Paul A. London: 'The Victory Polka" in 1943 and 2020
BECKET — I woke up March 7 humming the "Victory Polka," a song from 1943. I was 7 or 8 years old then, so I wondered why that memory came to me during this epidemic of American failure. Then I understood. It is because the full-throated patriotism of that song and those years have never left me. Indeed, they have shaped my life. That is why the YouTube version of the song with Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters had tears running down my cheeks. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ai8I_uoA4Og). .
The song is about a "lovely dream" two years before the end of World War II. The dream is of a brave, generous America bringing the "torch of freedom" and "liberty" to war-torn and "blacked out lands across the seas." Then in 1945 as the song predicted our victorious men did "march down Fifth Avenue" and the parade was "the United Nations in review."
Those generous, patriotic ideas about what this country stands for have shaped my views for almost 80 years. I thought of myself as a realist despite painful intervening events. I believed that the stupidity of the unwinnable wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were aberrations. I knew that American voters had repeatedly been taken in by politicians who have told them they are being victimized by elites, immigrants, and uppity blacks and threatened by wicked foreigners, but I forgave these mistakes.
I just read President Grant's memoirs during the quarantine. He lamented that hundreds of thousands of young southerners in the 1860s were taken in by the slave-owning plantation aristocracy that convinced them to give their lives to fight the overbearing North. Most of those young southerners had no slaves. Indeed, Grant writes that these non-slaveholding southerners were looked down on as "white trash" by the plantation elites (see p.156) precisely because in the South status as well as wealth came from owning slaves. Grant had a warm spot in his heart for these southern soldiers who had been taken in by the slave-owners and had died honorably believing them.
Back in 1943 when I was growing up, the liars were out of power for a while. We had Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and the New Deal that poured resources into the South and the farm belt, created a more decent country for working people and freed Europe and Asia as well. For a few decades less privileged American voters were not being gulled by the likes of the plantation aristocracy and Donald Trump.
The question for me as Trumpism makes a lie of American decency is whether I can ever believe again that such mistakes are an aberration and that "Victory Polka" is the real America.
Paul A. London joined the U.S. Foreign Service after college in 1960. His first important assignment in the State Department was with a group working to get Great Britain into what became the European Union. In 1964 he was pulled from a European assignment to work on economic development in the Vietnam delta for three years. He left the State Department in 1970 to work in Washington on economic and political issues with Sen. Walter Mondale and with the bipartisan New England Congressional Caucus chaired by Speaker "Tip" O'Neill and Rep. Silvio Conte of Pittsfield.
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