Many people think that the worst scars of the war years have healed. I don’t. Vietnam has left us with a heritage rich in possibilities for class warfare, and I would like to start telling about it with this story:
In the fall of 1969, I was beginning my final year in college. As the months went by, the rock on which I had unthinkingly anchored my hopes—the certainty that the war in Vietnam would be over before I could possibly fight -began to crumble. It shattered altogether on Thanksgiving weekend when, while riding back to Boston from a visit with my relatives, I heard that the draft lottery had been held and my birthdate had come up number 45. I recognized for the first time that, inflexibly, I must either be drafted or consciously find a way to prevent it.
In the atmosphere of that time, each possible choice came equipped with barbs. To answer the call was unthinkable, not only because, in my heart, I was desperately afraid of being killed, but also because, among my friends, it was axiomatic that one should not be “ complicit” in the immoral war effort. Draft resistance, the course chosen by a few noble heroes of the movement, meant going to prison or leaving the country. With much the same intensity with which I wanted to stay alive, I did not want those things either. What I wanted was to go to graduate school, to get married, and to enjoy those bright prospects I had been taught that life owed me.
I learned quickly enough that there was only one way to get what I wanted. A physical deferment would restore things to the happy state I had known during four undergraduate years. The barbed alternatives would be put off. By the impartial dictates of public policy I would be free to pursue the better side of life.
Like many of my friends whose numbers had come up wrong in the lottery, I set about securing my salvation. When I was not participating in anti-war rallies, I was poring over the Army’s code of physical regulations. During the winter and early spring, seminars were held in the college common rooms. There, sympathetic medical students helped us search for disqualifying conditions that we, in our many years of good health, might have overlooked. Although, on the doctors’ advice, I made a half-hearted try at fainting spells, my only real possibility was beating the height and weight regulations. My normal weight was close to the cut-off point for an “underweight” disqualification, and, with a diligence born of panic, I made sure I would have a margin. I was six-feet-one-inch tall at the time. On the morning of the draft physical I weighed 120 pounds.
Before sunrise that morning I rode the subway to the Cambridge city hall, where we had been told to gather for shipment to the examination at the Boston Navy Yard. The examinations were administered on a rotating basis, one or two days each month for each of the draft boards in the area. Virtually everyone who showed up on Cambridge day at the Navy Yard was a student from Harvard or MIT.
There was no mistaking the political temperament of our group. Many of my friends wore red arm bands and stop-the-war buttons. Most chanted the familiar words, “ Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/ NLF is Gonna Win.” One of the things we had learned from the draft counselors was that disruptive behavior at the examination was a worthwhile political goal, not only because it obstructed the smooth operation of the criminal war machine, but also because it might impress the examiners with our undesirable character traits. As we climbed into the buses and as they rolled toward the Navy Yard, about half of the young men brought the chants to a crescendo. The rest of us sat rigid and silent, clutching x-rays and letters from our doctors at home.
Inside the Navy Yard, we were first confronted by a young sergeant from Long Beach, a former surfer boy no older than the rest of us and seemingly unaware that he had an unusual situation on his hands. He started reading out instructions for the intelligence tests when he was hooted down. He went out to collect his lieutenant, who clearly had been through a Cambridge day before. “We’ve got all the time in the world,” he said, and let the chanting go on for two or three minutes. “When we’re finished with you, you can go, and not a minute before.”
From that point on the disruption became more purposeful and individual, largely confined to those whose deferment strategies were based on anti-authoritarian psychiatric traits. Twice I saw s hi dents walk up to young orderlies—whose hands were extended to receive the required cup of urine–and throw the vial in the orderlies’ faces. The orderlies looked up, initially more astonished than angry, and went back to towel themselves off. Most of the rest of us trod quietly through the paces, waiting for the moment of confrontation when the final examiner would give his verdict. I had stepped on the scales at the very beginning of the examination. Desperate at seeing the orderly write down 122 pounds, I hopped back on and made sure that he lowered it to 120. I walked in a trance through the rest of the examination, until the final meeting with the fatherly physician who ruled on marginal cases such as mine. I stood there in socks and underwear, arms wrapped around me in the chilly building. I knew as I looked at the doctor’s face that he understood exactly what I was doing.
“Have you ever contemplated suicide?” he asked after he finished looking over my chart. My eyes darted up to his. “Oh, suicide—yes, I’ve been feeling very unstable and unreliable recently.” He looked at me, staring until I returned my eyes to the ground. He wrote “unqualified” on my folder, turned on his heel, and left. I was overcome by a wave of relief, which for the first time revealed to me how great my terror had been, and by the beginning of the sense of shame which remains with me to this day.
It was, initially, a generalized shame at having gotten away with my deception, but it came into sharper focus later in the day. Even as the last of the Cambridge contingent was throwing its urine and deliberately failing its color-blindness tests, buses from the next board began to arrive. These bore the boys from Chelsea, thick, dark-haired young men, the white proles of Boston. Most of them were younger than us, since they had just left high school, and it had clearly never occurred to them that there might be a way around the draft They walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to slaughter. I tried to avoid noticing, but the results were inescapable. While perhaps four out of five of my friends from Harvard were being deferred, just the opposite was happening to the Chelsea boys.
We returned to Cambridge that afternoon, not in government buses but as free individuals, liberated and victorious. The talk was high-spirited, but there was something close to the surface that none of us wanted to mention. We knew now who would be killed.
The Thinking-Man’s Route
As other memories of the war years have faded, it is that day in the Navy Yard that will not leave my mind. The answers to the other grand questions about the war have become familiar as any catechism. Q . What were America’s sins? A. The Arrogance of Power, the Isolation of the Presidency, the Burden of Colonialism, and the Failure of Technological Warfare. In the abstract, at least, we have learned those lessons. For better or worse, it will be years before we again cheer a president who talks about paying any price and bearing any burden to prop up some spurious overseas version of democracy.
We have not, however, learned the lesson of the day at the Navy Yard, or the thousands of similar scenes all across the country through all the years of the war. Five years later, two questions have yet to be faced, let alone answered. The first is why, when so many of the bright young college men opposed the war, so few were willing to resist the draft, rather than simply evade it. The second is why all the well-educated presumably humane young men, whether they opposed the war or were thinking fondly of A-bombs on Hanoi, so willingly took advantage of this most brutal form of class discrimination—what it signifies that we let the boys from Chelsea be sent off to die.
The “ we” that I refer to are the mainly-white, mainly-well-educated children of mainly-comfortable parents, who are now mainly embarked on promising careers in law, medicine, business, academics. What makes them a class is that they all avoided the draft by taking one of the thinking-man’s routes to escape. These included the physical deferment, by far the smartest and least painful of all; the long technical appeals through the legal jungles of the Selective Service System; the more disingenuous resorts to conscientious objector status; and, one degree further down the scale of personal inconvenience, joining the Reserves or the National Guard. I am not talking about those who, on the one hand, submitted to the draft and took their chances in the trenches, nor, on the other hand, those who paid the price of formal draft resistance or exile.
That there is such a class, identifiable as “ we,” was brought home to me by comparing the very different fates of the different sorts of people I had known in high school and college. Hundreds from my high school were drafted, and nearly two dozen killed. When I look at the memorial roll of names I find that I recognize very few, for they were mainly the anonymous Mexican-American (as they were called at the time) and poor whites I barely knew in high school and forgot altogether when I left. Several people from my high school left the country; one that I know of went to jail. By comparison, of two or three hundred acquaintances from college and afterwards, I can think of only three who actually fought in Vietnam Another dozen or so served in safer precincts of the military, and perhaps five went through the ordeal of formal resistance. The rest of us escaped, in one way or another.
The fifth anniversary report of my class at Harvard gives a more precise idea of who did what. There were about 1,200 people in the class, and slightly fewer than half wrote in to report on what had happened to them since 1970. Of that number, 12 said that they had been in the Army, two specifying that they had served in Vietnam. One had been in the Marine reserves. Another 32 people, most of whom had held ROTC scholarships in college, had put in time with the Navy. Two were in the Coast Guard, two in the National Guard, and seven more in unspecified branches of the military. That was the bite the military took from half my class at Harvard during a bloody year of the war—56 people, most of them far from the fighting. Besides them, seven of my classmates performed alternate service as conscientious objectors; and, though no one reported going to prison, one wrote from England that he was a “ draft resister; beat the rap on a legal technicality,” and another that he had “several years of legal entanglement with the draft and the Justice Department.”
A few of the personal reports are worth quoting for what they tell about the way the burden of the war fell on the men of Harvard. Here are two from people who felt the pinch:
“Number four in the draft lottery sparked my idealism, and I entered the Peace Corps following graduation. After eighteen or so peaceful and mostly enjoyable months in and around a peasant village in Senegal, West Africa, I returned home and ended up in the jungles of Harvard Law School. . . .”
“I got a lucky draft, number 13. That was good for six months in the Reserves. There I got in-depth training on how to be a ‘Petroleum Supply Storage Specialist,’ i.e., a service station attendant. But the six months was put to good use by the Nixon Administration; that is how long it took to get me a security clearance for a job in the Executive Office. Six months after my arrival there, the Wage Price Control Program was hatched, and the next three years were spent diverting public attention from other matters that were attracting that attention. With a briefcase of anecdotes, I decided to divert my attention back to my studies in economics at Wisconsin.”
Meanwhile, those who did not go were preparing themselves, each by his own lights, for their contributions to the world:
“My wife and I graduated from Harvard Law School in 1973 and we are both working for New York City firms. She is associated with Cravath, Swaine, and Moore, and I am with Davis, Polk, & Wardwell.”
“With four unpleasant medical school years behind me, 1 am enjoying Philadelphia and internship. I hope to deliver babies on Maui someday.”
“After the usual three-year stint (at Columbia) I find myself in the unusual position of practicing law in the entertainment field. Clients include Norman Lear, Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neil, Valerie Perrine, et al., as well as a number of ‘struggling young artists’—the latter pro bono, of course. . . . ”
“Am practicing corporate law (mostly tax), working fairly hard, enjoying my schizophrenic law firm-Berkeley hippy life very much. . . .”
At a minimum, the record of my class should help Midge Decter over her fears that the people o f my generation have somehow strayed from the straight and narrow path. More than that, it does sum up the home front’s story of the war: we happy few were sped along to Maui or the entertainment law firm, or at worst temporarily way-laid in the reserves, while from each of our high schools the less gifted and industrious students were being shipped off as cannon fodder. There are those who contend that the world has always worked this way, and perhaps that is true. The question is why, especially in the atmosphere of the late sixties, people with any presumptions to character could have let it go on.
Learning from Lyndon
First we should consider the conduct of those who opposed the war. Not everyone at Harvard felt that way, nor, I suspect, did even a majority of the people throughout the country who found painless ways to escape the draft. But I did, and most of the people I knew did, and so did the hordes we always ran into at the anti-war rallies. Yet most of us managed without difficulty to stay out of jail. The tonier sorts of anti-war literature contained grace-note references to Gandhi and Thoreau—no CO application would have been complete without them—but the practical model for our wartime conduct was our enemy LBJ, who weaseled away from the front lines during World War II.
It may be worth emphasizing why our failure to resist induction is such an important issue. Five years after Cambodia and Kent State, it is clear how the war could have lasted so long. Johnson and Nixon both knew that the fighting could continue only so long as the vague, hypothetical benefits of holding off Asian communism outweighed the immediate, palpable domestic pain. They knew that when the screaming grew too loud and too many sons had been killed, the game would be all over. That is why Vietnamization was such a godsend for Nixon, and it is also why our reluctance to say No helped prolong the war. The more we guaranteed that we would end up neither in uniform nor behind bars, the more we made sure that our class of people would be spared the real cost of the war. (Not that we didn’t suffer. There was, of course, the angst, the terrible moral malaise we liked to write about so much in the student newspapers and undergraduate novels.)
The children of the bright, good parents were spared the more immediate sort of suffering that our inferiors were undergoing. And because of that, when our parents were opposed to the war, they were opposed in a bloodless, theoretical fashion, as they might be opposed to political corruption or racism in South Africa. As long as the little gold stars kept going to homes in Chelsea and the backwoods of West Virginia, the mothers of Beverly Hills and Chevy Chase and Great Neck and Belmont were not on the telephones to their congressmen, screaming you killed my boy, they were not writing to the President that his crazy, wrong, evil war had put their boys in prison and ruined their careers. It is clear by now that if the men of Harvard had wanted to do the very most they could to help shorten the war, they should have been drafted or imprisoned en masse.
This was not such a difficult insight, even at the time. Lyndon Johnson clearly understood it, which was the main reason why the graduate school deferment, that grotesque of class discrimination, lasted through the big mobilizations of the war, until the springtime of 1968. Even when that deferment was gone, Johnson’s administrators came up with the intelligence-test plan for draft deferments, an even bolder attempt to keep those voluble upper classes off the President’s back. What is interesting is how little of this whole phenomenon we at Harvard pretended to understand. On the day after the graduate school deferments were snatched away from us, a day Johnson must have dreaded because it added another set of nasty enemies to his list, the Harvard Crimson responded with a magnificently representative editorial entitled “The Axe Falls.” A few quotes convey its gist:
“The axiom that this nation’s tangled Selective Service System is bound to be unfair to somebody fell with a crash on the Harvard community yesterday. The National Security Council’s draft directive puts almost all college seniors and most graduate students at the head of the line for next year’s draft calls. Three-fourths of the second-year law class will go off to war . . . . Yesterday’s directive is a bit of careless expediency, clearly unfair to the students who would have filled the nation’s graduate schools next fall.”
That was it, the almost incredible level of understanding and compassion we displayed at the time—the idea that the real victims of General Hershey’s villainous schemes were the students who would have filled the nation s graduate schools next fall. Occasionally, both in the Crimson and elsewhere, there were bows to the discriminatory nature of the whole 2-S deferment system and the virtues of the random lottery which Edward Kennedy, to his eternal credit, was supporting almost singlehandedly at the time. But there was no mistaking which emotions came from the heart, which principles really seemed worth fighting for.
It would be unfair to suggest that absolutely no thought was given to the long-run implications of our actions. For one thing, there were undercurrents of the sentiment that another Crimson writer, James Classman, expressed in an article early in 1968. “Two years ago, Harvard students complained that the system was highly discriminatory, favoring the well off,” Glassman wrote. “They called the 2-S an unfair advantage for those who could go to college.” But, as the war wore on, “the altruism was forgotten. What was most important now was saving your own skin-preventing yourself from being in a position where you would have to kill a man you had no right to kill.”
Moreover, a whole theoretical framework was developed to justify draft evasion. During many of the same meetings where I heard about the techniques of weight reduction, I also learned that we should think of ourselves as sand in the gears of the great war machine. During one of those counseling sessions I sat through a speech by Michael Ferber, then something of a celebrity as a codefendant in the trial of Dr. Spock. He excited us by revealing how close we were to victory. Did we realize that the draft machine was tottering towards its ultimate breakdown? That it was hardly in better condition than old General Hershey himself? That each body we withheld from its ravenous appetite brought it that much nearer the end? Our duty, therefore, was clear: as committed opponents of the war, we had a responsibility to save ourselves from the war machine.
This argument was most reassuring, for it meant that the course of action which kept us alive and out of jail was also the politically correct decision. The boys of Chelsea were not often mentioned during these sessions; when they were, regret was expressed that they had not yet understood the correct approach to the draft. We resolved to launch political-education programs, some under the auspices of the Worker-Student Alliance, to help straighten them out. In the meantime, there was the physical to prepare for.
It does not require enormous powers of analysis to see the basic fraudulence of this argument. General Hershey was never in danger of running out of bodies, and the only thing we were denying him was the chance to put us in uniform. With the same x-ray vision that enabled us to see, in every Pentagon sub-clerk, in every Honeywell accountant, an embryonic war criminal, we could certainly have seen that by keeping ourselves away from both frying pan and fire we were prolonging the war and consigning the Chelsea boys to danger and death. But somehow the x-rays were deflected.
There was, I believe, one genuine concern which provided the x-ray shield and made theories like Ferber’s go down more easily. It was a monstrous war, not only in its horror but in the sense that it was beyond control, and to try to fight it as individuals was folly. Even as we knew that a thousand, or ten thousand, college boys going to prison might make a difference, we knew with equal certainty that the imprisonment and ruination of any one of us would mean nothing at all. The irrational war machine would grind on as if we had never existed, and our own lives would be pointlessly spoiled. From a certain perspective, it could even seem like grandstanding, an exercise in excessive piety, to go to the trouble of resisting the draft. The one moral issue that was within our control was whether we would actually participate—whether, as Glassman put it, we would be forced to kill—and we could solve that issue as easily by getting a deferment as by passing the time in jail.
Not Worth the Gesture
We were not the first to face the dilemma. In his new book, World War II, James Jones describes how the same considerations affected men in combat. As an infantryman in the Pacific, Jones had survived months of deadly action only to come up with a twisted ankle, an aggravation of an old injury. He heard from the company’s medical officer that the injury might be enough to get him a medical discharge and return to the States:
“He had presented me with a serious moral problem. I talked it over with a few of my buddies . . . . All of them urged me to go up to division medical with it. They would certainly go up with it if they had it, if they were me, and maybe it would get them out of there. . . . I would be crazy not to try. ‘But what about the company,’ I asked the mess sergeant, and the supply sergeant, and a couple of the field sergeants-‘Would you leave the company?’
“ ‘Are you kidding?’ the supply sergeant said. ‘I’d be out of here like a shot.’
“I was smart enough to understand that if I did go, and did get sent out, it was not going to affect anything in any appreciable way. Some poor-ass, bad-luck replacement would replace me, and one of the guys would get my corporal’s ratings. I understood that numbers were what counted in this war, vast numbers of men and machines. I was intelligent enough to see that.”
Jones decided that it was not worth the gesture, that it would not be intelligent to run any more risks, and so did we. The difference is that Jones had already been through half of the worst campaigns of the war, and we had not been through much of anything at all. We told ourselves that the rallies and sit-ins were the real thing, but they never involved a substantial risk, nothing more serious than the threat of a night in jail. That was one reason why Kent State was so deeply appalling to many students; it changed the rules, it added an element of risk.
Lord Jim spent the rest of his days trying to expiate his moment of cowardice aboard the Patna. The contemporaries of Oliver Wendell Holmes felt permanent discomfort that Holmes, virtually alone among his peers, had volunteered to fight in the Civil War. I have neither of those feelings about Vietnam, so they are not the reason I feel it important to dredge up these hulks. Rather, the exercise can serve two purposes—to tell us about the past, and to tell us about the present.
The lesson of the past concerns the complexities of human motivation. Doubtless because the enemy we were fighting was so horrible in its effects, there was very little room for complexity or ambiguity in the anti-war campaigns. On the black and white spectrum by which we judged personal conduct, bureaucrats were criminals if they stayed inside the government and politicians cowards if they tailed to vote for resolutions to end the war; the businessmen of Dow and Honeywell were craven merchants of death; and we, meanwhile, were nothing less than the insistent voice of morality, striving tirelessly to bring the country to its senses. The easiest way to see those feelings revived is to attend a showing of the movie Hearts and Minds in the company of the young. When the lone heralds of morality, the anti-war protestors, finally appear, the audience breaks into cheers. We were right.
Of course we were right to try to stop the war. But I recall no suggestion during the sixties that it was graceless, wrong of us to ask the Foreign Service Officers to resign when we were not sticking our necks out at the induction center. Granted, there is a difference between those two risks; imprisonment for a felony is a serious matter, and it was perhaps one degree more perilous to refuse induction as a 21-year-old than to throw aside a career as the 45-year-old father of three. But our calculations rarely even reached that point. The normal benchmark of morality was this: if we were showing our stuff by taking to the picket lines (meanwhile continuing our cruise through college), then our elders were shameful, middle-aged cowards if they did not do their part, too, If nothing else, a glance back at our own record might give us an extra grain of sympathy for the difficulties of bringing men to honor, let alone glory.
The implications for the present are less comforting and go back to the question asked several pages ago. The behavior of the upper classes in so deftly avoiding the war’s pains is both a symptom and a partial cause of the class hatred now so busily brewing in the country.
Tom Joad v. Edmund Wilson
The starting point for understanding this class, hatred is the belief, resting just one layer beneath the pro forma comments about the unfortunate discrimination of the 2-S system, that there was an ultimate justice to our fates. You could not live through those years without knowing what was going on with the drafts and you could not retain your sanity with that knowledge unless you believed, at some dark layer of the moral substructure, that we were somehow getting what we deserved. A friend of mine, a former Rhodes scholar now embarked on a wonderful career in corporate law, put the point more bluntly than most when he said, “There are certain people who can do more good in a lifetime in politics or academics or medicine than by getting killed in a trench” ; in one form or another, it Was that belief which kept us all going. What is so significant about this statement is not the recognition of the difference in human abilities—for that, after all, has been one of the grand constants of the race—but the utter disdain for the abilities, hopes, complexities of those who have not scrambled onto the high road. The one-dimensional meritocracy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is not so many steps away from the fashion in which we were content to distribute the burden of the war.
This claim about class hostility is a relative one—that the seeds of class warfare now fall on more fertile ground than they have for many years. The war in Vietnam was not the sole cause, but it did contribute, in a way that may become more clear through a comparison of that war and years leading up to World War II.
At the beginning of the forties, the U.S. was leaving behind an era of class division nearly as poisonous as what the seventies seem to be producing. The rich feared the poor, the poor envied the rich, and only the perserverance of an old American myth kept the envy from shading over into more violent emotions. In the movies, the downtrodden of the thirties saw that miracles could still happen—the chorus girl could marry the millionaire, rags could turn ,to riches. On the sports fields, a few athletes could hit it big; pretty girls had a chance in Hollywood. As long as there were enough of these brass rings, perhaps one for every 10,000 people reaching out to grab, one kind of class hostility was neatly blunted. The poor were encouraged to think of joining the rich, rather than overthrowing them.
The more trenchant political theorists of the era did not fall into this trap, but they did display another symptom of class stratification. That was the romanticized, simplistic notion of egalitarianism which the upper class intellectuals seemed eager to spout. The socialists and communists of New York and Boston might never have seen an Okie in their lives, but they often seemed to imagine themselves as citified versions of Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, making a common cause against the bankers and the privileged classes. Workers of all social classes were united in one great effort; if you looked deep enough into the coal mines or the cotton fields you would find replicas of Granville Hicks, John Dos Passos, and the other luminaries of the left—a little grimy, perhaps, and with quaint regionalisms in their speech, but nonetheless possessed of the same fine qualities of mind and spirit. There were, of course, similarities between the political ideals of both groups, but the unity between worker and intellectual could be romanticized out of all proportion to reality, as it was in this manifesto issued by Edmund Wilson and signed by several dozen other “ brain workers” in 1932:
“Very well, we strike hands with our true comrades. We claim our own, and we reject the disorder, the lunacy spawned by grabbers, advertisers, traders, speculators, salesmen, the much-adulated, immensely stupid and irresponsible ‘business men.’ We claim the right to live and function. It is our business to think and we shall not permit business men to teach us our business. It is also, in the end, our business to act.
“We have acted. As responsible intellectual workers we have aligned ourselves with the frankly revolutionary Communist Party, the party of the workers. In this letter we speak to you of our own class-to the writers, artists, scientists, teachers, engineers, to all honest professional w orkerstelling you as best we can why we have made this decision and why we think that you too should support the Communist Party in the political campaign now under way.”
If this manifesto recalls anything, it is the equally pie-eyed rhetoric of the Worker-Student Alliance during the late sixties. Ail we lacked was our own Clifford Odets to sing the revolutionary consciousness of the factory worker.
The coming of World War II changed this attitude, and many others, for one predominant reason: this broad national effort required some mixing between the classes. Unlike my college class, which lost not a single member in Vietnam, 35 men from the Harvard class of 1941 had died by the time the war was over, and hundreds more had fought. Across class lines, young men were all expected to serve. The mixing, if incomplete, still provided a degree of cross-exposure not known before or since. And the mutual sacrifice created a basis for mutual respect.
The benefits of this exposure should not themselves be romanticized, for at war’s end the Vanderbilts and the poor white trash were hardly ready to consider themselves brothers under the skin. But, even as members of each class remained sharply aware of their respective positions, even as the post-war era brought in the vigorous upward striving of the status-seekers, two vastly important things had happened because of the war-time cross-exposure.
The first was the purging of the over-simplified romanticism of the intellectuals of the thirties. Plays like Waiting for Lefty had imputed to the working classes a purity of motive and a clarity of vision that would have done credit to St. Francis. It cannot have taken too many months of living and eating and fighting together for the college-educated elite to see that a more complicated mixture of motives was propelling the representatives of the proletariat. When some son of the backwoods South charged off bravely into battle, it was not under the banner of the populist alliance against the barons of Wall Street, but because of an ideology of a different sort—part a sense of duty, part the crazy Southern mystique about gallantry and masculine heroism, part a sense of fatalism and inescapability. The true voice of this united national war effort was not Edmund Wilson’s manifesto, nor the duty-honorcountry propaganda films turned out by Hollywood, nor even Ernie Pyle, with his occasional spells of romanticizing the fighting man. It was Bill Mauldin, absolutely free of pretense and absolutely on key about the mixture of cynicism and back-handed honor which kept the troops going. Anyone who participated in that effort, or even read the cartoons, could no longer believe that Waiting for Lefty was an accurate portrait of American life.
The second effect was the reduction of the opposite sort of oversimplification— the tendency to ridicule, condemn, even hate people from the classes different from your own. The war taught the country not that Tom Joad and Edmund Wilson were identically gifted, but that there were qualities to be honored in each, abilities in the one that the other might count on for survival. The literature of the war is full of examples. To take The Caine Mutiny, one of the high-class characters, the novelist Tom Keefer, turns out to be a coward when the others are relying on him, while his brother dies saving his own ship, and the mama’s boy from Princeton, Willie Keith, becomes a kind of hero. The enlisted men they work with have the same range of qualities—some possess the cool-headedness which saves their shipmates during the typhoon, others are lower-class versions of Tom Keefer. The importance of these portrayals and the more widespread ethic they represented was that, without relying on the old fiction that all men are identical, they allowed some room for mutual respect and mutual dependence. People who had spent months in a hut with strangers would, in the future, probably be one step slower to over-simplify and hate than they would have been in the past. This is why the military’s racial segregation during World War II was such a tragedy; it kept any of the ameliorating balm from being spread between the races. The effect was limited to the different classes of white America, but even that was something of value.
The American society which grew out of the war certainly was no utopia. Still, the United States of Truman and Eisenhower at least could say for itself that it was not colored by the kind of entrenched class hostility that now seems to be on the rise. The difference between the two eras is symbolized by the difference between the great national effort of the forties—the war—and the two broad-based struggles of the last 15 years, the crusade for civil rights and the effort to end our participation in Vietnam.
Contempt for the Proles
In that happy time before racism was discovered in the North, the civil rights crusade took the convenient form of a virtuous nation lecturing to its sinning minority, in this case that favorite reprobate, the South. Early in the sixties, a new twist was added when the bright, young college student came trooping down from the Ivy League, ready to protect the downtrodden-but-virtuous black people from the tyranny of the immoral whites. This may be caricature, but not by much; I joined the crusade long after its heyday had passed, and even then the essential elements were intact. Like the characters in Waiting for Lefty or Awake and Sing, the blacks of our dreams were well-motivated, nature’s-noblemen types, and when their real-life counterparts fell short, we found ways of ignoring it. The Southern whites, of course, were brutal, stupid rednecks whom, when we were feeling both compassionate and condescending, we could forgive by explaining that it was status anxiety about the blacks that made them so nasty. We walked as through a fantasy world, seeing imaginary figures rather than real people; rarely were there bursts of understanding, or even realism, that could have helped explain how the South actually worked.
The “ movement” of the sixties extended from the civil rights struggle through the campaign to end the war, and there was continuity as well in its view of the lower class. By the end of the sixties, when the anti-war campaign was going full steam, it exhibited contempt for the white proles in three clear ways. One was paying so little attention to the rate at which the Chelsea boys were dying-w e mentioned the casualty rates, but not the fact that it wasn’t our type of people being killed. The second was the bullying, supercilious tone which said that to support the war was not so much incorrect as stupid. (Recall how quickly arguments about the war reached the pedant’s level with the question, “Have you read. . . ? If you haven’t read. . . how can you presume to say anything?” ) And the third, rivaling even the first in ugliness, was the quick resort to the phrase “pig” for the blue-collar, lower-class people who were doing the job they thought they were supposed to do. They had been “pigs” holding down the black people in Mississippi, the children of “ pigs” were being sent off to die in Vietnam, and now “pigs” were clubbing our chosen people, the demonstrators, in Chicago. We hated the pigs, and let them know it, and it was no great wonder that they hated us in return.
Now that the war is over, there is a fourth demonstration of our contempt for the proles. Among any high-brow audience, it is scarcely possible to attract a minute’s attention on the subject of Vietnam veterans. Ralph Nader sponsored a study on their predicament, written by Paul Starr, but apart from that the intelligentsia has virtually willed them out of existence. The indignities they suffer rival those of any other oppressed group, but the only magazine to give sustained attention to this fact is Penthouse. On television the veterans are painted with extremely unflattering strokes—as war-time junkies or pathological killers who keep re-enacting the massacres they took part in—but no protests are heard about this crude stereotyping. The most frequently offered explanation for the neglect of the veteran is the kind of war we fought, and our eagerness to forget it. No doubt that is partly true. But our behavior is also shaped by who the veterans are. They are the boys from Chelsea, and if we were embarrassed to see them at the Navy Yard, when their suffering was only prospective, how much more must we shun them now?
The Decline of Public Schools
From its struggles in World War II, this country created a cushion of class toleration; our heritage from Vietnam is rich with potential for class hatred. World War II forced different classes of people to live together; Vietnam kept them rigidly apart, a process in which people like me were only too glad to cooperate. On either side of the class divide, the war has left feelings that can easily shade over into mistrust and hostility. Among those who went to war, there is a residual resentment, the natural result of a cool look at who ended up paying what price. On the part of those who were spared, there is a residual guilt, often so deeply buried that it surfaces only in unnaturally vehement denials that there is anything to feel guilty about. In a land of supposed opportunity, the comfortable hate to see the poor. Beneath all the explanations about self-help and just deserts, there remains the vein of empathy and guilt. Among the bright people of my generation, those who have made a cult of their high-mindedness, the sight of legless veterans and the memories of the Navy Yard must also touch that vein. They remind us that there was little character in the choices we made.
If the war were the only source of this mistrust, it would be bad enough, but it has worked its influence on a society already facing class division from three other sources. The first, and in the long run the most significant, is the decline of the public school system and the stratification by class, as well as race, of the urban schools. Whatever their faults, the public schools of this country could usually be relied on to serve one end. They were the melting pot, they brought together children whose parents lived on different sides of the tracks and who themselves clearly were headed for different stations in life. If you were one of the people going on to college, in high school you got to know people who weren’t. This did not guarantee that you would come to mutual affection, or even understanding, but it could dampen the chances for hatred in the same way the military did in World War II.
In some smaller communities, where one high school serves the entire town and where the education remains good enough to meet the standards of ambitious parents, this end still is served. But in more and more of the urban schools it has been abandoned altogether. As the whites have fled to the suburbs, as the declining quality of urban education has made sure they will never come back, as the integration plans have stopped at the city limits rather than embracing the full racial mix of the metropolitan area, the urban classroom has come to resemble the army in Vietnam, mainly lower-class whites coexisting with lower-class blacks (the middle-class blacks having followed their white counterparts’ example and headed for the suburbs or the private schools). In the last few years, the most obvious cost of this arrangement has been the desperate reaction of the whites one rung up from the bottom —the whites of Pontiac and Southie—when they fear they will be dragged back to the level of the lower-class blacks. In the years to come, the more important cost may be the distorting effects of class segregation on people from both top and bottom.
The second development is the rise of a new professional class, closely corresponding to the educational elite. In the years since World War II, the number of people working for government has risen dramatically. The expansion hit the federal government first, in the forties and fifties, and is now most intense for local governments and the states. Within the last ten years, the type of people filling these jobs has also begun to change. The transformation, from patronage to professionalism, has been most obvious at the local level, where it means that the city clerk or the second-echelon health administrator for the state is less likely to be a local good ole boy and more likely to be a handsomely pedigreed young professional. (The young professional, in turn, is likely to be the good ole boy’s son, full of disdain for the class he has risen above.) During the sixties, many of the same well-educated people were also filling new positions opening up in the foundation world and other public-affairs sectors of the economy.
The effect of these developments has been to place the educationally privileged in jobs whose essence is telling other people what to do. No government can get along without such jobs, but the way they are developing now clearly aggravates class hostility. Among people on the top, it creates an impression that the “public” is a retrograde mass, which must be either fooled or “ educated” into overcoming its brutish instincts. Congressional staffers, public-education directors for foundations, producers for public TV constantly fret about how to make the public overcome white backlash, support the UN, and conserve energy by obeying the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. Any of these goals might be laudable, but, as with the civil rights crusaders, little consideration is given to the reasons more complicated than bigotry, greed, and stupidity that shape people’s behavior. When Lord Reith of the BBC set out unashamedly to bring the masses better material than what their own taste would guide them toward, he fit comfortably within the British tradition of dominant and inferior classes. As the professional elite of the U.S. acquire an arrogance which none of the governed can fail to notice, George Wallace gets his biggest cheers for his denunciation of the pointyheads—and that can hardly come as a surprise.
The third development is the rise of the meritocracy of taste and the consequent shortage of charity and toleration among those on top. As family pedigrees have lost much of their import and as the ranks at the upper levels have been opened to the self-made, the American cultural race has become, as Suzannah Lessard has pointed out (“Taste, Class, and Mary Tyler Moore,” The Washington Monthly March 1975), a subtle matter of multiple labels adding up to a person’s taste education, associates, profession, passions, dislikes. Even as this has made for a somewhat fairer society than the world of the 400, it has added a note of desperation to the quest for social standing. Because there is no permanent standard like the old standard of family pedigree, no one can feel completely secure. Those who hope to remain “in” must be constantly aware of which artifacts are right and which are wrong. (A recent ad for The Village Voice demonstrated this point nicely. A take-off on the old 97-pound weakling pitch, it showed a couple on the beach being approached by Rodney Trendy. His weapon was not muscles but being able to put down hapless Stan for out-of-date taste: “ Still waiting on line for ‘Last Tango,’ Stan? How’s your Nehru jacket supply? Bet you think Arica’s a high-school honor society. Haw, Haw, Haw.”)
The insecurity of this kind of class structure is its most destructive feature, and accounts for two unpleasant results. One is the remarkable phenomenon of people who, by every outside standard, should be secure against criticism, flaring up in indignant and disproportionate defense against any imagined slight. The tangled history of literary politicking in New York is one long case study. The intellectuals understand that Nixon went to unreasonable lengths to defend himself against a few pitiful demonstrators, but let one bad review be written of a friend’s book and they roll out the heavy artillery. Leonard Bernstein held his party for the Black Panthers when they were still chic; anyone who held a party for them came out high on the taste charts. Soon afterward Bernstein was turned into an object of ridicule by Tom Wolfe, who said (in Radical Chic) that the parties weren’t chic at all, in fact they were ludicrous. Then, for sharp observers, the way to win the taste game was to laugh at Bernstein. But no one associated with Bernstein and his kind of taste could sit still for that, and so abusive reviews were written of Wolfe’s book, in an attempt to put him down. For those of us whose fates are not played out in such public arenas, the put-down game has its more modest applications. The cultural gamesman who comes across a nasty review of Ragtime has a potent weapon to use the next time he hears someone praising the book.
The second result of this cultural insecurity is an intolerance toward mass culture. There is no such thing as a simple high-brow/low-brow cultural distinction any more; indeed, one of the important tricks in winning the taste stakes is to know when to pick up certain parts of popular culture— Harry Truman, roller derbies, country music—and when to drop them cold. It is the necessity of dropping, the importance of putting down the things not currently “in,” that makes for the destruction, because it leaves little room for toleration of the other classes. Oldsmobiles are not currently one of the chic items in mass culture, so Larry McMurtry, writing in the Atlantic‘s issue on Texas, defined the difference between himself and the mass of Texans this way:
“What I really felt, on my visit home, was that for three weeks I was surrounded by Oldsmo biles; probably I had been surrounded by them for the 32 years that I lived in Texas, but had simply accepted them without really noticing it, as one accepts chicken-fried steak without really tasting it.
“Exile is supposed to give one perspective, and mine has. I work in Georgetown, where I am surrounded by Mercedes and Volvos. . . . ”
A disdain for Oldsmobiles, the segregation of school children, even the bitter residue of the war, perhaps none of these things will bring us to class warfare. But we have created a world in which they can.