It’s been 50 years since the march on Selma and U.S. Marines landing in South Vietnam. Yet little has changed, as domestic issues take a backseat to American-led wars being fought farther and farther from our shores.
A police officer takes a photo after thousands of people made a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Sunday, March 8, 2015, in Selma, Ala. The weekend marked the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,’ a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma.
March saw the 50th anniversary of two momentous events in U.S. history: the famous civil rights march on Selma and, a day later, the landing of U.S. Marines in South Vietnam. Of the two events, the march on Selma is much better known today, recently benefitting from a critically-acclaimed movie and President Obama’s visit there and participation in a memorial march across the bloody bridge where Alabama state troopers confronted peaceful demonstrators. Rightly, too, as the event is seen as a pivotal turning point in the African-American struggle for voting rights in the old Jim Crow South and equality nationwide.
Commemoration of the landing of U.S. Marines in South Vietnam, however, was much more subdued. No president flew in on Air Force One and American media outlets were mostly silent as the day passed, choosing instead to concentrate on the Selma anniversary story and the latest on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email scandal. The beach that once swarmed with two battalion’s worth of troops, about 3,500 Marines, is now a tourist draw with a hotel nearby. Nowhere is there a sign that the biggest American foreign policy disaster in the 20th century got started there.
That one of these events should be remembered and celebrated and not the other shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Selma has entered our history as a victory not just for black people, but for all Americans. True, institutionalized racism is still with us, as the recent revelations about Ferguson, Missouri, make clear. In terms of the larger advance of liberal rights, though, the events of that day in March 50 years ago surely represent a turning point toward justice. It was a dark moment in our history, but one that ultimately led to a brighter future for all Americans.
The legacy of Vietnam
Mark Salvatore, left, a homeless outreach nurse with the Veterans Administration talks with homeless Vietnam veteran William Joyce in Philadelphia. Photo: Matt Rourke/AP
Not so in Vietnam, where the landing of troops to protect an airfield from communist guerrillas quickly sucked in 185,000 troops by the end of 1965 and 536,000 by 1968. Of these men, some 58,200 eventually lost their lives in a war that was doomed almost from the very beginning. Worse, the disastrous war divided the country and America in a way that still haunts us today, as questions about service during wartime and one’s position on that long lost war remain relevant for political actors. The war ultimately made the Democrats gun shy on challenging America’s more warlike tendencies, and it created a malignant, dolchstoss myth on the right that it was the left and its opposition to the war — not the impossibility of combating a nationalist movement through force of arms — that led to debacle and defeat.
That the war was a clear defeat for American arms and the U.S. military should be clearly understood. Yet it is often glossed over in discussions of the war. True, every major battlefield encounter that the U.S. military participated in during that war was more or less won through America’s superior firepower, and the U.S. inflicted terrible punishment on North Vietnam via massive aerial bombardment campaigns the likes of which outclassed even those seen during the Second World War, but at no point did this matter. Month after month, year after year, the North and its soldiers, gleefully supported by Moscow and Beijing, were willing to trade unequal amounts of blood in order to outlast Uncle Sam.
Ho Chi Minh even predicted as much at the outset, pointing out that the North could lose 10 men for every one lost by America and still prevail because the U.S., like France before it, would eventually grow tired of it. Bogged down in what was called an unwinnable war by Walter Cronkite, who was arguably as influential among the American people then as Oprah Winfrey would be at the height of her TV career two decades later, Americans of all stripes began to protest the loss of blood and treasure. This unrest grew even more powerful, however, when the manpower needs of the war forced the end of student deferments in 1971, exposing for the first time America’s privileged middle classes to wartime service in that hellish place and laying bare the glaring inequalities that allowed some to be conscripted and killed in Vietnam while others, including future presidents and vice presidents, got away scot-free.
The ultimate lesson from Vietnam, unfortunately, was not that wars waged in faraway places for nebulous political goals should not be fought, but that they should be fought in such a way as to make Americans less likely to complain about them. Thus was born America’s all-volunteer force which, while superbly trained and of much higher quality than the old mass conscript military of the Vietnam era, had the desirable characteristic of being self-selected.
That being the case, Americans quickly got over their newly acquired taste for non-intervention in the years after Vietnam by sending people who ostensibly chose to be there to more and more wars in more and more far off places. No one of importance had kids who actually served, after all, so what did it matter if, as during the student deferral days in Vietnam, only working-class families and their children were kitted out and sent to fight in America’s post-Vietnam wars?
Drones and mercenaries, in turn, allow us to go even further down this route by making average Americans even farther removed from the hardships of war. It has gotten to the point where the biggest contribution an American can actually make to our current war efforts is to go shopping, which increases economic activity and tax revenue. Money, not blood, sweat, or tears, is the real way Americans fight nowadays. What we have created in the wake of Vietnam and the mass protests against it is a way of waging war that asks nothing of most members of American society except those who are most expendable and those we pay off with a glib “thank you for your service” and a treasure trove of government benefits. As a result, war without sacrifice becomes mere sport — one in which cheap, coffee klatch patriotism leads to rooting for the home team much as one would at the baseball park.
A dream deferred
Helen Shaw talks to people during a rally outside Greater Grace Church, Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, for Michael Brown Jr., who was killed by police, last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo.
Crueler still, Vietnam’s legacy did more than just create a military culturally and politically cut off from the people it ostensibly serves. The money poured into dropping bombs on thatch-roof hamlets in Southeast Asia also sucked the life out of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs just as they got going, effectively drowning the baby of root-and-branch social reform before it could grow strong enough to get out of the bathtub on its own. Starved of resources, Great Society programs only went to the poorest of the poor. As a result, they became a political cudgel for the right wing to use to goad the middle class into voting Republican.
The irony of course is that after his great victory in Selma, Martin Luther King Jr. eventually turned his attention to larger issues than just racial justice. During his final days he sought, like Lyndon Johnson who loved the Great Society but was forced to marry “that bitch, Vietnam,” to broaden his movement into one that would speak for all poor people, white and black alike, who struggled to put food on the table or suffered under the indignities of poverty and want. Unlike Johnson, however, King saw Vietnam for the useless and needless evil that it was and denounced it accordingly. History is replete with fateful moments, and it is poignant that just as King began to turn the vast moral authority he had gained while leading the black struggle for civil rights to the broader issues of the poor, Johnson and the country became increasingly distracted and bogged down by the war in Vietnam.
One wonders what might have happened if King had lived and the war had never gotten started. Unburdened by the need to feed the beast in Southeast Asia with ever more blood and treasure, how much could have been spent on Johnson’s vision of a Great Society? How much moral authority could King have brought in to support Johnson’s vision? Would the political coalition that Roosevelt had formed in the 1930s have been renewed and strengthened in the late 1960s as a result of the growing alliance between these two men, so different and yet in many way so much alike? Could the great turn to the right in the latter half of the century have been prevented by an alliance that never was because Vietnam got in the way?
We’ll never know, of course, because of what actually came to pass: defeat in Vietnam, the gutting of the Great Society, and the corresponding political collapse of liberal America’s political and ideological ascendancy at home. Still, the possibilities contained in those hours that passed between the events at Selma and the landing of the troops in South Vietnam, when change at home seemed so possible only to be snuffed out by the demands of war, is instructive.
What it tells us is that if Americans want deep, root-and-branch reform in ways that meaningfully address economic inequality, stagnant wages, a shrinking middle class and a host of other pressing social ills, the country must draw back from its deep, poisonous and ultimately ruinous adventures in the Middle East. Truly massive amounts of treasure are being spent there to absolutely no good effect, just as in Vietnam, but what is worse is the impact it is having on us here at home aside from all the money spent.
Put simply, the wars put the left on the defensive and give credence to those who think military power is the solution to all our problems. It drags everything in our country, from politics to economics to our very culture, further and further to the right, and has made America a fearful garrison state that constantly surveils its own people. Our politics are smaller as a result and we are all worse off because of it. Isolationism has become a dirty word in polite circles, but perhaps radicals need to dust off the phrase and try it on for size. After all, there can be no significant change unless and until America draws back from our policy of unending war abroad that stems from our desire to bring order to areas of the world that do not want us to police it.