ROOTS OF MEMORY
MAY 24, 1996
On the day set aside to remember United States war veterans, Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with a panel of experts about the historical underpinnings of Memorial Day.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With me are presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss and journalist/author Haynes Johnson. Joining them are Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and sociology at New York University. He was an early leader in the anti-war movement in the 1960s; and Howard Prince, a psychologist and dean of the Jepson School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond, a Vietnam veteran, he is a retired army brigadier general. Thank you all very much for being with us. Michael, what is the history of Memorial Day? When did it begin?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, it really goes back to the Civil War period when men and women were decorating the graves of confederate veterans, and they began to decorate, also, the graves of union veterans who were down South, and the idea was that this was a day that led to healing. And then formally in 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War, General Logan, then the commander in chief in the Grand Army of the Republic, decided that there should be something called Decoration Day every year at the end of May in which you would honor the veterans of both sides in the Civil War, and then as time went on, it was changed to Memorial Day, with the idea that this was a day in which all Americans would honor the veterans of all wars in which American soldiers had served.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, so it's about healing as well as about remembering, and also it came out of war that caused great division?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Oh, no question. I mean, I think after a while in the 1870's and 1880's, it became such an important moment to rebind the ties that had been broken during the Civil War because both the North and the South began to celebrate it. In fact, a funny thing happened, which was that after Lincoln's great Gettsyburg Address, every speaker at each one of these Memorial Days would try to outdo Lincoln. And, of course, nobody could do it. That short address was the best way of really commemorating the dead, although Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1884 evidently made a fabulous speech in which he talked about in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. And our generation, he almost saying without the words, has a rendezvous with destiny because of what we went through in living through the action and passion of our time. So it also was a way of honoring an entire generation at a certain moment in time, and that was the critical issue of our country.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haynes, probably not many people--I may be wrong about this--but my guess is from my own experience--that not many people know the roots of this. People know that this is a time you take flowers to graves, but I'm not sure many people know about the roots. Why?
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Most of us take holidays now as holidays. We don't think about what they mean or represent. I remember when I was a child, there was something called Veterans Day, Armistice Day, which is now Veterans Day. That was World War I, then the title changed, and now we have these other sort of comemorations. The Fourth of July is about what? About firecrackers and parades and balloons. We're not very good about the roots of our history. I was fascinated when Michael and Doris were just talking. I grew up in New York City as the son of Southern parents, and when I was a child back home, as they said in the South, they celebrated Confederate Memorial Day. They--and somewhere along the line in history, they had separated out, and they just went back to the original, just Confederates, which is again a different sort of a commemoration for a day that ought to be for everybody.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think, General, that we don't remember the history of this day because we're ignorant of history, or is there something more to it? Is it something about the divisions more recent wars have caused?
HOWARD PRINCE, University of Richmond: Well, I thik one of the recent contributing factors is that we now have probably two generations that haven't been subject to a draft, therefore, have not been part of military service, and I think patriotism is also on the wane in general in our country today. With the advent of the volunteer army in 1973, people no longer required to serve, and now we have people who are in their 40's who simply don't know anything about it, and as Haynes said, it's simply become a holiday for too many people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Todd Gitlin, anything to add to this about the cultural significance of the way we look at this day?
TODD GITLIN, New York University: Well, a couple of things, Elizabeth. First of all, I'm struck by the fact that we're having this conversation. If Americans in general understood what Memorial Day was about and felt the certain common wave of feeling about it, then we wouldn't need to have a conversation exploring what we were about. The second thing that strikes me is that Americans have long wondered what exactly it was to be American and one of these classic answers to that question, maybe a central one in the 20th century, is we are the people who were victorious in a fight against the enemy. And now we have an enemy shortage. We don't any longer have a force that Americans feel identified with opposing, and, therefore, there's a kind of casualness and a kind of sense of, of question and disturbance around these celebrations. We don't really know what we're about.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But do you think that this began with Korea?
TODD GITLIN: Korea was not in play long enough, I think, to bring the country together. The Korean War became unpopular very quickly actually just at the same rate the Vietnam War did, but I think it's certainly true that not since World War II have we had an extended war at which Americans were victorious. And so there's a kind of poignancy now attached to the idea of the country coming together around war. It's not something--the common victory is not something that most Americans have shared.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: General, what do you think about that?
HOWARD PRINCE: I think that's absolutely right. We actually had 50 years now since the end of World War II. The Korean War was a very ambiguous situation. The Vietnam War, of course, was the first war that we lost, and the Desert Storm scenario was a relatively brief one, so I think we do have a passage of time that has taken away the significance of coming together around a victory. You don't celebrate losses, which was the case of after Vietnam.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And this is something that's very much of the 1990's and perhaps the 1980's. One very good example that really shows this is the celebration of the 50th anniversary of D-Day a couple of years ago. That was an enormous unifying experience for this country, I think especially young people who have not had an experience like World War II we're very much struck how much the country was very much united for noble purposes. The same was probably true on the 40th anniversary, 1984, when Ronald Reagan went to France and celebrated it with that very great speech. The interesting thing is if you go back to the 30th anniversary of D-Day, which was in the early 1970's, 1974, that was still during the time of Vietnam. Domestically in the United States, it made almost no impact. It was just a very different occasion.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that the attitude towards national service has changed, that the definition of what one should do has changed hugely over a couple of generations?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I wish it hadn't, but it has. I mean, what the general is saying and what Michael is saying, we don't serve in the military anymore, we don't serve in public service as much anymore. We're driven out of public service, and the concept of service, public or otherwise, I think has eroded greatly, and that's one of the reasons we have the dissonance in our public life today. We drive people out. We don't have the common experience of military, or of the New Deal period that Doris writes so brilliantly about, in a time where people served in the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the National Youth Authority, these agencies that did something, or the NRA, that built things for the people. That's not the commonality today.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And in fact, that common experience was not simply limited to those who served actually in the military. When you think about World War II, almost the entire nation was caught up in the struggle to build the weapons and the factory, sacrificing through the ration books. When Memorial Day was commemorated for that generation, there was really a sense that all of us were bound together by a common sacrifice, a mission, a common enemy. Life was lived more intensely and more communally, and I think that's what people are missing today, that sense of a national purpose.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well then, Doris, we have two candidates now from the two different generations. Is this still a time when the kind of message that Sen. Dole is, is giving right now will take hold, where he's saying, my commitment to these old ideas of service and my commitment to sacrifice in World War II show what kind of person I am, is this going to be still very important?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I have no doubt that there's an advantage for Sen. Dole in being able to tell his life story. It is an inspiring story that he was hurt so badly in the military, and that he came out of it and became the person that he is. On the other hand, there's no doubt that Clinton suffered to some extent from his experience in not being involved in the draft and the War in Vietnam. On the other hand, it's 50 years from World War II. I think if these two candidates were running against one another in 1946, it would be a very different situation, much more to Dole's advantage. In John F. Kennedy, when he ran for his congressional seat in 1946, with no political experience, almost unknown, was catapulted to the top precisely because he was seen as a war hero, that reprint of the "Reader's Digest" article on his PT-109 survival was what made him really a hero to the people in that district, but we're a long distance from that right now. Clinton's already been President for one term. The stories about the draft dodging, or whatever people might say, will be an echo, rather than a mainline story. So I don't think it's going to have the impact that it would have certainly 50 years ago or even four years ago.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Todd Gitlin, what do you think about that, an echo rather than a major impact?
TODD GITLIN: I think that's right. I agree with Doris Kearns Goodwin. I think that when people think of heroism, the self-made quality of Sen. Dole's experience, they also think of a war that happened a long time ago, and the truth is, whether you like it or not, that many more people share the experience of Bill Clinton in the sense of not having been in a war, or at least for any significant period of time, and having a very complicated feeling about the nation-state. On the one hand we feel indebted to the country. People feel that they should be of service, but their experience is not that. And in some sense, Bill Clinton is much more the man of the hour.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why is their experience not that?
TODD GITLIN: Because people live in distinct worlds. Our common institutions are no longer fusing people's experience. Public schools are something a lot of people are fleeing. Public participation in politics, for reasons that we have already said, is seen as distasteful and weird. The culture of--that is generally in circulation is kind of smirky, cantankerous spirit. People feel much more connected to their, their leagues, their football or basketball or baseball teams, than they do to the nation, and it is a kind of nostalgia for the warm, fuzzy feeling of attachment to the country. But that's not something people are so much living.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There's a generational disconnect. It's fascinating. I mean, if you think about it, most Americans today don't even remember Vietnam. That's a generation ago. It's hard for me to believe that, I'm sure for you who served in the war, but it's true. And we very seldom go backwards in this country. Usually we're moving forward. The majority of Americans don't remember Vietnam. They don't remember World War II, except as Todd says, in a fuzzy sort of warm and powerful way that it did something great, but that's ancient history to many people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And do you think that's a problem, or is that mine?
HAYNES JOHNSON: We're the historians panel. We better make something about learning the lessons from the past, and I think there are lessons to be learned here, but sure, I mean, Clinton's a problem. I mean, I think we're all better if we have some commonality that ties us together and binds us to our past and our future.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: General, how important do you think this division, this very real and symbolic division between President Clinton and Sen. Dole is on this issue of service and military history?
HOWARD PRINCE: Well, I think there are other factors that are going to be much more important and will come into play as the campaign unfolds. I think that Dole's experience is going to be one that's going to be very difficult, especially for middle-age and younger voters to identify with. It may seem as noble character, perhaps more so in contrast to President Clinton and his experience. But in the end, the American voters have shown that the character issue I don't think is going to be overwelming. It certainly wasn't in '92. And the President's on a roll right now. Barring some kind of disaster, some kind of mistake between now and November, it's going to be very hard for Dole, I think to over the advantages Clinton has as an incumbent. I don't think his service record is going to be that significant.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let me ask you as a retired general, does it disturb you that Memorial Day is sort of lost, that the meaning of it is lost?
HOWARD PRINCE: I think there is some, some significance to that loss, and it is troublesome to those who have volunteered to serve who risk their lives, put themselves in danger, not only for the possibility of going to war but in their training. Just in the last two weeks we had an accident involving 14 Marine deaths at Camp LeJeune, so military training today is realistic, it's challenging, it's dangerous. Young men and women have chosen to go into the armed forces as volunteers and also free up other youth to pursue their own personal ambitions and goals without having to worry about the prospect of military service, of delaying the start their own adult lives and careers. I think we owe the veterans something, the person who's chosen to go out and protect our freedoms and defend our national interest.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I also wanted to ask you, there was a kind of stigma attached for a while to military service after Vietnam. That's changed, hasn't it?
HOWARD PRINCE: Yes, I think very much so, but I can remember very well the early 70's. I was assigned to the faculty at West Point in 1975, and at that time, the academy was, I think you could safely characterize it as being demoralized, and I remember well going there wondering what could I say to the young people that would inspire them to want to stay there and to go out into the army. Finally I decided to tell them the truth, that the armed forces were in bad shape at that time and we needed good, fresh, new young leaders, and in the 20 years since then, what we have seen is real institutional reform in all the armed services that was reflected in success of the Gulf War. That's not an accident. It's something that happened through the hard work of the people, some of whom are very well known and visible like Gen. Schwarzkopf and Gen. Powell--people who decided to stay the course, work on things like ethics and values and leadership and to make the armed forces an atractive place to many young people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There's actually a recent Harris poll that showed it was the, the highest--had the highest positive ratings of any institution in the country. How do you explain that?
HOWARD PRINCE: It would have been something that I would have found--I would have thought this would have been very difficult for this to happen when I was in high school, in college in the early 1970's, that this could happen again, but I think the thing to remember is that history does operate in cycles. There's a little bit of a forerunner of this in the 1920's in the wake of World War I, which very quickly, after the armistice of the United States, became a very unpopular war. The army was reduced very much in numbers and the kind of budget there were, and soldiers and officers were very badly treated in the 1920's and for much of the 1930's. It was never as bad as the 1970's, but I think these things really do have symetry as you look back.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Doris, do you have anything to add to that?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, the interesting thing when you think about cycles is that after the Civil War, there were a spate of generals who became President in part because the Civil War had such an enduring value in our emotional memory. Similarly after World War II, we have a whole series of Presidents who have served in the army. And I think the fascinating thing, however, is that when you look at our two greatest war Presidents, Lincoln and FDR, I think arguably neither one of them had real military experience. Lincoln was simply in an Indian uprising, where he said the only blood that was drawn was from a mosquito, and FDR was simply an assistant secretary in the Navy. So the notion that they have to have military service to be a good commander in chief has been belied by history, even though it gives you a certain dignity of heroism when you're running for the office, itself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Todd Gitlin, how do you look at this question of the change in the image of the military over the last ten, fifteen years? How do you explain it?
TODD GITLIN: The striking thing, Elizabeth, is that in a way, the military don't have so much competition because people have retracted their trust in, in virtually every other institution. So it may not be simply so much that the military looks like an admirable institution, although I think it does to most people, but that corporations don't look very good, the government is widely hated, religion is suspect, the Supreme Court is suspect, Congress is suspect, and so on. I think it's partly, also, that it's relatively easy to love the military--this may seem odd--because we're not in a war situation and, therefore, the military as an institution is, it's admirable but it's not actually killing people. So you can sort of have your warmth toward the military without feeling that it's blood at stake.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Most Americans aren't connected to the military now. They didn't serve. It's an all volunteer army. It's very different from the period, and the institutions--talk about cycles of history and changes--all of the other institutions that Todd and everybody else has talked about have sunk in disfavor with the populace. Only one has risen in the last 20 years--that's the military. So he can't--they were at the bottom. Now they're at the top. We in the press, you historians are okay, we are--(laughter in room)--at the bottom too.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The press is at the very bottom. Why do you think that's the case, though?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Everything's so complicated. We don't have the ties that bind us together as much. We don't have as much institutional memory. It's a more fragmented era.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And the military somehow--
HAYNES JOHNSON: The military is all volunteer, all unified, and it has worked hard. And they did have a problem with drugs and discipline within the service out of Vietnam. That's ancient history now. And happily this history will not come again I hope in this case to repeat itself.
HOWARD PRINCE: And I think to just make one final point here that I agree to some extent with the contrast but I think we can't overlook the impact leaders like Colin Powell. I remember vividly the presentation he made during Desert Storm where he said, "Trust me." I can't imagine a general getting away with that in Saigon during the so-called "Five O'Clock Follies" back in the 60's.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Doris, gentlemen, thank you. That's all the time we have. Thank you so much for being with us.