(Swans - December 2, 2013) This two-part series is a look back at the last fifty years in American history, from my personal perspective. The thread of my historical narrative begins in Part I (1963-1968) (1)
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The Vietnam War and the US Presidential Election in 1968
On January 30, the Communist Party of Vietnam launched its stunning though costly and ultimately stymied Tet Offensive across all of South Vietnam. For the Vietnamese Communist Party, the Tet Offensive was a propaganda victory and foreign relations coup; for the Johnson administration and the American public it was a crippling blow to self-confidence about the conduct of the war. The number of American troops in Vietnam peaked at 543,482 in late April.
The year was the most expensive in the Vietnam War with America spending US$ 77.4 billion (US$ 519 billion in 2013) on the war. The year also became the deadliest of the Vietnam War for America and its allies with 27,915 South Vietnamese (ARVN) soldiers killed and the Americans suffering 16,592 killed compared to around two hundred thousand of the communist forces killed. The deadliest week of the Vietnam War for the USA was during the Tet Offensive, specifically February 11-17, 1968, during which 543 Americans were killed in action and 2,547 were wounded. (2)
On March 31, Lyndon Johnson announced in a nationally televised address that he would not seek reelection as US president in the November election. That same month, to encourage the North Vietnamese to begin negotiations, he halted the aerial bombing of the northern portion of North Vietnam, which includes those regions surrounding the capitol city Hanoi but not those areas bordering the 10 kilometer-wide 1954 treaty line -- the DMZ or demilitarized zone -- marking the separation into North and South Vietnam. The parties agreed to conduct the negotiations in Paris, and met for the first time on May 10. However, the North Vietnamese were adamant in demanding the Americans halt all aerial bombing in the North before discussing anything else, which Johnson finally acceded to on October 31, after which serious negotiations began. (3)
On November 5th, Richard Milhous Nixon, a Republican from California, won the 1968 presidential election with a campaign promoting "law and order" and appealing to anti-civil rights southern white resentment (Dixiecrats become Republicans). Nixon's winning concept was called "the southern strategy." It would become the formula applied by all subsequent Republican presidential contenders to this day, very effectively by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, who vastly increased the formula's content of rhetoric on fiscal soundness and cant on the evils of taxation, but unsuccessfully by Willard Mitt Romney in 2012 because the demographic composition of the American electorate had changed significantly since 1968, and 1988.
The Arc Of American Liberalism
The years 1964 through 1980 spanned the arc of American liberalism, arising out of the optimism of the Kennedy administration and plunging into the sour witless eruption of neo-liberalism: Thatcherism (1979) and Reaganism (1981).
The legislative triumphs of civil rights occurred during the same years as the vast expansion of the Vietnam War, 1964 to 1968. The accumulating costs of that war combined with the growing costs of social welfare programs to cause fiscal problems and a mild recession in late 1969 through 1970, and a monetary crisis in 1971 (the Nixon Shock, the end of the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange, and the beginning of the present situation of freely floating currencies).
The Oil Crisis of 1973 (the Arab Oil Embargo in retaliation for the US support of Israel during its October 1973 war with Egypt and Syria) introduced Americans to the energy crisis: shortages of gasoline and fuel oil, with a quadrupling of prices. The recession triggered by the 1973 oil crisis lasted until 1975. By that time, American economic productivity (or profitability) had fallen from its peak levels during the previous thirty years of the post World War II boom (Les Trente Glorieuses), in part because advanced automation could now replace more human labor, and in part because of increased foreign competition, since the post WWII recovery of Europe and Japan had advanced rapidly though the 1950s and matured in the 1960s.
The reductionist quest for profitability led to the "outsourcing" and "offshoring" practices of seeking minimum cost foreign labor (with minimum investment in foreign health, safety, environment, and taxation) to produce products for sale and consumption in the United States. The inflation of the 1970s coupled with slow economic growth ("stagflation") spurred the intensification of well-financed campaigns by corporate interests to acquire political influence, which could be used to lower corporate taxes, eliminate or loosen government regulations on business practices, and break unions. This neo-liberal ideology of corporatism above all considerations of social democracy became the American paradigm with the arrival of the Reagan administration (1981-1988), and continues to the present despite its destruction -- catastrophically in 2008 -- of the American economy for over 90% of the population.
The long, horrible, drawn-out bleeding of the Vietnam War was totally unnecessary. The 1973 Oil Crisis was never addressed as it should have been, by the development of sustainable, non-nuclear energy and power sources not based on fossil fuels (or combustion). I think of how much better off Americans and the world would be today if these two problems had been solved compassionately and intelligently. The successors of the Vietnam War have been briefer, more streamlined, and far too numerous. The newest American wars are now carried out as computer games of automated assassination, equipped with real remotely-controlled unmanned bomber aircraft and missiles, and programmed directly from the White House. The energy crisis that erupted in 1973 has now metastasized into the anthropogenic global warming problem. To my mind, the way to move the United States beyond its present glut of drone wars and military adventurism and wastefulness, as well as most effectively address the energy and global warming dilemma, is to be found by abandoning neo-liberalism and embracing its exact opposite, social democracy.
Vietnamization For "Peace With Honor," Mega-Death For "Credibility"
For Americans, the Vietnam War had a slow buildup. It began during the Harry S. Truman administration with the behind-the-scenes provisioning with military equipment for, and the financing of, the French colonial forces in Indochina in 1945-1952. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration (1953-1960) continued this support after the French defeat in 1954, with the propping up of anti-communist regimes in the southern half of Vietnam, and supporting anti-communist factions in Laos.
The forces of communist North Vietnam completed the north-south Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1959, along the eastern margins of the countries west of Vietnam: Laos in the north, and Cambodia in the south. This route for the clandestine re-supply of communist forces in South Vietnam would be the key to the eventual communist victory in 1975. The trail was camouflaged to evade aerial surveillance and bombardment. American aerial bombardment along the Ho Chi Minh Trail between 1964 and 1973 was so intense that Laos has the sad distinction of being the most bombed country on a per capita basis.
During the Richard M. Nixon administration (1969-1974), the American bombardment of North Vietnamese military activities in eastern Cambodia was secretly expanded to include an invasion with ground forces (in 1970). The officially neutral Cambodian government, led by Prince Sihanouk, had publicly protested the violations of its territory in the east, but quietly accepted both: the North Vietnamese infiltration, in order to maintain the possibility of good relations with the Vietnamese communists who Sihanouk saw as the inevitable victors; and Sihanouk accepted some of the American bombardment of the North Vietnamese in Cambodia's east so as to placate the Americans, discourage the Vietnamese communists from openly invading and occupying Cambodia, and to keep the small Cambodian communist factions from gaining popular support. Unfortunately, the American bombardment was so massive, unrelenting, and deadly, that many survivors among the rural population in both Laos and Cambodia became radicalized and joined the communist forces in their countries, who all swept to victory in 1975.
Richard Nixon knew the Vietnam War was a lost cause, and his plan to gain "peace with honor" and extricate the United States from the meat grinder of war-making was to build up the military forces of the anti-communist regime in South Vietnam while simultaneously withdrawing American personnel. This was called "Vietnamization." From a certain distance, Nixon's plan had a reasonable cast to it. The idea was to prosecute the war by substituting well-trained and amply equipped South Vietnamese troops for American troops, and in so doing show the world that the United States "kept its promises" to allies, and it would thus retain its "credibility."
You have to hear Henry Kissinger's leaden intonation of "American credibility" to understand why an additional 21,257 deaths of Americans in Vietnam, and over a million Vietnamese deaths, and hundreds of thousands of combined Laotian and Cambodian deaths had to be sustained between 1969 and 1975. The arc of American mortality because of the Vietnam War, grouped by presidential administration, was a follows: 9 Eisenhower (1956-1960), 191 Kennedy (1961-1963), 36,756 Johnson (1964-1968), 21,195 Nixon (1969-1974), 62 Ford (1975-1976), and 7 during 1987-2006. (4)
The Vietnamization process to retain "American credibility," that is to say the international reputation of the American foreign policy-making elite, was based on thinking in which individual American lives were mere ciphers to be churned in the calculations of force projection to gain diplomatic advantage for elite geo-strategic gamesmen, while the individual lives of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians were not even considered up to the level of ciphers. A ceasefire, truce, declaration of defeat, withdrawal of American forces, and less violent consolidation of communist power in Indochina could have been accomplished much sooner, with the stated goal of stopping bloodshed and limiting casualties by accepting the inevitable. That course of action would have lost the United States one form of "credibility" but it would have gained it another I think far more valuable.
The Nixon-Kissinger Vietnamization policy was an egotistical face-saving crime of genocidal proportions. Thinking back to it leaves me wondering if human history is farcical tragedy or a tragic farce.
Some Incidents In The History Of My Times
The following incidents made impressions on me, for one reason or another.
20 July 1969. Neil Armstrong lands on the Moon, and a gesture is fulfilled. The other side of the coin was the CIA-sponsored killing of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Bolivia on 9 October 1967. The American Gods must be propitiated. (5)
22 April 1970. The first Earth Day, the environmental movement at its height, the most radiantly hopeful day I ever had dreaming about the future. It was pure bliss, and I was also in love.
7 November 1972. Richard M. Nixon wins a landslide presidential electoral victory against antiwar Democrat George Stanley McGovern. I liked McGovern.
11 September 1973. Chile's Marxist president, Salvador Allende, dies and his government falls in a very violent coup led by a fascist Chilean general, Augusto Pinochet, aided by the CIA as directed with disgusting enthusiasm by Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon, and then Secretary of State (from 22 September 1973).
17 June 1972 - 9 August 1974. The Watergate scandal unfolds, Nixon resigns, and his former vice president, Gerald Ford, advances to the presidency and pardons Nixon, immunizing him from all Watergate-related prosecution, making Ford unelectable in 1976.
20 November 1975. Francisco Franco, the pseudo-fascist monarchist-authoritarian Spanish dictator, dies, and Spain carefully emerges out of its enforced medieval slumber of 36 years.
1977-1980. The Jimmy Carter administration is the twilight of American political liberalism (the unifying concept being the social welfare state), which effectively ends in 1978 as Carter's initiatives became more militarized.
18 April 1977. Jimmy Carter addresses the nation on energy. This could have been the start of the sustainable and solar energy revolution in America, but it wasn't. Think of how much better served and secure we would be today if it had.
28 March 1979. Three Mile Island nuclear accident, a partial meltdown of a commercial nuclear reactor at a power station in Pennsylvania. The worst such accident in the U.S.
15 July 1979. President Jimmy Carter addresses the nation on its "crisis of confidence" during its 1979 energy crisis (oil and gasoline shortages and high prices, consequences of the Iranian Revolution). This address would become known as the "malaise speech," though Carter never mentioned "malaise."
August 1979. Paul Volcker is appointed chairman of the Federal Reserve by President Jimmy Carter, and his monetary policies cure the persistent inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s.
1979. Zbigniew Kazimierz Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, initiates the covert transfer of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants opposed to the Soviet military forces that had invaded in support of the allied central government, which itself faced insurrection. Osama Bin Laden, from Arabia, led one such mujahideen group in the ensuing Afghan War prosecuted by the Soviets. That war proved to be a quagmire for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and drained sufficient resources and caused enough human suffering and resentment among Russians that it initiated the political instability that eventually led to the collapse of communism in the USSR.
4 November 1980. Ronald Reagan is elected president, and the neo-liberal shredding of the 1945 postwar social contract begins. My heart sank that day, and of Americans I thought: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." (An anonymous ancient proverb wrongly attributed to Euripides. This variant is spoken by Prometheus, in The Masque of Pandora (1875) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.)
1980-1988. The Shah of Iran is deposed by the Shiite theocratic Iranian Revolution of 1979, and American embassy personnel are held as hostages for 444 days, being released shortly after Reagan's inauguration. Iraq under the control of its dictator, Saddam Hussein, attacks Iran in 1980, initiating an eight year Iran-Iraq War during which the United States government aides Iraq by providing satellite reconnaissance information about Iran to the Iraqis, and eases the transfer of materials and technology that Iraq uses to fabricate and then deploy chemical weapons against Iranian troops, and later dissident Iraqi populations. It is estimated one million lives were lost in the Iran-Iraq War.
1981-1989, The Reagan Administration launched proxy wars against the peasantry in Central America (Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras). The underlying conflicts between an impoverished peasantry and a wealthy land-owning elite that sponsored the national military and police establishments had erupted into armed struggle (again) after 1959, becoming ferocious by the late 1970s. Using the excuse of fighting communism putatively infiltrated into Central America by Cuba, the Reagan administration supplied and funded local anti-communist and reactionary militias as proxy military forces, to destroy popular social democracy by despicable terrorism. These proxy militias, or "contras" ("against" the revolutions), were usually police and army personnel acting out of uniform in Guatemala, El Salvador, or Honduras, or in Nicaragua they were former police and army personnel of the Somoza regime, which had been deposed by the Sandinista Revolution of 1979. The savage cruelty inflicted on the ethnic Mayan peasantry by the contra forces reached their crests of genocidal magnitude under Reagan Administration sponsorship. These Central American Wars all trailed off in the 1990s.
20 August 1985 - 4 March 1987. Iran-Contra Scandal. (7)
26 April 1986. A nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl power station in the Ukraine explodes, spewing radioactivity far and wide, and the fuel core melts down. The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident until the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 11, 2011. Also during 1986, Ronald Reagan has the solar hot water system removed, which had been installed on the roof of the White House during the Carter Administration. The spirit of Earth Day 1970 had been executed.
17 October 1987. "Black Monday" stock market crash. The Dow Jones Industrial Average experienced a drop of 22%. Alan Greenspan had just been appointed as chairman of the Federal Reserve by Ronald Reagan, replacing Paul Volcker. This crash occurred during the midst of the Savings and Loan Crisis of the 1980s.
23 June 1988. In testimony before the US Senate, NASA scientist James Hansen stated that anthropogenic global warming had begun.
22 November 1988. Twenty five years since the assassination of John Kennedy, and twenty five years before today.
9 November 1989. The Berlin Wall falls, communism in Eastern Europe crumbles. I was elated and exhausted. I believed nuclear disarmament was now immanent, as well as a revamping of the US war economy (Defense Department funding) into a robust "peace" and "green" economy. Clearly, I was naively delusional.
2 August 1990 - 28 February 1991. The Gulf War (Persian Gulf War, First Iraq War) is successfully prosecuted by a NATO combined force under US direction, acting to reverse the annexation of Kuwait by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. America's ally to punish Iran during 1980-1988 had since fallen out of favor. The chemical and biological weapons, and some nuclear technology held by the Saddam Hussein regime were now seen as intolerable threats to American interests.
26 December 1991. The USSR formally ceased to exist. The twelve republics that had comprised the USSR were declared independent.
Into The 21st Century
William Jefferson Clinton Administration (1991-2000)
Bill Clinton is a 1960s center-right Republican dressed up as a 1960s liberal Democrat. He went along with deregulating the banks (repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933) and financial industry (signing the Commodity Futures Trading Act of 2000, allowing easy trading in derivatives), which together set up the casino environment that would lead to the publicly-damaging financial collapse of 2008.
George Walker Bush Administration (2001-2008)
G. W. Bush spent profligately on tax cuts for the rich, and the Iraq War (20 March 2003 - 15 December 2011), using the 11 September 2001 attacks as an excuse. The loose money policy of Alan Greenspan, chairman at the Federal Reserve, fed a housing bubble that peaked in 2006, deflating into an expanding financial crisis in late 2007, and a catastrophic banking collapse in October 2008.
Barack Hussein Obama Administration (2009-present)
Barack Obama is a corporatist Democrat in the Clinton mold, and shepherds the financial industry's interests by managing the economy with a bias for public austerity maintained to preserve speculator (a.k.a. investor) accumulations (gains), and the continuing regime of insufficient regulations and taxes on trading. Keynesianism to lift the economy out of its chronic joblessness is denied. The current official unemployment rate (based on definitional sophistry) is about 7%, the real unemployment rate is about 23%. (8)
Obama is a master of symbolism, and much of a wishful-thinking public allows that symbolism to distract them from reality.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, today's leading Democratic Party contender for president
Hillary Clinton is the presumed frontrunner in the race to become the Democratic Party's nominee for president in the 2016 election. She has already captivated the attention of those Americans for whom the symbolism of "the first female US president" overwhelms all rational considerations. So, perhaps the underwriting of her presidential campaign will pay off for corporate America, in giving the first female president the historic privilege of privatizing Social Security, and staking multi-millionaire Wall Street gamblers with an abundance of other people's money they can play with risk-free. The symbol-awed will never notice.
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About the Author
Manuel García, Jr. on Swans. He is a native of the upper upper west side barrio of the 1950s near Riverside Park in Manhattan, New York City, and a graduate engineering physicist who specialized in the physics of fluids and electricity. He retired from a 29 year career as an experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the first fifteen years of which were spent in underground nuclear testing. An avid reader with a taste for classics, and interested in the physics of nature and how natural phenomena can impact human activity, he has long been interested in non-fiction writing with a problem-solving purpose. García loves music and studies it, and his non-technical thinking is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Jungian ideas. A father of both grown children and a school-age daughter, today García occupies himself primarily with managing his household and his young daughter's many educational activities. García's political writings are left wing and, along with his essays on science-and-society, they have appeared in a number of smaller Internet magazines since 2003, including Swans. Please visit his personal Blog at manuelgarciajr.wordpress.com. (back)
2. 1968 in the Vietnam War
4. Statistical Information about Fatal Casualties of the Vietnam War
U.S. National Archives
7. Iran-Contra Affair
8. "Official" US Unemployment Rate
"Real" US Unemployment Rate