Our holidays are steeped in tradition, as a the cliche goes, and much of it is a bit irreverent. But the holiday from 35 years ago stands out because it is the only one that has deviated even slightly from the normal game plan of the night of St. Nick.
Just days earlier, President Nixon had just ordered “Operation Linebacker II,” a.k.a. the “Christmas bombings,” to force the North Vietnamese back to the bargaining table. According to press accounts, the aerial bombardment represented the largest heavy bomber strikes launch by the Air Force since World War II, and the administration’s promises that “peace was at hand” gave way to fears that just the opposite was true. It inspired a fresh wave of protests.
Among them was a candlelight vigil on Christmas Eve, at the Old Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis. I was only six, but the image is still vivid of my parents and five or six of my siblings joining with about two dozen others and marching in a circle each with candles in our hands. Back then, I had a strange fascination with flame, so the candle itself kept me from complaining that we weren’t at home opening gifts. My brothers undoubtedly shared these same desires, but my parents were insistent that they be there. They were of the World War II generation, and my dad and his law partner, both veterans of that war, were early Vietnam war opponents. (And, my father, now 87, and his law partner, 92, are strident opponents of the current war in Iraq.)
So for an hour or so, with temperatures in the teens, we went around that oval over and over again — and as a kid the repetition of faces was somewhat amusing. There may have been songs, but there were few chants.
Other than knowing that a war was going on, my parents wanting it to end, or my older brothers not wanting to get drafted, I understood very little of what was actually going on. It was a complicated end to a complex war. The next month the Paris agreements were signed. I was told that the war was over.
As hard as it is not to draw parallels to now and then, given that even in this year’s election race, issues continue to be framed against that experience. Unlike that Christmas Eve, it is difficult to believe that the war in Iraq is on the cusp of coming to an end, that lasting “peace is at hand.” On this holiday, we all hold a candle that it soon will be.