The 1968 Exhibit: "Supernation at Peace and War," The Atlantic, March 1968

The enormous upheavals of the late 1960s--the war in Vietnam, the urban riots, the assassinations--sent the American punditocracy into a sustained and intense period of self-examination. *Writers and critics were sent out "on the road" (where Truth presumably was to be found) to survey the American scene, to take Americans' emotional temperature.

atlantic-march68Supernation at Peace and War

One of the most thoroughgoing of these editorial examinations was published in the venerable magazine The Atlantic in March 1968--journalist Dan Wakefield's "Supernation at Peace and War." *In fact, The Atlantic (as it was then calling itself on the cover, having dropped the century-old "Monthly") devoted this ENTIRE issue to Wakefield's peripatetic essay, which was then published in book form. *Wakefield was 35 at the time, and had already published several perceptive essays on the American scene, and would within a few years become a best-selling novelist (Going All the Way and Starting Over). *What an extraordinary assignment this young writer got in 1967! * "No one man can cover everything, but travel and capture as much as you can of America, its people, its moods, its troubles and disillusionments, its still bright and valid dreams, its many ways of life (and not a little death); portray what you can of the entire great, ingenious, rich and poverty-stinking, beautiful and beer-can glittery, generous and selfish, mixed-up and marching straight on to what? (a bigger and better destiny or the primeval asphalt swamp?), powerful yet impotent, clear-the-slums and kill-the-goddamn-grizzlies, pick-your-1968-Choice and take-your-chances kind of country this is."

The two wars of the 1960s

Published early in the year--and thus missing events like Johnson's decision not to run for re-election, the assassinations of King and RFK, and the violence at both national party nominating conventions--"Supernation" is perhaps more an artifact of 1967 than 1968. *And significantly the essay is dominated by issues of race and racial conflict on the one hand, and by the war in Vietnam on the other. *Wakefield writes perceptively: "The only declared war being fought by the United States is the War on Poverty. *The President declared it in 1964, and it continues to be waged. *Unlike the war in Vietnam, the War on Poverty does not cost very much to fight. *Even so, it is not a popular war, and in fact is even less popular politically than the war in Vietnam, which must make it THE most unpopular war in the nation's history. . . . Like the war in Vietnam, the War on Poverty seems to have no end in sight, but in both cases the President keeps predicting victory."

War games

There are many brilliant descriptions and stories in this long essay, but one of my favorites comes near the end. *Wakefield visits a "cordon and search mission" staged at a fake Vietnamese village staged at Fort Belvoir VA, outside Washington--thatch-roofed huts, idle peasants (soldiers and WACs in costume), fake artillery fire, clouds of smoke, and clearing out the "Vee-Cee" from fake tunnels. *All of this took place in front of an audience, in bleachers, of "several hundred young men in the khaki garb of the U.S. Army." *At the end, after the "village" was "pacified," Wakefield writes: "It seemed awfully simple, not only to me but to many of the men in the bleachers behind me. *Beneath the groans, there were loudly whispered comments like 'ka-rist,' and 'shee-it,' and after one cynical snort, one soldier said, 'Yeah, and then they lived happily ever after.'"