History Lessons

While watching the second episode of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s film, The Vietnam War, I was particularly struck by the words of one veteran, John Musgrave, “We were probably the last kids of any generation that actually believed our government would never lie to us.”

I was a college student during the war in Vietnam, or at least during the years when Americans became increasingly aware of our failures there and when many believed we should withdraw. I remember the passions of those times. Inspired by the words of John F. Kennedy, young people like me were committed to making the world a better place and felt empowered to fight for justice and equality.

Like many of my generation, I was the child of a WWII veteran. My patriotism was pure. I believed in my country and the wisdom of its elders. Which is not to say that, like Musgrave, I didn’t “grow up in the shadow of a mushroom cloud.” I had nightmares about the atom bomb and even as a child in elementary school recognized the futility of hiding under my desk. But I would not have dreamed of saying no. I was taught to respect authority

That all changed in the 60’s.  I didn’t believe that Vietnam was our war and, along with thousands of others, I protested.

I still thought of myself as a patriot, and was shocked that my government and so many other citizens thought of me as the enemy. Another of the film’s lessons for our times is the portrayal of the gulf between factions of Americans and the rage between them. I remember arriving in Washington DC for an anti-war march and seeing soldiers pointing at me with machine guns. We were probably the same age, and I couldn’t imagine why they thought they needed weapons against my ideas. I did understand, however, that in a march of over 100,000 individuals, not everyone shared a commitment to non-violent protest. Nor did I agree with every speaker. But I hoped my presence was my voice for peace.

In 1968, I got married and lived, for a short time, in Brazil. Despite the violence surrounding the protests I had so recently witnessed, I went there feeling smug. My country did not solve its problems with coups and military suppression.  Then Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. It was hard to maintain my sense of superiority.

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And then there was Kent State. I was shocked and afraid. That could have been me.  I was still a student then, but I was married and had a daughter. I didn’t want my college to shut down – it was too hard to pay for tuition and arrange for babysitting to miss valuable class time. I felt “old,” but I had new priorities. It gave me a better understanding of the differences among us.

Despite the mistrust and hostility of the 60’s, I remained committed to serving my country. In my case, service eventually took the form of community college leadership and improving the lives of students, their families and their communities. At my final community college commencement, our keynote speaker, Dr. David Skorton, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institutions, urged students not to give in to cynicism.  He encouraged them to be optimistic about the opportunities that were available to them with their new certificates and degrees. He urged them to join with others in support of their causes.

I wholeheartedly agree with his advice, but the temptation to give in to cynicism is strong. Elected officials lie with impunity. Students who trusted our government are at risk of deportation to countries they don’t even remember. The battles for justice and equality, never really won, are being fought again with hatred and violence.  Discord dominates the news and I am afraid for my grandchildren’s future. They think this world is normal and I’m not sure how to describe to them the transition from confidence to betrayal that occurred when I was their age.

When my daughter was a teenager she and her friends would listen to my albums from the 60’s and tell me how impressed they were with my collection. They were listening to the songs that make up the sound track of The Vietnam War, but it was hard to explain to them the events that were inextricably linked to the music and how a generation lost its innocence.

Barbara ViniarComment