11th Grade: “The Center Cannot Hold. . .”

Greetings,

This week we looked at the beginnings of the Vietnam war under Kennedy and Johnson, up until the significant troop buildups of 1965.

One of my main goals with this unit is to avoid finger-pointing.  Hindsight is so often 20/20.  In truth the conflict in Vietnam posed questions that no one would wish to answer.  Vietnam’s dilemmas give no good answers, only hopefully less bad solutions.  When I think of the controversy surrounding the conflict, I am reminded of a comment of a monk named Columba Cary-Elwes, who wrote to a friend and professional historian in 1940,

I find we live in so criticizing an age that I spend my time summing people up — public figures, judging the motives of their actions and though I had the whole thing mapped out before me, as God must have, and I certainly have not.  We are always being given vulgar and crude and unkind judgments of people and peoples in the newspaper, and it becomes second nature.  I am going to try and not get caught up in this perfidious habit.  This arose out of Fr. Dunstan’s reminder that we are “near nothing” and we ourselves must try and imitate God, who is infinitely merciful.

We ourselves bear culpability for what happened in Vietnam, but to understand this we need to understand events in Europe in the aftermath of W.W. II England led the way in divesting themselves of their colonial empire.  To be fair, England emerged from the war with its reputation generally intact, whereas France humiliated itself in its capitulation to the Nazi’s.  Much of our modern image of France comes from this singularity, but for the previous 1000 years, France had the pre-eminent military in Europe, with luminaries such as Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, St. Joan of Arc, and Napoleon to their credit.  Their post-war agenda did not leave room for looking any weaker than they already appeared.  They were keeping their empire, thank you very much.  That included Indochina.

Some within Indochina looked to the U.S. for aid in their bid for independence.  After all, we too rebelled at one point from a European colonial power.  We declined.  Truman felt it more important to appease France (who wanted very much to join NATO to keep them out of the communist fold).  Unfortunately for us, (though not perhaps for the Vietnamese), this came back to bite us when France lost in Indochina and left NATO anyway.  A possible golden opportunity slipped away.

Historians debate the nature of this turning point in Asia.  Some assert that if FDR had lived, he would have made a different choice.  There are some intriguing quotes from FDR about how Europe was basically dead and how Asia represented the future.  But all we can do is speculate.

In the aftermath the U.N. created four nations, Cambodia, Laos, North and South Vietnam.  The division between north and south was certainly artificial, done for political reasons and not historical or cultural ones.  Was Vietnam within the purview of our strategic interests?  What kind of aid should we give them?

To understand our commitment to Vietnam, we need to go back to the Korean conflict.  Many believe now, and believed at the time, that our neglect to publicly proclaim our commitment to South Korea may have encouraged the North to invade.  We wanted to learn from the past, and so Eisenhower made our commitment to South Vietnam plain.  This, we hoped, would forestall an invasion from the north.

Well, it failed to do, which left us with a series of terrible dilemmas.

  • We could let South Vietnam collapse.  But what about then, our pledge to defend it?
  • We could give aid to the South and try and “prop them up.”  But how much aid should we give, and what form should it take?  Moreover, would the aid we gave them really solve the problems that South Vietnam had?

Johnson and his advisors knew full well that any aid to South Vietnam might be counter-productive.  We couldn’t keep them on life-support forever.  But eventually a new idea emerged.  Perhaps military engagement might force the South to get its act together.  If that didn’t happen, our military involvement might at least slow the North down and create a level playing field between the two nations.  While the South might not be better off, at least the North wouldn’t pose as much of a threat.

Such is the logic of war.  What I hope the students recognize is that not every story needs a dastardly villain.  Sometimes nations, as well as individuals, face only a series of bad choices, and have to make the best of it.  This, however, is not to say that the U.S. did in fact make the best of a bad situation, as we shall see.

We also looked at the 1960 presidential debate between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, important for many reasons in our political history.  Most that heard the debate on the radio thought Nixon won.  Those that watched on TV (the majority) believed Kennedy won.  We saw a brief clip of the debate and discussed why that might be the case.

  • Nixon wore no makeup, while Kennedy did
  • Nixon looked much less comfortable on camera.  He shifted his eyes and smiled awkwardly.  Of course it’s not hard to miss his infamous sweating (towards the end of the clip).
  • Nixon wore a blase grey suit, Kennedy the classic politician dark blue.

This may also have helped originate many common tactics of candidates in debates, where candidates try to “stay on message” no matter what the question.  If you watch the clip, you see this perhaps more with Kennedy than Nixon.

Many of us lament the current state of our political discourse, and nearly all would agree that our modern presidential debates hardly dignify the word.  But the reality of our situation raises some interesting questions:

  • In the modern era, to what extent do we need presidents to be “actors,” and project a certain image?  Should it be an unwritten qualification for leadership?
  • TV is an inherently visual medium, and thus does not do well communicating written or spoken words (this was one of Neil Postman’s point in his Amusing Ourselves to Death).  Whether we like this or not, it is a reality of our culture and not likely to change soon.  Do we adjust the way we think of politics because of it?
  • If this concern for image has at least some legitimacy, what has it cost us as a democracy?

Thursday we switched gears and looked at the changes in music as a mirror for the changes in culture between W.W. II – Mid – 60’s.  I wanted the students to see our transition from broad based group oriented culture to a more individual/niche orientation.  Think for example of Glenn Miller.  He headlines, but the band is the star, and not him.  The music aims for a broad acceptance of broad cross-section of the population.  Culture in general happened on a big, broad scale.  Think of Cecil B. DeMille movies with their grand sets and dramatic scores, or Fred Astaire pictures with their big dance numbers.  Fewer African-Americans were bigger stars than Cab Calloway, but look how quickly he steps aside for the Nicholas brothers incredible dancing in this clip (certainly worth watching in its entirety — Fred Astaire himself called this the greatest dance number ever filmed):

Here is Fred Astaire himself in perhaps his most famous clip, a tribute to Bojangles.

The swing music of Glenn Miller, most popular in the 1940’s, showcased the big, broad, ensemble sound.

Overall, the theme here is akin to the summer movie blockbuster.  Go big or go home.

As we move into the late 50’s this begins to change, and we see this change first beginning in jazz music.  Ornette Coleman comes up with a different idea of what a musical note is. Coleman’s ensemble allowed for the musicians to each put their own individual, emotional interpretation on the music.

Thelonious Monk’s angular rhythms hit anything but the broad middle.  He created a sound totally his own.

In general, we see soloists rise in prominence in music, and this will presage the rise of individuals in society as a whole.  We should be careful.  The difference between an ensemble based sound and a preference for solos is not a moral one, so much as a change of emphasis.  We exist as members of groups and as individuals.  Both have importance, and our cultural expressions reflect both of these realities.  But, the change in emphasis does reflect broader changes in general.

We also saw how the niche of blues music morphs into the mainstream with rock and roll.  Artists like Elvis and the Beatles obviously gained huge followings.  But some of the British groups like The Who and The Kinks foreshadow disenchantment with the prevailing ethos.  Listen to “Everybody’s Going to be Happy,” and you can feel the intensity.  It’s not, “Everyone’s Going to be HAPPY! (YAY!) but “EVERYONE’S Going to be Happy.”  The Who appear to be harbingers of zany disregard for everything.  The song is called “Happy Jack,” and there are happy-sounding “la-la-la’s,” but the mood of the song gives a different message.

The music no longer aims for the broad middle.  As W.B. Yeats wrote in his famous poem, “the center cannot hold.”  Why did this happen, and what will be the results?  We will explore these questions next week.

Blessings,

Dave M

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