Next month there will be a celebration in Los Angeles that I very much regret having to miss. It is a reunion of my high school graduating class of 1961.
The Class of ’61 at Alexander Hamilton High School was, in some ways, quite remarkable. The students, largely from middle-class Jewish families, were part of an idealistic generation whose parents lived through the Depression and World War II.
By American standards we weren’t rich — well, most of us weren’t — but we had our cars, our rock ‘n’ roll, our own teen-speak and fashion sense. (The button-down collar has remained; the little belt and buckle on the back of the pants dropped off.)
John F. Kennedy was our president. And when he told us to ask what we could do for our country, we felt the call. Some joined the Peace Corps, founded in March of the year of our graduation. Our country had not yet launched its all-out war in Vietnam, and most of us felt a sense of mission to spread the word of democracy throughout the world.
Many of my classmates went on to lives of remarkable achievement, particularly in the entertainment industry — this being, after all, Los Angeles. Bob Heil has been a major force in America’s environmental movement; Charlotte Brown became a brilliant TV producer and playwright; Bob Shapiro was one of O.J. Simpson’s lawyers!
But there is one person who, above all others, exemplifies for me these achievements. He was Joel Siegel, with whom I had been through Louis Pasteur Junior High, and with whom I went on to the University of California, Los Angeles — and though not always in the same class, we would always vie with each other over who knew more Jewish jokes.
Later, I went to graduate school at Harvard and Joel went to the South to work for civil rights. He met the Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and entered journalism, eventually landing the film critic job on the TV show “Good Morning America,” which he held for more than 25 years.
Joel married four times, becoming a father for the first and only time when he was 53 — precisely when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He later wrote a very moving book to his son, titled “Lessons for Dylan.” Joel passed away in 2007, when Dylan was just 10.
I was remembering Joel when thinking about my high school class reunion. He combined the best qualities of my generation: infectious optimism in caring for the plight of the disadvantaged and dispossessed, and a passion for social commitment.
Yet our generation could not change America as we had once hoped to. The assassinations of those two charismatic leaders whom Joel met, and the massive invasion of Vietnam, sounded the death knell for our idealism. Lyndon Johnson became our president, with his pithy “philosophy”: “If you’ve got ‘em by the balls, their heart and mind will follow.” So much for Kennedy’s “Ask what you can do for your country.”
Americans could have redeemed some idealism if they had taken responsibility for the ravages they inflicted on the people of Vietnam and their land for more than a decade. Instead, in 1975 they just got in their helicopter and flew away off the roof of the embassy in Saigon.
That up to 3 million Vietnamese have suffered in one way or another from dioxin in the defoliants spread by U.S. planes over their country (to kill off vegetation that gave cover from air attack) has been chalked up to “regrettable collateral damage.”
Had America returned to a peaceful, united Vietnam and made amends — with billions of dollars of reparations and aid — then its integrity and sincerity might not have been collaterally damaged as it cruised into the Reagan years of the 1980s, when it “put it all behind” it.
And let’s not forget, as America promptly did, the 2 million tons of bombs that U.S. warplanes dropped on Vietnam’s neighbor, Laos — a country with which the U.S. was not at war. Of those bombs, around a third failed to detonate. Then there are the millions of unexploded land mines, cluster bomblets and artillery shells as well — together making Laos the most bombed country per capita in history.
How many Americans of any generation remember this?
The same type of aggression, against Iraq, might not have been repeated had the Americans of the ’60s who grew into responsible adulthood in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s forced their compatriots to acknowledge these crimes.
Many in my generation saw through the ploy of exploitation in Iraq, by President George Bush, of natural American idealism — again in the guise of “liberty” and “liberation.” They saw through, too, the indomitable triangle of power that president served: the military-industrial-technological complex.
By then, though, Americans had become powerless to stop it. And as for President Barack Obama, not only has he not stopped it- he has legitimized it.
The U.S. should have apologized for its crimes in Vietnam, as postwar Germany did for the crimes of its Nazi past. We — the Class of ’61 and all the rest — should have created an America free of handguns. It is possible. Look at Japan.
As well, and crucially, America should have spent the hundreds of billions of dollars that have gone toward killing people in foreign lands on ensuring instead that every U.S. citizen had access to excellent health care and public education. This is no pipe dream, as evidenced by the countries of Scandinavia, whose political systems are not dissimilar to that in the U.S.
A country that rushes to spend fortunes on weapons of war, while quibbling over a few million here or there for vital social programs, no longer believes in life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness — as the Declaration of Independence would have us believe. In addition, the income gap between rich and poor has widened significantly since we were kids. This alone is evidence of the failure of the “American model.”
Somewhere, back at the time when the Rev. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and the U.S. was spraying death over Southeast Asia, the country lost its way.
President Obama’s idealism comes out of the mold of the idealism of that ’60s generation. But it is little more than a candidate’s lofty rhetorical device, a lever that can be easily pulled to turn youth’s ardor into a destructive force.
Joel Siegel and I used to sit on the grass outside class at UCLA firing jokes at each other, hardly waiting long enough to laugh. That was nearly a half-century ago.
We were so eager to get out into the world and change it. We couldn’t have known that, despite personal fulfillments, this was to prove beyond us.
Please note: Counterpoint by Roger Pulvers will take a break from Time Out next week but will return in some style in the May 29 edition.