What Has Happened to the U.S. Since the Kids Left Woodstock?

A next-door neighbor recently said that she can’t remember much about being at Woodstock, although she was there. I watched from afar at a camp for disabled kids near New London, Connecticut. I was a kind of cultural voyeur, looking on jealously at the photographs on the covers of major weekly magazines. For many of the baby boomer generation, not being there was a major miss in the cultural experience of a decade and perhaps a lifetime. Music was a large part of the 60s’ generation.

Now, we’ll be 50 years out on August 15th and the yardstick of that intervening history begs to be recounted. I often ask myself how we could have come to this disastrous juncture as a society, but the signs were always there if one cared to pay attention. If Woodstock celebrated peace, love, and music, then the war we were in set the tone for what was to come. Some say that Woodstock was a brief and welcome interlude from that war where America lost its soul.

Eight months after Woodstock, this society was already on the path that the loss of soul marked. The shots fired at Kent State and Jackson State were the first benchmarks on that journey.

People need work and the beginning of the move to a global marketplace was well under way and that move would undermine what it meant to earn a living. Industries shifted to sites across the world and a sizable number of workers in the U.S. became untethered from economic security. It happened in auto production, steel, and textiles among many other industries, some of which had enormous fossil fuel footprints.

The revolution in Iran was the next pivotal moment in world history. Revolutionaries threw off the shackles that had called the tune in a repressive regime led by the shah who had replaced a democratically elected government in the 1950s. That CIA-driven regime tortured its opponents and the reaction to the overthrow of the shah’s rule morphed into a repressive theocracy. But that theocracy did not represent all the people of Iran.

The taking of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and the machinations around the release of its staff precipitated the ascension of Ronald Reagan to the presidency and the beginning of the massive economic and social realignment that is now so obvious in the person of Trump. There is a direct line in the sand that can be seen from the Great Communicator to his Republican cohorts and heirs, passing with minor adjustments through Clinton and Obama.

The Great Communicator, always an enemy of free speech and antiwar protest (he had called for a bloodbath to end the Vietnam peace movement and we got that), knew that the Vietnam Syndrome (a reticence in the U.S. to engage in foreign wars) would call for a slow approach to resuming the bellicose foreign policy of the U.S. in his implementation of low-intensity warfare in countries in Central America, El Salvador and Nicaragua being the most notable. The U.S. trained terrorists to man death squads and paid for mercenary military forces.

Then came George H.W. Bush, the former CIA director.  Bush would begin the unraveling of Iraq as a nation in answer to its invasion of oil fields in neighboring Kuwait. The “turkey shoot” of fleeing Iraqi forces from Kuwait would mark the end of the Vietnam Syndrome and the beginning of a return to war as a tool of foreign policy over diplomacy. The nation would celebrate war once again.

Clinton, the neoliberal, had a brief stint as commander-in-chief in the former Yugoslavia where ethnic cleansing was taking place and padded his zest for neoliberalism with the opening of the floodgates of mass incarceration that had already been going on for a decade as a partial answer to an unnecessary workforce that globalization had sidelined. His criminalization of even minor drug offenses, his end of welfare, his opening of an easier pathway for executions all make his kiss and not telling in the White House a kind of bad joke.

George W. Bush was inept until Osama bin Laden gave him the opportunity to begin the endless wars we witness today in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and created the conditions of instability that launched wars in other countries and other continents, and turned, to a degree, the Middle East into a permanent shooting gallery and the trough at which the military-industrial-financial complex could endlessly feed. It was during Bush II’s tenure that the society witnessed the steady loss of civil liberties and the attempt of spy agencies to monitor all communications around the world and to look at something as innocuous as the reading habits of ordinary people at libraries. Here was the beginning of the end of habeas corpus and the CIA black sites where torture was practiced under the tutelage of U.S. psychologists.

With the exit of Bush, the society once again returned to the false hope and change of Barack Obama, who would cast off his base of supporters with a disregard that is breathtaking. Obama proved true to neoliberalism. He enlarged the war in Afghanistan with the now-famous troop surge of that era and Iraq became the base of yet another group of murderers who had filled the space created by Bush II’s destabilizing of the country’s infrastructure and government. Under Obama, citizens of the U.S. could be summarily executed without the due process of the law. Obama continued the neoliberal debacle in his reaction to the Great Recession of 2007-2008, which saw the massive loss of homes and home equity values that were felt the hardest in Black and Latino/Latina communities. Those who were too big to fail did well at the trough of federal taxpayer bailout funds. Even a casual observer, sitting outside all of this mess, could see that both the right and neoliberals were paving the way for the authoritarian know-nothing Trump.

Trump, an early member of the generation of baby boomers, was born with a real estate silver spoon in his mouth, and along with his father, Fred, honed a form of racism that was applied to their rental housing. Trump knew how to leave workers and contractors at his many projects high and dry, while he talked of making America Great Again and bringing back jobs to the U.S. And while many have prospered under Trump’s wealth transfer though taxes and tax laws, it remains to be seen if the economy will tank once again and require yet another bailout at the expense of ordinary people, many of whom don’t have the cash to meet even a minor personal or family emergency.

It seems that trying to view the world once again through the eyes of a kid, who would go down to a peaceful Connecticut lake near the sea with a fellow camp counselor and look up at the night sky and wonder just what the Apollo mission was all about, and whether the war half a world away would come crashing in on the quietude of the cricket chorus that made that summer night so close and wondrous.

The moon walk was only hours away, as Nixon bombed the hell out of the Vietnamese people through his secret plan for peace. My Lai and the Tet Offensive were already behind us, while the carnage of Kent State and Jackson State and the expansion of the war in Cambodia was just ahead.

Fifty years ago the Congress and the judiciary were no help in protest against the war, but the protest movement was vibrant and focused. It came out of the civil rights movement and gave rise to many, many movements of protest in the coming decades.

A person could stand on that coastal plain in Connecticut today and look back over his or her shoulder and see the sweep of history that is breathtaking. Vietnam was not an existential threat, even though it felt that way to many of us. Now, we face the actual existential threat of environmental destruction that will wipe out species and obliterate every high achievement that humanity has ever accomplished. The latter is especially true so close to the sea all these years later.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).