Monday, May 17, 2010

Grads get diplomas ... 40 years late

Yesterday, a little over 200 graduates from Boston University's class of 1970 showed up on the Commonwealth Avenue campus to take care of a bit of unfinished business.

They finally got their diplomas at a proper graduation ceremony.

Well, technically, they got the diploma 40 years ago, but they came in the mail, and without any of the usual pomp and circumstance. No cap and gowns. No commencement address. Just a stark package in the mail that announced their degrees.

Forty years ago college campuses all over American were in turmoil, and BU wasn't the only institution of higher learning whose graduation was threatened or simply canceled altogether.

On Monday, May 4, 1970, four undergrads from Kent State University in Ohio were shot to death by National Guard troops who were called to help quell a demonstration there. The issue in question was President Richard Nixon's decision to invade eastern Cambodia in hopes of cleaning out insurgents (including the Viet Cong) who were using it as a sanctuary.

Of course, to college kids at the time -- whose deferments had already been discontinued -- the idea of escalating the Vietnam War at all ... regardless of why ... was beyond unacceptable. If there had been polarization between young and old over the war prior to 1970s, it just got ratcheted up ten-fold after that.

Campuses just erupted, and that included Kent State, where demonstrations that had begun the previous Friday had grown increasingly threatening and had -- in some cases -- escalated into vandalism and violence.

By Sunday, Gov. James Rhodes had called in the National Guard to quell the disturbance, and -- for a while -- it appeared as if things were going to quiet down. But a group of protesters refused to yield, and, after some confusion as to how to handle the situation, some of the guardsmen fired into the crowd.

Four students died that day and nine more were wounded. And if college campuses had been tinderboxes before all this happened, they were raging infernos afterward. And even to me, a junior in high school at the time, the whole thing was just too tough to comprehend.

It goes without saying that from about 1968 through 1974 an entire generation got is first glimpse of the American political system ... and American values. And it also goes without saying that, to many of us, that system, and those values, left a lot to be desired.

Now, 40 years later, it isn't tremendously difficult to figure out what happened during that brief six-year period. But to understand it, you have to go back to the end of World War II and remember what the international climate was like.

The U.S., I think, may have been a little bit impressed with itself after single handedly winning the war. Please, this isn't my hubris as much as it reflects my feeling on the hubris of people who actually think this.

This isn't to say our contributions weren't huge. They were. And it's very likely that without us tipping the scales, the war would have lasted much longer, and with more devastating results regardless of who "won" it (question: does anybody really win a war?).

But this idea that we single handedly won it does a tremendous disservice to the British, Russian, French, Canadian and other countries who sacrificed their lives, and -- in almost every case but ours -- had their lands invaded and raped by either the Nazis or the Japanese.

To borrow a tiresome sports cliche, winning World War II was a total team effort.

We came out of that war a changed nation. Most of that, obviously, was for the better. We certainly had a better understanding of how depraved people desperate for power can be. We had a better understanding of how hatred can make people do unspeakable things (sadly, we have to keep learning this, and we'll probably have to learn it again at some point too).

And our benevolence in its aftermath, with programs like the Marshall Plan -- was certainly preferable to the traditional "to the victor goes the spoils" attitude by the conqueror toward the conquered.

But I'm afraid we also took the view -- and it's understandable considering the times -- that because of our status as the one emerging free superpower, it was our duty to keep the world, as the saying went at the time, "safe for democracy."

If World War II taught us all anything (or should have taught us all anything) it taught us that even just wars (and WWII was certainly that) command a steep price, in terms of casualties and utter ruin. That's why it was called the "war to end all wars."

Except, sadly, war goes on. It went on just five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Korea, and it went on in the late 50s and throughout the 60s with Vietnam, and continues today in Afghanistan and Iraq. And that's just the U.S. There are other wars and, from all appearances, there will always be other wars.

The Soviet Union suffered tremendously in World War II, and -- I think anyway -- that experience led the Russians to expand their horizons to the west, absorbing a slew of satellite nations around its borders to act as buffers in case anything like that ever happened again. Sir Winston Churchill labeled this expansion the "Iron Curtain" -- appropriate, in some ways, because the name Stalin, in Russian, meant "Man of Steel."

This also led to the "domino theory," which allowed that if you stood by and watched one nation get swallowed up by the Soviets, others would logically follow.

This is where we were in the late 50s and early 60s when the Vietnam situation began to emerge. The U.S. got involved to stop the spread of communism.

Lyndon Johnson gets the lion's share of the blame for what happened with Vietnam, but this conflict had its beginnings when Eisenhower was president. John F. Kennedy was the one who sent military advisers over there, and at the time of his assassination, the situation was already becoming a hornet's nest.

Johnson trumped up the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 to further escalate things, and I'd be interested whether -- in any of his more private moments -- LBJ would do that all over again. The war certainly ruined his presidency ... and it remains, to this day, the single most divisive issue the country has faced in my lifetime.

Johnson basically abdicated in early 1968, faced with mounting criticism of his policies on the war, the ruin of his "Great Society" dream, and the spectre of Bobby Kennedy -- whom he absolutely hated -- making a serious run at him.

That was in March of 1968. By June, just three months later, Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, had been gunned down. Two months after that, the country (and the world) saw how badly things had deteriorated with the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

This divisiveness led to the election of Richard Nixon ... himself a pretty polarizing figure. Nixon was brilliant in a lot of ways, and were it not for a paranoia that bordered on diabolical, he would have been one of our best presidents. As it was, he was a man of vision, who, when not burdened by unreasonable paranoia, did some great things during his presidency.

His strategy to end the Vietnam War was "Vietnamization," which was, basically, and attempt to teach the South Vietnamese how to defend themselves against both the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong (Communist sympathizers among their own people).

That was difficult, because they were fighting two different wars. The North Vietnamese fought more conventionally while the VC resorted to guerrilla tactics. So, whatever education was going to take place over there, it was going to take a long time. Just like teaching the Iraqis how to defend themselves against all the insurgents who were unleashed during that war has seemed to take forever.

One of the reasons Nixon opted to invade Cambodia is because it was haven for the Viet Cong in a very similar way that Afghanistan was a haven for Osama bin Laden. The VC could mass over there, cross the border, and carry out their insurgency. Nixon wanted to clean them out and take their base away from them.

I think that had this been another war, and another time, the wisdom of doing this would have been apparent. The problem, however, was that it was Vietnam, and it was the 1960s and 70s. Kids -- and not just the minority kids either -- were outraged at being used as cannon fodder for a war whose objectives were largely vague and undefined. Sometimes, to us, it seemed as if we were fighting the war merely because we didn't want to walk away from it. It was a question of pride and nothing more.

There were also plenty of adults who were just simply tired of turning on their TVs at night and seeing protesting students. And, finally, don't forget that the whole My Lai massacre became public knowledge in 1969, and it was just one more reason for people to start seriously questioning what in the world this country was doing over there.

There were just so many things going on over there at the time ... only a year and a half from the 1968 Tet Offensive that exposed the lie about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel ... My Lai ... that expansion, as opposed to retreat, seemed almost mindlessly counterproductive ... even if, from a strictly military point of view, the idea of invading Cambodia seemed sound. It's just that we were beyond thinking that way by 1970. Just about everyone except the most ardent hawks among us wanted out ... not in more.

Into this maelstrom stepped the nation's college students. They'd had enough. To them, this was a classic case of "old men sending young men off to die." And there was a line from the Canticle part of Simon and Garfunkel's "Scarborough Fair" that seemed to sum the whole situation up perfectly: "Generals order their soldiers to kill and to fight for a cause they'd long ago forgotten."

Of course, the louder, and more strident, the students became, they were met, with equally loudness and stridency, by officials determined to restore some of Nixon's "law and order" to our campuses.

In truth, that probably wasn't possible. Life is rarely black and white. Maybe once in a while this happens, but most of the time, there are no "white hatters" and "black hatters," as my father used to say. Jerry Garcia had it right. There always seems to be a touch of gray.

And so there was here. Within the demonstrators at Kent State there was a cadre of rabble rousers who seized the occasion to do what they do. They weren't students. Some of them were just people who flocked to the town to go to the bars.

Whatever, it became a deadly mix. The cauldron boiled for four days, and culminated in the massacre that took four lives and inspired David Crosby and Neil Young to write "Ohio".

After the massacre, and after campuses erupted, some colleges received threats that their imminent graduation ceremonies would be targeted for violence. In BU's case, that threat involved the possibility of sniper fire. The president, choosing discretion over valor I'm sure, chose to cancel the ceremony.

It was interesting, 40 years later, to hear the perspective of some of these graduates. Forty years is a long time, of course, and some of the students, who, at the time, couldn't have cared less about a ceremony now realize what was taken away from them.

You can find a link to the story here.

If there's one things I've learned from growing up in the Vietnam era it is this: The war, its aftermath, and the unrest it caused, will not ever go away. Almost everything this generation witnesses -- especially in politics -- comes back to the Vietnam War, how badly it was bungled, and how badly things spiraled out of control as a result.

But at least, for those who showed up at BU yesterday, there was some closure -- albeit 40 years too late.

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