Monday, June 8, 2015

June 8, 1968: An Unsettling Commencement Throughout The Land

On June 8, 1968 I received my B.A. from the University of Maryland in College Park. There were several thousand degrees conferred that day in an atmosphere of uncertainty at Cole Field House. Robert F. Kennedy had been murdered in Los Angeles two days earlier. Martin Luther King Jr. died at the hands of an assassin in early April. Our commencement speaker, James B. Reston, Executive Editor of The New York Times, delivered an address for hope couched in terms of the difficulty and challenge facing the American experience and its response to the war in Vietnam, its most serious internal struggle since the Civil War a century earlier.

In 1968 I had not yet formed a strong opposition to our nation's war against communist influence in Vietnam. My focus that summer targeted a new and narrow direction in graduate study involving geography, cartography and psychology. By early 1969 with no end in sight for what appeared to be a hopeless war many friends decided for radical politics. I watched from the sidelines until my closest friend, a brilliant mathematician, elected to leave the country rather than face the increasingly troubling national crisis unfolding on the home front. The day before he left he asked me to drive him to his family home in the idyllic farm country near Emmitsburg. He wanted to say "good-bye" but didn't want to do it alone. On the hour-long return drive to Washington not a word was shared between us. It remains one of my darkest days.

Much has happened in the decades since that day as our nation passed through almost unbridled economic prosperity that we now measure in unsustainable and dangerous economic overreach. It's nothing new among civilizations as history tells us. The cycle of growth, maturity and decline among nation-states has always been with us. Only the scale changes. It's a matter of how one manages the process that really matters. Today is very much like June 8, 1968 when James B. Reston expressed hope in the face of adversity. It remains for us to see how we manage our national maturity and our nation's place in the great chain of being.

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