An “Open Letter” to the Class of 1968
(… and all those who have
Fifty 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, 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, including:
- God and War at Yale
- Faith and Activism: The Legacy of the ’60s Generation
- Recollections in tribute to The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
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.”
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 of Threatening War: Resurgent Militarism and the Climate Collapse of Fossil-Fueled Civilizations
- The Predictable Environmental, Public Health and Climate Impacts of the Globally Resurgent Military-Industrial-Prison Complex
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.
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 one of the country’s most skillful editors — a very distinguished career news professional. 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:
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:
- Climate Damage Assessment: Assessing the Full Cost of 40 Years of Profits, Lies, and Deception from the Fossil-Fuel Industries
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 ]