I remember when my awareness of and interest in the national and international political environment got its first real boost in intensity. It was 1968. I was twelve years old and I was in the middle of my last year in elementary school. Now, I know some people may think that the age of twelve is kind of early for a kid to be interested in the political scene. But the 1960’s were intense times. And my own interests were … well … not always exactly normal. I was what I suppose many people call a “nerd.” But not just the kind of nerd who buries his nose in science books and hides out in his bedroom doing experiments (although I did my share of that, too.) I listened. And I observed. And I thought about a lot of different kinds of things. And my thoughts didn’t always follow the mainstream.
In the years from 1966 to 1968, turmoil over the war in Vietnam exploded big time into the American consciousness. Fighting escalated in that little country halfway around the world. The names “Hanoi” and “Saigon” and “Viet Cong” were splashed in bold, fear-inducing letters across the headlines of newspapers and spouted nightly by news anchors on television. Protests against the war literally erupted in flames across the United States. And young men dodging the military draft fled to Canada in fear for their lives.
Of course all of this caught my attention, as it did for everyone in America and, I imagine, most everyone who saw the news everywhere else in the world. But these sensational items in the main headlines, no matter how palpable and fearsome, were not the only items that made me sit down and think.
For some reason, the main item that stuck in my consciousness back then, at the age of twelve, was the name “Pathet Lao.”
You see, Laos is a small, landlocked and, to many Americans, almost entirely unknown country to the west of northern Vietnam and to the east of Thailand. The Pathet Lao was a faction within Laos which was vying for power in a civil war. And they had the support of communist North Vietnam.
The news under the main headline is never the full story.
Laos borders much of the length of Vietnam from north to south, and the symbiotic relationship between the revolutionaries in Laos and the communist government of North Vietnam allowed for a strategic supply line (dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail after the North Vietnamese leader) from the North to the militant Viet Cong communist revolutionaries in South Vietnam. So, while the Pathet Lao played only a minor part in American news stories, the name was interwoven with news of major parts of the South Vietnamese and American military campaign against the North.
And that semi-obscure and only occasionally mentioned name made me think. While everyone else seemed to be focusing on the major headlines: the war protests across the United States, the political arguments, and the main events of the war in Vietnam, I thought about the Lao people.
Yes, the war in Vietnam itself had a profound and horrific effect on vast numbers of people, both American and Vietnamese, in the main zones of conflict. And little land-locked Laos was not of as much strategic importance as Vietnam, with its huge coastline and, so, was not a main focus of military action (I, of course, knew nothing at the time of the CIA’s involvement in the “secret war” in Laos, but more on that elsewhere.) But the occasional mention of the name “Pathet Lao” prompted me to realize that there is always more to a story of human events than the headline articles let you know. And the name became a symbol for me of that very important realization.
I realized that there was a whole set of people in a little, obscure tropical country who were almost entirely absent from world news and who, I mused, ought to be living peaceful lives in their own towns and villages, but who, instead, were caught up in a civil war between factions vying for power in their country. And not only that, but, at the same time, they were also suffering the collateral effects of the military conflict between the vastly powerful forces of Communist Russia and the United States, the super-powers behind the war in the neighboring country of Vietnam.
I didn’t know any of these people personally, of course. But in a strange way, as I began my first contemplations on the human effects of world events, their very obscurity and downright invisibility in the world media somehow made them seem more real to me. And so, back then in 1968 I let my musings about a people whom I had never met and about whom I knew almost nothing be my first lesson to myself about the fact that, no matter how sensationalized the news, it is real people — on a personal level — that actually matter.
The “Cold War”
Throughout the 1960’s, the era of the war in Vietnam, an even larger potential terror was on most people’s minds: the threat of nuclear war between Soviet Russia and the United States, with its potential for literally global annihilation. The thought of it seemed to be constantly everywhere. There were even monthly tests of the air-raid sirens left over from World War II. And schools taught “duck and cover” exercises that people mostly figured would be futile in an atomic attack. Mounting numbers of these horrific weapons on both sides seemed to indicate that the ultimate doomsday would be only a matter of time.
But something seemed to me to be not quite right about the story that was in the public consciousness.
No, it wasn’t just because I was a naïve little kid (although I most definitely was that in many ways also.) And it wasn’t because I didn’t know or understand the power of a nuclear bomb. (Remember, I was a nerd. At the age of twelve I had already studied the basic function of the damned things. I even knew of the principle of using nuclear fusion to boost the power of a fission bomb. And I could recite the basic technical specs of many of the rockets and airplanes that were designed to deliver them to their targets.)
My lack of fear of nuclear war came from a disbelief of a different order: You see, when I came to understand that there were people in “communist” countries who were held behind a literal “iron curtain” of barbed wire, trapped within their own countries by walls and towers with machine guns, I, of course was horrified at the thought.
But I took it one step further and also thought to myself:
“No. That will never work. Not in the long term. I don’t believe it. I don’t care how strong a totalitarian regime is; you can’t keep people bound up like that forever. This is the 20th century. The ‘Western’ world is full of freedoms and amazing technological advances and economic prosperity. And communication — Yes, communication between people will be the key. The people in communist countries will eventually understand the difference between their lives and ours and they will know what they are missing out on.
We won’t need an atomic war to stop ‘communism.’ When the people trapped behind the barbed wire fences of their own countries find out what they could have, that whole system is going to just fall apart and there won’t be anything their leaders can do to stop it.”
Yes. At the age of 12, in 1968, those were my thoughts. And, as it turned out, I was right.
Freedom and a true appreciation for Life are inherent in human nature. They have been evolving and getting stronger for tens of thousands of years. And they cannot be stopped for long by mere military force or totalitarian might.
Twenty years after those thoughts, I, along with the rest of the world, watched with cautious anticipation when union leader Lech Walesa defied the Communist party and his workers went on strike in my great grandparent’s home country of Poland. I literally cried with joy when I watched the protests begin and continue for almost two months in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China in the spring of 1989. I was saddened when the Chinese government rolled out military tanks to shut down the protests on June 4th of that year. But I thought to myself, “At least it has begun.”
And then it happened. On the day before my Polish grandmother would have had her birthday in November of that year — 1989 — I saw what I had been waiting for: Television news showed ordinary people starting to pound away at the Berlin Wall from both sides with sledge hammers while guards who had stood at posts that had been manned and armed with machine guns for 28 years put down their weapons and simply walked away.
Three years later, in 1991, it happened in Russia. The people rose up in a revolt against the Communist regime. They flooded into Red Square and surrounded the Kremlin where leaders had themselves barricaded inside. The leadership called out the army and, just as had happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Russian military tanks rolled out into the streets.
But this time was different. The Russian army refused to attack their own people. And, without a single shot being fired, without a single person being killed, Soviet Communism, the brutal and deadly totalitarian world menace of the previous 75 years, simply rolled over and died.
A beautiful world
We live in what in many ways is a wonderful, beautiful world.
During summertime a few years ago, I was laying on the beach at my favorite spot at La Jolla Shores in southern California when I was approached by two young (high school or college age) girls. They gave me their camera and asked me to take their picture. They had an accent that I thought I recognized and I asked them where they were from. They said they were from China — mainland China — Beijing. They were students and they were here on a visit. Their host family came and picked them up before I got the chance to talk to them, but I thought to myself, “It wasn’t long ago that this could not have happened.”
My family has a number of friends and acquaintances who are Vietnamese, so I occasionally hear about how that country has developed over the past decades since the war. One of our acquaintances is practicing law. His parents escaped from Vietnam on a boat after the Northern take-over of South Vietnam. Another Vietnamese friend with whom I have lunch occasionally tells me about her family’s business of importing furniture from Vietnam. And a Japanese supplier for the company where I worked has a Vietnamese division that is starting to make highly technical aircraft parts for use on American airliners.
The government of Vietnam is still officially Communist. But the country is slowly but finally opening up to the world economy and some of the freedoms that many of us take for granted.
One of my best friends grew up in Soviet Russia. She got her degree in Economics from the University of Moscow after the fall of Communism in that country, which she experienced first-hand as a teenager. She has quite an interesting perspective on economics, world events, and the ideals of America as the “land of opportunity.”
And I sometimes sit and reflect in amazement that all of these people can come together as friends, now, in this age that is so different from the world of the 1960’s.
The progress of human society toward freedom, appreciation for Life, and recognition of each other as brothers and sisters around the world is slow. But it is also inexorable.
There are setbacks — sometimes major and horrific setbacks. And we, as a species, still struggle with vestiges of our violent nature. There are still huge and powerful factions that are struggling for power among the world’s major countries. And they often seem to have little regard for the populace upon whom they have such a great effect. Leaders, now often Corporate, in Russia, the United States, China, and elsewhere apparently still have their visions of imperial-style economic domination. Violent struggles between factions, tribes, and sects still rage in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and even in the West.
But every step that an ordinary person takes past the formerly fortified “Checkpoint Charlie” in a now unified Berlin, every international flight that lands in Da Nang, Vietnam or Vientiane, Laos, and every item of trade between formerly belligerent countries is, regardless of remaining frictions and inequities, a small step down the road toward the realization of a better life for all of humanity.