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.
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
Of 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 Republican 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.