My career in journalism was at an end. I was not going to be a CBS correspondent. I would not be heralded as the American reporter who caught the Johnson administration in a colossal mistake and an enormous lie. l was going to be a pariah. The State Department wanted my passport and the IRS was auditing seven years of back taxes.
As summer approached, I found myself speaking on auto pilot in front of audiences, saying familiar words while my mind was worrying about the future. The gigs were beginning to run out anyway. What was I going to do with myself? I had a family to support.
I tried to become a rabble rouser, addressing a huge rally at the UN in New York City where I screamed, “What do we want … when do we want it…” etc. The crowd shouted back their programmed responses. But even as I worked the crowd, I felt curiously removed from my own rhetoric, as if I were watching myself with bemused detachment. I couldn’t get over being a journalist.
While I was in Vietnam, a little known singer named Barry McQuire came out with a song called Eve of Destruction that quickly moved to number one on the Billboard charts. It was written by a 19 year old, P. F. Sloan. It caught the country’s mood and my own.
The eastern world it is exploding
Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’
You’re old enough to kill but not for votin’
You don’t believe in war but whats that gun you’re totin’?
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin’
The young song writer takes us around the world and returns to the United States.
Handful of senators don’t pass legislation
And marches alone can’t bring integration
When human respect is disintegratin’
This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’
But you tell me
Over and over and over again my friend
Ah, you don’t believe
We’re on the eve of destruction.
ABC radio banned the song and it was widely attacked by conservatives. A group called The Spokesmen released a record called “The Dawn of Correction” and a few months later, Green Beret medic Sgt. Barry Sadler released the patriotic “Ballad of the Green Berets” that also moved to the top of the charts.
The Eve of Destruction compared the violence in southeast Asia to the rising violence in the United State. The civil rights movement had failed to achieve its major goals and uprisings took place that summer in Los Angeles and Cleveland. Congress had passed a new Civil Rights bill that Johnson signed into law in 1964. But individual states acted quickly to circumvent the law. California passed Proposition 14, which moved to block the fair housing components of the Civil Rights Act.
Los Angeles, with a growing African-American population and racial discrimination in housing as severe as anywhere in the country, began to simmer. On August 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop in South Central LA took the simmer to a boil. The uprising lasted for six days, leaving 34 dead, over a thousand people injured, nearly 4,000 arrested and hundreds of buildings destroyed.
And yet …
After what the commercial media called “the Watts riots” many African-Americans felt a sense of hope that things finally would change because as part of the coverage, television showed whites how blacks actually lived. A measure of support did follow the uprising. A commission was established to discover the root causes. The report concluded that the violence wasn’t the act of thugs, but rather symptomatic of deeper problems: the high jobless rate in the inner city, poor housing, bad schools. Authorities worried. The summer before, in 1964, seven northeastern cities had uprisings in African-American communities.
The Watts rallying cry of “Burn baby burn” frightened white America. Times had changed. African-Americans were not going back to “Yes, sir. No, ma’am.” Non-violent protesting was on the way out. Upheavals were about to spread to cities across the United States.
The anti-war movement remained non-violent. Most Americans still supported the war. By September of 1965, only 500 American boys had died. The war went on for ten more years and killed 58,000 Americans and between two to five million Vietnamese. We dropped twice the bomb tonnage on Vietnam that we dropped on all of Europe and Asia in World War II. We poisoned Vietnamese land with agent orange and millions of Vietnamese still suffer the consequences.
Today communist Vietnam is a trading partner. The war easily could have been avoided. All you had to do was read a few books, talk to a few French journalists, historians and military officers and you’d realize the United States was going to pull out of Vietnam before we ever conquered it. And to keep China at bay, it was almost inevitable that Vietnam would become a trading partner with the United States. We both need each other.
None of that mattered in 1965. It was “the Eve of Destruction” and I needed to find work.