I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it…. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
How many times can a country lose its innocence? Gettysburg stands on its own. And then there was World War I and The Meuse-Argonne Offensive that claimed 26,277 American Lives. The “impartiality” of death left an impressionable 18-year old Hemingway so scarred he wrote a book about the War to End All Wars we treasure to this day. And then came Pearl Harbor and that next loss of innocence that culminated in the bloodiest campaign in U.S. military history beginning on June 6, 1944, that of Normandy at which 29,204 were killed. Though called The Forgotten War, the men serving Texas-born and West Point graduate Lieutenant General Walton “Bulldog” Walker would to their dying day, remember his call to arms: “There is no line behind us to which we can retreat.…There will be no Dunkirk, there will be no Bataan. A retreat to Pusan would be one of the greatest butcheries in history. We must fight until the end.…We will fight as a team. If some of us must die, we will die fighting together.” Indeed, 4,599 Americans did die in that decisive battle.
Less than a month after his November 4, 1952 election, newly elected President Dwight D. Eisenhower fulfilled a campaign promise to travel to the Korean War and assess for himself the situation on the ground. His conclusion: “We could not stand forever on a static front and continue to accept casualties without any visible results. Small attacks on small hills would not end this war.” A combination of diplomacy and flexing military muscle secured South Korea and brought about an armistice on July 27, 1953. From then on out, it was Eisenhower’s aim to best the Soviets at the Cold War now underway and avoid at all costs further military conflict. That is not to say Ike walked away from the growing threat in Indochina. At a news conference on April 7, 1954, when queried about the strategic import of what was to be Vietnam, he laid out a theory that quietly gained in relevance with each passing year of his presidency:
“You have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So, you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”
What started in September 1950 with his predecessor, Harry Truman’s first assigning a Military Assistance Advisory Group to assist the French in the first Indochina War culminated in 1960’s announcement that U.S. troops would be deployed to Vietnam.
The year 1960 was also marked by a U.S. election in which Eisenhower’s Vice President Richard Nixon conceded amid a sea of controversy. But it wasn’t the state of Illinois where wrongdoing was uncovered but rather Texas where Nixon had lost by 45,000 votes. A sampling of the anomalies is telling. In Fannin County, which had 4,895 registered voters, 6,138 votes were cast, three-quarters of which were for Kennedy. In one precinct in Angelia County, 86 people voted; the final tally: 147 for Kennedy, 24 for Nixon. The full body of evidence suggests that Nixon was cheated out of more than 100,000. Two factors quieted the potential storm. Texas’ Election Board was comprised entirely of Democrats. Texas law had no provision for challenging a presidential election and back then, federal courts had no jurisdiction over such cases. More importantly, though Eisenhower implored him to fight on, Nixon wrote in his memoirs that, “Charges of ‘sore loser’ would follow me through history.” On a plane back to D.C. the day after the election, beseeched by his campaign managers to hunt down the fraud, Nixon told his press secretary Herb Klein that contesting the election would do great harm to the country. With that, the country pressed on into a decade that culminated in innocence lost on a scale the likes of which the nation had not seen for a century.
Thirty years later, a vicious attack on U.S. soil left a nation indelibly scarred, but for a brief respite, a people united. The two decades that followed have rendered such bittersweet memories all but unrecognizable. All you need do is substitute technicolor and social media for black and white TV and print. We’ve round-tripped to the late 1960s and yesteryear’s images are hauntingly reminiscent of a dark time in U.S. history. In place of rampant racial inequality and a deeply contentious war in Vietnam, we have unprecedented income inequality that’s manifested as a racial and wealth divide and, as a result, acrimonious battles breaking out across the streets of America.