In the spring of ’65, Southern Miss was having a contest with Mississippi State and Ole Miss to see who could donate the most blood for our Vietnam wounded. We, the Golden Eagles, playfully cast the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Ole Miss Rebels as our foes, knowing that the real enemy was North Vietnam.
Excitement was in the air. Patriotism was the order of the day. Communism had to be defeated lest South Vietnam fall, creating the domino effect throughout Southeast Asia. We didn’t like LBJ’s domestic programs, but we liked his war. Our brothers, cousins and sweethearts were over there fighting it.
But counterculture movements can change things fast, especially when impressionable college students are influenced by enough sympathetic professors. By the fall quarter of 1965, most of the fervor had waned.
Why? Because within six months’ time, the counterculture was loud, in your face and growing. Composed of true believers and hangers-on who were simply having fun, protest groups began to change the tenor of the campus. The Southern Miss president was Dr. William D. McCain, a historian, an authority on Southern history and a general in the National Guard. With a distinguished air, nice suit and always shiny shoes, he walked the campus surveying his domain, never failing to promote what the counterculture would soon call “the establishment.”
One morning as I exited McMillan Hall dorm to head for class, I had to step around a sizable contingent of student and faculty member protesters who were chanting: “Hee, hee, Willie D. / All your wars are not for me / Hey, hey, Dr. McCain / You’re killing Asians / Please explain!”
Being a sucker for rhyme and rhythm, and since I was headed to Seventeenth Century Poetry, I lingered, staring at the protesters. So did other students who had happened by. We had heard about Ohio State, Brown University, and other places where anti-war students were doing their thing, but we had never observed it.
For the protesters to lay the Vietnam War at the feet of a Deep South university president was a stretch, but McCain was a general and therefore tainted. He was a convenient target for the protesters.
It was clear that the protesters were new at protesting. Their chant would have been dubbed “doggerel” by Dr. Bahr, my Seventeenth Century Poetry professor. It was silly and lacked logic. (I still enjoyed it.) Their slouchy dress was obviously costume, certainly not their usual attire. Protesting conformity, they wore uniforms. The male protesters were just beginning to grow their beards, some apparently with struggle. A few years hence, I would understand California Gov. Ronald Reagan’s comment about protesters at UCLA: “The protesters are chanting ‘Make love, not war,’ but from their washed-out look, it appears they could do neither.”
By the time I left college, the war protest movement and the drug subculture had essentially merged. In addition to anti-war rhetoric came the distinctly unattractive language of druggies: “getting stoned,” “getting wasted” and “bad trip.” What had started at Berkley and New Haven, Connecticut (Yale), had reached the heart of Dixie. Drugs and anti-war protests were in. The military and anyone over 30 was out.
Those heady times changed America. The first president to rise from that era was Bill Clinton who, as everyone knows, “loathed the military,” “didn’t inhale,” and suggested that “is” has multiple meanings.
Another figure was our current Secretary of State who, in 1971 on the late night “Dick Cavett Show,” castigated his fellow American troops as well as the entire military.
Despite the George W. Bush interlude, the ascendancy of the Clintons and now the Obamas to the halls of power indicates that the spirit of the ’60s, with its LBJ-spawned dependency and distaste for conflict, is still with us.
President Clinton only loathed the military; President Obama wishes to reduce it. The ’60s chant of “Peace, brother!” is the President’s heart and policy. His view of the world is rooted in ’60s romanticism. Like LBJ, he thrives on domestic issues. Not good for a superpower leader.
With ideological fervor, Obama has pressed his domestic agenda, exceeding his constitutional powers and changing existing law on whim. International affairs annoy him. He rejects American exceptionalism and world leadership, and the world knows it.
If America is to ever again provide an example of freedom for other nations, we will have to dry off from the ’60s. Currently, we’re still quite damp.
Roger Hines is a retired high school English teacher in Kennesaw.