For the last two weeks I have been putting the finishing touches on a new week on the Vietnam War for one of the courses my department teaches, including a new lecture of my own, the last new lecture I'll be giving as a faculty member at the Naval War College. The basic text for the week is A Time for War by Robert Schulzinger, and while I inevitably have some differences of opinion with him on many points, the book's strengths far outweigh any weaknesses. He handles the domestic impact of the war especially well, and I could not help thinking once again that I and my contemporaries, as college students and soldiers, lived through what looms more and more as a great turning point in American history--and very possibly, as it turns out, in the history of the world.
The middle of the twentieth century, we can now see, was the climax of a development in western civilization that had been proceeding for the better part of three centuries: a faith in reason, and in particular, in the application of reason to solve human, as well as scientific, problems. This began, it seems to me now, with two 17th-century developments: the scientific revolution on the one hand, and the development of stronger European states capable of controlling domestic violence on the other. The latter development, beginning during the reign of Louis XIV in France (1661-1715), was a major theme of my book Politics and War. By the late 18th century it was leading to further efforts to rationalize state behavior and find ways to promote the common good. The American Revolution was the first dramatic outcome of these trends, and it has been so successful because it combined two key elements of the new rationalism, theory on the one hand--"all men are created equal"--and empiricism on the other--the successes of the British political tradition upon which the Americans hoped to improve. In the next decade, however, the 1790s, Europe got a harsh lesson in the dangers of rationalism. The French Revolution showed that reason could function simply as an excuse for destructive passion, and Napoleon showed how rationalism and reform could become excuses for endless expansion. The advance of rationalism in politics was checked in many ways during much of the nineteenth century. Even in the United States, the Civil War led to an outburst of selfishness rather than a further application of reason to politics. But the United States reversed that trend beginning around 1900, during the Progressive era. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, utopian ideologies, most of them socialist, were gaining ground. So were ideals of universal peace, but they had not gone far enough to prevent the First World War.
Old orders were dying, first in Eastern Europe and then in Western Europe and the United States, from the 1910s through the 1930s. In every case some rationalist alternative stepped forward to fill the gap. In Eastern Europe it was Communism, which accomplished an astonishing transformation of the old Russian Empire within two decades. In Central Europe National Socialism, which once again used reason as an excuse to act out some of humanity's basest passions, initially prevailed. The United States instead produced the New Deal--the first time a democratic state had enlisted its whole population in an attempt to create a richer and more just society. That maintained the vitality of democracy through the 1930s and paved the way for the subject of my current book, the extraordinary American effort that helped win the Second World War and brought the whole capitalist industrialized world under the American umbrella. The United States emerged from that war with a strong state and a consensus on the need for the government to seek full employment for its people, intervene to assure a minimum level of economic well-being, and promote the welfare of young families. It was that world into which I was born. Western Europe, meanwhile, began erecting welfare states in order to avoid anything remotely similar to the mid-century catastrophe--a process that continues to this day.
Even in the relatively conservative 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration embarked upon the interstate highway system and, in response to Sputnik, spent more money on higher education. But the traditions of the New Deal revived dramatically under Kennedy and Johnson. The Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 finally extended full rights to black Americans. The poverty program, while imperfect in execution, was noble in motive. The Kennedy Administration made progress in controlling inflation. Per capita income continued to grow rapidly, and marginal tax rates remained very high--and implicit recognition that the richest among us owed their fortunes to a healthy society and economy. All these developments were cresting in 1965. Then, one utterly disastrous decision brought them all to an end--as it turns out, for many decades to come.
Like Robespierre during the terror, Stalin during his Five Year Plans, and Hitler in the midst of the Holocaust, Lyndon Johnson justified the Vietnam War based on theoretical principles, specifically the principle that Communist aggression, if unchecked, would breed more aggression. Unlike his predecessor John F. Kennedy, he could not combine that principle with the western empirical tradition in order to realize that South Vietnam was a terrible place in which to try to apply it. By the time he left office four years later Vietnam was stalemated with half a million American troops on the ground, and the United States that had elected him by a huge margin in 1964 had ceased to exist. The casualties of that war eventually included not merely the 59,000 American dead and hundreds of thousands of wounded, but also, as it turns out, the rationalist tradition in politics.
As Schulzinger shows, albeit in far more restrained language than I am using, the hopeless enterprise of this endless war destroyed the consensus that had brought Johnson to power--especially within the Democratic Party and the left in general. To a large and critical mass within the Boom generation, it discredited not only Johnson's foreign policy, but all the rationalist claims of the elder generation--indeed, virtually every value that had been embodied in their parents' and grandparents' work. Some of this was both inevitable and healthy. The "greatest" or GI generation had made it through the Depression and the Second World War only with the help of an emotional restraint that could not possibly continue. That was already evident in the new music that had emerged in the mid-1950s and was now reaching its artistic peak ten years later, as well as in the new trends in film of the late 1960s. But without the perversion of the idea of a national effort for the greater good that Vietnam embodied, the very real political achievements of the preceding century might have survived. As it was, they did not.
The legacy of the Awakening that began around 1965 was self-expression--but for many reasons, that self-expression has steadily degenerated into selfishness. That selfishness among the Boom generation--now inherited, in many ways, by Gen X--has taken two forms. On the right it has revived the idea, which had been relegated to the fringes of American life by the 1950s, that greed is good, and that economic progress occurs when people can enrich themselves to the maximum extent possible. But on the Left--upon which society must almost always count for any sense of common national purpose--it has been equally destructive. The Left has encouraged its acolytes to see themselves as women, or minorities, or practitioners of alternative sexual lifestyles, rather than as citizens. The Obama Administration came to power more than three years ago in the midst of the worst economic crisis in 80 years. It's response has been tepid and much less effective, in percentage terms, than FDR's. As a result--as the fundraising appeals I receive almost daily confirm--its campaign is going to rely largely on social issues, particularly women's rights. It has offered much too little to all Americans as citizens, and thus has missed what was probably the last chance for generations to create a more united body politic.
The attack on the rationalist tradition has been most effective in the most critical theater of war, American universities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in my own historical profession. History is no longer a matter of uncovering the truth, it's a question of examining (and creating) different ways of "framing" past events. That amounts to seeing the past through the eyes of the present, which makes it impossible to learn anything from the past. In addition, the humanities are now based largely on hostility to authority and institutions--which makes it almost impossible to contribute positively to what society needs.
Europe, as I have mentioned many times, does not seem to have gone as far down this path as we have, but the Europeans' failure to cope appropriately with their own economic crisis is disturbing. In any case, it is even clear to me now than it was when I finished American Tragedy (see at right) that 1965 marked a critical turning point in our history, and that we will not see anything like the world of that era again in any of our lifetimes. Perhaps my senses are heightened about all this because it happened to coincide with my 18th birthday.