On successive days recently, I saw two museum shows that caught something of a lost American world and seemed eerily relevant in the Age of Trump. The first, “Hippie Modernism,” an exploration of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s (heavy on psychedelic posters), was appropriately enough at the Berkeley Art Museum. To my surprise, it also included a few artifacts from a movement crucial to my own not-especially-countercultural version of those years: the vast antiwar protests that took to the streets in the mid-1960s, shook the country, and never really went away until the last American combat troops were finally withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973. Included was a poster of the American flag, upside down, its stripes redrawn as red rifles, its stars as blue fighter planes, and another showing an American soldier, a rifle casually slung over his shoulder. Its caption still seems relevant as our never-ending wars continue to head for “the homeland.”
“Violence abroad,” it said, “breeds violence at home.” Amen, brother.
The next day, I went to a small Rosie the Riveter Memorial museum-cum-visitor’s center in a national park in Richmond, California, on the shores of San Francisco Bay. There, during World War II, workers at a giant Ford plant assembled tanks, while Henry Kaiser’s nearby shipyard complex was, at one point, launching a Liberty or Victory ship every single day. Let me repeat that: on average, one ship a day. Almost three-quarters of a century later, that remains mindboggling. In fact, those yards, as I learned from a documentary at the visitor’s center, set a record by constructing a single cargo ship, stem to stern, in just under five days.
And what made such records and that kind of 24/7 productiveness possible in wartime America? All of it happened largely because the gates to the American workforce were suddenly thrown open not just to Rosie, the famed riveter, and so many other women whose opportunities had previously been limited largely to gender-stereotyped jobs, but to African Americans, Chinese Americans, the aged, the disabled, just about everyone in town (except incarcerated Japanese Americans) who had previously been left out or sold short, the sort of cross-section of a country that wouldn’t rub elbows again for decades.
Similarly, the vast antiwar movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was filled with an unexpected cross-section of the country, including middle-class students and largely working-class vets directly off the battlefields of Southeast Asia. Both the work force of those World War II years and the protest movement of their children were, in their own fashion, citizen wonders of their American moments. They were artifacts of a country in which the public was still believed to play a crucial role and in which government of the people, by the people, and for the people didn’t yet sound like a late-night laugh line. Having seen in those museum exhibits traces of two surges of civic duty — if you don’t mind my repurposing the word “surge,” now used only for U.S. military operations leading nowhere — I suddenly realized that my family (like so many other American families) had been deeply affected by each of those mobilizing moments, one in support of a war and the other in opposition to it.
My father joined the U.S. Army Air Corps immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He would be operations officer for the First Air Commandos in Burma. My mother joined the mobilization back home, becoming chairman of the Artist’s Committee of the American Theatre Wing, which, among other things, planned entertainment for servicemen and women. In every sense, theirs was a war of citizens’ mobilization — from those rivets pounded in by Rosie to the backyard “victory gardens” (more than 20 million of them) that sprang up nationwide and played a significant role in feeding the country in a time of global crisis. And then there were the war bond drives for one of which my mother, described in an ad as a “well known caricaturist of stage and screen stars,” agreed to do “a caricature of those who purchase a $500 war bond or more.”
World War II was distinctly a citizen’s war. I was born in 1944 just as it was reaching its crescendo. My own version of such a mobilization, two decades later, took me by surprise. In my youth, I had dreamed of serving my country by becoming a State Department official and representing it abroad. In a land that still had a citizen’s army and a draft, it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t also be in the military at some point, doing my duty. That my “duty” in those years would instead turn out to involve joining in a mobilization against war was unexpected. But that an American citizen should care about the wars that his (or her) country fought and why it fought them was second nature. Those wars — both against fascism globally and against rebellious peasants across much of Southeast Asia — were distinctly American projects. That meant they were our responsibility.
If my country fought the war from hell in a distant land, killing peasants by the endless thousands, it seemed only natural, a duty in fact, to react to it as so many Americans drafted into that military did — even wearing peace symbols into battle, creating antiwar newspapers on their military bases, and essentially going into opposition while still in that citizen’s army. The horror of that war mobilized me, too, just not in the military itself. And yet I can still remember that when I marched on Washington, along with hundreds of thousands of other protesters, it never occurred to me — not even when Richard Nixon was in the White House — that an American president wouldn’t have to listen to the voices of a mobilized citizenry.
Add in one more thing. Each of those mobilizing moments, in its own curious fashion, proved to be a distinctly American tale of triumph: the victory of World War II that left fascism in its German, Italian, and Japanese forms in literal ruins, while turning the U.S. into a global superpower; and the defeat in Vietnam, which checked that superpower’s capacity to destroy, thanks at least in part to the actions of both a citizen’s army in revolt and an army of citizens.
CONTINUE STORY: America Has Become a War Machine