Ambassador Mark L. Asquino (ret.), Senior Public Diplomacy Fellow (2010-11), SMPA
In his September 19 address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump chillingly threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” a country of twenty-five million people. Ironically, that same evening, Barry McGuire’s 1965 ballad, “The Eve of Destruction,” was featured on the third episode of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s haunting series “The Vietnam War.” I first heard “The Eve of Destruction” as a 16-year-old high-school sophomore. It had a strong impact on me. Although Vietnam was not mentioned specifically, the song was clearly intended as a protest against that war. Its iconic, opening lyrics make this perfectly clear:
“The eastern world, it is explodin’
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill, but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war, but what’s that gun you’re totin’?”
As the documentary shows, 1965 was a pivotal year in the Vietnamese war. The Johnson administration rushed increasing numbers of U.S. combat troops into Southeast Asia, with casualties mounting as a result.
It was a confusing time to be a young person. Although I was moved by McGuire’s anti-war lyrics, I also believed my government was telling the truth in justifying the war as defending democracy in the struggle against world-wide communism. It was only later that it became overwhelmingly clear to me just how false this was.
In my senior year of high-school, the national debate topic was on the pros and cons of the war in Vietnam. As a debating team member, I delved deeply into both sides of the topic, preparing myself to argue either for or against the war. But even when arguing as a debater against the war, I still wanted to believe that the U.S. was in Viet Nam to fight for a just cause.
I focused in college on my studies and steered clear of politics and the burgeoning anti-war movement. But after the Nixon administration’s April 1970 invasion of Cambodia, I finally joined in the marches and other protests against the war. However, the war never personally affected me. I received student deferments throughout college, and my high draft lottery number exempted me from being drafted into the military afterwards.
Decades have passed. For many in my generation “The Vietnam War” brings back memories of a time when we were coming of age. It leads us to revisit the personal choices we made during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It causes us to reflect on the lies and deceptions of our government during those years and how they have had an impact on everything that has followed. And finally, the series forces us to recognize the devastating human costs of that war, especially for those who fought in it and for their families.
This documentary could not be more timely. The military once again dominates our government with generals in key foreign policy positions. Diplomacy is taking a back seat as the Trump administration increases troop levels in Afghanistan and proposes massive cuts to the Department of State’s and USAID’s budgets. And it is apparent from his United Nations speech and other statements that the president is confronting a dangerous situation with North Korea by prioritizing military options, including nuclear ones, over diplomatic approaches. Truthfulness in government seems scarcer now than at any other time in my life.
And the lyrics of the second stanza of “The Eve of Destruction,” which I first heard so long ago, are as relevant to these times as they were back then:
“Don’t you understand, what I’m trying to say?
And can’t you feel the fears I’m feeling today?
If the button is pushed, there’s no running away.
There’ll be no one to save with the world in a grave.”