A Clean Break With The Past

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Next, in abrupt reaction, came the Kennedy years with their quite opposite mood of responsibility and hope. It is tempting now to think of those years as a golden age, though if we look closely we find they were scarcely that in practical terms; after all, Kennedy’s domestic legislative defeats—on civil rights, on tax reform, on Medicare—far outweighed his victories, and he died leaving unsolved most of the problems he had inherited, including, of course, Vietnam. But his successful conclusion of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, along with the limited nuclear test-ban treaty that followed the next summer, did much to allay the fear of nuclear war that had overhung the country all through the postwar period up to then. Much more important, he and his administration, through the almost magically inspiring quality of their very style, succeeded in regenerating the old American faith, not in the perfection of man or his nation but in their perfectability. No one despaired under Kennedy; somehow everything seemed possible. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, [and] live out the true meaning of its creed …” Martin Luther King, Jr., said at the interracial March on Washington in August, 1963—a fitting epitome of the Kennedy mood, in a climax that no one could know came near the end of the last act.

Then everything went wrong. With Kennedy’s death that November began an age of assassination; within five years probably the two most admired black men in the country, King and Malcolm X, and almost certainly the most admired white man, John Kennedy’s brother Robert, would be dead from the same horrifying and dispiriting cause. During the same period more and more Negro leaders turned against King’s dream, rejecting the American creed for a cynical, angry separatism; the hopeless war in Vietnam was escalated, and revelations about its conduct led many Americans to a similarly escalating sense of horror, disillusion, and shame; political colloquy at home became violent rather than reasonable; Americans achieved the technical masterwork of flying to the moon and back while failing to accomplish the technically simple one of giving all their citizens proper food and clothing. The sixth postwar mood was, and is, one of violence, disillusion, and doubt verging on despair such as has not been felt since the time of the Civil War.

It is my thesis, then, that while material change has generally been steady, continuous, and for the most part beneficent over the postwar period, the past five years or so have seen an explosive—and morally equivocal—increase in the rate of change in values and attitudes. It is in these last five years that most of our moral history since V-J Day has been written, and it is since 1965 that many Americans have come to feel like expatriates in America. In support of the thesis, let me tick off a few current American attitudes—now accepted widely enough among the influential, especially in the communications media, to constitute what might be called leadership opinion, if not national consensus—that would have been unthinkable not only on V-J Day but on the day of John Kennedy’s death as well.

The attitude toward military affairs, and in particular toward our own military, has to a large extent undergone a reversal. My own generation, the one whose coming of age coincided with U.S. entry into the Second World War, had thought itself pacifist; we had been brought up on Dos Passes’ Three Soldiers and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and the Nye investigation with its implication that wars are fought for the profits of munitions makers. But it turned out that our pacifism was only skin-deep; when the call to arms came, it found us full of sanguine enthusiasm. We wanted to be in it, and quickly, and we hurried to the recruiting offices; we thought of draft-dodging as contemptible and conscientious objection as respectable but, to say the least, highly eccentric. After Pearl Harbor a uniform, even that of an ordinary soldier or sailor, was a clear-cut asset in the pursuit of girls.

In the postwar period up until recently a uniform was neutral, considered neither glamorous nor unappealing. Not so now. There are no American “heroes” of Vietnam (not that there has been no actual heroism), and the sporadic efforts of the military to create some have failed utterly. On the contrary, among the heroes to today’s youth, or a significant segment of it, are the evaders who are hiding out illegally in Canada or Sweden. Idealistic young people casually and openly discuss and choose among the legal and illegal ways of avoiding induction, and many of them consider the act of draft avoidance or evasion to be a moral one. As for the sexual aspect: the son of some friends of mine, living in a conservative eastern community, complained soon after he was drafted that girls who had formerly gone out with him would no longer do so. The old taunt of “Why aren’t you in uniform?” has become the opposite: “Why aren’t you in Sweden or in jail?” Soldiers on leave these days wear mufti.