A PAIR OF commemorative episodes during the past few days reminds us that Americans have begun coming to terms finally with the bitter foreign and domestic struggles of the past generation. At first glance, the two occasions appear unrelated. What, after all, does a South Boston ceremony honoring "Southie's" Vietnam War dead have in common with the debate that occurred in the House over installing a statue of the late Rev. Martin Luther King in the halls of Congress? If nothing else, many of those who support either one probably would oppose the other.
Boston's homage to the fallen veterans and the move in Congress, a renewal of earlier efforts to honor the martyred civil rights leader, share a world in common -- that of American society from the early 1960s to the mid-70s. In those years, a sustained mixture of black protests and achievements in this country councided with years of frustration and (in the end) failure for the United States in Vietnam.
For some, the anger and bitterness of those two sets of experiences have not weakened over the intervening years, something the House critics of Dr. King's statue revealed in their petty performance. A small, embattled band of arch-conservatives from both parties displayed Orwellian pretensions (for example) in accusing Dr. King, the lifelong advocate of nonviolent protest, of being "in fact wedded to violence." Opponents of the King statue, moreover, also developed a curious new debating tactic -- call it the delayed smear -- arguing that congressional action should be postponed until the year 2027, when FBI files on Dr. King would be released that presumably support one or another of former director J. Edgar Hoover's obsessions regarding the black leader. The advice should be rejected, and both houses should complete action promptly on the statue honoring Dr. King.
As for the Boston tribute to a neighborhood's Vietnam dead, the memorial ceremony itself -- despite appropriate statements by the president and the military services -- evolved as a spontaneous tribute by Bostonians to the individual valor and sacrifice of loved ones. Other such memorials may follow.
When Johnny came tiptoeing home from our engagement in Southeast Asia, he enjoyed none of the marches, parades, or hooplah associated with earlier postwar homecoming receptions for American veterans. Since then, the passage of years alone has cauterized the arguments that divided us on national policy in Vietnam, and more communities can be expected to follow Boston's example by honoring the soldiers who served. In this respect, both the King memorial statue in Congress and the Boston testament -- belated ceremonies of closure -- provide additional evidence that the most bruising struggles of recent national experience may no longer be sources of conflict but of commemoration.