Robert McNamara’s Tragic Choice

My freshman year of college at LSU was a real eye-opener. The world I entered that September was remarkably different from the high school existence from which I had just graduated.

There was a lot going on in 1969. I understood practically none of it, so my college education would be a huge learning experience–not only about the subjects of classic university study, but about the tumultuous times that we lived in then.

If you have, in your life, spent a freshman year at a large university, then perhaps you know something about the changes I was dealing with. But if you were a baby boomer like me whose collegial initiations happened in the late 1960’s, then you might agree that our experience then was even more intense that most college frosh would typically experience.

Nowadays, in my 64th year of life, I have undertaken to write a novel that is centered around this experience. The book, which will be a fourth novelic publishing project, is called King of Soul.

Who is the King of Soul, you may ask. You’ll have to read the book to find out. But of course you cannot read it, until I finish writing the dam thing, probably about 3 years from now.

Now when I’m doing this sort of project, I’m heavy on the research. The direction of my research will determine much of what happens in the story. For the last six months or so, I’ve been reading many books and articles about the 1960s. My historical novels are subjective explorations of selected time periods. The three previous novelic projects were propelled by research explorations in these years: 2005 (Glass half-Full), 2000 (Glass Chimera) and 1937 (Smoke).

1969 was, as Frank Sinatra might say, a very good year. On the other hand, in some ways it was a very bad year.

Just like any year, I guess. Depends on who you are, where you are, and what is happening around you.

What I found was happening around me and the other college students of 1969 was this: a helluva lot of change, and it was going down at a very fast clip. Most of the change revolved around three areas of societal ferment: civil rights, the Vietnam War, and sex.

I wandered, like millions of other high-school graduates, into a maelstrom of disruptive events and ideas.

My current enquiry about that anarchic decade has identified three main influences:

~the civil rights movement, which had started long before, but was accelerating in its intensity during that time

~the Vietnam War, and the draft

~the metamorphosis of the 1950’s “beats” into something new called the hippies

My first great discovery has been that the groundbreaking civil rights activists of the 1950s-60s taught the antiwar activists of the late 1960s how to mobilize and organize in order to get things done. The “Freedom Summer” of 1964 is the clearest expression of this development. That’s when bunches of white kids from up north spent their summer going down south to help blacks in their struggle for civil rights, and America was never the same after that.

My second great revelation is (as if we didn’t already know) the elephant in that era’s living room: the war in Vietnam.

This may seem obvious to anyone who was there, in the USA at that time. But God, and my advancing age, have taught me a great lesson in recent years. And the lesson is this:

One of life’s greatest satisfactions is to, by study, delve back into the time in which you were growing up, and learn about what the hell was going on then when you were so young and clueless about it all.

Toward that end, I am reading a great work of jouralism now, one of the best I’ve ever picked up: David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Best-Brightest-David-Halberstam/dp/0449908704

Today I encountered in that book a startling realization. You can perhaps discern what it is by reading this selection from page 242 of the 1972 Ballantine paperback edition:

“. . .in making his (Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s) arguments against nuclear weapons, forcefully, relentlessly, he had to make counterarguments for conventional forces. We had to have some kind of armed might, so he made good and effective arguments for conventional weapons (and if the Chiefs wanted to use them in Vietnam, to send American combat troops without nuclear weapons, he had to go along, since he had developed the thesis, the mystique of what conventional weapons could do with the new mobility). He gave them a rationale, for his overriding concern was quickly to limit the possibilities of nuclear war, to gain control of those weapons.(emphasis mine).”

In other words, the slippery slope of  conventional warfare in Vietnam war escalation came about as an effort to prevent ultimate nuclear war with the Communists!

That’s something to think about. Who knows, maybe the strategy worked. Maybe it will help us understand how that war slid, over the course of a dozen years or so, from a few military advisors deployed in 1961 to 54,000 Americans dead by the time we finally got out of there in 1975.

There was, admit it or not, a rationale to the tragedy of Vietnam.

As we (still) face a 21st century situation of potential nuclear disaster, maybe the strategy of conventional war–a lesser evil– can fend off the worst possible bellicosity–nuclear war against the “Communists” of our present age, the Islamic State of Iran, or North Korea.

Our detonation of atom bombs over Japan in August 1945 has changed the world–and the world’s strategic inevitable realities–forever. We’d best not forget that. For the preservation of human life on this planet, any bellicose nations who strive to develop nuclear warheads must be kept in check.

 

Smoke

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