Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Ballots, Bullets and Bailouts: A Reflection on the Politics of H. A. Rey

            Joe Runci's photograph in The Boston Globe tells it all. Hans Rey, right, wearing a plaid jacket and sporting a Eugene McCarthy button examines the winning results of votes cast for McCarthy by Waterville Valley voters in the 1968 New Hampshire Presidential primary. Rey's support for the Democratic challenger was based primarily on McCarthy's opposition to the Johnson Administration's escalation of the Vietnam War, a position Rey had publicly spoken and written about since 1966. Had he been alive in 2012, it's likely that the ardent supporter of liberal causes might have been disappointed with some aspects of Obama's first term as well. Yet Rey, like many naturalized citizens and ethnic minority voters, would have also realized the symbolism of Obama's presidency. As America's first African-American president, Barack Obama embodied the words "All men are created equal," in our Declaration of Independence.
            Mixed in with the plethora of political ads during the waning days of the 2012 election were trailers for Steven Spielberg's new movie about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. This juxtaposition of ballots and bullets reminded me of an essay Hans Rey once wrote titled "Arithmetic and Vietnam," published in The Boston Globe on June 12, 1966. In the essay Rey borrowed an analogy from Abraham Lincoln when the President suggested that the Union buy the freedom of every slave in the Confederacy. Rey wrote that Lincoln reasoned, "that if the war could thus be ended, the cost would be insignificant compared with the cost in blood and money if the war were to go on.” Applying the same logic to the war in Vietnam, Rey estimated the United States was spending about $15 billion dollars a year to protect approximately five million, non-Buddhist Vietnamese, or $3000 per person, $45,000 for a family of five. At that cost Rey asserted, “We could buy a villa on the French Rivera for 200,000 families.”
            Science fiction novelist Isaac Asimov responded to Rey’s letter a few days later. “Saw the letter in the Globe,” Asimov wrote to Rey, “and put the name at the bottom with the intelligence above and figured it was you. The time will come when you will be quoted plentifully. Alas that foresight is not regarded by those to whom hindsight will come so naturally.”
            Rey continued to protest the Vietnam War in letters to politicians, family and friends. In a letter dated December 1971 he wrote to a cousin, “There is still no peace—the ground troops are being withdrawn, but that nefarious air bombing goes on." Likewise, his disdain for Richard Nixon is reflected in a letter written to the President in 1972:
“For heaven’s sake, order a stop to the BOMBING in Vietnam. Mechanized
mass murder, from a safe 30,000 feet, and the destruction of the plant and
animal life on Indochina’s earth may achieve a military victory—yet such
a victory would bring no honor to the United States…. The founders of our
country wrote 'A Declaration of Independence' because, in their words,
‘a decent respect to the opinions of mankind’ required it. Do we –
does your administration – no longer feel that DECENT RESPECT?”

Were he alive today, Hans Rey, an avid movie buff, would have gone to see Spielberg's Lincoln. No doubt he would have been inspired by the retelling of Lincoln's commitment to pass the 13th amendment, to end the war, and hold the Union together. But perhaps what Rey, a Jew, who himself escaped the tyranny of those who thought he and his kind were "less than human" just two decades earlier, regarded as the most significant aspect of Lincoln's greatness was his determination to re-form a United States of America that cleaved not only to the tenets of the Declaration of Independence, but its underlying premise "that all men are created equal" and should be afforded life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness to their fullest potential, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, or religious beliefs.

           Somewhere Hans Rey is smiling, and I'm guessing he's added a "Forward" button to his collection of political memorabilia.