Category Archives: History

Yes, this COULD be the winning formula for Democrats

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

Can the New Deal Coalition rise again?

David Leonhardt had a good piece in the NYT last night. He promoted it this way:

There’s a roiling debate about whether Democrats should move to the political center to win back Trump voters or focus on energizing the party’s progressive base. On some issues — like abortion, guns and immigration — Democrats really do face this difficult choice. The policies that excite progressives alienate many of the white working-class voters who swung the 2016 election to Donald Trump, and vice versa.

But there is also one huge area where no such tradeoff exists: economic policy….

In the column itself, he asserted  that economic stagnation and inequality added up to “the defining problem of our age, the one that aggravates every other problem. It has made people anxious and angry. It has served as kindling for bigotry. It is undermining America’s vaunted optimism.”

And people across the political spectrum have lost patient with timid, incremental approaches to the problem. Which helps to explain both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Leonhardt writes:

Some observers remain confused about all of this. They imagine American politics as a simple two-dimensional spectrum on which Democrats must move to the center. But every issue isn’t the same. Yes, there are cultural issues, like abortion and guns, on which the country is classically divided. On these, moving to the center, or at least respectfully acknowledging our differences, can help Democrats. Representative Conor Lamb recently showed how to do it in Pennsylvania.

Economic policy is different. Most voters don’t share the centrist preferences of Washington’s comfortable pundit class. Most voters want to raise taxes on the rich and corporations. They favor generous Medicare and Social Security, expanded Medicaid, more financial aid for college, a higher minimum wage and a bigger government role in job creation. Remember, Trump won the Republican nomination as a populist. A clear majority of Americans wants the government to respond aggressively to our economic problems….

So, the smart thing would be to drop the topics that divide us — the culture war stuff, the Identity Politics, the “pussy hats” and such — and set out a vision for a rising tide for all.

But are national Democrats willing to do that? The occasional Conor Lamb aside, it remains to be seen.

In South Carolina, it’s not such a leap. SC Democrats — those who have actually served in office and understand political realities — have long understood that they have to reach across superficial barriers and appeal to as many voters as possible. You wonder why I like James Smith for governor? One reason is that he manifests that smart, inclusive approach. He’s identified with issues that could benefit all of us, such as trying to liberate renewable energy from artificial caps.

This is underlined when you look at his opposition: Phil Noble hits Smith for not being orthodox enough, for instance for being (allegedly) insufficiently hostile to gun-rights advocates. Noble is one of those Democrats who wants to divide the electorate into sheep and goats. Marguerite Willis seems to be pinning her hopes on getting women to vote for her simply because she’s a woman — despite Smith’s strong support within that largest of demographics.

So, the question is whether Democrats — on the state as well as the national level — are willing to take Leonhardt’s sensible advice, and identify themselves with issues that unite rather than divide. Mind you, he’s not talking about moving to a hypothetical center, but embracing issues with broad support among everyone but the most libertarian folks on the right.

I think they will in South Carolina, but polls tell us that’s far from certain. And nationally? I just don’t know…

And remember, to our generation, it’s all about being cool

Some of you may think I was easy on Ralph Norman in that last post, saying he was only guilty of being uncool.

You forget that I’m a Baby Boomer, and Ralph Norman is, too. I look at him and I don’t see a member of my generation. I see a member of my parents’ generation, or maybe someone older than that. From his pictures, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn he is a Lawrence Welk fan. He looks like your parents’ friend who corners you at the party because he wants to share one word with you: “Plastics.”

Me in about '73.

Me in about ’73.

But eerily enough, he’s just a little more than three months older than I am. I looked it up.

And members of our generation asked little of life, beyond having other people see us as being cool. One of the things I love about the film “Almost Famous” — which is set in 1973, the year I turned 20 — is that it captured that facet of that moment rather well.

We didn’t seek to be rich, unless that just happened to us, in which case we wouldn’t object. We lived in a time of lowered expectations, with Watergate unfolding and America heading for the exits in Vietnam.

But we did hope, most fervently, to be cool. Or rather, as I said, to be seen as cool. Was that really too much to expect, we demanded of the heavens?

Anyway, it is against that cultural backdrop that you should consider the fact that Ralph Norman has been weighed, he has been measured, and he has been found to be decidedly uncool…

Everybody without mustaches stand in the back!

Treasury Department law office

Remember my post about how all the men on my family tree in the late 19th century had big mustaches?

Probably not, since it drew no comments. Nevertheless, here’s a sequel.

One of my great-grandfathers, William Oscar Bradley, was an attorney who left South Carolina to take up a presidential appointment with the Treasury Department. (That’s how his daughter, my grandmother, ended up meeting and marrying my paternal grandfather. The Warthens were from Montgomery County, Maryland, and were the only part of my tree not from South Carolina.)

Anyway, one of my cousins recently posted this image on Facebook, labeling it “Treasury Department Law Office.” That’s my great-grandfather William O. in the center of the photo.

There’s no date, but obviously this was smack in the middle of the “everybody’s gotta wear a mustache” period.

And if you didn’t, male or female, you had to stand in the back of the picture.

Actually, I’m sort of guessing that it was a status thing based on something other than facial hair — maybe the seated guys in the front were the lawyers, and the folks in the back were the clerks who worked for them. Or maybe the people who arrived first for the photo got the seats. But I kind of doubt that. Surely if where you were in the picture meant nothing in terms of organizational structure, the gentlemen in the front would have given up their seats to the two ladies — right? I hope so.

I love old pictures. I wish I knew more about this one….

The Amazon rainforest was shaped by people

This is just a by-the-way thing, for people who haven’t picked up on it…

The Washington Post yesterday had this story headlined, “Archaeologists discover 81 ancient settlements in the Amazon.” It said in part:

Fifty years ago, she said, “prominent scholars thought that little of cultural significance had ever happened in a tropical forest. It was supposed to be too highly vegetated, too moist. And the corollary to those views was that people never cut down the forests; they were supposed to have been sort of ‘noble savages,’ ” she said.

“But those views have been overturned,” Piperno continued. “A lot of importance happened in tropical forests, including agricultural origins.”…

Though conservationists often speak of this region as having been a “pristine” landscape, studies by de Souza and others suggest that indigenous people influenced and enriched the rain forest for hundreds of years….

Surprising? Only if you indeed think of the pre-Columbian Americans as “noble savages” who barely touched the land they lived on.

But in fact, researchers have been debunking that view for years.

If you haven’t read 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann, you should. That 2005 book, followed six years later by the equally fascinating 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, endeavored to bring us laymen up to date on what modern researchers were learning about this hemisphere before Europeans came to stay.

It’s been several years since I read it, but I remember two main points, new things, that I learned from it:

  • The American population before 1492 was many times as large as previously estimated. But Europeans, the people who wrote the history, never met these people. That’s because, thanks to inter-tribe trade, European diseases wiped out millions — entire villages, entire cultures — before the newcomers even encountered them. (Europeans would land on a coast, coastal Indians would be infected by their diseases and pass them on to inland tribes they traded with. Thus, European diseases raced well ahead of actual Europeans.) That’s one reason the conquistadores were able to conquer. The Incas, for instance, had been ravaged by disease to the point that their empire was on the verge of collapse before Pizarro arrived.
  • The Indians had a dramatic effect on the land before the arrival of whites. They were big users of slash-and-burn land management, including in the hallowed Amazon rain forest. In fact, much of the jungle found by white settlers was only a generation or two old, having grown up after the local land managers died off.

I may be misremembering a detail or two, since it’s been 1491-coverawhile since I read it. But I think I have the broad outline right. One of the most dramatic assertions I remember from the book was that the Little Ice Age the planet experienced from the 16th to the 19th centuries was at least in part caused by this sudden drop in human population in the Amazon basin, which allowed the rainforest to surge, taking in more carbon dioxide and lowering global temperatures.

Of course, this debunks one notion many tree-huggers are fond of — that the awful, heedless white man is destroying the planet by killing the rainforest, which the nature-loving folk who went before would never have done. (Or, if it doesn’t debunk it, at least adds layers of complication. Apparently, the Indian methods were more sustainable.) At the same time, it reinforces the idea that what humans do and don’t do affect global climate.

All of which reinforces my long-held belief that life is more complicated than most people give it credit for being.

I know I’ve recommended this book before, but the Post story reminded me of it, so I’m recommending it again. It’s fascinating to learn that things you thought you knew were so, are not…

The State House monument to Confederate women

Confederate women monument

As part of my daily walking regimen, I had probably passed by it scores of times over the last few months, but never turned my head at the right moment to notice it — which is weird, because once you notice it, it’s hugely imposing.

I’d missed it because if you’re walking up the concrete incline from Pendleton toward the State House, you can’t see it until your eyes are at the right level, and if you don’t look more than 90 degrees to your left at that precise instant, it’s behind you. (When I took the shot above, only my head was higher than the base of the statue.)

Yesterday, the freshly-planted (I think) flowers caught my eye first, and as my eye rose above them, I saw the monument.

It’s so huge and elaborate, it’s kind of startling when you first see it, so close by.

I looked it up when I got back to the office, and found this page, which told me:

The Monument to Confederate Women, called Angels of the Confederacy, was erected in 1912. The sculptor was Frederick W. Ruckstull. The inscription on the northwest side reads: “In this monument, generations unborn shall hear the voice of a grateful people testifying to the sublime devotion of the women of South Carolina in their country’s need. Their unconquerable spirit strengthened the thin lines of gray, their tender care was solace to the stricken. Reverence for God and unfaltering faith in a righteous cause inspired heroism that survived the immolation of sons, and courage that bore the agony of suspense and the shock of disaster. The tragedy of the Confederacy may be forgotten, but the fruits of the noble service of the daughters of the South are our perpetual heritage.”

The cult of the Lost Cause ran to flowery exaggeration, didn’t it? But of course, that was the style of the time. And what was being described was something that stirred strong emotions.

The really sad thing about it, though, is that the real tragedy escaped the practitioners of this faith. It escaped them, and in some cases yet escapes some among us, that all of that suffering, which was entirely real and even awe-inspiring, was in the service not of a “righteous cause” but of its opposite. The ultimate tragedy is that South Carolina and the other states started the whole thing, causing so many to suffer, to defend the institution that was the central evil of our history.

In other words, it would have been extremely helpful if that “faith” had been less “unfaltering.”

But it wasn’t, and our collective psyche as a people was further scarred by what happened as a result…

Another angle so you can see the base, and know how massive this thing is.

Another angle so you can see the base, and know how massive this thing is.

Not that I told you so, but… No, scratch that: I TOLD you so!

manacles

Remember when Catherine Templeton suggested (but didn’t actually say, mind you) that her pride in the Confederacy was OK because her ancestors didn’t own slaves?

And remember that I said, based upon my obsessive research of my own family tree, that that is virtually impossible? As I put it, “If you’re a white Southerner and you think your ancestors owned no slaves, you should probably dig a little deeper.”

You shouldn’t make that claim because the math is against you, if your ancestors were white Southerners — and especially if they lived in South Carolina. You had dozens of direct ancestors in the first half of the 19th century alone (16 great-great grandparents, 32 great-great-greats, 64 the generation before that) — loads and loads of people who didn’t know each other, and most of whom you probably don’t know about. And in those days, almost half of white South Carolinians (46 percent) owned slaves. It’s really unlikely that a diligent genealogical searcher makes it through that minefield without his self-righteous notion that his ancestors were innocent of owning other people being blown to smithereens.

And now, there’s this:

South Carolina governor candidate says she was unaware her ancestor owned dozens of slaves

The story is actually not as clear as I’d like it to be as to how Ms. Templeton is related to Hiram Clark Brawley, the owner of those 66 slaves. He’s the father of Judge William Brawley, after whom she has said her father is named (Brawley is her maiden name). But that doesn’t say he was a direct ancestor, or anything, really. (When I read stories this vague on essential details, I want to grab the editor responsible and shake him.)

But it would appear that the Templeton campaign isn’t denying he was an ancestor. The candidate’s response is to try to move on: “This campaign is about the future, not about the past.” Which I suppose means we won’t be hearing any more about how proud she is of the Confederacy.

Anyway, I don’t point this out to give Ms. Templeton a hard time for what her ancestors did. If we bear responsibility for the sins of our ancestors, I might have more mea culpas to intone than she does.

No , my point, as always on this subject, is that no white Southerner should claim his or her ancestors didn’t own slaves. It almost certainly isn’t true. (And a bigger point is that even if it were true, that’s a ridiculous reason to be proud of the Confederacy.)

And yeah, I told you so…

See, society HAS made progress, lest you despair

My wife’s cousin posted this on Facebook moments ago, and it cracked me up.

Dig these hepcats delivering the message, “It’s not how long you make it, it’s how you make it long!” And no, I’m not trying to switch the subject back to pornography. They really said that. On TV. And yeah, in a way, it kind of was pornography.

Yes, boys and girls, before 1972, there were cigarette ads on TV. And while all TV advertising tended to be pretty insipid, almost nothing else exceeded cigarette ads on that score.

Can’t you just see Don Draper thinking this one up between naps on the couch in his office?

What’s a TV commercial, you ask? You know, those irritating things that come on when you watch a sporting event on TV. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to see them. At least, that’s the only time I see them, which means I don’t see them much. (I’ve watched a little of the Winter Olympics, but I can’t bring myself to stick with it past maybe one commercial break. Then it’s back to “Britannia” or “Detectorists” or old episodes of “The West Wing” on Netflix or Prime.)

Worse, back in the day they were often a whole minute long, even though this one is closer to the modern length. Thank merciful heaven.

I look back at this, and take heart: Yes, some things about our society and culture have gotten better in my lifetime…

winston

Who are your All-Time, Top Five Presidents?

Rushmore

I started to do this yesterday and then forgot. The piece in The New York Times in which political scholars rank all the presidents — brought to my attention by both Bud and Norm — has reminded me.

In that survey, of course, Donald Trump comes in dead last. There’s no other place to put him. He has rescued Buchanan from holding that spot permanently. Even among Republicans, he’s in the bottom five. That’s the thing about being a scholar — whatever your inclinations, you know certain things.

But other than that, there’s plenty of room for debate — although everybody has the same top three that I have.

Here’s my list:

  1. Lincoln — There’s just no contest. We wouldn’t have or country today if not for Abe. He was such a perfect match for what the nation had to have at that moment that it’s the strongest suggestion in our history that God has a special place in His heart for America. Whether from divine cause or not, his appearance at that time was miraculous. His unmatched wisdom, his stunning eloquence, his almost superhuman political skills — even his sense of humor — all combined not only to keep the country together, but to address head-on the central political problem of our history. For four score and nine years (I’m counting to the 13th Amendment), the best minds in the country had been unable to deal with slavery. Lincoln got it done, decisively.
  2. Roosevelt — For some of the same reasons Lincoln is No. 1 — he came along at just the right time, with just the right skills. His brilliance, his courage, his confidence, his ebullience, his ability as a patrician to connect with and inspire the poor and downcast, got us through not only the Depression but the worst, most destructive war in human history. A few months ago, I visited Warm Springs, and to think the way the man kept the nation’s spirits up while every day was such a physical struggle for him fills me with awe.
  3. Washington — His time as president isn’t necessarily what impresses us most — his own particular talents may have been more clearly on display as a general. In the political sphere, Madison and Hamilton were proving moving and shaking things more. But given what we have today, the dignity he brought to the office, the bearing, is truly something to be appreciated. And he quit rather than run again after his second term, he relinquished power rather than become the monarch he might have been. We owe a lot to the American Cincinnatus.
  4. Johnson — Here’s where I break with the experts. Even the Democrats among the scholars place him no higher than 8th. But considering how little the federal government has done since then, I remain amazed at the things he pushed through in 1964-65, the sweeping civil rights legislation, the significant steps in the direction of single-payer health care (alas, the last big steps we took.) Yep, everybody blames him for how he handled Vietnam — but he didn’t set out to do that; he just badly mishandled what he had inherited. He wanted to concentrate on his domestic programs. And we’d probably all be better off today if he had manage to do that.
  5. Truman — OK, this was kind of a tossup among several people. I wanted to name my favorite Founder, John Adams — but he wasn’t all that distinguished as president, and there was the matter of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Teddy Roosevelt looms large, and he did a lot — in his own ways, he was as energetic a leader as his kinsman Franklin and LBJ. But I don’t want to get into a big argument defending the imperialism (and here we’re talking real imperialism, instead of the imaginary kind people have fantasized about in modern times). So let’s go with the unassuming guy whom everyone underestimated, but who got us through the end of the war that FDR had almost won, then won the peace, shaping America’s leadership role in building the postwar world order. And don’t forget the way he integrated the military, one of the first big steps toward desegregation. We could really use a man like him again.

So… whom would y’all pick?

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

A guy who knew where the buck stopped.

If you’re a white Southerner and you think your ancestors owned no slaves, you should probably dig a little deeper

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a correction that proves the point of this post. While I knew I had quite a few ancestors who owned slaves, just for contrast I mentioned one great-great grandfather (Henry Waller) who did NOT. I was wrong. A first cousin has written to let me know Henry owned at least one slave, whom he mentioned in letters home. I hope to get copies of those letters soon. So even I am guilty of falsely believing that one ancestor owned no slaves…

Last week, Catherine Templeton used the standard cliche rationalization for why she’s proud of her Confederate heritage:

“It’s important to note that my family didn’t fight because we had slaves,” Templeton said to a room mostly filled with university students. “My family fought because the federal government was trying to tell us how to live.”

We won’t get into the fact that the one thing white Southerners — the ones in charge — were afraid the federal government would make them do was stop owning slaves. And I’ll point out only in passing that if your ancestors owned no slaves and took up arms for the Confederacy, then they were victims of a major con job. Some of my own ancestors were duped in the same manner.

But not all of them. I’ve long known that some of my ancestors were slaveowners. But it wasn’t until I started seriously building out my family tree that I realized how many of them fit that description.

As much as I love talking genealogy — as y’all know, to your sorrow — I hesitated to post this. But my tree is the only one I know this well, and I think what I have found argues against the claims that all too many white Southerners make. And I think people should know that. So here goes…

Patrick Henry Bradley

Patrick Henry Bradley

At first, I had thought that slaveholding was limited to my paternal grandmother’s people, the Bradleys (for whom I’m named). Patrick Henry Bradley, her grandfather, was one of the leading citizens in his part of Abbeville County. When the War came, he raised his own company and led it in the field, but soon returned home to serve out the rest of the war in the Legislature. His eldest son stayed at the front, and was killed at Trevillian Station in 1864.

I would have assumed that the Bradleys were slaveholders just because of Patrick Henry’s service in the Legislature, which was largely made up of the slaveholding class. But I don’t have to assume; I have documentary and anecdotal evidence to that effect. I don’t know whether he had a lot of slaves, but he had some.

James Chesnut Jr.

James Chesnut Jr.

I had accepted this as fact long ago, but I had assumed that my ancestors in other branches of the family were generally innocent of having owned other humans. Not based on anything, really, beyond the fact that none of them were quite as upscale as the Bradleys. Of course, when I say “Bradleys,” I’m lumping in a lot of folks who bore different surnames — pretty much that whole quarter of my tree. For instance, James Chesnut — husband of famous diarist Mary Boykin and one of the leading men in Confederate South Carolina — is a 3rd cousin four times removed. (That means my 6th-great grandfather, Alexander Samuel Chesnut, was his great-great grandfather.) He was in that Bradley fourth.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following paragraph is dead wrong. Henry Waller DID own at least one slave, I am reliably informed. I hope to have evidence of that soon…)

But I had liked to think that another great-great grandfather, William Henry Waller, was more typical of the rest of my tree — just an ordinary soldier who got caught up in forces bigger than he was. I’ve never seen or heard anything to indicate Henry owned slaves, or money or much else. But admittedly, I don’t know a lot about him. He went AWOL to visit the family farm in Marion County when his unit was marching north toward Virginia. My great-grandmother — who died when I was 4 years old (yep, that’s how recent that war was: someone who lived then overlapped with my life) — was born nine months later. She, my mother’s father’s mother, never knew her father, because Henry died of disease at the siege of Petersburg. Consequently, I know practically nothing about him. I don’t even know who his parents were, or whether he had siblings. That line is the shortest on my tree, because of that break.

The old lady is the daughter of Henry Waller. The big-headed kid on her lap is me.

The old lady is my great-grandmother, the daughter of Henry Waller, who died at Petersburg. The big-headed kid on her lap, grooving on the apples, is me. This was 1957.

I picture Henry as being one of those guys like Virgil Caine in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” A sympathetic character caught up in events and trying to get by the best he could. And I tended to lump others from the non-Bradley portions of the family into that category.

But I was wrong, as I learned from early census records after I finally paid to join Ancestry and gained access to that site’s documentary “hints” about my forebears. Later census records name everyone in a household (although their names are often spelled wrong). But in the early decades of the 19th century, the records would just name the “head of household,” and then give a demographic breakdown of the rest of the household — X number of “Free White Persons – Males – 16 thru 25,” and Y number of “Free White Persons – Under 16.”

But the really revelatory data comes under such headings as “Slaves – Males – 26 thru 44.” I assume the records were kept that way so each slave could be counted as three-fifths of a person for the sake of electoral apportionment.

Perusing these records can be a real eye-opener. While Henry Waller may not have owned slaves, others on my mother’s side did. Take, for instance, my 4th-great grandfather Henry C. Foxworth, also of Marion County: There were six slaves in his household in 1820. This sort of thing will pop up again and again in a white Southern family. However humble and righteous you may think your ancestors were, a family tree is likely far more diverse — here I mean economically diverse in particular — than you give it credit for being. And the people who bore your surname are only a tiny fraction of the people from whom you are descended who lived during the centuries of slavery. Until I really got into building my tree, I had no idea I was descended from anyone named “Foxworth.”

Wesley Samuel Foxworth marker(By the way, like Patrick Henry Bradley, Henry Foxworth also lost a son in the war. My great-great-great grandfather Wesley Samuel Foxworth was also killed during that Petersburg campaign. Fortunately for me, his daughter from whom I am descended had been born 12 years earlier.)

I am three-fourths South Carolinian, but hey, at least I won’t find any of that slavery stuff among the Warthens up in Maryland, right? So I thought — somewhat irrationally, since Maryland (although it stayed in the Union) was a slave state.

My great-grandmother Rebecca Jane Rabbitt — who married my great-grandfather Warthen — died in 1898, two days after the birth of her sixth child. She was 35. But I’ve been a lot luckier tracing her tree than poor Henry Waller’s, taking it back to the Middle Ages. (Through her, I’m a Tudor, making Henry VIII a cousin.)

But one of the more interesting things I’ve found on that line is much more recent — it involves her grandfather, John Thomas Rabbitt Jr., 1779-1863. It’s an indenture contract. One William Frumfree, described as “a colored man,” owed $40 to the state of Maryland, and was in jail in 1829 because he couldn’t pay it. My ancestor paid it for him, in exchange for which… well, here’s a quote from the document Mr. Frumfree signed:

… I do hereby bind myself to the service of said Rabbitt in any manner in which he may chose to use me for and during the term of one year from the date hereof to be considered and treated as the slave of said Rabbitt during my term of service as contracted by this paper…

Oh, and just in case you thought that would be lighter service than being a permanent slave, there’s this language:

… the said Rabbitt is to be subject to no liability for his treatment or chastisement of me which he would not own in the case of one of his own slaves for life…

But hey, don’t think the only thing Mr. Frumfree got was out of the jail. He was also paid “the sum of one cent.” No, really. It’s all in the document signed on May 13, 1829.

About all I can say for John Thomas is that as of the 1820 and the 1840 censuses, he didn’t own any slaves. So, there’s that.

Why do I tell you all of this? To shame myself, or to perversely brag about what wheeler-dealers my ancestors were? No. Of course I’m uncomfortable with this topic and these details, but my point is that I highly doubt that my tree is unusual. Note that these slaveowners I’ve mentioned had nothing to do with each other. They never met. They were from very different families living in different places under different circumstances. In other words, these incidences of slaveholding were independent of each other.

And it crops up often enough that I can’t believe I’m anywhere near alone in this. Almost half of white South Carolina families (46 percent) owned slaves. What do you think the chances are that none of the many families that led do you owned human property?

If other white Southerners really knew who their ancestors were, you’d seldom hear a proud neoConfederate say, ever-so-self-righteously, that his (or her) ancestors didn’t own slaves. The odds are against it being a fact.

It is a wise child that knows his own father, and a wiser one who knows even more of his forebears, and faces up to reality.

Bryan’s not a Catholic, but he grasps the concept

Bud, this second one is not my fault. Bryan posted it today and asked me to give a “ruling” on it. Take comfort from the fact that it is only tangentially about abortion.

Dang. I chose the coding for including the parent Tweet, but as so often happens, it didn’t show up. Here’s what Bryan was reacting to:

Here’s what I said back, warning him that my “ruling” could not be considered to have been given ex cathedra:

See, this is why we had the Reformation. Some people (a whole lot of people) didn’t want to adhere to what the church was teaching, so they became Lutherans and Calvinists and such. It’s why Bryan, for instance, is a Presbyterian. They didn’t go around calling themselves “Catholics Against Papal Authority” or whatever. They became something else.

And back in the day, that was a major commitment. You took your life into your hands making such decisions. For instance, my ancestor Thomas Wyatt the Younger, a Protestant, was beheaded for opposing the Catholic Bloody Mary. (He made a big PR mistake: The plot against her was known as “Wyatt’s rebellion.”) Similarly, many people who stayed Catholic lost their lives under Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth.

Hans Holbein painted Thomas Wyatt's head, years before he lost it.

Hans Holbein painted Thomas Wyatt’s head, years before he lost it.

Today, we can take these stands freely, without putting our lives on the line. So when you stop believing in the teachings of the Catholic church — or the Anglican or the Presbyterian or what have you — you can just glide into calling yourself something else. A lot of the American story is about people doing just that. Families that had been Catholic and then become Anglican in the old country went on to become Congregationalists, then Unitarians, then Transcendentalists, then in some cases back to be Catholic.

It’s sort of our American birthright. You don’t believe in what Church A believes in anymore? You can join Church B, and no one will chop your head off for it….

Remembering a better time, just 10 years ago

That's me interviewing Obama on MLK Day 2008 -- taking notes with my right hand, shooting video with my left. With my Initech mug: "Is This Good for the COMPANY?"

That’s me interviewing Obama on MLK Day 2008 — taking notes with my right hand, shooting video with my left. With my Initech mug: “Is This Good for the COMPANY?”

I retweeted this today…

I passed it on not because it was particularly profound or unique or even one of our former president’s better Tweets, but because it reminded me of a better time for our country.

As it happens, I met Barack Obama 10 years ago, on MLK Day.

That was such a better time for our country.

McCain in the same seat, not long before.

McCain in the same seat, not long before.

A week before, we had endorsed John McCain in the SC Republican Primary, and he had won. We knew, when Barack Obama came in, that we liked him for the Democratic Primary in a few days. But this interview, at 8 a.m. on that holiday, cinched it. We were all very impressed. And since Hillary Clinton declined even to come in for an endorsement interview (I would learn why sometime later) and Joe Biden had dropped out much earlier, that was pretty much it.

We endorsed Obama, and he won the primary a few days later.

As a result, I’ve never felt better about a presidential election than I did about that one — my last in newspaper journalism, although I didn’t know it at the time.

From the time McCain and Obama won their respective nominations, I referred to it as the win-win election. Whichever one won, I felt good about our countries future.

We endorsed McCain in the fall — I’d wanted him to be president since long before I’d heard of Barack Obama, and I was concerned about the Democrat’s lack of experience. But it was OK by me when the latter won. It was the win-win election.

Fast-forward eight years, and we find the Democrat we rejected then running against the worst candidate ever to capture a major-party nomination in our nation’s history — and as if that weren’t bad enough, the worst man won. And we are reminded of that daily, as he goes from outrage to outrage.

So it’s good, if only for a day, to look back and remember a time, not so long ago, when all our prospects seemed good.

Go see ‘Darkest Hour’ before it’s gone!

p05ndb9k

We finally got in to see “Darkest Hour” at the Nickelodeon over the weekend — the first time we went it was sold out and we were turned away — and it was everything I’d hoped it would be.

It’s only running there three more days after today, so run see it before it’s gone. (I don’t know how long it will be at the mass-market theaters where it’s showing). And get your tickets online in advance — that’s what we did, and the place was packed for the 2 p.m. Saturday showing. I didn’t see a single empty seat. And the audience was apparently riveted. I was hungry, not having had lunch, but I told myself I wasn’t going to go for popcorn and a beer until I saw someone else do it. Nobody did — except a guy who was on the end of a row, and I was in the middle.

But that’s OK, the movie was great. Gary Oldman, as usual, was fantastic, and the makeup artists even more so. He really, really looked and sounded like Winston.

For someone like me who has always been very rah-rah-for-our-side regarding that conflict, it was very enjoyable because one is encouraged to cheer. I especially like the last line, uttered by Lord Halifax after Churchill has completely routed him and Chamberlain in the House of Commons. Doug probably won’t like that line — or the film itself — as much, since he dismisses Trump’s flaws as “just words.” The director has said, “It’s a movie about words and the power of words to change the world and change the course of history.”

Anyway, run see it and let me know what you think.

You say we NEED the slaves to work the fields? So much for philosophy…

The capacity of the human mind for rationalization is an amazing thing. The things we can talk ourselves into without breaking a sweat…

Seeing this sentence this morning in a story about honoring the slaves who built USC sent me off on a tangent: “Sancho and his wife Lucy became the property of Thomas Cooper, president from 1821 to 1833 of what was then South Carolina College, with Sancho becoming a well-known figure on campus.”

Thomas Cooper

Thomas Cooper

My wife’s mother was a Cooper. All the Coopers in living memory lived in West Tennessee, but I knew that if you followed the line back to the mid-19th century, some of the Coopers lived here in Richland County, SC. And a number of Coopers were named Thomas.

So I had often wondered whether there was a connection to the famous Thomas Cooper of USC, and this morning I decided to read up on him.

Apparently, there’s no connection, since the academic Cooper was originally from England — whereas my wife’s Cooper ancestors had been in America a couple of generations ahead of him. With such common first and last names, that’s hardly surprising.

But I found reading about the USC Cooper interesting. He was apparently quite the philosopher, friend to Thomas Jefferson and other leading lights of the time. But this bit from Wikipedia sort of blew me away:

He supported the institution of slavery, although he had strenuously opposed the slave trade. In the mid to late 1780s Cooper fought passionately against “that infamous and impolitic traffic”. He wrote that “negroes are men; susceptible of the same cultivation with ourselves”, claimed that “as Englishmen, the blood of the murdered African is upon us, and upon our children, and in some day of retribution he will feel it, who will not assist to wash off the stain”. But in America Cooper accepted slavery itself, as he doubted that “in South Carolina or Georgia…the rich lands could be cultivated without slave labour”….

Let me make sure I’m following you, Tom: The slave trade is “infamous.” People of African descent are just as human as whites and just as worthy, and all of us who fail to do something to remedy this injustice are deserving of “retribution.”

But hey, we need them to work the plantations, so never mind! That cotton’s not going to pick itself!

Wow. He was celebrated for his great intellect, and this is how he used it…

The hawk that sat on the head of Pitchfork Ben

Then I realized it was too BIG to be a pigeon.

Then I realized it was too BIG to be a pigeon.

Yesterday afternoon, knowing I had somewhere to be that night and wouldn’t have time for my evening walk, I left the office for awhile to get the rest of my 10,000 steps around downtown.

As I came around the State House on the Assembly Street side, I saw a pigeon sitting atop Ben Tillman’s statue. I decided to approach and get a picture.hawk closeup

Then I realized it was too big for a pigeon.

It was a hawk.

There’s lesson to be inferred here somewhere, one fraught with symbolic meaning, but it’s escaping me. After all, my former newspaper was founded to fight Tillman — my professional forebear, the paper’s first editor, was shot and killed by Tillman’s nephew over his editorials. My grandmother used to live next door to Tillman in Washington as a little girl, although her family despised him.

So it must mean something that this vision appeared to me, of all people.

Or maybe not. In any case, I thought it was an interesting sight. I see hawks soaring high above all the time, but I seldom see them perched so near the ground. What caused this one to choose to sit there, of all places?

Attempt at enforcing gun control led to most famous shootout in history, on this day in 1881

Earlier this year, the mayor of Tombstone, Ariz., proclaimed his town “America’s Second Amendment City.”

Which is just ironic as all get-out.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

The town is known for one thing — the most famous gun battle in the history of the Wild West, which occurred 136 years ago today. But here’s the thing about that: Those revered gun-slinging lawmen the Earps (together with Doc Holliday) were engaged in trying to enforce strict gun control when the shootout happened. And they were prepared to remove the guns from the subjects’ cold, dead hands if necessary. Which they did, in three cases.

So what do we do with that? Do we honor them by enacting and enforcing strict gun control today? Or do we conclude that hey, gun control doesn’t work — see what it led to in this case?

Me, I’ve been a Wyatt Earp fan since the TV show in the ’50s, so I think the idea of disarming Ike Clanton and the other Cowboys was probably a good and just one.

And if you want to argue with that — there may still be some Cowboy partisans out there, fans of Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius — well then, I’m your Huckleberry

This photo of Tombstone in about 1881 was taken by C. S. Fly. The famous gunfight occurred next to his studio, rather than at the O.K. Corral.

This photo of Tombstone in about 1881 was taken by C. S. Fly. The famous gunfight occurred next to his studio, rather than at the O.K. Corral.

 

‘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