Watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick Vietnam documentary on PBS last week brought back a flood of memories, not just of the war but of that whole disruptive era. As a kid, we only had one TV and every night, it was turned to the news, first the local news on WSOC in Charlotte and then to Huntley and Brinkley, probably because of David Brinkley’s North Carolina roots. We watched it as a family with my father’s inevitable “HUSH!” whenever somebody started talking.
It was a hell of a time to watch the news. I don’t remember a lot of specifics but every night seemed to have footage of helicopters in Vietnam and men moving through the jungle with guns. I remember lots of footage of protests and reports of domestic terrorists. The news was almost always of strife in America and few, if any, of the type of human interest stories that define news today.
The documentary reminded me that among my earliest memories is the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and then of Bobby Kennedy a couple of months later. From then until the resignation of Richard Nixon, there doesn’t seem to have been much good happening in the world, especially from the point of view of a young boy from the South. The news reports from this time surely helped shape my world view today.
I’m also reminded that the divisions of that time are still driving our politics today. Some of us lost faith in our leaders and government because of Vietnam, Watergate and the struggle for Civil Rights. We didn’t trust authorities to tell us the truth about the assassinations of our leaders or reasons for foreign intervention. After almost a century of Jim Crow, we, especially in the South, knew that our leaders and institutions would willingly discriminate against Americans to preserve power.
We began to define patriotism differently. Instead of loyalty to the symbols of the Republic like the flag or the national anthem, we believed patriotism involved searching for truth and holding our leaders accountable. Skepticism became a virtue.
Another part of the country, though, saw patriotism as preserving the status quo in America. They abhorred the disruption and were fast to defend those who they believed we were standing up for order and traditional values and against communism. They made up a large part of Nixon’s Silent Majority and eventually drove the Reagan Revolution.
Today, those same forces are at odds. The difference is that neither side has much trust in the institutions that have sustained us. Groups like Black Lives Matter have little faith in law enforcement or the officials that defend it. Trump supporters have given up on the ability of government or the market to improve the quality of their lives. They might not know exactly what they want but they don’t want what they’ve got.
The same forces that divided America over Vietnam and Civil Rights are dividing us today. Neither side is happy with state of America, but both have dramatically different visions. One side wants to create something new, a country they see as more equitable. The other wants a return to the old order and the calm of the 1990s, just like those in the 1960s yearned for the 1950s.
For those seeking change, America as a country of opportunity has always come up a little short but they believe its strength is its ability to evolve. For others, that evolution leads to uncertainty and the potential loss of their place in society. They’re not only resisting the urge to change but want to return to a time when they had more stability and hope for the future. Reconciling those two views of America is our struggle now and probably always will be.