There’s a reason why some elders leave it to the next generation to clean up their stuff: Downsizing a lifetime’s accumulation of things can lead to a perfect storm of reflection, some of it disturbing.
The easy stuff went first — tossing the saggy-neck t-shirts, the long-unused suits and the shoes that never quite fit right. But as the time for moving to smaller quarters approached, I finally yielded to Getchen’s urging that I open the box labeled “Dave’s Mementos.”
Spilling from one of the first envelopes I picked from the box were my old Navy dog tags and their ball chain that landed with a metallic klink on the oak top of my desk. And so the reflection began with thoughts of Vietnam and President Richard Nixon and all that we have learned about Vietnam since then. And how those lessons might apply today.
Handling the dog tags, I wondered whether I would have served in the military had President Lyndon Johnson heeded Undersecretary of State George Ball who, according to a military history, warned that the South Vietnamese government was ineffective and could not be sustained by the U.S., even with a major effort.
Recent books suggest that the war might have ended earlier had Nixon not used a back channel communication with South Vietnam as he ran for the presidency. His secret envoy urged them not to attend peace talks, ostensibly to wait for a better deal if Nixon were elected — a possible violation, had it been proven then, of federal law.
Nixon’s escalation of the war as well as his paranoid and angry action against political enemies is documented in Bob Woodward’s 2015 book, “The Last of the President’s Men” — a book I had just read. It’s the story of Nixon’s presidency from the perspective of the presidential assistant, Alex Butterfield, who was tasked with setting up the secret taping system that recorded all the events in Nixon’s Oval Office — tapes that recorded the bizarre behavior of a president all the while he retained the power to dump 2.9 million tons of explosives on Vietnam with, as he put it in a memo retained by Butterfield, “zilch” result, a strategic failure. And after acknowledging the failed strategy, Nixon ordered another bombing surge in the same year, another 1.1 million tons.
Butterfield, a former pilot in Vietnam and an Air Force colonel when chosen to work in the White House, told the truth when asked directly by a congressional investigator if he was aware of a recording system in the Oval Office. His affirmative answer shocked the nation and brought down the presidency.
Asked about it, his mother said, “He always stood for moral integrity and straightforwardness... he was an Eagle Scout and carried the cross in church.” She identified Butterfield’s impulse to do the right thing, his sense of right and wrong, with his Christian upbringing, an upbringing shared by much of America.
My dog tags again, I run my finger across the stamped indents that identified me as a Baptist on the metal below my blood type. It’s been years since I was a Baptist, but I still carry with me the lessons learned in that beautiful old red brick church with the arched stained glass windows, and the stuffy classrooms in the basement where Mrs. Black and other teachers guided us through the lessons on Christian charity, truthfulness, the good Samaritan, loving our neighbors as ourselves, bearing false witness, and “doing unto the least of these...”
How can we as a people steeped in these lessons accept the recent actions of our government to turn our backs on people in need, such as those threatened by the effects of climate change or the loss of health care? Or the constant flow of “false witness,” the lies and conspiracy theories that so damage our social fabric.
There is a generation of grandchildren among us, who, 50 years from now will be going through their own boxes of mementos, wondering how their lives might have been different if a president had listened to informed advisers, Republicans and Democrats had worked together or someone under investigation had stepped forward to tell the truth to a congressional investigator.
I’ve emptied my box of many things, but I will keep the dog tags — a memento of the power of presidents to change the direction, in good ways and bad, of people’s lives.