Category Archives: History

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Eight: ‘The History of the World’

Now that I’ve watched all the episodes, it’s getting a little difficult to remember details from one a couple back. But here are some points, just as conversation starters:

  • There’s a lot about our experience in Vietnam that appalls me — and of course, many of them are not the same things that appall Doug or Bud. But My Lai is one where I think our disgust is in synch — even though I’m sure we extrapolate different lessons from it. That Calley served so little time — and in house arrest, the gentleman’s form of punishment administered to a monster — makes a mockery of all that’s holy. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but someone should have shot him in the act, and saved some of those people (and I deeply honor helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., who intervened to stop it, threatening to open fire on his fellow Americans if they did not cease the killing). Worse than Calley’s case is that no one else even served time — not Medina, not his NCOs, not anybody. Of course, neither of those things is the worst thing. The worst thing is the killing itself, all those innocents…
  • This episode also includes one of Nixon’s worst lies: When he said Thieu had told him the ARVN were doing such a great job that Vietnamization could proceed apace so we could start pulling out American combat troops — and Thieu had said no such thing. It’s one thing to start pulling Americans out — that, at least, was something Nixon had promised to do and we knew he was going to do, and by and large the country (this country that is) was behind him on that. But to claim that the ally you’re deserting had told you that was fine by him when he hadn’t is slimy.
  • The contrast between horrors of war and what was going on back stateside is often disturbing to me. A segment in which Marine Tom Vallely was engaged in particularly intense combat — an action for which his was awarded the Silver Star for conspicuous gallantry — after which he is talking about the things one’s grandchildren will never understand about what you did in the war… shifts jarringly to Country Joe and the Fish performing “Fixin’ to Die Rag” at Woodstock. It was two days after the battle we’d just been told about. The camera stops on the face of one long-haired kid after another in the audience grinning and smirking at the mocking lyrics, singing along to this hilarious song about dying in Vietnam. I’d never minded that song very much before, but seeing people so tickled by it just after looking at dead and dying men on a battlefield sickened me. And it should do the same to my antiwar friends. People think they’re so damned cute, don’t they? Give me cursing, angry, rock-throwing protesters in the street rather than this.
  • Kent State. I’ve always felt the loss of those kids keenly. I read Michener’s book about the shootings not long after it happened and learned a lot about each of them, felt that I got to know and care about them. What happened there was inexcusable, indefensible. To start with, why were those kids in the Guard uniforms issued live ammunition? Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song about the tragedy gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. All of that said… I don’t feel exactly about the incident the way my antiwar friends do. As horrific as the shooting of those protesters was, I wish I could be like antiwar folk and applaud their protest with uncomplicated approval. But I’m not able to do that. To me, the tragedy of their deaths is compounded by the fact that their cause made no sense to me. Of course you go into Cambodia if that’s where the enemy is — especially when there’s a new government in that country that approves of your doing so. Anything that could be done to strengthen the position of the South Vietnamese when we’re preparing to pull out should quite naturally be done. That’s what I thought at the time, and I see no reason to think differently now. I wish I could. It would be nice to have the blessing of uncomplicated feelings.
  • There was one thing I can feel pretty good about, in an uncomplicated way, and that was the practice back here of five million Americans wearing bracelets to remember the POWs in Hanoi. As the narrator says, “Despite what their jailers had told them, the prisoners had not been forgotten by their country.” There’s nothing political about it. It’s neither approving nor protesting. It’s just remembering, caring. It’s good to be reminded of that.

Just two more episodes to discuss. Then we can go back to arguing about things happening in this century…

marching

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Seven: ‘The Veneer of Civilization’

That clip above follows an extraordinary story of heroism in battle.

In a night battle against overwhelming odds — his company was badly outnumbered by the attacking NVA — Vincent Okamoto, a Japanese-American who had been born in an internment camp during the Second World War, did an Audie Murphy: He left cover to jump atop an armored personnel carrier, pulled aside the dead body of the machine-gunner, and fired the gun at the enemy until it stopped working.

Then he went to another APC, and fired its gun until it was out of ammunition. Then he did it again from a third APC. When all that ammo was gone, the was still coming, so he started throwing grenades at them. Twice, he threw back enemy grenades thrown at him. A third landed out of his reach, and peppered his back and legs with shrapnel.

Convinced he was going to die (“Mom’s gonna take it hard,” he thought), Okamoto lost all fear, and kept fighting. Eventually, the enemy slipped away into Cambodia, leaving a third of the American company as casualties.

Vincent Okamoto

Vincent Okamoto

“I killed a lot of brave men that night,” he says. And he tells himself that by doing so, maybe, just maybe, he saved the lives of a couple of his own guys. He received the Distinguished Service Cross for that night of fighting. By the time he went home, he would become the most highly decorated Japanese-American to survive the Vietnam War.

But as is the case with so many decorated heroes, he shoves that aside rather impatiently, speaking of the “real heroes” with whom he served. That’s the clip above. I thought I should share what went before to enhance your experience of the clip.

It’s a pretty powerful evocation of the thing that those of us who’ve never been to war often misunderstand about those who have. We can talk about courage and sacrifice and heroism, and patriotism and causes and waving flags. But to those who have been there, that stuff is so often (if not always) beside the point. It’s about the guys next to you. Whatever you do, you do for them, in the context of the moment, and not for the stuff of Fourth of July speeches.

And I can say all that stuff in words, because I’ve read it so many times in words, and I think I understand it well enough to do that. But I don’t really know. How can I?

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about that “veneer of civilization” that turned thin and frayed and was ripped aside at about this time.

At this point, Martin and Bobby have already fallen, and once again we’re reminded of how much was lost in those two men. (By the way, if you’ve never listened to the recording of RFK announcing MLK’s death at a campaign rally, and then going on to speak with an eloquence that puts everyone since him in the shade, listen now. It always gives me goosebumps.)

RFK, I believe, could have been the guy to pull his party together and not only win the election, but help heal the country. It had seemed that way since he had made his late entry into the race. He, perhaps, could have done what neither Humphrey nor McCarthy could do. Without him, and MLK, there wasn’t much of a chance for that.

The Democratic Convention in Chicago was one of the low points of American civilization — all those multifaceted freaks acting out in the streets, and all those Chicago cops brutalizing them. And what did they accomplish? Why, the election — just barely — of Richard Nixon. In the same sense that the Bernie Bros helped elect Trump, only more so. The Democratic brand was so damaged that HHH couldn’t overcome it, despite the prevalence of his party all through the decade up to that point.

I’ve heard a lot from Doug and others during this series about how awful JFK and LBJ supposedly were. It just makes me sad, because I know I can’t explain to folks with that attitude why they’re wrong to engage in such blanket condemnation.

It’s foolish for people with that attitude of monolithic negativity to think a series such as this would “open my eyes” and cause me to see things as they do. And it’s equally foolish for me to think the same experience would temper the views of those who are deeply cynical as a result of the way that war tore the country apart. (I didn’t have much hope of that, but I’ll confess to thinking “maybe…”)

But there is one point on which this series has affected my thinking, leaving me with a darker view of someone or something: I am repeatedly appalled by hearing those conversations that Nixon had with Kissinger and others.

Over the decades, my view of Nixon has softened somewhat. After all, his mastery of policy seems particularly worthy of respect in a time when we have a complete idiot in the White House.

But his cold cynicism and clamoring for personal political advantage is nauseating. How can a person, even speaking privately with his confidantes, say such nakedly Machiavellian things?

And remember, folks, this is the guy who kept his promise to get us out of Vietnam.

I’d still take him over Trump, for many reasons. But he was pretty awful. I’m reminded by this series that he was the worst president in my lifetime, until now. Worse than I had remembered…

Chicago

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Six: ‘Things Fall Apart’

American Ms fighting off the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

American Ms fighting the VC who had entered the American embassy compound.

I’m still a day behind — I watched Episode Seven last night — but I’ll get there eventually.

To me, this episode — which dealt with the period of the Tet Offensive — was all about the power of expectations and perception.

The offensive was, of course, a tremendous failure for the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong — tactically and strategically, in terms of what they hoped to achieve.

The communists attacked everywhere, and were defeated everywhere — badly defeated. Their losses were horrific. And their strategic goal — of inspiring the people of the South to rise up and support the North’s cause — was a complete failure. None of the Southern provinces rose up. The people of the South, along with the Americans, fought back fiercely and with devastating effectiveness. The NVA and Viet Cong were crushed.

It was the sort of thing that, were you an American or South Vietnamese military commander, you might wish the North would do once a month, the result was so damaging to the North’s ability to wage war.

But that’s not how it played in America. In America, it played as “They can rise up everywhere at once? Some of them got inside the U.S. embassy compound?” The enemy wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. (And yes, American commanders’ overly rosy assessments of how the war going had something to do with that.)

That’s when, as the title of the episode suggests, things began to fall apart. The enemy launched the offensive on January 30, 1968. On March 12, LBJ suffered a terrible setback in the New Hampshire primary.

Mind you, he didn’t lose. Again, we’re talking expectations and perception. He won, but with only 49.6 percent of the vote — and that’s not supposed to happen to a sitting president in his own party’s primary.

An interesting side note here: Eugene McCarthy didn’t get 41.9 percent because that many people were antiwar. As the episode points out, he did that well “even though most of those who voted against the president actually wanted him to prosecute the war more vigorously.” Stuff is often more complicated than we remember.

But the president was expected to win 2-to-1, so that means he lost. Expectations and perception.

Four days later, Bobby Kennedy announced he would run. On March 31, Johnson announced that he was bowing out: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.” (Wouldn’t it be nice if it were so easy to get Trump to quit?)

Tet, and that political defeat of the once all-powerful Johnson, made it respectable for serious Democratic politicians to be against the war. We’d fight on for five more years, but this is where the conversation that led to withdrawal started to get serious.

In a way, despite getting creamed on the battlefield, the North had achieved what Hitler failed to do at the Battle of the Bulge. He had hoped to shock the overconfident Western Allies — who had been talking about the war ending by Christmas 1944 — into losing heart, perhaps even seeking a negotiated peace so he could turn and use all his forces against the Russians.

So, defeat eventually translated to victory for the North….

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Five: ‘This is what we do’

OK, I’m an episode behind in posting about this. I should have used the two-day R&R we had Friday and Saturday to catch up, but I had a lot of other stuff going on. I’m going to post this now (from Thursday night), and try to get to Episode Six before the day is out.

Several thoughts from this episode:

  • Are we “killer angels” or not? In the clip above, Marine Karl Marlantes disputes the notion that military training teaches young men to kill. He maintains that we are a species born to such aggression, and training merely serves as a “finishing school,” polishing our skills for what we already tend to do. Not a new idea, of course. But it flies in the face of what military psychologist Dave Grossman argues in that book I cite so often here, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Grossman presents considerable evidence to indicate that most men (although not all — we get our special forces soldiers from the tiny minority) have a deep-seated aversion to killing, and that it takes a lot to override that. So which is it? Are we natural-born killers, or do we have to be schooled to become that?
  • On a related point… The title of the episode comes from the opening clip above, in which another Marine talks about how he adapted to combat. At first, he questioned some of the things he saw fellow Marines doing. He’s not specific, he just refers to “some interesting things that happen” — although he had dropped the word “atrocities” in setting up the segment. Anyway, he was told, and he eventually internalized, “This is war. This is what we do.” This strikes me on a couple of levels. First, there’s the point I’ve made for 50 years to people who thought there was something especially immoral about our involvement in Vietnam, something setting it apart. No, this is war. Be against war if you choose, and that’s fine. But most (not all, but most) things that horrify people about Vietnam are things that happen in other wars. This is just the first war in our history in which folks at home had an inkling what happened on the battlefield. Second, I’m reminded of Grossman’s book: One of the factors that overcomes men’s aversion to killing is seeing their comrades doing it around them. In fact, one point that I don’t think has been made overtly in this series yet is this: Most soldiers don’t fight for causes, or nations, or any of the usual things we talk about. They fight for the guys next to them. If their comrades turn and run away, they’ll run away. But if his comrades stand and fight, a soldier is too ashamed to do anything else himself.
  • MusgraveOne of the most startling stories thus far in the series is the one told by Marine John Musgrave. He was shot in the chest, and had a hole “big enough to put your fist through.” He was triaged three times, and each time given up for dead — by a corpsman on the battlefield, again in the evac helicopter, and finally by a doctor at the hospital. Each time, he was shoved aside so the medical personnel could try to save the men who had a chance. The third time, the doctor only asked him his religion so he could call over a chaplain for him. Finally, a surgeon says, “Why isn’t somebody helping this man?” As they anesthetized him for surgery, he assumed he wouldn’t wake up. But they saved him, and he survived to tell his story to Burns and Novick.

That last item was one of those things that we should all pay more attention to. The moral is, Don’t ever assume you know what’s going to happen. This has many applications in life. Sometimes, as in Musgrave’s case, it means “Don’t give up hope.” Other times, we should not get complacent thinking we know things are going to be OK. For that reason, I’ve been pretty irritated at news stories I’ve seen the last two or three days saying that Graham-Cassidy is dead. As Yeats wrote (in the same poem quoted by Bobby Kennedy in last night’s episode):

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

On this, Lindsey Graham has thrown his lot in with the worst — even acting like he’s proud that Trump is backing his effort. And he will pull out everything he can to succeed in passing this abomination…

this is war

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode 4: ‘Resolve’

I’m a day behind here, but I want to have a post about each episode, so I’m posting this a day late, after I’ve already seen Episode 5. But here goes…

First, if there was an episode, of all those thus far, that was going to turn me into the Vietnam war protester that Bud would like me to be, it was this one. From start to finish, practically every point made, every interview, every video clip, added up to a powerful message that whether we should have been in Vietnam or not, what we were doing was not working. The Johnson administration was fooling itself as well as the American people, and each escalation added to the sense of desperation that the episode conveyed. These points were made again and again, eloquently.

A person watching that episode would naturally wonder, why did we continue to fight? Why didn’t the American people demand that we withdraw immediately? And my answer, as I expressed earlier in a comment, is that the concentrated way that these arguments are presented in the episode was NOT the way life was experienced at the time. First, if you were a stateside civilian, little of your average day was spent thinking about the war. And when it was, the antiwar message was a much smaller chunk of what we were taking in about the war — and no, that was NOT because the POTUS was a big, fat liar.

Most of the journalism we saw was NOT by David Halberstam or Morley Safer. We did not have the experience that this series affords of hearing at length from young men who went over enthusiastic about the mission and became disillusioned. (So far, every single young man we learn of in

I was just a kid at the time, which makes me unreliable, but I have no memory at all of the Fulbright hearings, much less of the calm, articulate, intellectual arguments of George F. Kennan and other witnesses arguing against our involvement.

In fact, if you were alive at the time, most of what you saw of the growing antiwar movement was people chanting such things as “Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” I know that such “arguments” are persuasive to many people, but they turn me right off. Such approaches aim to engage the emotion and shut down rational faculties, and I’ve always held them in contempt.

Anyway, I was impressed by what Kennan had to say, because of who he was — or who the series told me he was. My ears perked up immediately when I heard that he was sort of the father of Cold War strategy of containment. I had heard his name, and I was familiar with the strategy, and I was eager to hear more.

As y’all know, I have frequently written here about Vietnam as an application of that policy of containment. So hearing that Kennan said Vietnam was a wrong-headed misapplication of the strategy really made an impression on me.

Bud thinks I should “just admit the hippies and draft dodgers were right,” which ain’t gonna happen. Nor is Muhammad Ali or Dr. Spock going to knock me over. Nor John Kerry. In fact, definitely not John Kerry. But if a guy like Kennan says something, I’m thinking as I watch this, I’m paying attention.

The next morning, seeking to know more, I googled Kennan. Wikipedia’s not the same as reading a serious book about him, and I stand ready to be corrected by someone with deeper knowledge, but it’s what I had time for so far. And I read this:

Soon after his concepts had become U.S. policy, Kennan began to criticize the foreign policies that he had seemingly helped begin. Subsequently, prior to the end of 1948, Kennan became confident that positive dialogue could commence with the Soviet government. His proposals were discounted by the Truman administration and Kennan’s influence was marginalized, particularly after Dean Acheson was appointed Secretary of State in 1949. Soon thereafter, U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more assertive and militaristic quality, causing Kennan to lament about what he believed was an abrogation of his previous assessments….

In other words, Kennan wasn’t exactly what the series suggested. He had disowned the way the U.S. government applied his containment idea to the entire Cold War, starting LONG before we got involved in Vietnam.

Which puts his testimony in a very different light from what I heard Wednesday night. It’s not like he was a guy wedded to the overall strategy who had a specific problem with Vietnam; he was a guy who disowned the whole policy.

The way it was presented on the show was that here was Mr. Containment himself, and he was against our involvement in Vietnam. But apparently, that description was off.

Maybe that was acknowledged at some point when I got up to get a glass of water or something. But if it wasn’t, the omission bothers me. It’s one of the few flaws I’ve spotted in the series thus far, though, which testifies to the excellence we’ve come to associate with Burns and Novak.

One other small thing that speaks to something huge…

The episode told of how in the last year of his life, Martin Luther King struggled with whether he should take a stand against the war. And as we know, he eventually decided to do so.

I deeply respect his prayerful process of discernment, and was as always impressed by the rolling power of his eloquence in the speech the program showed a clip from.

But something jumped out at me. Like so many other opponents of our involvement, he called upon our leaders to “end the war.”

Well, y’all know how I tend to react to that phrase. It is spoken by so many good, decent, kind, caring people who just want all the bloodshed to stop. It was spoken during that war, and later with regard to Iraq, and to this day about Afghanistan.

But it was not in our power to “end the war.” It was only in our power to get out of the way and let it proceed without us. This is not some small linguistic quibble. The difference between ending a war and pulling out to let the other combatants fight it out is a big as between night and day.

As we would see in 1975…

Kennan

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Three: ‘The River Styx’

flowers

There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the war in Vietnam, and I’ve been hoping Ken Burns’ new series would help me sort out.

One is North Vietnam’s complicated relationship with, on the one hand, the Soviet Union, and on the other hand with China.

It would be so easy to explain the North as the Russians’ client state, and at times as I’ve read about the war, that has appeared to be the case. Other times, China seems to have played that role. And over the years, I’ve thought, how can both be true, given the bitter split between the world’s two biggest communist countries back in the ’60s?

And yet, I’m learning from the series, apparently the answer was indeed “both.”

Both poured considerable resources into helping the North — the Chinese sending 320,000 people (I’m saying that from memory — I didn’t write the number down during the show), and the Soviets sending vast amounts of materiel along with advisers.

How did Hanoi maintain that uneasy balance? With great difficulty, apparently.

And the split in those two nations’ attitudes toward Marxism’s inevitable march through history was reflected in North Vietnam’s leadership. Ho Chi Minh subscribed to the less aggressive, more accommodating approach pushed by Moscow. (He, for instance, was very upset that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on Americans in the Tonkin Gulf.) Le Duan, who increasingly gained greater sway over Hanoi at Ho’s expense, favored the more extreme, violent, approach of the Maoists.

One thing about the commies: They weren’t monolithic. Which takes us back to my Unified Field Theory of human affairs: People are complicated, regardless of how they try to boil things down into simple ideologies.

Here’s a detail that particularly struck me last night: The part where China sent those 300,000-plus people to help with the war effort. They did it in a way that marked a profound contrast to the American approach: They send them to take on rear-echelon jobs to free North Vietnamese soldiers to go to the front.

In doing that, they embodied Donald Trump’s notion of international relations (reiterated in his speech to the U.N. yesterday): That every nation looks out for itself, that it’s all about self-interest.

Meanwhile, LBJ was sending entire American combat units over to fight, bleed and die for the Vietnamese.

The clip below shows the reaction of one Vietnamese woman to that. And there were many others like her. Key excerpt:

We’re such a small and poor country, and the Americans have decided to come in to save us — not only with their money, their reseources, but even with their own lives.

We were very grateful…

As I’ve done the last couple of days, my intention here is just to share a thought or two from the episode, something that jumped out at me, as a conversation starter. There was enough in last night’s episode to fill a book with.

Perhaps you would like to make other points based upon it…

KKK questions in the 5th grade, and the ‘virtues of slavery’

They may look scary, but look at it from their perspective, kids...

They may look scary, but look at it from their perspective, kids…

Well, we’re in The New York Times again. This time it’s for asking a bit much of 5th-graders in Irmo:

“You are a member of the K.K.K.,” the fifth-grade homework assignment read. “Why do you think your treatment of African-Americans is justified?”

The work sheet, given on Thursday as part of a lesson on the Reconstruction period, caused an outcry after one student’s uncle, Tremain Cooper, posted a photo of the assignment on Facebook.

“This is my little 10-year-old nephew’s homework assignment today,” he wrote. “He’s home crying right now.”

Mr. Cooper identified the teacher as Kerri Roberts of Oak Pointe Elementary School in Irmo, S.C., a suburb of Columbia, and added, “How can she ask a 5th grader to justify the actions of the KKK???”

Reached by phone, Ms. Roberts’s husband said she was unavailable and was “not going to comment on anything.”…

Hoo, boy.

Of course, that’s a perfectly fine question to ask, to get the ol’ gray matter working — in a graduate poli sci course. I think it’s a shame that Ms. Roberts — who is on suspension pending investigation of the incident — isn’t commenting, because I would dearly love to know the thinking behind asking 5th-graders to tackle it.

Had she even looked at the lesson before she passed it out? Or was this enterprise on her part? Had she decided to go for a real challenge, asking her students to reach for understanding beyond their years?

One thing I’ll say in defense of this: It’s a more reasonable question than this one asked in California:

In February, second graders at Windsor Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles were asked to solve a word problem: “The master needed 192 slaves to work on plantation in the cotton fields. The fields could fill 75 bags of cotton. Only 96 slaves were able to pick cotton for that day. The missus needed them in the Big House to prepare for the Annual Picnic. How many more slaves are needed in the cotton fields?”

Correct answer: “That’s a trick question! Masters don’t have to do math!”

Of course, we have at least one person here in South Carolina who might love to be asked such a question. His letter to the editor appeared in The State today:

Teach truth about the virtues of slavery

The recent controversy about Confederate monuments and flags ultimately revolves around one man and one question. The man is John C. Calhoun, the great philosopher and statesman from South Carolina, and the spiritual founding father of the Confederacy. The question is: Was Calhoun right or wrong when he argued, from the 1830s until his death in 1850, that the South’s Christian slavery was “a positive good” and “a great good” for both whites and blacks?

If Calhoun was wrong, then there may be grounds for removing monuments and flags.

But if Calhoun was right, the monuments and flags should stay and be multiplied, blacks should be freed from oppressive racial integration so they can show the world how much they can do without white folk, the Southern states should seize their freedom and independence, and the North should beg the South’s pardon for the war.

Calhoun’s views are unpopular today because, since 1865, the Yankee-imposed education system has taught all Americans that the South’s Christian slavery was evil and that everyone is equal. But unpopularity cannot make a truth untrue, and popularity cannot make error truth.

WINSTON MCCUEN
AIKEN

“If Calhoun was right….”

Excuse me while I sit here and try to come up with a justification of Mr. McCuen’s point of view. It might be on the six-weeks test…

This is where the South Carolina Court of Appeals sits.

This is where the South Carolina Court of Appeals sits.

‘The Vietnam War,’ Episode Two: ‘Riding the Tiger’

As yesterday, I’m not going to try to review or summarize the entire episode. You can go watch it any time at the website.

Anyway, I wasn’t able to concentrate on it straight through. For whatever reason, the AT&T Uverse listing had the wrong time, and it was halfway over before I knew it was on. So I watched the second half, then the first. During it all, my real focus was on what was happening in Dominica, as you might imagine. So I went back after — we were up anyway, hoping for news out of the Caribbean — and watched some parts a third time.

But as I did yesterday, I’ll mention one thing that sort of blew me away.

It was that little voice memo that JFK left to posterity a few days after the coup in Saigon that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and his brother, Ngô Đình Nhu.

Make no mistake, Diem was bad news. When the U.S. leaned on him to get him to stop oppressing the Buddhist majority in the country, and Kennedy decided to send heavyweight Henry Cabot Lodge as his new ambassador to emphasize the point, Diem waited until the old ambassador left and Lodge had not yet arrived, cut all wires leading to U.S. offices in Saigon, and rounded up thousands of monks and others across the country.

Diem

Diem

Like I say, bad news.

But the coup was badly botched form its inception. A memo was sent by a junior state department official to the generals plotting against Diem that urged them to go ahead. He ran it by JFK — over the phone, while Kennedy was on vacation at Hyannis Port. Kennedy didn’t hear the entire contents of the memo, and OKed it thinking his senior policy advisers were on board. They were not, and many would not have been.

A total clusteryouknowwhat.

But that’s not what impressed me. What impressed me was this a historical footnote that sent shivers down my spine. You might think it a small thing.

When narrator Peter Coyote says, “Three days later, he dictated his own rueful account of the coup, and his concerns for the future,” I thought to myself, It would be amazing if we could hear that account in his own voice, but I assumed that was impossible.

So I was amazed when I actually did hear Kennedy himself expressing his regret and self-blame. Apparently he said it into a Dictaphone or some other recording technology of the time.

You can hear it above. The most powerful part of it:

I, uh, feel that uh we must bear a good deal of responsibility for it, beginning with our cable of August in which we suggested the coup.

I, uh, should not have given my consent to it without a roundtable conference.

I was, uh, shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu… the way he was killed made it particularly abhorrent.

I found what Kennedy said to be stunningly frank. He took responsibility and analyzed his own failings as dispassionately as though he were examining an ant under a magnifying glass. Beyond his trademark “uhs,” which always punctuated his speech, there is no hesitation.

It was even more striking to me giving our current maddening experience with a president who is never at fault, who owns up to nothing, who lashes out childishly at anyone who might suggest that he could be. A man whose grasp of world affairs… well, go listen to his appalling speech at the U.N. today.

Knowing it was to be left to posterity, Kennedy could have tried to burnish his reputation, fix blame elsewhere, obfuscate. After all, it was a complicated situation, and very smart people in his administration were saying the development was on the whole a positive one. But he didn’t. His honesty, and the clarity of his thinking amid such shocking events, is startling.

Three weeks later, he was dead….

jfk consent

First episode of Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that's Dewey to his left.

Ho Chi Minh, third from left, stands with Americans of the OSS in 1945. Not sure, but I think that’s Dewey to his left.

The first American military death at the hands of Vietnamese communists was possibly the most tragic, because it helped lead to all the others.

Lt. Col. Peter Dewey, only 28 years old (which makes his rank rather startling), was our man in Saigon at the end of World War II. As the various powers who had just won the war were figuring out their relationships in Southeast Asia, Dewey — the head of our OSS team in Vietnam, was leaning toward supporting Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh.

Dewey

Dewey

This made some sense, as Ho at the time still had pro-American leanings, despite his devotion to Leninism.

But the senior Allied officer in country was British Maj. Gen. Douglas D. Gracey — a colonialist who was all for helping the French reassert control over their colony. Gracey ended up sending Dewey home. On the way to the airport, Dewey refused to stop at a roadblock, yelled at the Viet Minh sentries in French, and was shot and killed by them.

Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter of condolence to President Truman.

From then on, Western powers increasingly sided with their French allies, and things got worse and worse…

That’s one thing I learned from the first episode of Ken Burns’ latest opus, “The Vietnam War.”

On the whole it was very helpful and educational. I only have one beef:

The episode told a clear, coherent story that set the stage, starting with the beginning of French rule in the 1850s and running up to 1961. As long as it stuck to that, it was solid. But the filmmakers kept cutting away to little snippets foreshadowing our involvement at its height in the late ’60s. We’d be learning what happened in the1940s, and suddenly someone would be talking about his experience as a marine in 1969.

It was jarring and distracting, and, I felt, rather condescending. It was as though Burns and Lynn Novick were saying, “We don’t think you have the attention span to stick with this narrative, so we’ll give you little bits of what you tuned in to see…”

I didn’t like that a bit. But on the whole, a solid start…

soldiers_in_field_carousel

The way to bring Americans together is fairly obvious

Young_men_registering_for_military_conscription,_New_York_City,_June_5,_1917

As soon as I saw this headline this morning:

Americans are stuck in bubbles. Here’s a way to pop them.

I thought, “The answer is obvious: National service.”

Y’all have heard my theory before, I’m sure: That American politics starting being nasty, with Democrats and Republicans thinking of each other as “the enemy” rather than as fellow Americans, when men who had not served together in the military started rising to top leadership positions in both parties.

Civil deliberation, a process upon which our republic relies in order to work, went off a cliff about the time Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich rose to lead their respective parties. What did they have in common? Neither had had the melting-pot experience of military service. Before them, political leaders who had not served in uniform were rare. After them, that was the norm.

And from then on, the partisanship got worse and worse. Guys who had served together had had an early formative experienced that forced them to realize that they had something fundamental in common with other Americans, regardless of race, religion, social class, regional origin or political views. As different as they might have been going into the Army, basic training taught them they were all just dogfaces. (Those who went into the Navy, Marines and Air Force had similar leveling experiences.)

But never mind me and my theory. Richard Cohen’s column this morning makes the same point, as you can tell he’s going to do from the first graf:

I once had a very close friend named Charlie. We spent every day together, and much of the night, too. I got to learn about his family and old neighborhood, and he got to learn about mine, and then one day I saw him no more. I went my way, and he went his, and it has been many years, but I remember him still. We had been in the Army together….

I was 23, an erstwhile claims guy for an insurance company who had been plodding through college at night, six credits a semester. At Fort Dix and later Fort Leonard Wood, I got thrown in with country boys who had never had a toothbrush (the Army gave them false teeth) and tough city kids who strutted the barracks by day but cried for their mothers in their sleep at night.

I learned about their lives, even their sex lives (I will spare you), and I got to like them, and some of them liked me as well. We all had the same goal, which was to get through training. We all dressed alike, ate the same food, showered together and, over time, became a single unit. I mostly hated the Army, but I mostly loved those guys.

Now the Army is for volunteers only. Now affluent kids go to schools and colleges with similar people and, afterward, work is usually not much different. They don’t know anyone who never used a toothbrush or cries in the night for his mother or speaks in a Southern accent so thick in molasses it might as well be a foreign language. These folks do not, in short, know America….

OK, I’ll stop there lest I get in trouble with the Post for exceeding Fair Use. But you get the idea.

You should read the whole thing, and when you do you’ll find that Cohen is not advocating a reinstatement of the draft.

Nor am I, at least at this moment in our history. Reinstating the draft would be problematic today. To cite but one problem, it would be politically difficult to institute a draft of males only. I’m not going to get into why I’d oppose drafting women and girls today; I’ll just say that I (and a lot of other people, including many, I suspect, who wouldn’t admit that was why they opposed the draft) don’t hold with it. Besides, the generals don’t really want draftees anyway — they much prefer to command patriotic and motivated volunteers, and it’s hard to blame them.

So it’s hard to make the argument right now that it’s a national security necessity.

Another problem I have is that as great a unifier as the draft was in its time, it was far from perfect. For instance, it left out guys like me. I’ve always sort of resented that — I’m a fairly healthy guy who could have made a contribution. At the same time, I can understand not wanting a soldier who, separated from his medications, could have an asthma attack in the middle of a battle and let the unit down.

But surely I could have been useful. That’s why I join Cohen in calling for a broader sort of national service that includes everybody, as they have in such places as Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Norway.

It would be good for those involved, and good for the country.

And it would send my libertarian friends ’round the bend, so there’s that cherry on top as well… :)

Postwar consensus about U.S. role under fire from all directions

He believed in it, and so do I.

He believed in it, and so do I.

On a previous thread, we were having yet another discussion of “American exceptionalism.” Never mind where it started. At some point I said this and Doug said this and I said this and then Phillip weighed in.

And I answered Phillip at sufficient length that I thought it should be a separate post, so here goes:

Seeing as it’s Phillip and I have the greatest respect for him, I’m not going to send my seconds to confer with his seconds over his having called me a liar. Which is the only way I know to take “a feat of semantic gymnastics designed to make yourself feel more virtuous about your viewpoint.”

I’ll just say: Actually, no. There are no gymnastics involved when you’re saying exactly what you mean, and I’m saying exactly what I mean. As I suggested, there are people who DO think that way — the “superiority over” way. As I also said, people who dislike the phrase “American exceptionalism” — generally post-Vietnam liberals (as opposed to pre-Vietnam liberals, who saw things as I do) — like to paint the rest of us with that same brush, as a way of dismissing our views. As though we were a bunch of Steve Bannons or something.

But that’s not the main point I wish to argue. The larger point is that this assertion is completely wrong: “‘Responsibility’ in this case is self-assigned, that is, the United States arrogates for itself this ‘responsibility’ globally.”

Not at all. Through various security and other diplomatic arrangements, other liberal democracies have looked to the United States for leadership and support in many ways since 1945. This is most obvious through NATO, but through other arrangements as well.

Again, I refer y’all to the start of that Foreign Affairs piece:

In the 1940s, after two world wars and a depression, Western policymakers decided enough was enough. Unless international politics changed in some fundamental way, humanity itself might not survive much longer.

A strain of liberal idealism had been integral to U.S. identity from the American founding onward, but now power could be put behind principle. Woodrow Wilson had fought “to vindicate the principles of peace and justice in the life of the world as against selfish and autocratic power and to set up amongst the really free and self-governed peoples of the world such a concert of purpose and of action as will henceforth ensure the observance of those principles.” Keeping his goals while noting his failures, the next generation tried again with a revised strategy, and this time they succeeded. The result became known as the postwar liberal international order.

The founders of the order embraced cooperation with like-minded powers, rejecting isolationism and casting themselves as player-managers of an ever-expanding team. They bailed out the United Kingdom, liberated France, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, bound themselves to Canada and Mexico, and more. And for seven decades, the allies were fruitful, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty.

Then arose up a new king who knew not Joseph….

And we know who that king is.

But it’s not just about him. If you go back to that thread where this discussion initiated, you’ll see that Doug enthusiastically applauded the comment from Phillip with which I argued. You may not think of those guys as being two peas in a pod, politically. And you certainly wouldn’t identify Phillip with Trump. Well, that brings me to my next point.

A startling array of people coming from many places on the political spectrum simply don’t believe in the postwar consensus that formed under FDR and Truman.

For a generation, that consensus stayed strong and almost unchallenged, with Democrats and Republicans differing mainly over how best to fulfill that role. Then things started breaking up over Vietnam, but the basic assumption that this country had obligations in the world continued, with variations in emphasis, through the Obama administration.

Now, it’s really under siege.

I mentioned Steve Bannon earlier. He, of course, doesn’t believe in our international obligations in part because he believes the U.S. is inherently superior. He’s sort of like those Chinese emperors who, with China positioned at least as well as Portugal and Spain to become a global trading and naval power, suddenly closed their country off to the world, under the theory that China was the center of the universe and superior to all other nations, so why have dealings with them?

Then there are the post-Vietnam liberals to whom I referred, and I hope Phillip doesn’t mind if I put him roughly in that category — I stand ready to be corrected if I’m being presumptuous. I hate to be labeled, so I hesitate to do it to my friends.

Then there are the libertarians like Doug and the Pauls, Ron and Rand. They hate the idea of the United States having a military for anything much beyond patrolling the border with Mexico. (No, wait — that last part took me back to Bannon.)

Then there are the socialists, the Bernie Sanders types, who in opposition to the libertarians WANT a big state, but they only want it to exist to shower blessings on the populace domestically. They get impatient at the very idea of talking foreign affairs. This is in some ways like the post-Vietnam liberals, only much more so.

Then there are the ideological extremists who have taken over the Republican Party, sharing some characteristics with the Bannon types and some with the libertarians. They can’t see over the edges of the narrow boxes they build around themselves, much less see beyond our borders.

The all have their motivations. One group just wants the U.S. to strut, out of the world’s reach. Another wants America to be humble. Another wants it to be small. Another wants it to be inward-looking, solipsistic. Another can’t see anything past the next GOP primary.

There’s no room in any of their views for a United States that would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Anyway, that thing that JFK said there? That’s American exceptionalism.

Yikes! A statue even neoConfederates should want taken down

forrestMeant to share this the other day. It was in a Tweet from Noelle Phillips, who used to work at The State:

Yowee! Never mind the meaning! That is one ugly statue!

Personally, I would lead the charge to get that taken down — if I were the president of a society dedicated to protecting the reputation of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Meanwhile, folks who don’t want the Confederacy glorified would seem likely to demand that this one stay up.

The sculptor must have really hated the early KKK leader. Do they keep that up to frighten children? Or to make them laugh? I think the former would be more likely to happen…

Jack Van Loan unloads on Colin Kaepernick

Jack Van Loan, campaigning for his friend John McCain back in 2007.

Jack Van Loan, campaigning for his friend John McCain back in 2007.

Just a few minutes ago, I got a call out of the blue from a man I’m honored to call my friend, Jack Van Loan.

A lot of you know Jack as the long-time power broker of Five Points, who for many years ran the St. Patrick’s Day party there. Most of you who know him also know about the almost six years (“I was in for 70 months. Seven-zero — seventy months.”) that he spent as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in the “Hanoi Hilton” with his good friend John McCain and other fellow heroes.

An excerpt from my column a number of years ago about his experience:

ON MAY 20, 1967, Air Force pilot Jack Van Loan was shot down over North Vietnam. His parachute carried him to Earth well enough, but he landed all wrong.
“I hit the ground, and I slid, and I hit a tree,” he said. This provided an opportunity for his captors at the prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton.”
“My knee was kind of screwed up and they … any time they found you with some problems, then they would, they would bear down on the problems,” he said. “I mean, they worked on my knee pretty good … and, you know, just torturing me.”…

Again, that experience lasted 70 months.

Tonight, Jack called me to ask me if I knew anyone with the San Francisco 49ers organization or anyone at all who could get a message to quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Well, I couldn’t help him there because you know me and football. I didn’t even know who Colin Kaepernick was — although when I looked him up, I remembered the controversy from last year.

I told him the best I could do for the moment was share his message on my blog.

His message is this: That he did not spend six years in that hell of a North Vietnamese prison so “some long-haired punk” could show his disdain for the flag of the United States of America. And if Kaepernick can’t bring himself to show basic respect to the country for which it stands, he should leave it.

Jack further promised “that there is no way I will spend one second watching” any game that Kaepernick plays in.

That shouldn’t be a hard promise to keep in the near future, since Kaepernick doesn’t have a team at the moment — some say because the quality of his play had declined; others say it’s the controversy.

But if he does play again, Jack’s going to be boycotting whatever team picks him up.

That probably won’t make Kaepernick lose sleep at night. The guy has other problems.

As for why Kaepernick did what he did… I’m not interested in getting into that in this post. I’m just here to testify to the pain and dismay those actions engendered in my friend Jack.

Yeah, I know all the arguments about how that flag stands for the right of people like Kaepernick to express their views. I’ve used those arguments myself. I’m just sharing how Col. Van Loan feels about that expression, and telling you that he’s earned the right to feel that way — he’s got rights, too, and has done a great deal to earn them.

And I’ll mention one more thing I discovered in trying to remind myself who Kaepernick was. He, a guy who spent six years playing professional football, has an extensive Wikipedia page devoted to him. Jack Van Loan spent six years of torment in the Hanoi Hilton, and has no Wikipedia page. There’s something wrong with that equation…

Thoughts about the ‘fashy’ haircut?

fashy

One morning this week — probably Monday — I made my way to my usual table for breakfast, and just before sitting noticed the two young men at the table behind me.

I had noticed them before, for one reason only — their haircuts. One of them is more noticeable than the other, because his hair is blond, which makes the cut pop out more. His hair is always the same — cut almost down to the skin on the sides and back, longer but cut and shaped with obsessive care on the top, and plastered down. Not a hair is out of place.

Again, I successfully resisted the temptation to ask, “How often do you get your hair cut?” Because it always looks like he rose from the barber’s chair in the last five minutes, if not more recently. What kind of commitment to one’s appearance must that take?

As a guy who likes to get his hair cut really short so I don’t have to go back for a couple of months, maybe three — saving time and money — I idly wondered how much it would cost for me to maintain a look like that, all the time. And then I immediately thought, no one wants to see me with that haircut, ever, even for a moment — because I’d look like a colonel in the Waffen-SS. No, let’s be precise: I’d look kind of like Reinhard Heydrich, who may well be the scariest-looking man to have lived in the past century. Not an image I’m going for.

Sitting down to my breakfast, I immediately forgot about the guys behind me and their hair. For about one minute. Then, reading about what happened in Charlottesville, I ran across this:

Yes, there were swastika-tattooed, Ku Klux Klan-hooded 50-somethings on the streets of Charlottesville. The most chilling photos, however, show hordes of torch-bearing, fresh-faced, “fashy”-coiffed white men in their teens and 20s.

And immediately, without following the link, and in spite of my bottomless ignorance about current fashion, I knew exactly what sort of coif she meant. Here’s how the story at that link, from 2016, describes it:

We need to talk about a haircut. Also about identity, and hatred, and maybe about the total end of American civilization — but first about a haircut.

You have seen it. It is short on the sides and long on the top. It is clean and tidy, with a military sheen. It’s been popular among young people for several years. But now this haircut is making us ask ourselves, with seriousness that seems unthinkable in 2016: hipster or Nazi?

Young city-dwelling men leaving their SoulCycle classes in leftover “I’m With Her” T-shirts.

Young white-nationalism enthusiasts leaving a recent conference in Washington, D.C., where several of them performed a Nazi salute.

The same haircut. The exact same haircut….

By the way, about those two young fellows sitting behind me: I’m quite certain that they are not neo-Nazis, or white supremacists. Why? Because I keep seeing them at the Capital City Club, which was founded for reasons that are the precise opposite of white supremacy. If you want to be a white supremacist, there are other clubs you can join. I’m assuming they’re just go-getter young businessmen who want to look sharp.

John Dillinger, hipster?

John Dillinger, hipster?

And it’s a time-honored way of looking sharp. It was popular a century ago, and continued to be fashionable into the 1930s, based on old photos. You see that cut on everyone from actors on “Boardwalk Empire” (set right after the Great War) to John Dillinger. OK, maybe Dillinger’s another bad example. But the fact is, about 20 or 30 years before I was born, lots of guys wore their hair that way, and not all of them were fascists or gangsters.

I wonder if those two guys I keep seeing know some people are calling it a “fashy” cut, or that hipsters have for some time ironically called it a “Hitler Youth?

I suppose I could give them a heads-up (sorry), but I don’t think that’s the best way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know…

 

 

How far have we come in 70 years? Maybe not so far…

cadet

When I saw the above story, and especially the picture with it, I had to smile.

Look at that young woman! She has worked hard, and achieved a milestone toward a lifelong goal. She deserves the joy I see in her face. God bless her. I’d like to meet her and shake her hand, and thank her for her service, and her drive to excel in that service. For the rest of the day, I’d probably feel much better about Life, the Universe and Everything — and especially the human race, which as we know can be disappointing at times.

But when I read stories like this, this tiny, cynical voice tries to ruin it by saying something like “Another ‘first’ story. It’s 2017, and ‘first’ stories still get big play in The New York Times.”

Don’t blame me. On this point, I was warped early on. In high school, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And a lot of things about that book have stuck with me. Here’s one of them…

X tells this colorful sort of comic-opera story about himself that is much like the one Arlo Guthrie tells in “Alice’s Restaurant,” about how he got his draft notice, and upon arrival at the intake station went into an elaborate, over-the-top act to get a psychiatrist to rule him unfit for service.

This was 1943. X acts as crazy as he can while standing in line with the other draftees during the physical, and marvels at how long it takes them to pull him out of the queue. But eventually they do, and when he gets to the shrink’s office, he describes this scene:

firsts

Ignore the “not bad to look at” part. This was 1943, and even 20 years later when the book was written, we guys got to say stuff like that without being condemned for it.

Malcolm X in 1964

Malcolm X in 1964

No, my point is what X is saying about “first” stories. Reading this at 17, and rereading it today, I get the strong impression he held such stories in contempt. Part of this arises from the attitudes he would embrace through the Nation of Islam (views he would just be in the process of turning away from as the book was being written). He apparently held all involved in contempt — the white man for so grudgingly allowing black people such small achievements, and black folks for being so thrilled at such crumbs from the white man’s table.

I have never been a bitter cynic in the league of Malcolm X, and hope to God I never will be. I’m pleased for people who accomplish anything that improves their lives and inspires other people. But that anecdote has stuck with me over the years. And every time I see a story like this one today, that memory looms up.

About the time X was working with Alex Haley on that book, the white press joined the “Negro press” in celebrating such firsts. Which in and of itself was a fine thing, a form of progress, of the nation forming a consensus around its highest ideals.

But here it is 2017, and we’re still reading these stories? Almost a decade after the election of our “first black president,” this is still news?

To go back to where I started: I liked reading this story. I like reading about the achievement of a fellow human being named Simone Askew. This world needs more like her! But that part of me that was influenced by that book when I was younger (and far less accomplished) than she is makes me wonder whether it doesn’t take something away from her personal achievement to couch it in terms that Malcolm X scoffed at in 1943…

Remembering the night Nixon resigned

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Yeah, I’m a day late with this, but it was some hours-old Tweets I saw this morning that got me to thinking about it:

Then, later in the day, I wondered if I could see that front page again, and sure enough, Google delivered — although a small, low-res image. See the page above. (See how much wider newspaper pages were then?)

It was at the very start of my journalism career, when I was still in school. I worked nights at the long-extinct job of copy boy, although in deference to feminist sensibilities it was by that time called “copy clerk.” Basically, I was an errand boy, learning the business. And at that point in time — the waning days of hot type — the function was essential. In a time when everything was physical instead of digital, everything — news stories, pictures, proofs (and the coffee and meals that everyone in the newsroom had the power to send us for) — had to be carried to each stage of the process by hand. And it was a great way to learn the business. I knew some things that senior editors didn’t know about where things were and how they worked together (mostly, where to get the coffee).

And there were obstacles, and workarounds, that would confound anyone who started in the business just a little later. For instance, if you want to make a two-word headline stretch all the way across the page today, you just click and drag and it’s done. But back then a headline wasn’t ones and zeroes; it was a physical thing, set in heavy metal by a machine that could only make it so big. I think the biggest possible was either 72 points (an inch high) or 96.

So here’s what we did: The managing editor wrote “Nixon Resigns” on a scrap of paper and sent me to the composing room (on the next floor up) to get it set into type as big as we could. Then, we took a high-contrast proof (on slick paper instead of the usual cheap newsprint) of that metal-type hed and shot a picture of it on one of the cameras used to make press plates, which used page-sized negative film. Then we blew that image up to full-page width, and made a proof of that, which I then ran back downstairs to the M.E., so he could see how his headline would look.

This was not something you did every day. We were doing it that night because this was history. The editor was being creative.

When I brought the finished product to him, the M.E. looked upon his headline and pronounced it good.

By the way, here was the scene in the newsroom when Nixon was addressing the nation: A bunch of us crowded around the TV over the M.E.’s desk, and watched and listened. I forget the name of our Washington correspondent. Let’s say it was Clark Kent. Someone in the group wondered aloud where Clark was at that moment. Our gruff metro editor, Angus McEachran, snorted, “Watching it on TV, just like us!” There was some laughter.

Those who want to paint the newspaper business as already a fossil, left behind by TV, might point to that 1974 scene as proof.

But here’s the thing: When the show was over, all these people had to jump into action. I’d be running back and forth to the wire machines with the copy out of Washington. Editors would be editing that copy and putting it onto pages. Reporters would be calling Tennessee pols for reactions, and maybe even doing some man-on-the-street.

And the next morning, people would have a huge, in-depth package of stories about what had happened, explaining every detail and what it meant.

So what? you think. But you’re not thinking hard enough. That morning, that would be the ONLY source of reporting and commentary available to that reader. Maybe they saw the speech the night before, but that was over. There was no 24/7 TV coverage, babbling on endlessly. (And no DVR or even VHS so you could have recorded it and watched again. You saw it when you saw it, and that was it.) There was no Web, no social media. Other newspapers were not available to anyone unless they came in the mail a day or two later. The only source they had that morning for all the details and perspective on this historic event was their local newspaper. Other sources — weekly magazines that came in the mail and such — would be available later. But the newspaper was it on that morning, the one source of information about this huge thing that had happened.

So we had an important role to play for our readers, and I felt important playing the bit part I did. I got some extra copies of that headline proof and took them home. I got together with my soon-to-be wife and some friends and showed these proofs off. I felt like a big shot…

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

Managing Editor Bill Sorrels, at the desk where he was sitting when I brought him the headline proof.

What do you MEAN, ‘I am proud of the Confederacy?’

A moment in our history that makes ME proud: Leaders stand with Nikki Haley as she calls for the flag to come down.

A moment in our history that makes ME proud: Leaders stand with Nikki Haley as she calls for the flag to come down.

First, let’s give Catherine Templeton credit for doing one right thing.

Or rather, for not doing one horrible thing. It would have been truly horrible to, like Sheri Few, play to the Trumpian faction in her party by denouncing the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the State House grounds.

But she didn’t do that. So, kudos there, as far as it goes.

But then she felt compelled to qualify that by saying, “I am proud of the Confederacy.” She elaborated on the point:

But I am South Carolina born and raised, and I am proud of our history. We are standing on the shoulders of giants, and I don’t apologize for that….

I am proud to be from South Carolina. I am proud of the Confederacy….

I’d like for her to have elaborated a bit more. I’d like for her to have spelled out what it is about the Confederacy that makes her proud.

Templeton

Templeton

I want to know because being proud of the Confederacy — an insurrection against the United States, based in the rebelling states’ wish to continue the institution of slavery (and they were quite specific about that, whatever neoConfederate revisionists may say) — and being proud of South Carolina are not the same thing. What is it about the Confederacy, as opposed to South Carolina, that gives her a warm feeling? Is it just that she has an affinity for, say, a slower, more traditional, politer, more agrarian way of life than the mercantilist, impatient, abrupt way that Yankees chose to live in their big cities?

Is she proud at how many victories the Confederacy won on the battlefield before Gettysburg and Grant turned the tide — is it a purely martial pride in the fighting ability of Southern manhood? If so, how does one separate that pride from the cause? (And don’t try to distract me by pointing out that many individual soldiers owned no slaves and thought they were protecting their homes from “Northern aggression.” When I say “the cause” in speaking of the “Confederacy,” I mean the reason the Confederacy came into being, the frank reason for secession.)

And once you say you’re proud not only of South Carolina but of the Confederacy — the low point in the South Carolina story — it causes me to wonder what else it is about “our history” that makes you proud. Are you proud of the role South Carolina played in the Revolution? Are you proud of John Laurens, the Founder from SC who was a courageous critic of slavery? Do you take pride in the wit of James L. Petigru, who of secession said “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum”? Does your pride turn to science? Does your chest swell at Charles H. Townes invention of the laser? If so, I share your pride.

On the other hand, are you proud of Ben Tillman, Cole Blease and Cotton Ed Smith? I am not.

Here’s a Rorschach test for you: Are you proud of Strom Thurmond? And if so, which version: The Dixiecrat who famously filibustered civil rights? Or Ol’ Strom who later devoted himself to constituent service regardless of the color of the constituent?

Are you proud of his son Paul, who so eloquently explained why the flag had to come down?

Be specific, please.

For my part, I’m deeply proud of my state and its leadership for taking down the flag, and for the reasons and way they did it. Is Catherine Templeton? Or does she merely not want to “second-guess” them for “what the people in the Statehouse did when I wasn’t there?” Because to me, she really seemed to be damning them with faint praise.

Editing the Declaration of Independence

I spent part of the long holiday weekend rewatching an episode or two of HBO’s John Adams.

Of course, being me, I love the scene that depicts the editing of the Declaration of Independence.

If you’ll recall, Adams, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were appointed as a committee to draft the Declaration. Then, Adams had talked Jefferson into doing the actual writing, citing his skill with the written word and the fact that Adams himself was far too busy (aside from sitting on various committee, Adams was bearing the greatest share of the burden of arguing for independence, while Jefferson never opened his mouth during the debate).

In this scene, Adams and Ben Franklin are getting their first look at what Jefferson has written, and reacting to it, and offering changes. Having been in this situation myself so many thousands of times with writers who sometimes regarded their words as perfect, I enjoyed watching the dynamics.

First observation: Adams starts out by praising Jefferson’s work to the skies — a fitting approach given the document he’s editing, but one that is wildly at odds with my own approach. As Dave Moniz used to say when he worked for me, the highest praise I ever offered of writers’ work was “pretty good.” Maybe I should have tried this approach; it seems to have led to a good result.

Then there is Jefferson’s unnerving passivity through most of the process — an almost autistic lack of emotion. I’ve had writers fly off the handle at my changes, or be philosophically diplomatic about it. But never anyone with this staring, shrugging apathy. Change to “self-evident?” Yeah, whatevs…

Even when Adams says some of it might not be the way he would have said it, but he will still defend every word, Jefferson has no gratitude, but shrugs, “Well, it’s what I believe…”

Nevertheless, Jefferson proves he’s not an automaton when Franklin (being a newspaper editor himself, Ben had a knack for this) finally gets a rise out of him, and Jefferson says, still in that cold-fish voice, “Every single word was precisely chosen. I assure you of that, Dr. Franklin.” To which Franklin, unfazed, essentially says yeah, that may be the case, but you don’t get the final word; we’ve got to get this thing through Congress.

Adams was (in an unaccustomed role for him) cheerleading the document, while Franklin was determined to edit it. Normally, I’m an Adams fan, but in this case, it’s Ben I identified with. You can’t let writers get an exaggerated sense of their own importance. What do they think they are, editors?

Anyway, this is my belated Independence Day post…

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Norman: Let’s keep S.C. RED, for all you comrades out there

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Bryan Caskey brought this to my attention. Apparently, Ralph Norman tweeted it out early on the day of the special election, with the message, “The polls just opened in SC and will stay open until 7 tonight. This is a very tight race so make sure you vote!”

Bryan’s reaction:

Vote for this guy….because he’s a Republican. Apparently, that’s it.

Yup, that’s about the size of it. Actually… that overstates it. He’s not even being that explanatory. He’s just using a euphemism for being a Republican. And an unfortunate one, for a guy who’s anxious to be seen as a “conservative.”

I mean, if he gets on the Foreign Affairs Committee, is his mantra going to be, “Keep China Red?”

We’ll close with an appropriate tune, sung by the malchicks aboard Red October:

D-Day plus 73 years

Troops approaching Omaha Beach in a Higgins boat on June 6, 1944. National Archives Image.

Troops approaching Omaha Beach in a Higgins boat on June 6, 1944. National Archives Image.

In combat, you have to learn to rely on the guy next to you. Sometimes, blogging is (slightly) like that — minus the danger.

I was worried that I wouldn’t have time today to write about D-Day, so Bryan Caskey did so on his blog and said I could refer y’all to it.

Thanks, Bryan! An excerpt from his post:

73 years ago, over 150,000 Allied troops landed on the shores of France, intent on reclaiming Europe from the German army that had overrun and occupied Europe. It was a calculated gamble, and the outcome was far from certain. In the early morning hours of darkness before the sun rose, thousands of men dropped from the sky in connection with the landings.

Of the over 150,000 Allied troops that landed that day, 4 received the Medal of Honor for their actions on that day. One of those men was Teddy Roosevelt’s son.

When the first waves hit the shore at Omaha Beach, they were immediately met with withering fire from fortified German positions. Omaha Beach is a curved beach, like a crescent moon, and it has high bluffs overlooking the shore. Accordingly, it was the most easily defended by the Germans….

All I’ll add for the moment is this story today about Andrew Higgins, whose little boats made down in New Orleans won the war — along with the M-1 Garand, the Jeep, the C-47 and all sorts of other legendary hardware:

D-Day’s hero: Andrew Higgins loved bourbon, cursed a lot and built the boats that won WWII

Andrew Jackson Higgins, the man Dwight D. Eisenhower once credited with winning World War II, was a wild and wily genius.

At the New Orleans plant where his company built the boats that brought troops ashore at Normandy on June 6, 1944, Higgins hung a sign that said, “Anybody caught stealing tools out of this yard won’t get fired — he’ll go to the hospital.”

Whatever Higgins did, he did it a lot. “His profanity,” Life magazine said, was “famous for its opulence and volume.” So was his thirst for Old Taylor bourbon, though he curtailed his intake by limiting his sips to a specific location.

“I only drink,” he told Life magazine, “while I’m working.”

That Higgins was able to accomplish what he did — provide U.S. forces with the means to swiftly attack beaches, including on D-Day — despite his personal shortcomings is a testament, historians say, to his relentless talent and creativity as an entrepreneur….

I sorta kinda almost have a connection to the Higgins Boats — or I thought I did, but now I doubt it. From 1965-67, I lived on an old derelict Navy base down in New Orleans — or technically, across the river in Algiers. I lived there when I was 11-13 years old. Most of the base was shut down — my friends and I almost got caught by the Shore Patrol once when we broke into and explored one of the many abandoned WWII-era buildings.

Many years later, I read the account of a WWII Navy veteran who said he was sent to Algiers to learn to be a coxswain on a Higgins boat in preparation for the invasion of Japan. So I thought, So that’s what that base was for! But I can’t seem to find any references to that on the web. And come to think of it, a place located on the Mississippi River (the levee was a block from my home, and I regularly climbed it to catch catfish) wouldn’t be a great place to train guys how to navigate a boat through surf.

Anyway, to this day I regard the landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, to be one of the most impressive things every attempted and achieved in one day in human history. So much could have gone wrong. Actually, so much DID go wrong — the bombers that were supposed to soften up the defenses missed their targets, paratroopers were dropped everywhere except where they were supposed to be, and no one seemed to know what a Norman hedgerow was like until our soldiers had to dig the Germans out from behind them.

But they got it done anyway. Astounding…