Shook Over Hell: The American Death-Trip Telethon of 1968

To the Memory of Marilyn Young

I cannot see anything but catastrophe for our nation…
–Clark Clifford, 1965

The country was in a throe, a species of eschatalogical heave… Left-wing demons, white and Black, working to inflame the conservative heart of America, while Right-wing devils exacerbated Blacks and drove the mind of the New Left and liberal middle class into prides of hopeless position. And the country roaring like a bull in its wounds… shivering in its need for new phalanxes of order.
–Norman Mailer, 1968

 

I came of political age in 1968, the annus horribilis to the nth power, the longest year ever recorded, a year when America morphed into Amerika, and a full-blown legitimation crisis played itself out on television, each month showcasing a different theme of civil disorder.

The American death-trip telethon, which made its debut with the Tet Offensive in late January,  featured war and assassination and insurrection and bomb-throwing rhetoric. A never-ending visual philippic, it gave witness to point-blank executions, looting and burning, institutional defilement and violence coming and going. Too many armies of the day and night. A civic education in first and last things, the political is the visceral, it held the body politic in thrall to disbelief and outrage, can it get any worse. From Vietnam to Chicago, New Hampshire to Los Angeles, the Republic was up against it, its future by no means assured, as shock waves of defiance and despair introduced the political culture to its nemesis, a new order of fratricidal time.

Hence the defenestration of Lyndon Johnson, the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the auto-da-fe of Eugene McCarthy, the ordeal of Hubert Humphrey, the truculence of George Wallace and the treason of Richard Nixon pronounced a postmortem on the American Century. The loss of political authority that surreal year was fatal. The race to succeed Johnson came down to a triumvirate of damaged politicians. Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace obsequiously vied for the White House that year of political obsequies. The politics of joy was funereal. The politics of j’accuse was fun house macabre. All three had been vetted by the annus horribilis and found wanting in every respect save for one: they were still around, still on the campaign trail. Still alive. The selling of the president (New Nixon) and the subversion of the democratic process (Old Nixon) filled the void. Sock it to us either way. Nixon was the one to prevail by means fair and foul on an election night wrapped in black bunting and tolling a threnody.

America fell into a legitimation crisis that, in one way or another, has been with us ever since. Indeed, a polarized American Politics dates to 1968; the delegitimation strategy the Republican Congress wielded against the Obama Presidency comes straight out of the 1968 playbook. What a lathered Wallace and a Machiavellian Nixon (playing the Southern card) have wrought. The founding fathers of a new ersatz polity that drew its authority from authoritarian ideology and its legitimacy from antipolitical aggrievement. Law and Order the incendiary cry in the political theater. Raging bull Trump is Nixon’s direct heir, the corrupt one in flagrante, the one to finish the job.

For this college freshman, fresh from four years in the Navy, the certitudes that accompanied the return to terra firma were wrenched away one after the other, leaving one to navigate the perfect political storm holding on to a vestige of citizenship. Sea-sick tout l’azimuth. The Augustan Age — high noon for the American Century — had become, in four years, darkness at noon, the American Melodrama, a marplot that spelled out in no uncertain terms the death blows to American Exceptionalism. The Great Society had become the Great Silent Majority of CREEP and Four More Years. 1968 was the anvil upon which a new kind of political identity was hammered out.

The identity I forged out of the incessant hammer blows was not the one I blithely entertained in 1967. Not hardly. While my ship, a destroyer out of Norfolk, was punishing North Vietnam with Conradian salvos, part of Operation Sea Dragon, I was sitting in a classroom in La Jolla, being disabused of the Free World cartography that sent it there. In the Fall of 1967 I was a 22-year-old freshman at the University Of California San Diego, just out of the Navy, exultant in mufti, no Vietnam deployment after all despite the repeated threats of the Captain to extend my four-year enlistment and shanghai me to the South China Sea.

Hell no, I didn’t want to go. Not at all. Not because I was opposed to the War. No, I too subscribed to the light at the end of that Search And Destroy tunnel. Rather the siren song of higher education had sounded its carillon, I was in a hurry to get my physics degree posthaste. Pounding away at North Vietnam Heart Of Darkness fashion did not appeal in the least. The fabled fleshpots of West Pac liberty call — Subic, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan — even less.

The Winter and Spring of 1967 had been spent on the AUTEC Range off Andros in the Bahamas, in the Tongue of the Ocean, my electronics expertise such that I was the only one in the Navy fluent in an experimental ASW system. The only one. Hence I was deemed “essential to ship’s operation,” which meant I sweated it out as a short-timer. Good luck counting down to the Expiration Of Active Obligated Service (EAOS).

The Secretary Of Defense was expected to extend enlistments across the board any day, and anyhow the Captain had the authority to keep me aboard for the Gulf of Tonkin duration. Mounting a television camera on the drone anti-submarine helicopter — Operation Snoopy — was the brainstorm mandating my impressment. I almost lost it when the Six Day War broke out, since the ship was put on standby for the Med. I knew if we cast-off for the Sixth Fleet I could kiss John Muir College goodbye. The Israeli Air Force had no more ardent champion that biblical week notwithstanding the deadly assault on the USS Liberty.

McNamara never did issue that freeze decree, and the Captain changed his mind, and so twice-incredulous I was able to salute the quarterdeck for the last time and return to my native California, where the proverbial “golden haze” that autumn kept Vietnam out-of-sight, well beyond the mental horizon.

I was living the good life courtesy of the GI Bill, a place on the beach in Del Mar, a girlfriend, and a frame of reference that hadn’t much advanced beyond 1963. Sixties lite. UCSD was not Berkeley, so by and large the antiwar movement was a stealth presence on the science and technology campus. Surfing the Sundown Sea sufficed to exercise the student body. Stoked. What War?

The only discordant note came from the lectures of the Sir Francis Drake of Oxbridge historians, the visiting Geoffrey Barraclough. His upper division course, World History Of The Last Century was a series of brilliant raids on the historiography of several continents, and his bold circumnavigation of the globe carried this rapt sailor into dangerous waters. Terra Incognita. The end of rote learning, the beginning of serious inquiry, the coming to terms, with a Pax Americana that showcased war and intervention not always benevolent, witness the brutal conquest (“Benevolent Assimilation”) of the Philippines at the turn of the century.

My Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal commemorated the 1965 Dominican Republic invasion, gunboat duty, five-inch naval guns menacing a restive populace. Passing through the eye of Hurricane Betsy beat wallowing in heavy swells off post-insurrection Santo Domingo, enforcing the death-squad rule of another American-imposed dictator. Reading at UCSD about the Great Caudillo (Trujillo), I began to understand why that ragtag baseball team dragooned to play us Yankees had such baleful stares, and why their gifted pitcher invariably threw at our heads. DomRep had killed over a thousand, perhaps their fathers and uncles. They administered a rout. A humiliation. A preview of Vietnam.

The shibboleths of American Exceptionalism could not withstand the shakeout of the global centrifuge. Reading K.M. Panikkar’s Asia and Western Dominance was an eye-opener. The dogmas and fables of the Cold War were met by higher register Oxbridge salvos, and so the AE began to ship water, its ideological ballast looking like deadweight that would sink us all. Vietnam hubristic case in point. Read Graham Greene. Read Bernard Fall. Read Kahin and Lewis. Read Schurmann and Zelnik.

Inculcated from day one in victory culture, a conservative Catholic steeped in anticommunist lore — Doctor Tom Dooley’s doomed heroics in 17th Parallel resettlement for example, I was loath to credit what I was reading even as I became more and more fascinated by this intrepid voyage of discovery. The Politics Of Hysteria made a big impression. A fluke registration, get the history requirement out of the way, had become an invitation to go off the deep end.

The backstory to our binary world was proving anything but black and white. Call it gray code. At odds with Free World cartography, this charting of historical complexity put America in Vietnam in a quite different light. Quagmire meet Folly meet Crime Against Humanity. The scales wouldn’t come off until Tet, but what I was learning about the Big Picture was enough to call into question the triumphalism of the American Century.

Then Tet hit, welcome to The Nam, and for a week I was glued to the tube following the Marines in Hue. The War had found the “Cross-over Point” all right, come home, ambushed the American Psyche as the wheels came off the whole enterprise “In Country.” The Green Machine had blundered into the rehearsal of a Vietnamese victory parade. Walter Cronkite issued his dread pronouncement and so the jig was up in Washington as the Wise Men wised-up and got on board the peace train: Out Now!

The catastrophe Clark Clifford foresaw in 1965 had come to pass, the fate of the Republic hung in the balance, and as brevet Secretary Of Defense he said No to the Joint Chiefs and No to Lyndon Johnson. No little thanks to Clifford, an unsung hero of the Vietnam War, the Republic soldiered on to defeat the Indochina War of Richard Nixon. And send RMN packing.

For the sailor living the good life on the beach, Tet ended that idyll as Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam commandeered the mental horizon. The light at the end of the tunnel begot the long night of the soul. My shortlived annus mirabilis turned into the annus horribilis, the longest year ever recorded. Nemesis in charge. The harrowing of the civic religion — each month a new outrage, a new civic derangement — produced a new order of time. In 1967 it was still possible to feel hopeful about the country; in 1968 it was impossible not to despair about the political future. God, John Updike suggested, had withdrawn his Blessing from America.

Shook Over Hell, the inspired Civil War locution for PTSD, conveys the shock 1968 visited on the American Psyche. The dominoes fell one after the other, twice incredulous each one. Could this be happening. Too, the internecine nature of the debacle was paramount. A civil war for the American Century. The Southern Strategy turned the GOP into the party of Jefferson Davis. A new American polity arose from the ashes of the Great Society. The manifold crises of the Republic trace their origins to that sanguinary year. It all came down in 1968, and for those of us who came of age then it (and not 9/11) remains the great caesura, the before and after of the American Experience.

Conscripted into the antiwar movement, veterans battalion, Veterans For Peace and later Vietnam Veterans Against The War, I transferred to Berkeley in June of 1968, exactly one year after I thought to be home free from Vietnam for good. For four more years the War kept us in harness. Talk about Conradian salvos, we threw everything but armed insurrection against its prosecution and expansion. Words, medals, bodies, hearts and minds, a good fraction of our twenties were spent back in uniform marching to protect the Republic from those who would save it by destroying it.

At Berkeley, state-of-siege Berkeley, you confronted not one but two Hobson’s Choices. The first was a pledge of allegiance, America or Amerika, whether to remain within the two-party system or to dismiss it as beyond redemption and throw-in with the plateglass revolution. Politicization meant to-the-barricades, a truncheon abetted conversion experience that saw one go from conservative and credulous to cynical and combative overnight. The Walpurgis night of rioting on Telegraph Avenue, in solidarity with the students in France — alighting Just Married from the Southland into the South Campus apartment that mind-blowing tear-gas suffused evening in June, welcome to Berkeley — set the keynote for the three years to come. I went from right to left that year, Tet affording the 180 from hawk to dove, and found myself canvassing for McCarthy that April, but I held the revolution in large contempt and rooted for Kennedy to win in California.

Still, the fire and brimstone that year militated against America love it or leave it, and the portents were such that Amerika looked less a gargoyle and more a vision of what was to come. You could readily envisage a coup d’etat, and who knew if your first vote was your last.  Even entering the voting booth was fraught with danger, since the Peace And Freedom Party was on the ballot, and a vote for Eldridge Cleaver for President was tantamount to raising the middle finger to the political system. Such were the exigencies of that extreme year, a first vote for a felon. Though sorely tempted to do just that I did cast my ballot for the unhappy warrior, the sitting Vice-President, a hapless Hubert Horatio Humphrey.

The crash-course in the political debacle that was the election of 1968 had embittered this first-time voter, who also fleetingly pondered a vote for a two-faced Nixon. There was a jesuitical case to be made, that Nixon was the one who would bring the war home, thereby hasten the day of reckoning. Quite a few of my fellow students bought that labored casuistry and did work for the election of Nixon New and Old, the vacancy of the infomercial masterfully inflected with the venom of Law and Order. An inflection point all right.

Certainly I had no affinity for the man from glad, Hubert Humphrey, who represented everything I had come to despise about homo politicus. Dump The Hump. Vietnam and Chicago were the albatrosses around his neck, and until he found religion in Utah, and got on board the peace train, he was a buffoon in search of a rally bigger than his advance party. Indeed, once he caught fire as the New Humphrey he barnstormed the country to within a sliver of pulling off an upset of profound importance. Election Day 1968 was the day of reckoning all right. Humphrey chose not to reveal the perfidy of Nixon vis-à-vis the Paris Peace Talks. In effect he threw the election. Nixon would of course go on to very nearly destroy the Republic in order to usurp it. The counterfactuals, what if Humphrey had won, are too painful to contemplate. A fundamental rending of the fabric of the political culture.

1968 was the most imporant election of my lifetime. It established my political identity in extremis, seared into this body politic the primal lesson, that the difference between America and Amerika is a bullet and a ballot. The politics of a radical contingency. It could all go south tomorrow. It is impossible not to read into the Election of 2016 the crisis of the Republic take two. 1968 come full circle. The delegitimation strategy of the Republican Party has blown-up in its face. Trumpism is the result. The Republic is again in extremis, hanging by a thread.

For millennials weaned on cynicism and combat the future they believe in bears a very strong resemblance to the past, when America was almost great, at its social justice zenith, embarked on the Great Society. No wonder Sanders, that revenant from The Sixties, won their hearts and minds. The political revolution is on the docket, democracy hangs in the balance, and the subrosa world of dark money and darker agendas ensure that this time around there will be no margin for error. America love it or leave it behind.

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