The 40th anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination may be a fitting time to recall how young Americans in an earlier generation ended up alienated from their parents, much as this year’s battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has created its own generational divide.
Before June 5, 1968, it seemed possible that RFK’s anti-war candidacy might overcome the Democratic establishment’s choice of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, thus opening a path for ending the Vietnam War and rekindling the embers of American idealism.
Instead, after Kennedy’s murder, a divided Democratic Party settled on Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War dragged on bitterly dividing the country, a legacy that continues to afflict the nation four decades later.
Today, the mainstream media's conventional wisdom focuses most of the criticism for the turbulent Sixties on the unruly and often crude behavior of America’s anti-war youth. By contrast, there is virtually no criticism of the World War II generation, which arguably came up very small and let down its own children by not demanding more truth and accountability from the government.
Though the so-called Greatest Generation deserves credit for surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s and winning World War II in the 1940s, many of its members then became absorbed during the growth years of the 1950s into a corporate world of conformity and careerism. Many became Company Men.
So, when the U.S. government used lies and propaganda to take the nation into an open-ended war in Vietnam, many in the Greatest Generation tended more to their status in the Rotary Club or the VFW than to the safety and survival of their own children.
The Greatest Generation’s off-spring, the so-called Baby Boomers, then were forced into painful choices: Should they fight a war that many considered immoral? Or should they oppose their own government – and often their own parents – in resisting the war?
Few people who lived through that complicated time can say honestly that they don’t have regrets about what they did or didn’t do, what they said or how they said it. Not surprisingly, young Americans often did behave immaturely.
Some in the Greatest Generation joined in branding their own children as spoiled and undeserving, a stigma that stays with the Baby Boomers to this day, even if they are now gray-haired grandparents.
But the poorly conceived war in Vietnam was not the fault of the young. More reasonably, the bulk of the blame for a war that killed some 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese should be borne by those who were in positions of influence and who possessed more life experience.
The Obama-Clinton Split
The relevance of RFK’s assassination and the Vietnam divide today is that the Democratic Party is poised at another moment when a new generation of young Americans has shaken off years of apathy – this time to resist the war in Iraq and rally behind Barack Obama – only to be met by hostility from some of their parent’s generation, particularly mothers, who favored Hillary Clinton.
Toward the end of the long battle for the Democratic nomination, a growing number of white women from the over-50 demographic told pollsters that they would not support Obama if Clinton was denied the Democratic nomination, thus delaying their dream of a woman President.
Some Democratic strategists hope most of these women will return to the Democratic fold, rather than give John McCain a chance to expand the wars in the Middle East and appoint more right-wing U.S. Supreme Court justices.
But there is growing evidence that many Hillary Clinton supporters would rather have the pleasure of saying “I told you so” – when Barack Obama loses – than help bring the Iraq War to an end and protect reproductive rights for the next generation of women.
If they follow the Cassandra course, some of these Clinton women will be positioning themselves in direct opposition to their own children’s desire to see the United States elect the first African-American President and to chart a course toward a new era, past the nasty divisions that have roiled the nation’s politics since the Vietnam War.