In fourth or fifth grade, I remember reading "Donald Duck Sees South America" and singing "Far Away Places." ("Far away places with strange sounding names, far away over the sea, those far away places with the strange sounding names are calling, calling me. Goin' to China or maybe Siam, I wanna see for myself those far away places I've been reading about in a book that I took from a shelf...") Meanwhile, of course, I was also crouching under my desk in "duck-and-cover" nuclear drills, waiting for "the Reds," "the Russians," "the commies," to send me a message from a far-away place I only faintly grasped, a message that would end life as any of us knew it in a nuclear Armageddon.
And here's the strange thing: 65 years later, that same potential Armageddon with Russia (and/or China) still stands at the forefront of American military planning. Though children no longer duck and cover as we did in the 1950s, in the Trump years, Cold War-era nuclear treaties have been dismantled while nuclear arsenals continue to be "modernized." In other words, today's children are, whether they know it or not, whether anyone is paying the faintest attention or not, in the same danger we were then. And worse yet, somehow humanity has found a second potential way to do itself in: climate change. Think of that phenomenon as a slow-motion version of a nuclear cataclysm, right down to the fierce burning, storming, melting, and flooding of this very moment. And keep in mind that, in the Trump years, the heating of the planet to unbearable future levels was only encouraged bigly.
When Joe Biden enters the Oval Office on January 20th -- leaving Mr. American Carnage seething in his adopted Florida or burning up as he rouses that ever faithful base of his -- and thinks about our future in a country divided in a fashion unknown since the Civil War, we can only hope he acts decisively. But as TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force lieutenant colonel William Astore points out today: Wouldn't it have been nice in such a world if we had ended up with a genuine idealist in the White House? No such luck, of course, so the rest of us better pitch in as best we can to try to ensure that our children and grandchildren actually have a habitable planet to live on. Tom
Reclaiming American Idealism
We Could Use A Leader Like George McGovern Again
By William J. Astore
As I lived through the nightmare of the election campaign just past, I often found myself dreaming of another American world entirely. Anything but this one.
In that spirit, I also found myself looking at a photo of my fourth-grade class, vintage 1972. Tacked to the wall behind our heads was a collage, a tapestry of sorts that I could make out fairly clearly. It evoked the promise and the chaos of a turbulent year so long ago. The promise lay in a segment that read "peace" and included a green ecology flag, a black baseball player (Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, who had died that year), and a clenched fist inside the outline of the symbol for female (standing in for the new feminism of that moment and the push for equal rights for women).
Representing the chaos of that era were images of B-52s dropping bombs in Vietnam (a war that was still ongoing) and a demonstration for racist Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace (probably because he had been shot and wounded in an assassination attempt that May). A rocket labeled "USA" reminded me that this country was then still launching triumphant Apollo missions to the moon.
How far we've come in not quite half a century! In 2020, "peace" isn't even a word in the American political dictionary; despite Greta Thunberg, a growing climate-change movement, and Joe Biden's two-trillion-dollar climate plan, ecology was largely a foreign concept in the election just past as both political parties embraced fracking and fossil fuels (even if Biden's embrace was less tight); Major League Baseball has actually suffered a decline in African-American players in recent years; and the quest for women's equality remains distinctly unfulfilled.
Bombing continues, of course, though those bombs and missiles are now aimed mostly at various Islamist insurgencies rather than communist ones, and it's often done by drones, not B-52s, although those venerable planes are still used to threaten Moscow and Beijing with nuclear carnage. George Wallace has, of course, been replaced by Donald Trump, a racist who turned President Richard Nixon's southern strategy of my grade school years into a national presidential victory in 2016 and who, as president, regularly nodded in the direction of white supremacists.
Progress, anyone? Indeed, that class photo of mine even featured the flag of China, a reminder that Nixon had broken new ground that very year by traveling to Beijing to meet with Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong and de-escalate the Cold War tensions of the era. Nowadays, Americans only hear that China is a military and economic threat; that Joe Biden and some Democrats are allegedly far too China-friendly (they aren't); and that Covid-19 (aka the "Wuhan Flu" or "Kung Flu") was -- at least to Donald Trump and his followers -- a plague sent by the Chinese to kill us.
Another symbol from that tapestry, a chess piece, reminded me that in 1972 we witnessed the famous Cold War meeting between the youthful, brilliant, if mercurial Bobby Fischer and Soviet chess champion Boris Spassky in a match that evoked all the hysteria and paranoia of the Cold War. Inspired by Fischer, I started playing the game myself and became a card-carrying member of the U.S. Chess Federation until I realized my talent was limited indeed.
The year 1972 ended with Republican Richard Nixon's landslide victory over Democratic Senator George McGovern, who carried only my home state of Massachusetts. After Nixon's landslide victory, I remember bumper stickers that said: "Don't blame me for Nixon, I'm from Massachusetts."
Eighteen years later, in 1990, I would briefly meet the former senator. He was attending a history symposium on the Vietnam War at the U.S. Air Force Academy and, as a young Air Force captain, I chased down a book for him in the Academy's library. I don't think I knew then of McGovern's stellar combat record in World War II. A skilled pilot, he had flown 35 combat missions in a B-24 bomber, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for, at one point, successfully landing a plane heavily damaged by enemy fire and saving his crew. Nixon, who had served in the Navy during that war, never saw combat. But he did see lots of time at the poker table, winning a tidy sum of money, which he would funnel into his first political campaign.
Like so many combat veterans of the "greatest generation," McGovern never bragged about his wartime exploits. Over the years, however, that sensible, honorable, courageous American patriot became far too strongly associated with peace, love, and understanding. A staunch defender of civil rights, a believer in progressive government, a committed opponent of the Vietnam War, he would find himself smeared by Republicans as weak, almost cowardly, on military matters and an anti-capitalist (the rough equivalent today of democratic-socialist Bernie Sanders).
Apparently, this country couldn't then and still can't accept any major-party candidate who doesn't believe in a colossal military establishment and a government that serves business and industry first and foremost or else our choice in 2020 wouldn't have been Trump-Pence versus Biden-Harris.
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