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April 30, 1995 

The Roots That Clutch

April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot warned. It stirs the mix of memory and desire, signaling us with renewal often fearsome in its sudden beauty, reawakening both the prospect of joy and the fragility of our lives, along with much we might prefer to forget.

The old poet would have been duly reverential toward this current month's commemorations and remembrances of Oklahoma City, though there are other Aprils we are more disposed to be reminded of this morning: The one of 20 years ago today as tanks breached Saigon's final perimeter, and its precursor on the same day five years earlier.

Nixon's invasion of Cambodia on April 30, 1970 made the fall of Saigon inevitable. In large measure, the war in Vietnam was decided that evening. In the following week a hundred student strikes began; with the May 4 shootings at Kent State, another 600 campuses shut down. Moderates made their first substantial foray into antiwar dissent, and the Nixon administration was suddenly filled with hundreds of apostates from within its own ranks. The very fabric of government was falling apart, as Kissinger noted in one of his rare moments of prescience. Official Washington's own children were among those in the streets, livid with denunciation of their fathers' complicity in a decade-long lie.


It was pretty much the last hurrah for a New Left which had been relatively moribund since the agonies of 1968, rent by internecine disarray, disillusionment and the crudities of bomb-throwing "vanguard revolutionaries." Cambodia united us again, if only temporarily, and provided the occasion for one last salvo, which took.

However effective we knew those mobilizations had been, we also knew we were powerless to stop the prolongation of the war under its "Vietnamization" rubric. It would go on for five more years, at a cost which reverberates in all of us still, as the clammy apologia of Robert Strange McNamara has lately reminded us.

Confrontation-hardened activists had drifted away by the end of the 1960s, morose and weary with political action, gravitating toward countercultural quietude, self-help transformation or other varieties of brown-rice-and-lentils placidity. For me, as a draft resister anticipating indictment and prison, I began to despair of the old slogan which had become a mantra of sustenance to Selective Service non-cooperators: that the war would end and the boys would come home when the sons of the middle class went to prison.

Post-1968, we were out there alone, kids in our late-teens and early-twenties, no longer seeking savior-politicians, re-creating ourselves anew each day with no landmarks or guides beyond our own instincts and intelligence. Weatherman-like factions forced their way into prominence, with no little appeal to myself and my Resistance brothers despite our commitment to non-violence. That we never crossed that scrupulously-defined line and lashed out I can only attribute to the close watch we kept over each other: arguing, cajoling, questioning, sympathizing --- keeping the goal and the means synchronized. All we had were each other and a rudimentary process of mutual trust which we counted on to get us through from day to day.


I wavered perilously from that path only once: the night of April 30, 1970. The moment KSAN broadcast the bulletin on the Cambodia "incursion," the festering accretion of years of rage burst, and instantly I knew I was prepared to do anything. The endless discussions with cohorts about ends-and-means now seemed meaningless, the self-critical ardor with which we approached proper tactics, redundant. Why should it matter any more, I wondered, that there never be any hindsight questions about the methods we employed?

I was at an old friend's place that night, an attic apartment in the Haight. We hunched over the edge of the bed, clinging to each other in the dark, listening to the news reports and watching the threading fog enfold the neighborhood. Because she adamantly insisted, I agreed to stay rather than head out into the streets. We used those remaining hours as if they were our last, and morning revealed a fervent night's gift of clarity: There simply was no choice of actions for me to make, because the course I had chosen years ago was the only conscionable one.


Three decades later antiwar activists are informed that we've been vindicated, thanks to Robert McNamara's revelations. This inane non sequitur becomes appalling as we watch McNamara peddle his retrospectus under the guise of seeking absolution he doesn't really want. His is a self-serving, cowardly recitation, the rote expiation of a man cocooned in a Cold War ethos he still justifies, someone who has yet to step out of himself, and whose basic regret is that his objectives were not cost-efficient. In short, he didn't speak out these past 30 years because he didn't have it in him to do so.

We've never needed to have vindication conferred upon us; we've assumed it all along. We dared once to go against the so-called best and brightest, knowing we were right, and shouldering it alone. To choose to be a witness for peace and justice was to be hated, and the Type-A blowhards and McNamara clones despise us still. Then as now, this much is certain: we get by with a little help from only our true friends.

Copyright John Hutchison 1995
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