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U.S. Senate

Lawyer Joseph Welch (left), with United States Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin (right), at the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations’ McCarthy-Army hearings, June 9, 1954. Earlier that year, Welch had rebuked the senator with the famous quote: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Voices / Column

Lessons of our past

We can endure, fight back, resist, and ultimately emerge from darkness intact. We’ve done so before.

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

Everyone knows we are facing the worst political crisis in U.S. history. The dreadful proclamations of Donald Trump, driven by narcissism; the mean-spirited moves by his cabinet; and the incipient evil represented by his administration have brought us dangerously close to the path and policies of dictators — and the possibility of living with autocracy.

I’m not going to sugar-coat that terrible possibility. But I want to suggest to people younger than I, who weren’t around to experience other terrible moments in our history, that while things have never been quite this bad, we have, in many ways, been here before, and we have emerged on the other side intact.

Today, kids duck under their desks at school to avoid gunfire. I ducked under my desk in fear of the white flash of a nuclear attack during the 1950s when the fear of Communism, Russia, and nuclear war was pervasive. Luckily, the flash never came.

Those fears were due to the Suez Canal crisis and the Cuban missile crisis.

The Suez Canal crisis occurred when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal. It ceased when European troops and the Israeli army withdrew from their invasion of Egypt, averting a lethal conflict with the Soviet Union.

The Cuban crisis happened because of a frightening standoff when Russia pointed nuclear missiles at us from Cuba. Thankfully, President John F. Kennedy had the skills to de-escalate the tensions, but for a time, we were on the brink of disaster — and we made it through.

In the 1950s, too, we suffered through the McCarthy Era, which ended when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a Wisconsin Republican and true demagogue, was brought down.

McCarthy led a real witch hunt sparked by his paranoid delusion that various sectors of the country, including the Army, had been infiltrated by Communists. Teachers, lawyers, actors, and others lost their jobs and were blacklisted, throwing the country into a state of abject fear. (My Ukrainian-born father warned me never to reveal that we were of Russian background.)

In a memorable moment captured on TV, McCarthy’s fall came when lawyer Joseph Welch famously asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

McCarthy’s travesty is akin to Donald Trump’s defamation of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the attacks on Robert Mueller, so the question Mr. Welch asked needs to be put to the president over and over again by every subsequent generation: “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

* * *

In the 1960s, our country faced some of its most terrible and frightening times.

Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, setting off devastating race riots across the country. A few months later, Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning for president, was gunned down.

The race riots and civil disturbances that ensued were shocking and the response to them horrifying. I will never forget the sight of storm troops lining the streets and bridges of Washington, D.C. against a backdrop of gray, windowless vans waiting to remove those arrested.

That event — and what followed when protests against the Vietnam war were launched a few years later — left many Americans feeling as though our lives as we’d known them were over and that, indeed, they might literally end.

The anti-war protests began on college campuses. The students there were our generation’s Parkland kids, and they, along with millions of other peace activists and protesters, ultimately stopped the war. But not before the Kent State University massacre happened in 1970, when the National Guard killed several unarmed students.

Then came the Watergate scandal in 1972, which began with the discovery that five men had broken into the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. — which President Richard M. Nixon and his administration attempted to cover up. Because of their resistance to Congressional probes, the United States faced a constitutional crisis that led to Nixon’s resignation.

* * *

How did we, the so-called “silent generation,” get through all that?

Many important factors played a role.

For one thing, we stopped being silent. We went beyond protests, marches, and donations to liberal organizations. Some of us, like Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, had the courage to be whistleblowers.

But mostly, we reached a transcendent moment together.

Our solidarity, stubborn resolve, acts of resistance, and commitment to truth and justice — and our mutual sense that we had the power to change things — brought down Nixon and others.

Our voices were loud, clear and cogent, just like what we see in the Parkland students. Like them, we refused to stop, to back down, to disappear. And that, more than anything, is what will get us through the dark days we face together now.

Additionally, analysts who understand the severity of what’s happening in the Trump administration know that what we are facing is worse than what happened in Nixon’s time.

Finally, along with the media, they are speaking out forcefully about the urgency of our time. No longer afraid to call “fascism,” “dictatorship,” and “autocracy” into focus, Americans from every generation who aren’t blindly wedded to Trumpian travesties are calling foul!

* * *

It’s a start. So is the Mueller investigation, which one hopes will conclude soon with irrefutable evidence that Mr. Trump and his foot soldiers must go.

Even then, we won’t be out of the woods for some time. So I’m not diminishing the huge challenges we face.

But the lessons of our past — that we endure, fight back, resist, and ultimately emerge from darkness intact — offer, as the Parkland kids do, a rallying cry, and a modicum of comfort, even as they warn against complacency.

They give us hope, and move us to action, as they remind us that evil can be defeated, if we raise our voices, stay vigilant together, and — perhaps most important of all — exercise our remaining right to vote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #465 (Wednesday, June 27, 2018). This story appeared on page D1.

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