Americans are summoned to rally around the beleaguered flag during the Vietnam War era in these ardent patriotic speeches.
Bornet (The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, 1984, etc.), a retired history professor, collects speeches he gave from 1963 to 1976 to Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day crowds as well as Rotary Clubs, student groups, and other audiences in rural Oregon. He also includes three essays penned in 1976, 1987, and 2009. Several themes emerge in the addresses. One is the nobility of U.S. foreign and military policy: from the Spanish-American War to the Korean War, America has fought to bring freedom and democracy to countries oppressed by dictatorship and communism. Another is the danger of all but “limited” wars in an age when the risk of igniting thermonuclear holocaust is so great that America should prefer diplomacy and suasion to combat. (His exemplar here is President Herbert Hoover, who avoided war with Japan after that country’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria.) A third is the difficulties posed by the “limited” war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Bornet’s conflicted take on U.S. intervention emphasizes the moral rightness of America’s effort to protect Southeast Asia from communist aggression, but as the war drags on, his confidence in its practicality wavers; by the revised 1974 version of his speech “Is there an ethical issue in Vietnam?” he notes that “the final costs of modern war with bombs and defoliants and terrorist tactics…are so extreme that the result can be unlikely to justify the means” and concludes that “we will do well to avoid such military solutions henceforth.” The author aims his strongest ire at the anti-war left, which, he believes, amplified its critique of the war into an attack on American institutions and values. Bornet’s speeches alternate between sonorous invocations of fallen soldiers and complicated geopolitical analysis while touching on everything from technology to civil rights and unemployment. They are consistently well-composed, lucid, and replete with good turns of phrase: “We must not pile evil upon evil while trying to stamp out evil.” His certainty of American righteousness in Vietnam can seem unreflective because he never considers the grievances and motivations of the Vietnamese on the other side. Still, these speeches present a complex, nuanced view on the roiling issues of their eras.
A thoughtful meditation on
the importance—and limitations—of American military power.