Loss and Protest
I’m writing this on Easter Sunday morning. Sixty-two years ago, on April 17, 1960, I was a member of the Hope College Chapel Choir that sang in a sunrise service at Radio City Music Hall. We were mostly kids from rural farming communities and singing in such an ecumenical event was a big thrill. Four years later, I was a young assistant professor teaching in that small church-related liberal arts college in Michigan. By then Vietnam battles began to be noticed by the press, and I had already been noticed a bit because I was one of 55 faculty to sign an ad in the Holland Evening Sentinel of the day supporting the ticket of Johnson Humphrey. I thought that Barry Goldwater’s idea of using tactical nuclear weapons (whatever those might be) in Vietnam was over the top dangerous.
During the next decade 57,000+ body bags filled with young Americans would arrive mostly at an unknown airfare base in Maryland. Seven of those bags were filled with the bodies of students I had either had in class, or that had been part of the various educational institutions where I taught or attended. In the late 60’s protests from minority members in congress pushed two presidents to bring General John Hershey out of the dustbin of retirement. Hershey managed the draft during WWII and was brought into the Vietnam conflict. Dozens of students of that era were either drafted or chose to select other forms of public service. The press paid attention then; protests hit the street and the campuses; by the time I became a professor, the campus on which I was then teaching, a large university, was periodically closed by student riots, and some of the buildings where I tried to teach groups of young organic chemistry students were periodically closed by bomb threats.
Eventually, the war that should never have been became a loss in the politician’s eyes, Saigon fell, and the US was said to have lost. Years later, a former wunderkind who took on the responsibility of being Secretary of Defense in the years of President Lyndon Johnson admitted he had been blinded by the ‘fog of war’ - a war that should never been.
I did not protest the war actively but I sure supported those that did. Early in the War’s prosecution a man of uncanny ability, a Senator from the State of Arkansas when there were able folks therefrom, spoke on the floor of the Senate about ‘if the government wasn’t careful, the United States would be engaged in a full-scale land war in southeast Asia.” How prescient Senator J. William Fulbright turned out to be. But it took hundreds of thousands of young men’s lives to prove the case.
There was really no reason for the 55,000 + lives to be lost, and a lifetime of others to be disrupted save for the fact that leaders in our democracy were mere men (then) trying to protect Americans from the evils of governmental patterns, and economic forms of government so far away (then) that we got dragged into a civil war in a country we’d never heard of.
In February 2022, world events perhaps - a little bit - justified those battles of then. Word’s from the mouths of some of the leaders then, like Ed Teller who virtually alone pushed the US to develop the hydrogen bomb while castigating the world’s ‘evil empire’ - the Soviet Union, start to hold contemporary meaning. We can see the lives of Ukrainian civilians being sacrificed day in, day out on our tv screens. And an entirely new group of Americans - if they are paying attention - can begin to ask is ‘this really what the world has come to?’ … women and children being buried in mass graves because missiles from a nearby neighbor’s armies took them out early? The irrepressible Polish lawyer Rapheal Lemkin called that ‘genocide’ in 1946. Is it different now?
Years ago an author came to Hope to talk about his latest book. He was, in fact, a world-famous physicist. But as he pursued his craft, he saw warning signs that eventually all science would either lead to annihilation or be beyond man’s ability to achieve. And he asked his readers questions about that as he posited that maybe, when the limits of science are reached, and the murders of too many little children remain in the balance we’ll all take the further and harder step of living together. He called his book “A Step to Man.’
When my priest and I were talking about this also just after Easter services on this Easter Sunday, I said “I’m worried about my country. Can it continue to exist?’
She said “I’m not worried. A miracle will happen and our political problems will resolve.”
My priest reads C. S. Lewis. Maybe the noble Brit knows more about A Step to Man than the rest of us do. Let’s hope.
Douglas Neckers is Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is former chair of the board of directors of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, NY.