2000-10-28: A Nation Divided

A Nation Divided

The War at Home, 1945–1972 (1984)

by Clark Dougan, Samuel Lipsman, and the editors of Boston Publishing Company

This is part of the eleven-volume series The Vietnam Experience. I have not yet looked at any of the other volumes.

I was led to this in the aftermath of reading about the Pentagon Papers. I was curious to see how the Pentagon Papers case fit into the overall trend of public opinion about the war. The short answer is that it had some influence in eroding the government’s credibility, but other factors were more important.

I appreciated the editors’ decision to begin as early as 1945. They describe the post-WWII “consensus” regarding American foreign policy, and the attitude that American prosperity could cure all social problems, such as race relations and poverty. In particular they describe the background and composition of the “foreign policy establishment” in the form of the Council on Foreign Relations. This group dated back to 1921, and its members were the type of elite that Americans love to hate (if they know of them). At the start of the Cold War and later, they and their intellectual descendants were highly influential on American policy. Unfortunately, they seem to have believed in a monolithic communist movement to the exclusion of nationalist motivations. Perhaps a more broad-minded view would have saved a lot of grief.

The consensus is described in these terms, as Lyndon Johnson inherited it on his election:

It was a frame of mind based on a variety of assumptions and ideas about the nature of American society, the meaning of democracy, and the function of the federal government. Its central propositions were these: first, that limitless economic growth held the key to social harmony and progress; second, that international communism represented the principal threat to the American way of life; and third, that it was the responsibility of the government to insure sustained economic progress at home and to contain communism abroad.

The book seems quite detailed, and makes clear the multiple interests whose failure of satisfaction led to the most divisive period since the Civil War. These included:

  • The difficulty of obtaining civil rights for Blacks (including de jure oppression in the South and de facto oppression elsewhere);
  • Growing awareness among the young of the contrast between ideals and practice in the highly conformist 1950s and early 1960s;
  • The determination among the foreign policy establishment, after Mao Tse-tung’s victory in China, that no other Asian nation could be “lost to communism”;
  • Perception that the nation’s colleges and universities had become factories to turn out knowledge workers for the corporate state;
  • Concern with a perceived rise in juvenile delinquency;
  • Social problems arising from the rapid movement of a large part of the population to the suburbs (e.g., transportation, isolation);
  • Nagging fear of nuclear war;
  • Distrust of authority, with their vested interests, in all levels of government educational institutions, and the family.
  • no doubt others I have forgotten.

I don’t feel up to summarizing the book, and perhaps no work shorter than this book could do the subject justice.

I was particularly interested in the early 1960s, when the civil rights movement attracted a lot of idealistic young people (I was attracted myself, though too young to take part). The political experience gained by those people was influential in the next phases of protest and organization. I was saddened to learn how the civil rights leaders repelled whites from their organizations.

This would be a interesting, if complex, story to put in memetic terms. (But then, I guess most stories would be.)

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