Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
This past week, PBS ran a program to remember the 40th anniversary of the end of the war in Vietnam. With specific focus on the role that Dick Cavett’s talk show played during the course of the war, Cavett, himself, reflected on the variety of guests he interviewed. From Henry Kissinger and Edmund Muskie to Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda, it was an eclectic array of figures and their respective viewpoints. In addition, Wesley Clark, retired General, added contemporary perspective to the war that was just beginning to be analyzed when Cavett originally interviewed guests on his show.
Amidst the mire of conflict and opinion, the PBS program editors skillfully included interviews from Cavett’s show that gave a shortened but balanced view of the times. Though spoken 40-plus years ago, each interview would foreshadow the effects of the war and the era they would usher in for us as a nation. Warren Beatty, young and fresh from Hollywood, chose his words carefully. Unlike the scripts he was accustomed to reciting, he drew his words from a personal analysis of the war. He said, and I paraphrase, that we should be wary of the “mythology of expertise.” He explained it to mean that those who hold military and political offices, elected or appointed, are assumed to have the expertise to navigate the war to its rightful conclusion, namely victory, and further to assume that their expertise precludes the necessity for insights from other intelligent and expert sources. Beatty’s comments would foreshadow a new generation that spoke truth to power and protested the Washington machine. Nixon’s resignation, though not a direct result of the war, nevertheless gave some proof to a generation that had grown impatient with unchecked power and government.
A younger Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s National Security Advisor, spoke cautiously to Cavett about the larger vision that he and Nixon contemplated for America and the world. He explained the administration’s role as uniquely aware of the larger implications of the war and, therefore, its importance. Always the diplomat, he acknowledged the challenges of the war, but never relinquished his position on the war effort.
President Johnson was presented as the personification of the wearing effect of the war and its seeming road to nowhere. His decision not to run or accept the nomination of the Democratic Party for a second term as president stood in sharp contrast to the nation’s own ambivalence about the war. Wesley Clark, retired General, spoke from a contemporary perspective and outlined the context in which the Vietnam war began, the circumstances that mired it in conflict, and how the U.S. has and has not learned from its lessons.
The Vietnam War was the first war that Americans watched on TV in their living rooms. My school teachers drove VW Bugs, wore mod colors, mini-skirts, and spoke ideally about peace. They were my generation’s mentors. In many ways, we lived with the hope they shared with us in their lessons and their attitudes. However, time faded the brilliance of their best lessons and most important attitudes. On our TVs, tablets and smartphones, today, we see it all; the ravages of war and conflict around the globe still burn.
I am loathe to quip that the more things change, the more they stay the same, because I want to believe that my teachers were right and that their passions were noble. But, it seems that one remnant of the Vietnam War that lingers painfully in our present is the unfortunate conclusion that some wars, despite their high and calculated costs, still seem worth the price to those who lead them. When the PBS program ended, I asked myself, “What do we really want to teach the next generation?” and “Who among them will accept our invitation to lead the way to a finer world?” As they say on television: to be continued…