Fifty years on…What ever happened to the “Class of 1968?”

An “Open Letter” to the Class of 1968
(… and all those who have come after.)

Yale-old-campusFifty years ago college seniors faced dire choices under conditions of stress and anxiety. For most of them their senior year in High School had been marked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.  By the Spring of 1968 when they were scheduled to graduate they had further experienced the assassination of The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and and, in June 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy.  Their “student status” came to an end abruptly as they graduated, and amidst war and assassinations they had to make dramatic life-determining decisions in very short order.

Some of the spirit of these times has been recalled through panel discussions with some of the principal figures at the time, like:

No doubt more of these panels of collective reflection and discussion will be forthcoming as the 50th Reunion Year comes to one campus after another in the coming Spring of 2018.

In retrospect, with the benefit of historical perspective it is possible to identify some sad mistakes.  Ironically, in 1968 many of the students who were strongly opposed to the America’s war in Vietnam actually got it tragically wrong on one key issue at the time and ever since.   In effect, their analysis was not deep enough.  Their elders knew better, yet they could not see that or admit that to themselves.  Specifically, in their anti-war fervor many students called for the end of obligatory military conscription — the  “draft.”

Brewster-Yale

In 1968 Kingman Brewster, President of Yale University, opposed students who campaigned to abolish the military draft.  He argued that in practice a military draft operated as one of the last remaining levers for citizens in a democracy to oppose the arbitrary war-making powers of an imperial President.  In fact, successive Presidents since the abolition of the draft have committed mercenary armies of “volunteer” troops to massively unpopular wars with no effective civilian check on the abuse of an imperial Presidency.  The pursuit of the Iraq invasion with an increasingly “privatized” army under President George W. Bush (Yale Class of ’68) proved President Brewster’s arguments in 1968 to be correct.  While Brewster opposed the abolition of the draft, he staunchly and courageously defended The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. against critics who wanted him removed as Yale’s Chaplain in 1968.

At the time Kingman Brewster, President of Yale, opposed them on this important point.  Sadly, however, the students were so blinded by the virtue of their anti-war stance that they did not really hear what President Brewster had to say.  In fact, he was very insightful and has been proved to be correct in the decades since that time.

Brewster argued in 1968 that there were only two restraints in a democracy on the power of a President to engage in reckless military exploits.  One was through elected representatives who could restrain a President by refusing to pass the military budget.  The other way was, oddly enough, through the draft itself.  With the draft, all citizens were potentially affected by the conduct of senseless wars.  Brewster argued that citizens would ultimately oppose any senseless war that cost the lives of too many of their sons and daughters.  By contrast a fully “volunteer” army – with no drafted participants – would give any President a “free hand” in pursuing warfare at will — with mercenary troops.  Brewster argued against abolishing the draft because it was needed to restrain an imperial Presidency.

President Brewster proved absolutely correct.  Tragically, there is no longer any effective citizen restraint on the arbitrary conduct of warfare by a militarist President in league with profiteering industrialists and an ever-profit-seeking investor class.  We can now only pray that we are not jolted by a blinding flash that madmen in North Korea and North America are threatening to use on nothing more than their own personal whim.  As Hamlet observed so many years ago as he encountered the arbitrary usurpation of power in his day: “It is not, nor can it come to good.”

As it turns out, generals have warned about this in the recent past as well:

Under-the-cloud

and:

History-never-repeats

What will we be able to learn from the Yale ’68 50th Reunion Class Book?  Will it contain reflections on these matters or on the impact illegal American wars and American supported conflicts have had on the tens of millions of people these wars have killed, maimed or driven from their homes at gunpoint, shelled with depleted uranium or white phosphorus munitions or attacked from the sky with drones?  Will members of the class of 1968 reflect on the tragic, futile, and ecologically devastating behavior of their country since the Vietnam war?  That war was so vigorously opposed by so many in the class of 1968.  Are they equally outraged today?

Or, now that there is no draft and their children and grandchildren are not — for the most part — obliged to fight in these horrific wars, have the members of the class of 1968 simply forgotten the the glaring contradictions of imperial democracy, substituting a new kind of collective amnesia and blindness for their earlier myopia in abolishing the draft?   No doubt, their “50th Reunion Class Book” will be a key historical document, revealing, perhaps, more than they realize to the world.  In any case, we will have to wait and see.

Yale-50th-classbook

In fact, this particular “Class Book” is likely to be one of the most impressive compilations of reflections ever assembled, since it is making full use of digital and internet technology to amass an exceptional collection of information that is intended to be shared with classmates.  It is all being masterfully assembled by a career news professional and one of the country’s most skillful editors.   It is unlikely, however, that this impressive online collection will ever be published  as a “hardcopy” book.  It will probably prove to be too massive and cumbersome for that.    Nevertheless, in whatever form it takes, it promises to be an important “primary document” for those trying to answer the question:

“What ever happened to the Class of 1968?”

It can go a long way toward providing some clues about a few of the people on one campus in turbulent times and ever since.   Well beyond the Vietnam war itself, the Class of 1968 and those in its generation have had a massive influence upon the evolution of our current global circumstance as a human community.  Consider, for example, its impact in the evolution of humanity’s greatest challenge yet:

As other colleges assemble their 50th Reunion ruminations around the country, we may well get a more nuanced understanding of the history we have all endured and labored to shape.

[ Ongoing thoughts …fifty years on … Transition-Studies.TV ]

Transition-stud-logo

Tim Weiskel
Berkeley,  ’68

 

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