My Turn: Vietnam, masks, and the erosion of trust

  • U.S. Marines scatter as a CH-46 helicopter burns (background) after it was shot down near the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam on July 15, 1966. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 1/11/2021 6:00:29 AM
Modified: 1/11/2021 6:00:07 AM

I am working on a unified theory to explain the resistance to mask-wearing. Normally, I would assume that a simple action that might save your life would be a no-brainer – sort of like looking both ways before crossing a street. But it has turned into a thing about “government telling people what to do.”

I think it boils down to one word – Vietnam – and the lies our government told trying to justify that war. There was a great breakdown in trust after that.

Picture this: You were a soldier in World War II. You fought hard, and you saw some of your buddies die or get badly wounded. But in the end, you felt that the effort and sacrifice were worth it.

In the 1950s the government talked about the danger posed by Russia and communism. So, in the 1960s, when your boy was drafted to try to keep communism out of Southeast Asia, you supported him. Then you started to hear about things like “Hamburger Hill.” You would hear about U.S. forces taking over a small area during the day, only to have the Vietcong recapture it at night. And this went on and on, with U.S. soldiers lost, and no real “progress” made.

You might have heard that the Vietnamese had been enemies of the Chinese for 1,000 years, and probably were not rushing to adopt communism. Maybe you began to wonder why we were in Vietnam in the first place. And then your kid came home in a box, and you never got over it.

Lyndon Johnson did not want to be the first president to lose a war, so he kept sending in more troops. And Richard Nixon’s idea of ending the war was to reduce U.S. deaths by carpet-bombing areas in Cambodia.

At home, there were other social changes going on. African Americans wanted to be served at lunch counters and to sit in any open seat on a bus. And the big bad government said Black children had to be admitted to schools that formerly took only white kids. And in 1973 and 1979, oil and gasoline prices went through the roof.

Some people didn’t like government programs such as the Environmental Protection Agency or OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, that were simply aimed at saving lives. In Maine, in the late 1940s, before the word “pollution” was really discussed, there were chemical fumes coming from the Androscoggin River. The closer your house was to the river, the more often you had to repaint it. Of course, that was just peeling paint. What the fumes were doing to the lungs of the people who lived there was not considered.

When Ronald Reagan came along, he said, “It’s morning again in America,” and that the main problem was government. His predecessor, Jimmy Carter, in an effort to use less oil to generate electricity, had installed some solar panels on the White House roof. Reagan would have none of that claptrap, so he removed the panels. But maybe if we were using less imported fuel oil we would not have had to send so many troops into the Middle East.

Some people felt a loss of control with other changes in society. Solid factory jobs were sent overseas. People could see that the climate was changing, with stronger storms, fires, and droughts. Some said there was nothing to worry about, but it got to be harder to say that with a straight face. And, of all things, people who were gay or lesbian wanted to be able to get married. To top it all off, an African American was elected president.

Reagan’s “It’s morning again in America” and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” sound fairly similar. Trump had an amazing knack to tap into the mood of some frustrated people.

But to equate mask-wearing with some restriction of civil liberties is just crazy.

(Robert B. Williams Jr. lives in Chichester.)




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