And the crabs are crazy, they scuttle back and forth,
The sand is burning
And the fish take flight and scatter from the sight,
their courses turning
As the seagulls rest on the cold cannon nest
the sea is churning.
The marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo.
— Phil Ochs (1965)
The sages of the Torah say that one does not really understand an experience until after 40 years. That would make today opportune time for reviewing the April 28, 1965 airlift of 400 U.S. Marines into the riot-torn capital of the Dominican Republic. If the “before” era of American tranquility really ended at that more notorious demarcation on November 22, 1963, then you could say that “after” era began here, fifteen months later.
The Dominican situation was an abrupt, volatile crisis that President Lyndon Johnson knew he could not afford to lose. The CIA had again ill-served the President by not anticipating that the impending local coup could deteriorate in a single day into widespread rioting, looting, and civil war. Immediately, Johnson was responsible for the contingent of civilians and diplomats. Even more ominously, he was at risk of being the next president to lose a Caribbean island to the Communists, making his global foreign policy infinitely more complex and his political prospects at home downright poisonous.
The successful American intervention proved instantly unpopular. Assailed for recklessness by fellow OAS members, the American press and important members of Congress, LBJ knew he had to act quickly. Micromanaged, our armed forces still managed in a matter of weeks to defuse the situation and restore a semblance of order.
On the American campus, JFK’s cold warrior persona was forgotten, while Johnson’s actions defined him as a different (bad) kind of Democrat. At Berkeley, where the “Free Speech Movement” was barely a year old, the invasion provided living proof of the ominous military-industrial establishment. Troubadours like Joan Baez and Phil Ochs journeyed there in its wake, employing the medium of folk music to define not just an alternative political point of view, but an alternative culture.
It all happened very quickly. Reflecting just a tiny fraction of the national psyche, by the middle of 1965 the American left was well on its way to performing its seminal feat of prestidigitation, a lie for which we are still heavily paying the price.
Lyndon Johnson never knew what hit him. Much like Dorothy preoccupied with Toto while the tornado moves across the horizon, LBJ was operating off the “containment” playbook while a whirlwind of tactical, technological, moral, and spiritual dimensions was about to consume both him and the country. His projection of power that April became the first club with which the left began to fatally smash the national consensus of American goodness.
ITS LIE WAS AS simple as it was deft. Since World War II, the emerging national consensus had been that (a) we were the good guys and consequently (b) as good guys, we have the national strength and self-confidence to promote freedom at home as enthusiastically as abroad. While there was considerable debate as to the means to achieve this end, the idea that anti-Communism (freedom abroad) and civil rights (freedom at home) were of one piece was undisputed. The campus intellectuals, the folk singers, and the fringe union folk had another, altogether inverted analysis: they now said that (a) our lack of a utopian civil rights environment was the result of a pernicious American society and that (b) our interventions abroad were both evil in their own right and proof of our domestic venality.
In Boston, MIT professor Tom Lehrer sat behind a piano and, like Ochs, got traction from the Dominican episode:
What with President Johnson practicing escalatio on the Vietnamese and then the Dominican crisis on top of that, it has been a nervous year… And people have begun to feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. Fortunately in times of crisis just like this America always has this number one instrument of diplomacy to fall back on. Here’s a song about it…
A Christian Scientist with appendicitis! On the live album, you hear the sexy, coed howling.
A Christian Scientist with appendicitis! In five words, Lehrer dead-on defined what happens (and who wins) when theology collides with empirical reality. Only a fool would literally die rather than accept a scientifically proven course of therapy, wouldn’t he?
FOUR DECADES LATER, CHRISTIAN Science is looking a lot better. Whether “He” has a role in it or not, everyone — even educated society — now generally accepts as a given that there is a mind/spirit connection to healing.
And what about those no-nonsense rational elitists, the ones who cooked up this inversion of American goodness then nursed two generations of students on this fetid drivel?
Down the Charles River, an open-ended inquisition charges the president of Harvard with heresy for discussing sex differences. Even his friends declare that for this sin, he must leave. (At least Galileo was still offered room and board.)
On social policy, these same people reject policy failure as a reason to change a policy. Reform of Social Security, Medicare, or government schools are off the table because these programs are, well, sacred.
In foreign affairs, the badness of American power remains the catechism. No amount of good news from Baghdad, Tripoli, or Kabul changes any minds.
In short, the American left, in forty years, has become what it once mocked: a faith-based, irrational heap of beliefs whose greatest institutional peril is to collide with reality.
Who’s got appendicitis now?