There are advantages to being old.
One is that you were there when some of the history younger folk talk about was taking place. It’s easier to understand and appreciate changes that have occurred during your lifetime. You have a lot more information to work with.
Take for example our Vietnam saga and its subsequent impact on American politics and our nation’s security.
In my recently published memoir, Joint Ventures, I write about spending time in Vietnam as a young Army officer between March 1962 and March 1963. US involvement in the fighting at that point was limited. In an administrative role, I was not in grave danger, but I did realize we faced a serious challenge. When I left the military in spring 1963 and began a journalistic career, I tried to inform the public about Vietnam, but Americans were not yet tuned in.
Things started to change after the 1964 election. Primary focus in that contest was on civil rights. Passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 initiated the shift in the Solid South from Democratic to Republican. It was ironic since a higher percentage of GOP members of congress had voted for the act than Democratic members.
As for Vietnam, LBJ was the candidate of reason in that race. Although disturbed by Barry Goldwater’s remarks about how to use the military in Vietnam, I voted for him. I still hoped it possible to introduce party competition into South Carolina; less optimistic about that today.
Only a few months after the election, Johnson began escalation. In February 1965, bombing of North Vietnam began and in March, two US Marine battalions landed at Danang. At the end of 1965 there were 200,000 US servicemen in Vietnam.
In fall of 1964, inspired by my experiences in Vietnam, I began graduate study at USC Columbia in international studies. What I learned made me skeptical about LBJ’s course of action. Did our national interest in Vietnam justify the allocation of the required resources?
Over the next few years, I vacillated between journalism and academia as career possibilities. Rejecting a Yale fellowship to study Vietnam in spring 1966, I returned to television news. When invited to participate in a Taiwan research project in summer 1967, I switched again. Fortuitously, WBTW agreed to send me and a camera to Vietnam to interview Carolina servicemen in the warzone. What I saw and heard confirmed my skepticism about our goals.
Serious setbacks continued to plague us in Vietnam over the next six months. Despite the persistent buildup of US military forces, the Viet Cong and its patron North Vietnam were gaining ground. In 1967 an average of 31 Americans servicemen were killed every day.
The Tet Offensive in January 1968 was the decisive blow. Eventually, the surprise attack against cities and small towns in Vietnam was beaten back, but confidence in a US military victory was dashed. During 1968 US military forces suffered almost 17,000 deaths, an average of 46 per day.
Throughout the escalation of our military involvement in Vietnam, I noted the willingness of Democratic US senators to challenge policies of a Democratic president. Two Democratic senators, Wayne Morse (OR) and Ernest Gruening (AK) even opposed the modest Gulf of Tonkin resolution. In 1966 Democratic Sen. William Fulbright (AR), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, held hearings on US policies in Asia, inviting respected scholars to share their expertise regarding the wisdom of LBJ’s strategy.
By winter of 1968, two Democratic US senators, Eugene McCarthy (MN) and Robert Kennedy (NY) were contesting LBJ’s re-election. Their challenge likely factored into Johnson’s decision to withdraw his re-election bid. At the time US personnel deaths had reached approximately 30,000.
The courage of those senators willing to take on a president of their own party impressed me. LBJ was a formidable politician. His domestic policies had been well received, especially by the traditional Democratic coalition formed under FDR. That there were senators who would put their own political future on the line to confront LBJ spoke highly of their character.
I am reminded of the courage those Democratic senators demonstrated when I consider our current circumstances. America has been traumatized for nearly a year now by a raging pandemic. The country is approaching 200,000 lives lost in less than a year, our economy had been brought to a standstill, our schools and higher education institutions crippled, and our health care system overwhelmed. More than 30 million jobs have been lost.
The president has admitted deliberately misleading the American people about the dangers of the pandemic. Yet he has done little to organize and lead a coherent response to the threat. Whatever his motives, he has failed to protect the nation’s health and prosperity.
Inexplicably, among the Republicans serving in the US Senate only Mitt Romney has dared to criticize the president’s performance. His voice was easily drowned out when his colleagues rallied to the president’s defense after evidence revealed the nation’s chief executive had used the powers of his office to seek personal political advantage. The president’s response to that support has been to wreak vengeance against any dissidents within the administration.
Following the lead of Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell (KY), GOP senators have doubled down on their support of the president by refusing to provide meaningful relief to Americans currently suffering serious economic distress because of the pandemic. Unconcerned earlier about the impact on the nation’s deficit of a $1.5 trillion tax cut for corporations and rich individuals, Republicans in the US Senate have suddenly discovered the need for fiscal restraint.
Many years have passed since the US ended its involvement in the Vietnam war. Democratic US senators were vital to bringing about that needed policy change. Responding to the current pandemic, which has already killed more than three times as many Americans as the Vietnam war, requires similar courage. The question is where are the courageous US senators in the GOP willing to challenge the errant president of their party?