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Have we always believed we’re on the ‘Eve of Destruction?’
Mar. 26, 2023 6:00 am, Updated: Mar. 26, 2023 7:09 am
My editor and I had a great experience at my old high school last week, where we were invited to talk to a project-learning class about our careers in the dwindling newspaper industry. Two of the teachers present taught me when I was a student over two decades ago. One of them, my 9th grade history teacher, told me in May 1999 that “Eve of Destruction,” performed most notably by Barry Maguire in 1965, was not a protest song.
At the time, it mattered very much whether “Eve of Destruction” was a protest song. Our final project for freshman American history had been to form pairs, select a protest song from the Vietnam War era, report it to the class so there were no duplicate selections, and write an essay about the lyrics and the era.
According to my father’s and my version of the story, Dad had suggested “Eve of Destruction” as the perfect song for my partner and me. I reported our choice and was told by the teacher that it wasn’t a protest song. I cried at the supper table, unsure what to do, while steam emanated from my father’s ears about how anyone could claim that “Eve of Destruction” wasn’t a protest song. We settled on Edwin Starr’s “War” as an alternative and sent my father to a used CD store we found in the Yellow Pages, and my partner and I wrote an essay about how war is good for absolutely nothing, because it means destruction of innocent lives and brings tears to thousands of mothers’ eyes when their sons go to fight and lose their lives. It was an easy A.
Until this past Wednesday, almost 24 years later, it remained a bone of contention for my father and me that I wasn’t permitted to write about “Eve of Destruction,” a song with lyrics that start with “The eastern world, it is explodin’ / Violence flarin’, bullets loadin’.”
So, in good nature and good humor, (I promise) I asked my former history teacher on Wednesday whether “Eve of Destruction” was indeed a protest song.
“I knew you were going to bring this up,” he said with a grin. I told him I was tempted to write a column about the song. Luckily, the guy’s a good sport with a thick skin of his own — much like your friendly neighborhood newspaper columnist.
“Eve of Destruction” was written by songwriter P.F. Sloan. It wasn’t the first song of its kind in those times, but it was easily one of the more comprehensive in terms of its social and political commentary. Violence was indeed flaring in the eastern world in 1965. Years of presence by American military advisers was escalating into full-scale military engagement. The first official combat action would take place in the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam in November of 1965, only months after the song’s release.
The lyrical content of the song encompassed much more than the then-impending war. “You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'” was Sloan’s protest of the legal voting age, which was 21 until 1971, when the 26th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. 58,220 Americans died in the Vietnam War, over 17,000 of them draftees. More than half of all casualties were under the age of 21. Thousands of men sent to fight and die for American interests never had any say in what those interests should be.
Conflict wasn’t limited to East Asia. “And even the Jordan river has bodies floatin'” was a reference to the War over Water, a series of armed conflicts in demilitarized zones between Israel and the Arab nations of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon beginning in 1964 when the Arab League planned to divert part of Israel’s water sources.
“Think of all the hate there is in Red China,” wrote Sloan, “Then take a look around to Selma, Alabama.” On March 7, 1965, civil rights marchers were beaten by Alabama state police officers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma. “Marches alone won’t bring integration / When human respect is disintegratin.”
According to Sloan himself in February 1999, the “red” reference in the earliest version was not about China, but about Russia. “I thought Red Russia was the most outstanding enemy to freedom in the world, but this inner voice said the Soviet Union will fall before the end of the century and Red China will endure in crimes against humanity well into the new century!” he wrote. It’s an observation I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate in 1999, but it’s sure something to ponder today.
The lyrics “You may leave here for four days in space / But when you return, it’s the same old place,” referenced the Gemini 4 mission, the first multiday space flight by American astronauts. Another version of Sloan’s song, released in November 1965 by Jan and Dean of “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” fame, substituted “Selma, Alabama” with “Watts, California” and replaced “four days with space” with eight, referring to the Gemini V mission to conduct experiments and prove that astronauts could survive in a spacecraft long enough to make it to the moon. But message was the same: The exciting developments in space exploration were only a temporary diversion from the events unfolding in America and abroad in 1965.
While officially fought between North and South Vietnam and their respective allies, the Vietnam conflict was in many ways a proxy war fought against the backdrop of the Cold War, which saw the United States and the Soviet Union build up their military resources — including nuclear weapons — each to possess superior force over the other. Sloan’s lyrics illustrated the pervasive fear of a nuclear holocaust: “Don't you understand, what I'm trying to say? / Can't you feel the fear that I'm feeling today? / If the button is pushed, there's no running away / There'll be no one to save with the world in a grave / Take a look around you, boy, it's bound to scare you, boy / But you tell me over and over and over again my friend / Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction.”
Perhaps I should thank my history teacher - I learned more about that era as a result of my father’s disbelief that someone didn’t consider “Eve of Destruction” a protest song than I probably would have if I’d been able to write about it for my freshman essay. The song was Sloan’s prayer to God lamenting issues he found “unbearable” at the time.
That’s what I find most interesting about the song - its motive is surprisingly unoriginal. How many events in our history have caused people to believe that destruction was imminent? Did soldiers believe it when fighting in battles like the Siege of Leningrad, or Japanese civilians after the atomic bombs were dropped? Did humans believe that humanity was doomed during the bubonic plague pandemic or the Chinese famine? Was the end of civilization on the minds of those escaping the falling twin towers or the Pentagon while covered in soot and dirt on Sept. 11, 2001?
I have a feeling that many of us have had that feeling of doom at some point. The world is a wild place, but it keeps on turning. Many events have yet to unfold, and many songs have yet to be written.
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