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Hagel: America More Divided Than 1968 'in Many Ways,' But Can 'Self-Correct'

Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks during his farewell tribute

WASHINGTON – Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said America is more divided “in many ways” today than it was in 1968 during the Vietnam War but predicted that the U.S. would eventually “self-correct.”

Former Senator Bobby Kennedy (D-N.Y.) was assassinated in 1968 during his presidential campaign. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. That November, Richard Nixon won the White House.

“You cannot, in a democracy, a representative government, in a land of free people and free will, disconnect politics from anything, because it is the political process that decides our leaders who decide our policies. And what we saw in ’68 was a terrible, dangerous fraying on decency, of respect for others, of dignity, and I see similar things happening in this country today and it’s not healthy,” Hagel said during an event Thursday about the new book Our Year of War: Two Brothers, Vietnam, and a Nation Divided, which documents the experiences of Hagel and his brother Tom in the Vietnam War.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, said the nation “self-corrected” after the Vietnam War and that it would do the same again after this “terribly divisive time.”

“Our military is better today than it has ever been. By any measurement, I think our country is still a great country. I mean, you name me one country that’s greater than America by all measurements – first, its people, its freedom, its Constitution, a nation of laws, and then I get into power, let’s start with what I think is most fundamental. History is rather clear on this – it isn’t power,” Hagel said.

“Many, many powerful nations throughout history are no longer with us. So power is a result of a number of things, but it’s the essence of who we are as a people and our society and we’ll self-correct again,” he added. “We’ll get through this difficult time, this terribly divisive time. We haven’t been in a time as divisive as it is today since ’68, I don’t believe. I think it’s worse today in many ways.”

Reflecting on the Vietnam era, Hagel said Americans are beginning to “lose confidence” in their institutions in the present day.

“Vietnam, that war, was really the first time America, all of America, started to question and lose confidence in its leaders and distrust its leaders for good reason and lose confidence and distrust institutions. ‘We can’t trust these institutions, we can’t trust our leaders,’ well, we now know 50 years later that our leaders lied to us,” he said.

“When you have a breakdown in fundamental trust and confidence in a society’s institutions that are basic, not just to governance but to getting along, you’ve got a problem and I think that’s where we are today. We’ll get through it,” he added.