In 1964 I attended the World’s Fair in New York City; yes, the one with the big globe featured in “Men in Black.” The theme was forward-looking
You gazed upon a scene of the Amazon jungle, vast and untamed, with a gigantic, yellow machine,
Within weeks of attending the NY World’s Fair, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident occurred (The Navy reported that North Vietnamese motor-torpedo boats had twice made torpedo attacks against U.S. Navy Destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin) and the slow escalation of American military involvement in Vietnam began in earnest. By the following year, large-scale deployments of American troops to Vietnam began and in November, one of the largest battles of the war took place in the Ia Drang Valley adjacent to the Cambodian border. Optimism about a “limited war” abruptly evaporated and ever larger commitments of U.S. forces commenced. Within three years over a half million Americans were serving in Vietnam with casualties in the hundreds each week. The week I graduated from high school in 1968 over 500 Americans lost their lives. The optimism of the World’s Fair had long since evaporated as the nation tore itself apart over war protests, riots exploding in American cities, (an annual summer occurrence starting with the 1965 Watts riots) and culminating in the Chicago riots during the Democratic convention in August of 1968. Interspersed were assassinations of major political figures, notably Dr. Martin Luther King in April of 1968 followed immediately by Robert Kennedy in June of 1968.
The world continued to disappoint with Russian tanks crushing a brief moment of optimism in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Middle Eastern terrorism beginning to touch the West after an extraordinary Israeli military victory over five Arab armies in six days of 1967. Russia began fielding huge nuclear ballistic missiles carrying enormous warheads, followed by America fielding missiles with multiple nuclear warheads capable of being independently targeted. The Cold War began to inflict more casualties on both sides with the Russians probably responsible for attacking and sinking the American nuclear submarine Thresher in retaliation for what they believed was an attack upon one their nuclear subs. It was a mistake but quite fatal for the American crew. North Korea captured an American intelligence ship, the “Pueblo,” firing on the ship, killing and wounding several Americans and holding the crew hostage for a year. They followed this up by shooting down an unarmed American intelligence aircraft, killing all 31 Americans on board. In Vietnam, the Tet Offensive led to a crushing defeat of the Viet Cong but psychologically broke America’s will to continue the fight. American disillusionment was on the rise with and the demise of American faith in their government and their nation’s institutions. The ignominious defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam that occurred in 1975 scarred the American psyche for a generation, especially when coupled with the Nixon scandals. The revelations of a runaway FBI and CIA spying on American civilians, sometimes framing them (Hoover’s FBI was quite good at this) led to a massive firing of intelligence professionals after the Church Hearings and a Democrat Party sweep in the 1974 elections.
It took 15 years of concerted effort to rebuild the armed forces after Vietnam but the American psyche never really completely recovered. A new narrative emerged where every national political figure was automatically a subject of suspicion by a wary public. We became a nation of cynics, doubting our own virtue and eventually, denying we ever had any virtue as a nation at all.
The last point underlies a great deal of the cynicism that inflicts our nation today and I must ask if we are so terrible, what nation has a history much better? We live in a flawed world and most of the world realizes that living in a flawed America is a much better place to be than the misery offered in their native land. We see people risking their lives, crossing shark-infested seas, walking through deserts, risking hardship, hunger