and county commissioners and commanded fidelity from both political parties, one could hardly go wrong politically by being tough on communism. Being right on the Reds in the 1950’s and 1960’s was as politically safe as being in the pocket of the NRA is today.

Pete Seeger’s left-wing politics received mostly passing mention in many of the tributes that have followed his death on Monday at the ripe age of 94. Most of the stories, perhaps appropriately, have focused on the music he made and the influence Seeger had on singers from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen. Still it seems impossible to divorce the man’s music from the man’s politics.

We’ve largely forgotten that prior to Pearl Harbor millions of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in World War II. Many thought another world war would inevitably lead, as the first one had, to diminished civil liberties and a more militarized society. Nothing good comes from war so the saying went. Pete Seeger was among the millions who believed that and sang about it.

When war finally came Seeger, like most Americans, fully embraced the need to fight Hitler and defeat Japan. In a 1942 song – Dear Mr. President – Seeger sang, as if to remind Franklin Roosevelt, about what Americans were fighting for:

This is the reason that I want to fight,
Not because everything’s perfect or everything’s right.
No. it’s just the opposite… I’m fighting because I want
A better America with better laws,
And better homes and jobs and schools,
And no more Jim Crow and no more rules,
Like you can’t ride on this train ’cause you’re a Negro,
You can’t live here ’cause you’re a Jew
You can’t work here ’cause you’re a union man.

Pete Seeger’s banjo was inscribed with the words “this machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Seeger, the left-winger, spent his life preaching the gospel of non-violent social change through his music and he never gave up that wild-eyed dream. Even in the song where he signed on to fight Hitler he was dreaming of a more perfect union at home were civil rights were guaranteed for all. Pete Seeger, through all the blacklisting nonsense and the HUAC hearings, never let bitterness get the better of him. He kept singing about overcoming.

When Seeger did appear before HUAC in 1955 he steadfastly refused to play the political game of gotcha that Joe McCarthy and others had perfected. At one point he summed up his attitude telling the committee:

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Committee Chairman Rep. Francis Walter, a conservative Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted:Why dont you make a little contribution toward preserving its institutions?”

MR. SEEGER: I feel that my whole life is a contribution. That is why I would like to tell you about it.

CHAIRMAN WALTER: I dont want to hear about it.

More than the anticommunist witch hunters who tried to silence his banjo in the 1950’s, more than those who resisted civil rights in the 1960’s or defended American hubris in Vietnam, Pete Seeger’s long life was the essence of the real American story. He sang to prompt political and social action. Sang with a smile. Strummed his banjo with an honest, candid demand for a better, more tolerant America.

Americans were once optimistic enough – perhaps we will be again – to think that a better country is possible. Pete Seeger never gave up on that America; a country of better homes and jobs and schools. He was a folk music legend to be sure, but also the very best kind of American and, yes, his whole life – the life of a dangerous minstrel – was an incredible contribution.