It was the headline that caught me: “Shocking and Ominous Talk,” it blared.
Really? Such language was rare in the Selma Times Journal (STJ), but I found it there, on the editorial page of the New Year’s Day edition, for January 1, 1965.
The Alabama headline shone up at me from a cloudy gray background, on a microfilm reader in a library basement at Harvard. The paper’s full year’s run for 1965 took up only one medium-thick roll, but was likely over 3000 pages.
It was late 1972 when I fed the microfilm spool into the reader, resolved to read every one of those pages. They were key background for what became my book, Selma 1965: The March That Changed The South. The voting rights campaign the book charted was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and SNCC, and was set to begin the next day, January 2. That was also the day I first crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge and set foot in Selma, as a rookie on Dr. King’s staff.
Tension about the imminent civil rights incursion had in fact been high in Selma that holiday; I already knew that. But in the sixteen pages of the STJ’s New Year issue, there was not a word about it. Instead, the “shocking and ominous talk” headline spoke of something just as important, but which I had hardly if at all thought about at the time:
Vietnam. Two sentences made its point:
The war is being lost in South Vietnam, and no amount of power juggling in Saigon and no amount of American military aid and advice has been able to change that fact.
Indeed the question that may now have to be faced is whether the war can be won at all–with or without its escalation into a larger conflict and full scale United States involvement.
I was stunned to read this. At the beginning of 1965, for the American public, Vietnam was not yet a “real” war. It would soon become that. By the end of the year covered by the STJ’s small reel, it would come to shape and deform the futures of millions of Americans, from legions of military draftees, to the the newly-elected president Lyndon Johnson. Their lives, and mine.
But that process of commandeering the public agenda and the destiny of so many was still months ahead in January. The America establishment, of both parties, was then solidly behind whatever the White House and the Pentagon decided to do to stop the Communist forces in Indochina. What soon became a mass domestic protest movement was still only a shadowed gleam in the eyes of scattered leftists and pacifists, all still dodging the darts of professional red-baiters.
Yet here in this obscure newspaper in the very rural Black Belt, was a declaration, really a kind of prophecy, not only that it would all be for naught, but in fact already was. When I finally noticed it, seven years after in that library basement, most U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, after 58,000 dead, hundreds of thousands wounded, and millions of veterans and their families headed into decades shadowed by PTSD and other plagues, an era which has not yet entirely ended.
But even then in late 1972, the tide had turned but the Vietnam horror was hardly over: there was still to come the shameful spectacle of the helicopters at the emptied U.S. embassy in Saigon (about to become Ho Chi Minh City), the hundreds of thousands of pro-US Vietnamese and their families left behind.
Don Oakley, the pundit here, worked for a national news service. Over twenty-plus years he churned out hundreds of innocuous “features” which the company sent out to hundreds of smaller provincial papers along with comic strips about Bugs Bunny and The Born Loser. Oakley’s output normally went down without a ripple. Yet here was pronouncing the coming war a failure in advance.
Preparing this blog post, I skimmed dozens of Oakley’s features in the search for the original of this piece; all went down like potato chips, quick bites, indistinguishable.
But this one has stuck with me: the quote opens the first chapter of my book, as the harbinger of what was to come which I did not notice at the time, but was as plain as the day’s newspaper.
A harbinger about Vietnam, and then repeated, more than once. Re-reading it again now, it seems like a bass melody of our national life, including mine, since then: change the name from Vietnam to Iraq and now Afghanistan (with more to come, I expect), and Oakley’s 56-year old verdict is just about as true and telling.
If I wanted to point fingers, it could be done in almost any direction including my mirror. Sure I have protested many of the wars, but I have also paid my taxes, which were perhaps only the most easily documented form of my personal complicity.
And now it is happening again.
Do Oakley referred rather gingerly to “the question that may now have to be faced,” which was “whether the war can be won at all . . . .”
He was right, But as a group, Americans and our government did an excellent job of refusing to face that question, for a decade in Vietnam, and now for twice that long in Afghanistan, until it was forced on us at the points of the adversary’s weapons.
I was young then, and now I am old. Yet if I remain much longer, I expect to see such tableaus re-enacted elsewhere, perhaps even inside our borders.
After all, a wildfire that is larger than New York City will have much the same effect as a human conquerer.
And if that final helicopter were to hover above the park down the hill from me, and I were not too feeble to climb the swinging rope ladder with a few others, where exactly do we think it might take us?
And who would be ready to take us in?