Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2017

A new book by J. Harvie Wilkinson, a Virginia native and retired judge, is a broad indictment of damage wrought to American institutions and culture by young radicals in the 1960s. Titled "All Falling Faiths: Reflections on the Promise and Failure of the 1960s," the book describes the impact on American society of a rebellious generation on the values held by their parents.

Reading this deeply personal memoir of Mr. Wilkinson's experiences during the 1960s as a student at Yale and University of Virginia law school, one might ask whether the subtitle might read "Gone with the Wind ll".

This book raises sobering questions about the Cultural Revolution's impact on our institutions, among them: education, family, justice, military service, and churches. Wilkinson compares the life he had known in Richmond, Virginia, and the major changes he experienced during the rest of his long career.

Those of us who watched the 1960s unfold recall the rebellious melee that erupted in Chicago in August 1968 when the Democratic Party's National Convention was nearly shut down. Two years later, even more destructive demonstrations rocked college campuses and even parts of the government in Washington, following the shooting of four students at Kent State University protesting the Vietnam War.

Impact of Vietnam

Of the various causes of the cultural revolution, the war in Vietnam and drafting a million young men to fight there produced deep fissures in American society that have not healed. In 1967 I was teaching an evening course on Southeast Asia at George Washington, University in Washington, and my students wanted an answer to just one question: "Why is this country fighting a war in Southeast Asia?"

Based on a study of the history and politics of Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, which I had acquired during an assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, I explained why President Kennedy decided in 1961 that Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, was a vital national interest. These students were not persuaded; they debated whether anyone should be drafted for the war. One of them had just been part of a "massive" march on the Pentagon, which barely avoided serious casualties.

1968 became the pivotal year in a confrontation between the old and new order of American society. The stunning assassinations of Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy that spring, and President Johnson's decision not to seek reelection, led to major violence at the Democrats' convention in Chicago. It caused many to question whether the political system had sustained serious damage. Richard Nixon's election as president in November seemed to confirm that political polarization in Washington was inevitable.

1960s legacy

What lasting impact has the 1960s and war in Vietnam had on the country?

American politics changed dramatically. With a few exceptions, Democrats and Republicans found it difficult in succeeding decades to agree on major legislation. The impeachment of Republican President Nixon, in 1974, and impeachment of Democratic President Clinton in 1998 produced a decline in civility and cooperation among members of Congress and added to political tensions in Washington. Today, major legislation such as health care reform, curbing illegal immigration, and approving Supreme Court justices is stymied by the partisan divide.

Similarly, bipartisanship in foreign policy diverged in the 1970s between those who thought the country should never wage war overseas, and those who believed America could not just walk away from obligations to allies and friends. Most Democrats didn't support Ronald Reagan's major defense buildup in the 1980s because they feared it would precipitate war with the Soviet Union.

After the Cold War ended in 1990 and Bill Clinton became president in 1993, Democrats favored large cuts in defense spending while giving more support to diplomacy to keep the peace. Bipartisanship in foreign policy prevailed for a time after the devastating 9-11 attacks, but it broke down over the war in Iraq. Barack Obama's unwillingness to use military force in the Syria civil war led to a deeper divide on the conduct of foreign policy in the last few years.

In 2017, the partisan divide in politics and foreign policy appears to be permanent.

File last modified on Tuesday, 03-AMAY-2017 8:45 AM EST

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