I spent part of the long Independence Day weekend listening to an old recording of “Woody’s Children,” a folk-music program that premiered in 1969 and ran for several decades on New York’s WQXR. The particular program that I tuned into was first broadcast in October of that year, coinciding with the Vietnam moratorium. Not surprisingly, it consisted entirely of antiwar songs, a genre then at the height of its popularity.
I had missed the show the first time around. In October 1969, I was attending Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia, as a freshly minted, Vietnam-bound army second lieutenant. At the time, I felt no particular affinity for antiwar activists or their music.
Hearing the program for the first time in July 2023 nearly brought me to tears. That said, much of the music itself, although decidedly earnest, has not aged well. Frequently maudlin and bluntly didactic, the lyrics tend to lack subtlety. Yet as a political testimonial, the entire protest genre holds up remarkably well. Even today, with the folk revival of the sixties a distant memory, it retains underappreciated relevance.
But fifty-some years later, the peace movement itself is on life support. Efforts to curb America’s appetite for war have simply failed. The draft-eligible Baby Boomers who marched against the Vietnam War in their youth tacitly embraced militarism once they reached the heights of political, academic, journalistic, and corporate power.
The facts speak for themselves. When it comes to military spending, the United States leads the pack internationally. No nation or combination of nations comes anywhere close. When it comes to an actual propensity to use force, no nation (with the possible exception of Israel) can match the United States. Even so, in American politics, there is no peace party worthy of note. The results of failed wars such as Afghanistan and Iraq are forgotten with astonishing swiftness. Principled opposition to war is a fringe phenomenon.
Among the antiwar anthems reprised on “Woody’s Children” in October 1969, one in particular caught my ear: “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” Written and performed by Pete Seeger, the ballad recounts a World War II training exercise in which the officer in charge insists on seeing the mission through even as swampy conditions deteriorate. The wise sergeant foresees disaster ahead, but “the big fool says to push on.” Orders are orders, a stubborn blindness that will cost the officer dearly.
In 1969, the “big fool” was President Lyndon B. Johnson, whose response to difficulties in Vietnam was to throw more troops into the fray, expecting to transform stalemate into victory. Seeger’s “big fool” was immune to learning. So was LBJ, even as the years passed and the violence escalated.
From today’s vantage point, the folly of Vietnam that Seeger and others on the folk scene denounced appears self-evident. As a result of his plunge into the Big Muddy, President Johnson’s reputation sustained damage from which it has never recovered. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died for nothing.
Yet my own Independence Day rumination left me wondering yet again whether the United States had learned much of anything from the defeat it experienced in Vietnam—and whether President Biden, in his own meandering way, is not retracing LBJ’s footsteps.
Adherence to three distinct principles prompted Johnson to intervene the way he did in Vietnam. First was the imperative of confronting perceived evil. Second was the requirement to do so directly by employing force. The third principle was the necessity of playing to ostensible American strengths while minimizing our vulnerabilities. Underlying this third principle was a conviction that, because of our superior technology and strategy, the United States has war figured out.
On the basis of those principles, Johnson persuaded himself (or was persuaded) that ensuring the survival of South Vietnam constituted a vital U.S. national-security interest. It was a cause worth fighting for as well as a winnable one. Superior firepower and mobility would enable U.S. forces to defeat an adversary generally lacking in modern arms.