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vietnam war

  • The Red Book

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    One of the endearing features of the Harvard Alumni Organization is to oversee the production of class books for each graduating class at five year intervals from graduation to the time of collective extinction, which may be 75 years out. Bound in the college colors, this is the proverbial Red Book.  No doubt other prestige universities across the United States have a similar practice, but I will limit our consideration here to one college, which happens to be iconic and thus broadly representative of the American establishment. I will further restrict our consideration to one Red Book issue, that of the Harvard College Class of 1967, my class. These limitations have one purpose:  to arrive at some conclusions based on close study of a control sample as opposed to a broad but superficial survey of elites in general. This exercise is very timely given that the 2016 election was largely fought over the issue of the American establishment’s conflictual relationship with the broad public. So who are we in this establishment?

    Despite the best efforts of cheerleading volunteer editors from our class, who tend to occupy these positions for decades and have their network of helpers, the submission of entries by classmates has its ebb and flow, with greatest success rates coming in sync with the most hyped and attractive reunions, the 25th and 50th. The first marks the time when professional and familial ambitions have reached flight altitude. The second marks the high water of success and the onset of decline.  These are times to report, times to be seen, if ever and many classmates who were silent finally make their contributions. Our class had something like 75% participation in the 50th year Red Book, and so it is very indicative of who we are.

    Professionally who are we?  The single largest field is clearly health services, and within that, it is psychology and psychiatry.  I will not speculate on what demand for such services says about our society at large, but the fact is striking.  After that, quite predictably, many classmates have made their careers in law and in the justice system.  The third great profession is education, mainly higher education but also going down into secondary and primary education, both public and private. 

    After that comes business, though here there are some surprises.  Relatively few classmates made careers in large corporations.  A great many were self-starters, entrepreneurs who founded their own companies.  That attests to considerable self-confidence and risk taking. 

    Indeed, very few classmates served in the federal government or other large bureaucratic institutions.  Regimentation apparently is not readily accepted by individuals as talented and ambitious as my Harvard classmates. These talents are multi-dimensional and explain the rather high rate of mid-career changes in occupation, from sciences to arts or vice versa.  No doubt these unusual career decisions were facilitated by substantial financial success at an early age that made experimentation possible.

    There are among my Harvard College mates and Radcliffe graduates reporting in the Red Book a very few star performers who enjoy national name recognition.  These include Lou Dobbs (before he fell from grace), the Hollywood and Broadway actor John Lithgow, and several politicians who reached the national stage. One,  Richard Morningstar, was for many years a key official in the State Department in charge of Eurasian energy matters and ended his career as US ambassador to Azerbaijan.  Tom Ridge reached national prominence as Governor of Pennsylvania and then served George W. Bush as the first Secretary of Homeland Security. The most recent big name is Richard Blumenthal, current U.S. Senator from Connecticut, who has been highly visible of late in his attacks on President Trump over Russia-gate and who received pay back in kind from Donald in some fairly vicious denunciations of his misrepresentations of his Vietnam War service.  Sad to say, these political stars all have their place in my personal rogues’ gallery since they one and all have been champions of U.S. global hegemony and stoked the confrontation with our nuclear peer, Russia, putting the security of us all in great jeopardy today.

    A much larger number of classmates have achieved state, regional and national reputations in their chosen professions, though they may be invisible to the general public.  They are the chairmen of law associations, or highly decorated research scientists or educators at the head of the national organizations of their discipline.

    The great majority of classmates have reached material prosperity and respectability that makes them the pillars of their communities. They are public spirited and generous donors to worthy causes.  They serve on the boards of cultural, educational and other local associations. They work for social justice in their communities.

    All of this is to the good, and matches the expectations one might have for graduates of the country’s top elite school with a distinctly left of center political orientation.  However, leafing through the thousand plus pages of the Red Book, I was struck by the way classmates’ vision and interests are concentrated in their families and communities to the exclusion of the broader nation, not to mention the world at large.

    Out of the 900 or so entries, you can count on one hand those who expressed any concern about the state of the nation.  And the world outside U.S. borders appears in their writings almost exclusively as a destination for prestige tourism.  Now that many are semi or fully retired, those still in good health are going through their “bucket lists” of must-see locations around the globe.  Indeed, many of the photos that were sent in for photo gallery of this Red Book were chosen to show off desirable backgrounds like the Eiffel Tower or similar. 

    Aside from the few foreigners who were in our class, there are almost no American born Harvard classmates who might be considered to be citizens of the world.  Yes, to be sure, we have educators who taught semesters abroad on Fulbright or other grants.  Yes, we have businessmen who traveled widely and even served some time stationed abroad. And there are some diplomats among us but nearly all were political appointees for whom the posting represented a reward for campaign contributions.  None of these professional travelers suggest in their class reports that the experience abroad changed their outlooks in any way.

    The net result is shocking provincialism among the country’s best educated and most successful professionals who are my classmates. That was confirmed in face to face meetings we had over the four days of our Reunion and in group discussion events.

    The key event of our reunion was about how the Vietnam War affected us all, for which 3 hours were allocated in one of the larger auditoriums.  In preparation for the event classmates were invited to send in personal accounts of the impact of the war on them. About 175 did so, and the organizers compiled from this a pdf book which was distributed to the class ahead of the Reunion on a strictly confidential basis.

    The intent of the organizers of the book and the event was to mediate a reconciliation between those who served in the Armed Forces during the war and those who didn’t. The reasonable assumption was that at 50 years distance any hot feelings from our youth will have been dissipated.  Indeed, the event was quite civilized and innocent.

    It also revealed something otherwise not the least bit obvious:  that the Vietnam War had almost no impact on the lives and careers of the Class of 1967 though we graduated right into the midst of the draft and the civil disturbances of the antiwar movement.

    A fairly large minority of our class did serve during the war, but only a tiny proportion of those saw military action in Southeast Asia.  A large contingent of those who served did so as doctors in training, and most of those served their time in laboratories of the National Health Service or in other capacities which in no way slowed their advance along their career lines. This is not a judgment, merely a statement of fact.  Another large contingent found positions in the National Reserves and remained stateside.  Others volunteered in order to secure places in the Coast Guard or in the Navy (including one or two who chose submarine service). Anything but the infantry!

    A majority of our class did no military service and avoided the draft by a variety of respectable and less than respectable stratagems.  Some entered the Peace Corps. Some entered the domestic equivalent, VISTA. Some secured teaching positions in the public school systems which conferred draft deferrals.  Some found ways to get medical exemptions, by hook or by crook.  A very few claimed and were recognized as valid Conscientious Objectors, and did their national service working in hospitals performing menial jobs.  It is interesting that out of 1200 not one said he considered leaving the country, though moving across the border to Canada or finding refuge elsewhere was discussed a lot in the media at the time.

    My conclusion is that the convulsions which tore apart Berkeley and other public universities seem not to have influenced the course of action and mentality of my classmates. The war was an inconvenience which with or without connections one could deal with and then move on.

    Is it surprising then that today the problems of the wider world, the military and economic posture of our country in that wider world, are of little interest to Harvard ‘67? This is not burn-out and retreat to one’s near surroundings.  It’s all the same “I’ve been blessed” that turned up in the Red Book entries of my class from the very first issue 45 years ago.

    The sad, and possibly tragic thing is that the self-satisfaction, the smugness and false sense of security in these entries and the indifference to the broader world and our country’s role in making it the mess it is, means that all the talent and prestige of this elite brings no weight at all to bear on the nation’s politics, least of all on its foreign policy. Our politicians in Washington, D.C. get a free ride.

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in the autumn of 2017.