Obama New Phenomenon in US Politics
By Choi Yearn-hong
Obama is a new phenomenon in American politics, but it is not a new phenomenon for those who witnessed the 1960s. He is a reincarnation of a black man from the 1960s. In him, I can see a kind of reincarnation, a revitalization of the ideas of the 1960s. He sounds like John Kennedy in his speech to white audiences and like Martin Luther King from another speech to black audiences.
The 1960s was a decade of youth and vitality. As a new Korean foreign student at Indiana University (IU), I witnessed a new mood in American society and politics. I thought what made the United States great was this youth and vitality, if not revolutionary zeal, among the college students. IU students elected a black student as the president of the student government. It was a revolutionary phenomenon in the conservative state in which a white man dating a black woman, or a black woman dating a white man resulted in police questioning. Angela Davis was a black pearl at the University of California at Berkeley.
The 1960s was a dynamic decade starting with charismatic president John F. Kennedy, and ending with common man president Richard M. Nixon; with Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Hippies, anti-war demonstrations, and Jane Fonda in between. Many remember the 1960s vividly. They are nostalgic for those days. I am one of them.
I think I am fortunate to have witnessed the last part of the 1960s in the United States, because I may never see such a passionate movement against the Vietnam War, and for environmental protection in my lifetime.
Anti-war demonstrators who had a cause finally stopped the Vietnam War. The major television networks such as CBS, NBC and ABC reported the tragedy of the war on the news throughout the day in color. Jane Fonda was the symbol of anti-war demonstrations from Hollywood. She was a popular woman among college students. They accepted Ho Chi Minh as a legitimate leader of all Vietnam. Fonda visited Hanoi. It was sensational. She praised Ho and the Viet Cong. I could not believe her speeches, because she was labeled a traitor. Papers from the Pentagon were leaked into the New York Times and the Washington Post. That was amazing. The Supreme Court stood for freedom of the press. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas said, ``What made the U.S. great was not the atomic bomb, but the First Amendment.''
South Vietnam leader Ngo Dinh Diem, the French-picked and later the U.S.- picked leader was ousted by a military coup detat and Buddhist monks. The U.S. superior arms could not win the war, because they were being smuggled to the Viet Cong overnight. There were no suicide bombers, but a U.S. military victory was hard to come by after the seven-year war. President Lyndon B. Johnson yielded to the anti-war pressure groups. He blamed the defeat on Washington politics, not on the Vietnamese battlefield. He did not see the cause of the defeat dwelled in the fact that the U.S. intervention in Vietnam was not legitimate. The U.S. soldiers were frustrated in the un-winnable war in Vietnam, as exemplified by the My Lai massacre.
The French army was defeated by Ho Chi Minh in May 1954. The United States should have accepted Ho as the legitimate leader of Vietnam, but it did not. The United States feared the spread of communism in Southeast and South Asia. However, the domino effect was not seen after Vietnam was unified under Communist rule. Vietnam has since become a market-economy, closer to the United States politically and economically.
The French created a puppet regime in South Vietnam under the name of democracy and the market economy, because Ho happened to be a communist leader. In 1957, communists from both South and North Vietnam began attacking villages in South Vietnam. China, Russia and other communist countries sent aid to the Vietnamese communists during the war. Non-communist countries supported South Vietnam. The United States became the chief ally of the South. In 1973, the United States agreed to a cease-fire, accepting defeat in the seven-year war with the Viet Cong. South Vietnam could not stand the Viet Cong and Viet Minh attacks. The war was over in 1973. But the war had already been over when the U.S. Government yielded to the pressure mounting from the anti-war popular sentiment in the United States. President Johnson lost popularity, even though he had achieved many great social programs he proposed. He was challenged by Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was not well known but a strong anti-war senator from Minnesota in the Democratic primaries.
I contributed my lengthy article against the war in an underground newspaper. I joined the anti-war demonstrations. I was admonished by the Office of Foreign Students at IU not to join such a radical movement sponsored by the town students, the so-called Hippies. They were regarded as an unfavorable group who smoked pot. Possession of marijuana was illegal. But the young people experimented with it out of fun or curiosity. I downgraded cannabis. That was my view. I was part of the leftist student movements. I was proud of my activities, even though I was a foreign student. However, toward the end of 1960s, the underground newspaper published by Mike King, vice-president of IU Student Government and his friends lost its popularity. Its demise was predictable, because the students were seeing the demise of the Vietnam War, and one revolutionary era.
A new wave was coming to shore; it was called homeostasis.
The Beatles were popular in the 1960s. During the middle and late 1960s, the Beatles helped to give rock music a new direction. Most earlier rock music had been based primarily on a strong beat, but the Beatles' music had a new melody. Their chord progressions were also more complex, and the lyrics of their sons were more imaginative and meaningful. John Lennon and Paul McCartney composed several songs of social criticism, and anti-war sentiment, including ``Nowhere Man'' (1965) and ``Eleanor Rigby'' (1966). They also wrote such beautiful ballads as ``Michelle'' (1965) and ``Yesterday'' (1965). Other popular songs when and after I arrived in the United States were ``Hey, Jude'' (1968), ``Come together'' (1969), and ``Something'' (1969). The group broke up in 1970, but it had begun to drift apart in the late 1960s.
I think that the anti-war movement came with the environmental movement in the United States. The Earth photographed from the Moon by the Apollo astronaut was beautiful with blue oceans and white clouds. The war on the beautiful place we call Earth was not acceptable at all and it contrasted with the beautiful place. That was a new awakening. Suddenly, people saw the polluted air and polluted water in the industrial area and Great Lakes. The Santa Barbara oil spill covered seagulls and all living things in the coastal area with oil. Dead black seagulls were on the cover of Newsweek magazine, as the war was on the cover for many weeks. The Cuyahoga River was on fire. The chemical world finally showed the danger and cancerous element in it to the general public.
Earth Day was a reminder to the young people: conserve energy and natural resources and protect the Earth. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 was a new symbol. In the morning of January 1, 1970, President Nixon signed the Act. The environmental movement was a new tide in the 1960s. It was amazing to see the darkness of American values, political and economic systems, advanced science and technology. I witnessed the anti-American movement in the environmental movement. The value of nature was discovered or rediscovered. The divinity of nature was heralding a new message to many young American people who were trying to see the Asian values in Confucianism and Buddhism. Lao Tzu was emerging as a new literature figure in the humanity and social science fields.
The 1960s was a decade of new revolutionary thinking and ideas, represented by the hippies and the Beatles, after the darkness of the free market economy, and capitalism, injustice of the Vietnam War, and racial discrimination and sexual bias had been exposed to the naked eyes of young Americana people.
Who knows? Obama may be the newly elected president of the United States in 2008. A black man with a funny name, funnier than my name. That is admirable! It has been a long journey of progress toward equality and human rights from the 1960s to 2008. Even if he is not elected, Obama's candidacy is admirable and significant. It could be the start of the second wave.
Choi Yearn-hong is a poet and writer. He is the founding president of the Korean-American Poets’ Group. The article is part of the writer’s memoir to be published this year. ― ED.