On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech in Riverside Church in Manhattan, to an overflow crowd of thousands. It was time, he said, to “break the betrayal of my own silences.” King didn’t just condemn the United States’ war in Southeast Asia. He condemned all of it: the country’s long history of expansion, its “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” and a political culture where “profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people.”
In a way, King’s speech was an answer to John Quincy Adams’s 1836 denunciation of his Jacksonian colleagues, a call and response across history. Who would pay for America’s frontier wars? Adams asked. The poor, King said. Would war, asked Adams, provide the social glue to bind together the “motley compound” that made up the U.S. population? Yes, said King, “in brutal solidarity,” but only so long as the killing continued. “Is there not yet hatred enough?” Adams asked. “Have you not Indians enough” to exterminate? The United States, King said, was the world’s “greatest purveyor of violence. . . . This business of burning human beings with napalm” was a “symptom of a far deeper malady,” a sickness at the heart of the republic.
And just as Adams watched the Jacksonians use perpetual war on the frontier to reverse his policy of (as he wrote in his diary) “progressive and unceasing internal improvement,” King watched Vietnam derail the struggle for justice: “It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam.” And he watched this program get “broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war.”
“We are left,” he said elsewhere, “standing before the world glutted by our own barbarity.”
King’s dissent wasn’t just a break with the Cold War liberal consensus, which conditioned support for civil rights at home on backing anti-communism abroad. Rather, his protest entailed the refutation of an older, more primal premise. The nation was founded on the idea that expansion was necessary to achieve and protect social progress. Over the centuries, that idea was realized, again and again, through war. Extending the vote to the white working class went in hand with Indian removal; the military defeat of the Confederacy by the Union Army didn’t just end slavery, but marked the beginning of the final pacification of the West, with the conquered frontier continuing as an important basis of Caucasian democracy. Millions of acres were distributed to veterans. By the time African Americans started entering the armed forces in significant numbers, with the war of 1898, there was no more frontier land to hand out. But military service remained one of the country’s most effective mechanisms of social mobility, for African Americans as well as for working-class people in general, with the G.I. Bill of Rights providing education, medical care, and home-ownership to veterans.
King’s dissent, therefore, signaled a schism in American politics worthy of his namesake. To “go beyond Vietnam” didn’t just mean splitting from the New Deal coalition by demanding an exit from Southeast Asia. It meant breaking with the devil’s bargain that had tempted even Du Bois, the idea that social progress could be achieved in exchange for support for expansion and militarism abroad. For King well understood that while war made progress possible, it also threatened progress, activating the backlashers, revanchists, and racists who run through US history.
The War of 1898 opened the military to more African Americans, giving them a mechanism to claim a place in the nation. The same year also witnessed, in Wilmington, North Carolina, white soldiers returning home and slaughtering African Americans, driving them from public office. For all that war turns reform into a transactional arrangement (some suffragists, for instance, traded their support for Woodrow Wilson’s war in exchange for his support for their right to vote), and for all that war worked as a safety valve (helping to vent extremism outward), it also created the aggressive, security-and order-obsessed political culture King criticized.
King paid a price for his opposition. He was rebuked by allies both white (who represented the liberal consensus that support for war abroad would allow progress at home) and black (who bet their hopes on that consensus), including Jackie Robinson, Roy Wilkins, and even Bayard Rustin. Newspapers around the country were near unanimous in their censure. The Washington Post essentially gave King notice that his services would no longer be needed. “He has diminished his usefulness,” its editors said, describing his remarks as “sheer inventions of unsupported fantasy.”
“Linking these hard, complex problems,” the Los Angeles Times lectured, in a piece with the catechetical headline Dr. King’s Error, will “lead not to solutions but to a deeper confusion.” King continued to criticize the war, describing Vietnam as “some demonic, destructive suction tube,” drawing resources, commitment, and attention outward even as it worsened domestic polarization. Racists killing brown people abroad became more racist; opponents of racism, reacting to the killing, became more militant. As urban riots continued through 1967, King repeatedly pointed out that money spent on war could have been used to alleviate poverty at home, that political energy that could have been put to building a more just nation was squandered in yet another “divine, messianic crusade.” The most destructive passions, worsened by war, might be channeled outward by war, as black and white soldiers united in brutal solidarity to kill foreigners. But, King said, the United States was fast approaching a point in time when it would no longer be able to avoid a reckoning with itself and when it would no longer be able to deflect the most destructive elements of its race hatred outward. “Our nation,” he said, “is trying to fight two wars at the same time, the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty, and is losing both.”
“There is such a thing as being too late,” he said in his Riverside Church speech, warning that the United States, even if it did try to reverse course, might not be able to steer away from its self-destruction. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, ‘Too late.’”
Others around this time began to make similar arguments, that war simultaneously deepened domestic racism while directing much of its viciousness outward. In the 1950s, the historian William Appleman Williams was criticized for what some said was an overly materialist interpretation of American foreign policy, which held that US expansion was driven by a need to find new markets. Vietnam, though, turned him into something like a mad Freudian: “Americans,” he wrote, “denied and sublimated their violence by projecting it upon those they defined as inferior.”
The Confederate battle flag and other symbols of white supremacy, including the Klan hood and the burning cross, were already displayed in Vietnam before King’s dissent. On Christmas Day 1965, for example, a number of white soldiers paraded the flag in front of the audience at conservative comedian Bob Hope’s USO show at Bien Hoa Air Base; officers posed beside the banner and snapped pictures. After King’s 1967 speech, displays of the flag became more prominent.
“We are fighting and dying in a war that is not very popular in the first place,” Lieutenant Eddie Kitchen, a 33-year-old African American stationed in Vietnam, wrote his mother in Chicago in late February 1968, complaining of “people who are still fighting the Civil War.” Kitchen, who had been in the military since 1955, reported a rapid proliferation of Confederate flags, mounted on jeeps and flying over some bases. Two weeks later he was dead, officially listed as “killed in action.” His mother believed that he had been murdered by white soldiers in retaliation for objecting to the flag.
Kitchen’s was one of many such complaints. An African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, reported that southern whites were “infecting” Vietnamese with their racism. “The Confederate flags seem more popular in Vietnam than the flags of several countries,” the paper wrote, judging by the “display of flags for sale on a Saigon street corner.” Black soldiers who pushed back against such Dixie-ism suffered retaliation from white officers. Some were thrown in the stockade. When Private First Class Danny Frazier complained to his superiors of the “damn flag” flown by Alabama soldiers in his barracks, they demoted him and ordered him to do demeaning work.
Then, one year to the day of his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. As protests and riots spread in cities across the United States, white soldiers in Vietnam raised Confederate flags in celebration. Commanding officers let them fly for days. At Cam Ranh Bay Naval Base, a group donned white robes and held a Klan rally. At Da Nang and elsewhere, they burned crosses. The Department of Defense, following these and similar incidents, tried to ban the Confederate flag on its bases and its theaters of war. But Dixiecrat politicians, who controlled the votes President Lyndon Johnson needed to fund the war, objected. The Pentagon backpedaled and withdrew its ban.
Battle flags flew and crosses burned, and America’s war in Southeast Asia became a different kind of race war, not just against the Vietnamese but within the ranks. The kind of violence witnessed in Florida in 1898 repeated itself but on a larger scale. On one base, an African American soldier reportedly bombed an officers’ club in retaliation for the soused renditions of Confederacy on display every night.
Southern working-class soldiers, white and black, served in US wars in disproportionate numbers, so these escalating fights over symbols of southern racist identity effectively marked the end of the pact of 1898. That pact, which had brought about national reconciliation between North and South, rested on two elements. First, the War of 1898 and the serial wars that followed allowed southerners to reclaim admission into the nation without having to renounce their white supremacy.
On the contrary, the symbol of that supremacy, the Confederate flag, was unfurled over the nation’s proliferating battlefields. Many could even imagine that that flag didn’t represent racial domination and slavery but rather honor and grit, a fighting spirit that was helping to carry democracy forward. Second, the War of 1898 was the beginning of the process by which African Americans could claim citizenship by being willing to fight for the nation, with the military coming to serve as the country’s most effective venue of class and race mobility and distributor of social services, such as education and welfare. The pact didn’t suppress or transcend racial conflict so much as deferred it from one war to the next. Defeat in Vietnam, though, marked the end of this deferral.
The domestic effects of the Vietnam War were worse than even King could have imagined, as racist opposition to the Civil Rights Movement fused with hostility toward the anti-war movement to nationalize the Confederate flag. The banner was increasingly seen not just at gatherings of the fringe KKK and the John Birch Society but at “patriotic” rallies in areas of the country outside the old South: in Detroit, Chicago, California, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. On Flag Day, June 14, 1970, pro-war demonstrators marched up Pittsburgh’s Liberty Avenue with a large Confederate flag, demanding that “Washington . . . get in there and win.”
The battle flag, for many, remained an emblem of racist reaction to federal efforts to advance equal rights and integration. Yet the banner’s meaning seeped more broadly into American society. Race, militarism, and class conflict merged into a wider “culture war,” leading some in the rising New Right to rally around the St. Andrew’s Cross to avenge both the South and South Vietnam. The Confederate flag stopped flying as the pennant of reconciliation, the joining of the southern military tradition to northern establishment might to spread Americanism abroad. It now was the banner of those who felt that the establishment had sacrificed that tradition, “stabbed it in the back.” The battle flag became the banner not of a specific Lost Cause but of all of white supremacy’s lost causes.
The working-class Floridian lieutenant William Calley, for instance, the only soldier convicted for taking part in the March 1968 My Lai Massacre, became the representational bearer of this aggrieved standard. He was popular throughout the country, especially in the South; his supporters rallied under the Confederate flag and Richard Nixon embraced Calley in his reelection campaign. As a result, the massacre of over five hundred Vietnamese civilians was transformed from a war crime into a cultural wedge issue, used to nationalize southern grievance and weaponize the wartime coarsening of sentiment for electoral advantage.
“Most people,” said Nixon of Calley’s actions at My Lai, “don’t give a shit whether he killed them or not.”
“The villagers got what they deserved,” agreed Louisiana senator Allen Ellender.
With loss in Vietnam, the racial and ideological conflicts long held in check by war began to worsen. A switch flipped on King’s demonic suction tube: the wind now blew inward, fanning the flames of reaction. King had said that the war was a domestic issue. After he left the White House in 1969, LBJ agreed, saying that were the United States to lose and South Vietnam fall, “we can have a serious backlash here at home.”How was it, he wondered, that a nation that had long believed itself to be unburdened by the past kept reenacting the past.
As to the Confederate flag, it is still carried into battle, including into the Persian gulf. But it now competes with so many other racist symbols that its meaning has dimmed. As all of the country’s catastrophic military interventions start to meld into one another—Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya—it conveys little more than free-floating resentment, a resentment that authorizes a right to inflict pain. According to one report at the infamous Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, a platoon implicated in the torture of detainees and known as the “Testosterone gang”—they were “devout bodybuilders” and were considered the facility’s cruelest interrogators—hung the battle flag in their tent.
The story of the breakdown of the long postwar consensus is well known: loss in Southeast Asia, a decade of race conflicts and urban riots, assassinations, Watergate, and rising energy prices. During the Cold War, the United States didn’t “enlarge the area of freedom,” even if that freedom was only defined as the ability of corporations to extract, invest, and extend their dominion. Through the two decades following World War II, Washington helped execute dozens of anti-communist coups around the world—from Iran in 1953 to Indonesia in 1964 to Chile in 1973—meant to open the third world to US capital. The result was the opposite, sparking ever greater waves of economic protectionism—the Mexican Revolution writ large across the globe—that, through nationalization of industry and high tariffs, shut out US investment.
“Today, the belief in American exceptionalism has vanished with the end of empire, the weakening of power, the loss of faith in the nation’s future,” wrote Daniel Bell in 1975. Fifteen years earlier, Bell had published his influential The End of Ideology, which held that the United States had moved beyond ideology, that New Deal radicalism had given way after World War II to a faith in technocratic improvement. In liberal America, wisdom was institutionalized in democratic structures; it was policy, not social conflict, much less ideology, that guided gradual progress.
Now, though, impressed by the madness with which liberal technocrats drove the country into a war that escaped the bounds of reason, Bell offered something of a revision. How was it, he wondered, that a nation that had long believed itself to be unburdened by the past kept reenacting the past, especially the trauma of “frontier violence”? Why was Cowboys and Indians still the only game the country knew how to play?
Bell tried to answer. There had been a weightlessness to American identity, he said, the idea that the nation had freed itself from the obligations of history, along with a sense of deathlessness. No obstacles, not even mortality, stood in the way of growth. Christian righteousness had sanctified the “American mission” outward and had given the country “a special American metaphysical destiny.” But defeat in Southeast Asia had brought the United States down to earth. “There is no longer a Manifest Destiny or mission,” Bell wrote. The war, the lies by which it was justified and waged, had proven that “we have not been immune to the corruption of power. We have not been the exception. Our mortality now lies before us.” The United States was “caught up in the ricorsi of history.”
The myth of limitlessness had created a uniquely American dilemma. On the one hand, in all the ways discussed above, the ability to move out in the world did help stabilize society. Even the New Deal, which cited a closed frontier to argue that a strong, regulatory state was needed to manage a complex society, was dependent on the opening of foreign markets. Those markets helped consolidate a high-tech, capital-intensive corporate sector that supported a domestic reform agenda. On the other hand, a blind belief in limitlessness destabilized society, driving the United States out beyond the limit (Octavio Paz, in 1970, described the United States as a “giant which is walking faster and faster along a thinner and thinner line”) until it hit the limit in Vietnam, a war that broadcast a deep distrust throughout society, worsened domestic racial and class conflicts, and led to a breakdown of governing legitimacy.
The end of American exceptionalism might, Bell wrote, prompt a more honest reckoning of the problems the country faced, allowing for the creation a more self-consciously social state, a “greater range” of policy choices, including something approximating European social democracy. But Bell thought it more likely that the instability generated by the war would continue. All the “issue politics,” or what now are called cultural “wedge issues,” brought to the fore by Vietnam—race, war, crime, drugs, sex, the price of gas and heating oil—would create an opening for “all-or-nothing demagoguery.”
Richard Nixon, of course, was the kind of politician Bell had in mind. Nixon’s “southern strategy” famously played to racist resentment. But it turns out, he also had a stratagem farther south, a “border strategy.” As the historian Patrick Timmons has written, Nixon, running for president in 1968, promised to get tough on illegal drugs—the “marijuana problem,” as he put it—coming in from Mexico. And then, shortly after winning the White House, Nixon did put into place “Operation Intercept,” a short-lived, military-style, theatrical crackdown on the border.
That the operation was run by two right-wing personalities, G. Gordon Liddy and Joe Arpaio, highlights the continuities between Nixon and the kind of demagoguery Bell warned, presciently, would become a staple of US politics. Liddy went on to run Nixon’s “Plumbers,” as the burglars who broke into the Watergate Hotel were called, precipitating Nixon’s downfall. Arpaio, the racist sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona who gratuitously imposed humiliating, brutal, and often deadly conditions on his overwhelmingly Latino prisoners, would become an early supporter of Trump.
Bell thought that the nation would be increasingly subjected to the kind of stunts Nixon played on the border. Conservative demagogues, he wrote, would be best positioned to take advantage of wedge issues. But, forced inward by the “end of empire,” they wouldn’t be able to build on this advantage—that is, they wouldn’t be able to use foreign policy to achieve a “critical realignment,” a new set of moral ideals of how the country should be organized that would outlast their presidencies. By leveraging polarization to win, conservatives would only worsen polarization, thus creating something like a permanent state of disequilibrium.
Bell was half right, and half wrong. He didn’t see Ronald Reagan coming.
Excerpted from The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America by Greg Grandin. Published by Metropolitan books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Greg Grandin. All rights reserved.