Stuck in the Sixties

The 1960s was nirvana for American liberalism. From the day John F. Kennedy inspired a new generation of Americans to the time that newest of the new generations, my generation now entering our sixties, rebelled against the war in Vietnam, it was both the best and worst of times. Camelot fired our hopes and inspired our idealism. A dark cold Friday in November 1963 chilled those hopes and ideals into cynicism. Liberalism rode a wave of optimism along Highway 82 from Selma to Montgomery  as the Civil Rights movement surged in the spring of 1965. Less than three years later, that wave broke on the cold seawalls of reality that were the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy and the riots at the Chicago Democratic Convention. JFK challenged us to ask what we could do for our country. By 1968 the answer had become, “Hell no! We won’t go!”

I entered the University of Alabama the year after Governor George Wallace stood in the school house door in his futile effort to stave off those changes blowing in the wind.  In 1964, the Vietnam War seemed far away. By 1966, “the Nam” was a cold reality for every college male and two-thirds of us selected majors and embarked on futures based on how specific career fields might exempt us from service in “the Nam.” Flunk out and the next stop was Vietnam. Make your grades, stay in school and you avoided the Nam. Accordingly, I studied hard, went on to graduate school, and then volunteered for the Air Force not so much to serve as to avoid the draft. Twenty years later I retired from the Air Force and translated what I did in uniform into a second career as a Department of the Army civilian. Then it was on to a third career teaching a new generation of college kids military history and national security; subjects I learned over more that thirty years spent with the Air Force and Army. Now, in my sixties I’m also still stuck in the sixties.

Senator John Kerry, too, is a man in his sixties stuck in the sixties. As college freshmen, we believed our generation would change the world. We also bought the idea that a college degree was the key to the American dream.  Education translated into a pretty wife, shaggy dog, 2.3 kids and two cars in the garage of a suburban home. By 1968, while Vietnam posed no threat to the American dream, we feared a VC bullet might end our claim to the dream. Camelot seemed far away and Saigon ever so near.  

By 1968, the war in Vietnam was destroying the US Army. The Conscription Act of 1948 provided a plethora of exemptions, so dodging the draft was a cinch for “the best and the brightest.” As the war wound along, the Army, dependent on conscription to replenish its ranks, lowered standards both for enlisted men and, most egregiously, for officers. All the other services raised their standards. Indeed, volunteers abounded for the Air Force and Navy; guys seeking refuge from a draft we thought would get us stuck in the Nam and in a rifle platoon filled with rock ‘n rollers with one foot in the grave.

John Kerry and I made our lives — his in politics and mine in national security and the academy — based on Vietnam and the sixties. His remarks about the intellectual acumen of the men and women serving in Iraq, though far, far off the mark, flow directly from streams with headwaters in Camelot and Selma and estuaries in Tet and My Lai. We are where we were: in our sixties stuck in the sixties.

So, keep the faith. Hang in there. Also recall another passage from the inaugural address that launched us forever JFK Democrats. “Now the trumpet summons us again—not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need, not as a call to battle, though embattled we are; but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle…”

Every day, in Iraq and Afghanistan, a new generation of the best and brightest answers that trumpet’s call.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism. Email: [email protected]

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