Everyone living in America lives in the shadow of the 1960s. The events of that decade have shaped the culture for nearly a half century now and even as key figures age and exit, the penumbra and the emanations from the penumbra of that decade persist.
What will, eventually, happen is that living memory of the period will depart, too. (As will all these silly hyperlinked catchphrases and the title of this post.) Then all that will be left is the interpretations caught between the covers of a book, encoded in some digital repository or underlying a belief system. So understanding the decade I think is critical to understanding where we find ourselves. And understanding doesn’t mean discovering you’re right and yelling hooray for your side.
It’s nearly impossible, though, to recreate a time and place after experiencing decades of events shaped by it. The best that can be hoped for is to find some way to experience what those alive at the time did. I’d submit, in this current age of dismissing mainstream media, that the best way to do that is to consume the same news reports that the American public did during those years.
The Library of America, thankfully, has made that possible. (If you are not aware of the scope and intent of this project it’s worth a minute, as an educated person, to learn a bit about it.) In just about 2,000 pages they’ve collected 16 years of print journalism about the Vietnam War.
True, that leaves out the disturbing images seen on the evening news that played a major role in shifting public attitudes. But visuals tend to overwhelm the senses and drive emotional responses. The repeated hammer blows encountered in reading (a rational and cognitive act) month after month, year after year of increasingly grim stories is as close as you’ll get to experiencing the buildup of frustration, disgust, resignation and then the retreat that actually occurred.
Events in theatre and at home are covered although the focus is on the ground in Vietnam. The editorial preference seems to be for longer pieces and because so much of the writing comes from major media outlets the personalities of the writers are not as present as some might like.
Still, you get Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer and Francine du Plessix Gray and others to counterbalance the likes of Harrison Salisbury, Peter Arnett and Peter Kann coming from the more traditional side.
You also get some surprises. Michael Kinsley shows up as a young Harvardian. Not a big surprise. Larry Kudlow, though, (yes, National Review, Reagan administration, Bear Stearns, embarrassing episode in the middle of Park Avenue Larry Kudlow) turns up in a surprising role: left-wing, SNCC, SDS activist. Sy Hersh’s My Lai stoires are here, too and in the context of all this other reporting it’s hard to imagine the fuss.
One note that we, at AHC, must make is that the list of contributors contains lots of Ivy-degreed and Northeastern born and raised writers. Since journalism, just past mid-century, was not yet the professionalized, grad school backed endeavor it now is that’s somewhat startling. I suspect that the editors brought such a bias to the task. Someday I’m going to be able to commend such a group for fessing up at the outset.
Each volume ends with a long piece. In Volume 1 it’s a story from the New Yorker about an American patrol that kidnaps a young girl, rapes and kills her. Turned in by the one member of the unit that refused to participate, the military justice system fails that girl and American ideas of honorable behavior. (This piece is what makes the My Lai articles seem minor in comparison.)
Volume 2 ends with Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I remember shelving that book as a paperback in the late 70s when I worked at the local public library. It was, as I recalled, well-thumbed and in constant circulation. It’s a grunt’s eye view of the war that leaves one numb and in disbelief.
I hope, if you read these, that you come away with your beliefs about that period stirred just enough to no longer make you comfortable with any explanation that seems too pat.