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Vietnam and the Two-Sided American Dream
The Vietnam era began under a cloud. Kennedy had inherited a government neck-deep in covert operations and rather than check the rate at which the U.S. exercised military might in foreign countries, he accelerated it. The American Empire had been doing so for nearly two decades since the end of WW2. With the Cold War in full force, the Bay of Pigs fiasco behind him, and the Cuban Missile Crisis causing panic worldwide, the last thing Americans wanted was more war. With the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 and the installation of pro-ground forces Lyndon Johnson, Americans were stripped of the carefree innocence of the 1950s. Camelot was ended. The 1960s and the 1970s became decades of radicalism in which American youth would rebel against the authoritarian tone of American foreign and domestic policy. They would rebel in their dress, in their speech, in their music, in their art, and in their ideals. The hippie movement was agrarian, earthy, and anti-imperialistic. Yet, by the 1980s, the youth of these rebellious decades had grown up -- and the 1980s became known as the decade of materialistic gluttony. Had the rebellious youth finally sold out? This paper will discuss the phenomenon that Vietnam effected in the U.S. -- a phenomenon that ranged from rebellion against institutionalized authority to the embracing of an economic/political/social system in which materialism won out over moralism.
Fisher (1973) views the American Dream as "two myths" which exist concomitantly -- a "materialistic myth" represented by Nixon in the 1972 presidential race and the "moralistic myth" represented by McGovern. Nixon's win, in this sense, represented the win of a materialistic American Dream (the Dream of the American Empire, of Wall Street, of capitalism) over the youthful idealism of the hippie generation, who promoted a libertarian, anti-imperialistic, anti-militaristic Dream. The former proved more tangible than the latter -- or perhaps rather more attainable in a pro-business, pro-corporatist America. In one way, young Americans of the 60s and 70s were beholden to the fundamental way of life they were attempting to reject. But by electing to live in a nation overseen by men like Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush, they were accepting a two-fold Dream -- one which offered a utopian, idealistic, revolutionary vision; and one which offered a secure, dominant, militaristic vision. The terrible beauty of it was that such disparate dreamers as the hippie and the Wall Street banker could be satisfied at once, illustrating that even in the mid-70s the "American experiment may be going" out of the shallows of youthful idealism and into the depths of cynical consumerism (Fisher, 1973, p. 160)
The counter-culture dream of the young generation of the 1960s and 1970s was rooted in popular rebellion -- a movement away from the doctrine of the immediate past and towards a utopian vision in which equality, fraternity, and liberty played central roles. This dream was an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, a response to the assassination of two Kennedys, King, and Malcolm X It was a reaction to the political corruption perceived in every White House administration from Kennedy to Nixon, to the military-industrial complex which Eisenhower warned against, yet helped to establish (Stone, Kuznick, 2012). The youthful movement of these two decades denounced the war, advocated an anti-authoritarian approach to foreign and domestic policy, and exercised free speech, often in the face of violent clashes with police and military.
The movement, however, was not without its contradictions. At the same time that the youth of these two decades turned away from imperialistic designs and bloody, futile foreign wars and turned towards transcendence through art, music, free love, drugs (and any other means available), it also maintained a materialistic spirit -- one that could readily be seen in its attachment to things like gas-guzzlers, convertibles, socialistic rhetoric and/or right-wing capitalistic yearnings, etc. Hippie communes and eco-savvy youth did embrace a spirit of detachment from worldly goods, but this spirit was typically utopian and ultimately unsustainable, even at times accompanied by a dependency upon narcotics (LSD was making headways around the nation thanks to groups like the Merry Pranksters). In short, the dream lacked a purely and fundamental philosophical basis of ascetism and/or self-renunciation.
Fisher (1982) locates this absence in the Romantic "strain" inherent in American history/politics (p. 299). Hawthorne had depicted it in The Blithedale Romance some hundred years earlier, but Americans had not learned the lesson. Instead, the onset of Industrialization had captivated them and the world and its promises of a technological utopia seemed within reach to the children of the 60s and 70s, just as much as they did to the old lunatic in Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables. The "romantic strain" that Fisher decried in the American society of the 60s and 70s was the same strain that had been born out of 19th century Romanticism, the French Revolution, and the American WASP identity. If the youth of these two decades sought something other than the empty militarism and bloodshed that Vietnam offered, they had little hope of finding it.
Even the Catholic Church had embarked on a mission of aggiornamento, or perestroika as Gorbachev would call it. The modern era proved to have too many enticing allurements, too many promises of economic prosperity, of peace, of egalitarianism and, best of all, of liberty. Yet these promises were hollow because they were rooted in a dream -- not in reality. Vietnam was, in one sense, the reality: a cruel war of aggression on the part of America for hegemony in East Asia, pushed upon the American people as a war against "communism." The reality was that the leaders of the capitalistic free world were proving themselves just as murderous as the leaders of the communistic "unfree" world; in reality, the Vietnam War was "morally indefensible" (Stone, Kuznick, 2012, p. 386). But what was the alternative? For the young generation, the only alternatives were to protest, to escape, to riot, or to fornicate. With such narrow options, it is no wonder that the dream of the 60s and 70s, of John Lennon's 1971 "Imagine" culminated in the selling out of the 80s. That Lennon himself had to be assassinated by a young Mark David Chapman in 1980 only pointed to the fact: "The phony must die says the Catcher in the Rye," was the chant Chapman is known to have repeated to himself. The Dream of Lennon depicted so musically in "Imagine" was more phony than real, at least to one disillusioned youngster.
Winn (2003) suggests that the art of 60s, 70s, and 80s promoted this unreal Romanticism, which "communicates and rationalizes an inegalitarian class system" (p. 307). Winn notes, ironically, Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street as an example of the type of art that rationalized the inegalitarian class system. It is ironic because Stone had the year previously released Platoon, a film which realistically portrayed the horrors of Vietnam for a generation that had yet to learn the lessons from the war. Stone is as progressive as they come, yet Winn's argument is that because Stone portrays Wall Street in a way that does not question its social strata, Stone is somehow commending the hierarchical structure. Winn's assessment is one-dimensional in this regard -- but in so far as he asserts the hollowness of the Dream which seemed so profound and so within reach during the 60s and 70s, he asserts some modicum of the truth. The American Dream, as Edward Albee noted in his 1961 play of the same name was a myth, plain and simple, composed of empty promises. As Miller (1964) notes, the Dream was like a vacuum into which all fell -- from the militaristic hawks who saw Vietnam as a way to keep the dominoes from falling in East Asia to the idealistic youth who saw Vietnam as a maw from which they could shield themselves through their own youthfulness and their own idealism: "This is how The Dream works. Given Youth -- that is, youngness of spirit and body, with unsophisticated enthusiasm and limitless visions of magnificent goals… -- all things are possible. To Youth must come Success" (Miller, 1964, p. 190). Albee showed that Success was just another word for self-deception and annihilation, no matter which side of the political fence one was on -- right or left.
As the debacle of Vietnam came to a close and the Watergate scandal left Americans with a bad taste in their mouths, the 1980s approached with a new spokesman -- Reagan and his staunch anti-communist rhetoric, which seemed to hearken back to the good old days of the 1950s, that time before Kennedy was killed, before the drug culture swept the nation, before free love returned with a vengeance and the Feminist movement led to a feeling of emasculation in American males (Miller, 1964). Reagan was another aspect of the Dream, one which appealed to all those who had been burned by the two sides of…[continue]
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