The American Bad Dream – (1) Dark Clouds

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In a little more than a year, Skip and I will be traveling to eastern South Dakota for our high school’s fiftieth reunion.  That it’s been an entire half-century since high school graduation is a staggering thought.  I’d like to think that the world hasn’t changed all that much since 1962, but there has been enormous change, more than we could have imagined back then.

Back then, there was much to be optimistic about.  America was growing, and the possibility of achieving a higher standard of living and more economic security than our parents’ generation was real.  The “baby boomer” generation was coming of age, and would benefit enormously from an economy that had been jump started by World War II.  A new “middle class” was growing and thriving, and the American Dream was available to far more people than ever before.  Back then, America’s institutions and traditions, its economy, and its democracy, seemed rock solid to new high school graduates.

Enormous advances in technology and productivity continued into the 1960s, by the end of which Americans had successfully landed on the moon and come home again.  As we entered the work force in the 1960s, our generation’s faith in American strength and righteousness remained strong.  The American Dream, it seemed to us, would survive indefinitely, to be lived and enjoyed for countless more generations.

By the end of the 1960s, however, dark clouds had rolled in.  Emotionally scarred by the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and disillusioned by a decade-long military involvement in Southeast Asia that lacked a clear justification and seemed senseless and immoral to millions of Americans, a newly polarized America began to withdraw into itself.  Something was going wrong, and our optimism was fading.

After the Vietnam War, America would never be the same.  We had witnessed in the 1960s some movement toward Lyndon Johnson’s hopeful vision of a “Great Society,” which stressed shared prosperity, growing understanding and cooperation among all Americans, and groundbreaking advances in civil rights and personal freedom.  When President Johnson withdrew from public life in the face of opposition to the Vietnam War, however, his vision of the “Great Society” began to fade from view.  As the “flower children” of the anti-war protests entered the work force, their sense of shared community also dwindled.

President Richard Nixon’s vision for America may have been a traditional one, but America’s focus was mainly on what appeared to be his betrayal of a campaign promise when, instead of ending the Vietnam War, he invaded Cambodia on April 30, 1970.  America was stunned when, four days later, students protesting the Cambodian invasion at Kent State University in Ohio were fired upon by Ohio National Guard troops, leaving 4 dead and 9 wounded.

Despite his political scars and unpopularity, Nixon is widely credited with conducting an impressive foreign policy and with improving relations with China.  The traditional distinctions between “conservative” and “liberal” attitudes toward American culture and life had not seemed to change during his presidency.

Each of us has lived our own life and has our own personal history since then, and gradual changes in society, like climate change, can be hard to perceive.  Looking back from a decade into the 21st Century, however, we are now aware of a steady and substantial decline in American prosperity over the last 40 years, and a decline in community spirit, morals and values as well.

Women have entered the work force in greater numbers, and attained far greater status in professional occupations like law and medicine, but women’s rights are still at considerable risk as ideological warfare flourishes.  The divorce rate has skyrocketed and, as lifestyles have changed, there has been a growing and increasingly ugly rift between progressive and fundamentalist versions of morality.

The Vietnam War ended at last in 1975, but it had set off an inflationary spiral that would last throughout the 1970s, to be eventually tamed by a recession.  In 1980, the American people rejected President Jimmy Carter’s bid for a second term.

I had been deeply disillusioned by the Vietnam War, and barely had time to enjoy the relief we all felt when it ended before  the 1980s produced still more disillusionment for me.   The “cold war” between the United States and the Soviet Union featured an expensive nuclear arms race that seemed to diminish rather than improve the security of both nations.  I was troubled by the nuclear weapons policy of the Reagan Administration, and my concern wasn’t just a matter of disagreeing with their policies.  Most of what they were saying simply didn’t make any sense.

The “neo-cons”  who were in charge of weapons development and arms control had abandoned reasoned analysis.  Either there was something wrong with their thought processes, or they were playing fearful mind games with the American people, or both.  It was a tone, an attitude, an approach toward life that I had not seen before and did not recognize.  For the first time ever, I was facing the question whether human psychology was too fragile to sustain sensible public policy in the nuclear age, or even the democracy and American way of life I grew up with.

It has been said that everyone experiences a transformative loss of innocence at some point in their lives.  My confidence after Vietnam had been bruised and shaken, and what was left of my hopeful innocence was lost in the 1980′s, during the Reagan Administration.

JMH – 2/20/11

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