Time has a way of collapsing on itself in retrospect. It has been more than half century since the turbulent 1960s spilled out into reality. Now those of us who were on the cusp of our careers are octogenarians and the horrors of what took place in that decade are fading memories. We are caught up in a new set of tragedies that cause us to wonder if the world will survive. It takes some reflection to remember that we were young and naïve, that despite the Vietnam War, the assassinations, the injustices that spawned the civil rights movement, the cities in flames, and the murders of the freedom riders, we didn’t think the country would collapse.
Ken Burns and his colleagues have refocused our attention on that decade and it has been an important revisiting of that time. The PBS series on Vietnam was hard to watch but it reminds us that we have been through terrible times in the past and yet the country has survived. An important question raised by the recent recounting of that history remains: Have we learned anything from those years?
When viewed from the lens of long ago we have a different perspective. What seemed at least plausible in 1963 takes on an aura of incredulity now. Over the decade that followed President Kennedy’s murder, questions arose that shook the fabric of our democracy and in the course of that we came to understand that America was not always right, that we tended to put too much faith in what we were being told and that mistakes were often made based on these untruths we were told. It became a decade where our belief in America, the Beautiful was severely challenged.
Today we are locked in similar conflicts that seem to have no end in sight. The difference now is that America came under a viscous attack. Our current entanglements are not based on suppositions of a domino theory which turned out to be false. An ideology of hate fueled 9/11. To have stood by and not retaliated is unthinkable. One wonders if things will become clearer in the next half century. Had we not been sold the bill of goods about weapons of mass destruction, would we have been spared our current misery?
Our leadership today is enough to make the world nervous. Even though our position in the Vietnam era was based on faulty presuppositions and outright lies, we did not suspect it at the time. Now we have great uncertainty about the stability of our positions, about the trustworthiness of our leaders, and about the feckless performance of Congress.
It behooves us to recall our past history where we faced similar problems and hope that we have learned from the mistakes made then. As unstable as the world seems, we must not give up on the basic concepts of our founding fathers. They had their own shortcomings, but the foundation of their ideas has led us to being the longest surviving republic in history.
Our job now is to find leaders of vision and honesty, of putting the welfare of all before largess for the few. We might ask, do such women and men exist? We had better hope so because if not, the lessons of history have not been learned and we are tempting fate if we just trust that we can muddle through the morass in which we find ourselves.
More than 58,000 American men and women lost their lives in Vietnam. More than 2500 are still missing and unaccounted for. The Vietnamese, north and south combined, lost more than two million and 250,000 remain missing. As terrible as those figures are they pale in comparison to the carnage that awaits the world if we aren’t extremely careful in dealing with our current problems.