Upon carefully examining today’s domestic and international relations ecosystem, notwithstanding the Civil War period, the United States is divided more than at any other time in the modern era.
The 1960s serve as a surreal parallel, where America encountered a series of similar threats to national security. The technology-driven Space Race with the Soviet Union, a seemingly endless war occurring in Vietnam, and an emotionally-charged Civil Rights Movement, represented key themes challenging the homeland and the United States’ global interests.
Most recently, yet similarly, the technology and innovation race to outmaneuver adversaries (e.g., China), combat operations occurring throughout the Middle East, and civil unrest transpiring throughout the nation, have comparative overtones that represent, yet again, a confluence of challenges affecting the United States’ national security from within and abroad.
The great Space Race served as a moment where the United States and the Soviet Union steadfastly engineered groundbreaking missile and rocket technologies in a quest to achieve strategic superiority. President Kennedy espoused the growing and urgent need for the United States to successfully send a manned spacecraft to the moon and back to Earth.
In parallel, the Soviet Union maintained a mostly subdued approach, quietly innovating, developing and refining rocketry operations. As advancements continued, the United States and the Soviet Union strongly believed that ballistic weapons and the presence of surveillance satellites threatened national security for both countries.
Today, the United States finds itself in a much more precarious competition compared to that of the Cold War era. With the advent of the Internet, a vast network of incalculable connections stretched across the globe, barriers to entry for adversaries are mostly non-existent.
China, Russia, Iran and North Korea leverage information to outmaneuver the United States, whether through aggressive disinformation campaigns, persistent network intrusion efforts or covert intellectual property theft activities. Unlike the great Space Race, today’s unfettered access to cutting-edge technologies has leveled the proverbial playing field for numerous countries across the globe — all while unwittingly expanding the cyber attack surface.
The Vietnam War represents another divisive, yet major, flashpoint affecting American society and foreign relations during the 1960s. As the Soviet Union and China sought to influence and galvanize communist efforts in North Vietnam, Congress responded by approving the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Ongoing conflict in the region not only strained foreign relations, it also cultivated divisiveness on American soil.
As tens of thousands of Americans died during the conflict, combined with incessant media coverage and ongoing draft lotteries, violent protests broke out in major cities and across college campuses — all resulting in a seemingly endless campaign while simultaneously cultivating a formidable anti-war movement that threatened U.S. foreign and domestic landscapes.
The nation’s enduring presence in the Middle East, coupled with the significant loss of blood and treasure over the last two decades of war, represents an ongoing saga in today’s military and political affairs. The atrocious 9/11 terrorist attacks on America’s most prominent symbols of strength and prosperity ignited the Global War on Terrorism.
Despite mounting injuries and deaths, support from the home front remained resolute. Similar to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, society rallied strongly in support of combat operations in the Middle East—all in the spirit of soundly defeating violent terrorist extremism.
Dissimilar to the unfair maltreatment and abject hatred experienced by service members returning from the Vietnam War, military personnel engaged in combat operations during the Global War on Terror received enthusiastic homecoming receptions from freedom-loving Americans. Compared to conflicts originating in foreign lands, attacks occurring on American soil receive a higher level of support from society.
Drawing similar parallels to the anti-war uprisings of the Vietnam era, the Civil Rights movement created another divisive moment. Despite successful legislative and judicial actions occurring throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Black Americans continued to encounter numerous obstacles preventing fair and equal treatment.
From segregation-based Jim Crow laws to the equality-oriented Civil Rights Act of 1964, a multitude of initiatives transpired during this pivotal era in American history. The most prominent advocate, Martin Luther King Jr., continued to express his desire for protesters to practice nonviolence in the face of extreme adversity. Most notably, the Civil Rights Movement experienced extraordinary achievements benefitting Black Americans through acts of civil disobedience and peaceful protests.
The current confluence of political, social and racial violence continues to reverberate across the United States. Election outcomes for the highest government office remains vigorously contested. Protesting serves as a long-standing assemblage used to foster positive change; however, today’s extremely intense clashes — at times obtusely veiled as peaceful engagements — have seemingly altered the course for America’s future.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s death left the streets of some major cities resembling those of war-torn countries, where businesses and government buildings endured significant damage or were completely burned to the ground. The storming of the U.S. Capitol building by violent rioters left five people dead and forced elected officials to take emergency shelter.
With ongoing riots and destruction spontaneously erupting across the nation, levels of destruction and financial loss experienced today surpass movements occurring some 50 years ago. In essence, today’s isolated tragedies have undoubtedly and exponentially grown into national crises.
It is indeed rare for the United States — a country with such global prominence — to exhibit an extraordinarily high level of internal strife to the degree that it begins to place its own national security at significant risk. Historically, the nation has consistently served as a model nation for others to emulate.
Despite the differences existing today, the 1960s showed America how society worked together to achieve success in the spirit of nationalism — specifically encompassing technological innovations, international conflicts and social justice initiatives. It is not too late for the United States and its freedom-loving people to successfully navigate through this perilous moment in history and once again shine as a beacon of hope for the world.
Re-igniting domestically-oriented relationships, while steadfastly reaffirming the country’s enviable strengths to allies and adversaries, represents a necessary first step oriented toward revitalizing the American spirit. As Ronald Reagan once stated, there is no right or left in this world, only up or down.
To rekindle the United States’ upward trajectory, it will take the full measure of support by all, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, background, religion or political view to promote calmness and unity — all in the spirit of galvanizing national security imperatives that so many have sacrificed to preserve and protect.
• Steven Skipper, a U.S Air Force lieutenant colonel, is a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.