Tuesday, July 19, 2011

An Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini and the Vietnam War

Size is important.
In this instance, it's a bikini that's too small for a woman that is too big, and I would like to suggest that this is symbolic of America's new found power and prestige at the end of World War II and our struggle to understand what was going to be expected of us,... and what we could get away with.
Now this probably sounds like I'm slicing the bologna pretty thin, but Brian Hyland's 1960 Bubblegum pop hit Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini is ultimately about the American government in a "stop and go" scenario of trying to win the Vietnam War or just "policing" the situation (lyrics to the song are below).
U.S. infantrymen in Vietnam on a search and destroy mission.
The important part of this song is the color "yellow" because it is double-sided: on the positive side, it's associated with the color of gold and hence royalty; on the negative side, it's also the color used to denote a coward, and that is exactly the situation that America found itself in during the Cold War era, that either we had to rise to the occasion and put a stop to the Soviet Union's spread of Communism or we were going to have to run away, we were either going to prove we were a superpower, or we would be proved to be yellow-bellied cowards.
So here is how the lyrics go:
She was afraid to come out of the locker, refers to America's isolationism: we didn't want to get involved in World War II, then we didn't want to get involved in the Korean War and then we didn't want to be in Vietnam; we literally wanted to lock ourselves and our vast resources in a locker and forget about the rest of the world.
She was as nervous as she could be, "nervous" aptly describes how nervous the American government was about the spread of Communism, and what would happen if something wasn't done, and what would happen to America if the Soviets were stronger than what we expected them to be. By the time we were in Vietnam, there had already been plenty of "Red Scares," and anti-Communist sentiment throughout the country.
American President Eisenhower and President Diem in Washington.
She was afraid someone would see, refers to the elaborate spy games and battles between the CIA and KGB that gave so much fodder to the imagination of a generation of writers and movie makers, including Billy Wilder's 1961 film One, Two, Three (the film was released just one year after Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie etc. was released). In the film a character named Otto is being interrogated by the East Berlin Communists and is suspected of being an American spy, and guess what annoying bubblegum pop song plays in the background? Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie, etc.
The official policy of the Eisenhower Administration: the domino effect theory.
Two, three, four, might be the count down in what was called Domino Effect Theory: as soon as one country fell to Communism, such as China and Vietnam, other countries would have to give into the force of that movement and would fall themselves, countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, which were all in real danger of being taken over by the aggressive Soviets.
Stick around we'll tell you more, and this is really the entire point, not just of this song, but of all art in general: we can only tell you in parables, in veiled terms, in symbols and disguises. The power of seeing America as a shy girl in a bikini too small is a caricature worth a thousand words, and that's why, as a coded reference to a situation greater than itself, this song is incredibly successful.
James Dean did the Cold War first in Rebel Without a Cause.
Wrapped herself in a blanket very easily refers to the beginning of the Cold War, which historians consider to have generally begun in 1946 when relations between the United States and the Soviet Union broke down and a race for domination of world influence between democracy and communism began. The symbol of a "blanket" and "being cold" referring to the Cold War was used earlier in the 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause when Plato (Sal Mineo) is always getting cold and Jim Stark (James Dean) gives Plato his own jacket to wear.
President John F. Kennedy.
For the first time today, doesn't refer to America's first attempt at participating in a foreign war, rather, the inevitable transference of power in the 1960 Presidential election; as the incumbent, Eisenhower was not eligible to run again, so the nation knew that in November, it would either go to then California Governor Richard Nixon or Senator John F. Kennedy, and neither of them had any war experience, especially compared to the great World War II general, Dwight Eisenhower. So things were going to change as one of these new presidents ventured into "the water of a foreign war" for the first time.
American Graffiti and the drag race scene in 1962.
Afraid to come out in the open, really refers to an "open" agenda to fight the Communists, and this idea of limited war was as constricting to American forces trying to contain Communism as a little bikini was to a girl wanting to wade into the water. Another wonderful symbol used during this time was "The Arms Race" and the actual drag racing which symbolized America and the Soviet Union trying to out-do the other in nuclear arms. Again, we can look to Rebel Without A Cause when James Dean's Jim Stark is in a car race to take the cars over the edge of a cliff and the thug he races against ends up dying. This explicitly refers to the massive proliferation of weapons building up between the U.S. and Soviets and the inevitable outcome of death, for one or more participants. The 1973 hit American Graffiti really explores how the arms race and Cold War effected an entire generation of young Americans as they headed towards their future.
It wasn't just America: an Australian troop in North Vietnam.
So she sat bundled up on shore, could easily translate to "America sat on the fence and tried to use the South Vietnam government to do all the fighting so we wouldn't have to." We openly supported South Vietnamese President Diem while realizing there simply wasn't a better alternative, unless we were going to go ourselves.
Now she's afraid to come out of the water, and I wonder what she's gunna do, now she's afraid to come out of the water, and the poor little girls turning blue:  once in the fight, with the committing of the troops, weapons, government offices, alliances and the all-important public relations battle waging, America had gotten itself into the war completely (the girl getting into the water) but because of the tactics of guerrilla  warfare, America realized that it's own size and military greatness was too big to operate within the limitations of the Vietnamese jungles (the little bikini). American generals outlined this plan:
  • Phase 1. Commitment of U.S. (and other free world) forces necessary to halt the losing trend by the end of 1965.
  • Phase 2. U.S. and allied forces mount major offensive actions to seize the initiative to destroy guerrilla and organized enemy forces. This phase would end when the enemy had been worn down, thrown on the defensive, and driven back from major populated areas.
  • Phase 3. If the enemy persisted, a period of twelve to eighteen months following Phase 2 would be required for the final destruction of enemy forces remaining in remote base areas.

So this is the part about the girl being in the water and turning blue, because her circulation is being cut-off, that is, the plan isn't working, and literally, she doesn't know what she is going to do just as the U.S.'s ideas weren't working and not knowing what else to do. Afraid of leaving, lest Communist forces would win, America was stuck in the water.
The 1967 Vietnam war protests at the Pentagon in Washington.
So in the water she wanted to stay, From the locker to the blanket, From the blanket to the shore, From the shore to the water, we have a summary:  from the condemnation of Communism, comes the fighting of Communism; from the fighting of Communism, comes the committal of weapons and troops; from the committal of troops comes the loss of lives, the maiming of men, the wiping out of a generation and the revolt of those at home not fighting.
And that's really all there is to say about it.
If America hadn't stood up to Communist forces then, if those sacrifices hadn't been made, regardless of what some term the "loss" of the Vietnam War (which I strongly disagree with), it would have been the loss of democracy and liberty throughout the world: in the words of President John F. Kennedy, the United States would pledge to "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and success of liberty."



LYRICS FOR ITSY BITSY TEENIE WEENIE YELLOW POLKA DOT BIKINI
She was afraid to come out of the locker
she was as nervous as she could be
she was afraid to come out of the locker
she was afraid that somebody would see
Two three four
tell the people what she wore
It was an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
that she wore for the first time today
an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
so in the locker she wanted to stay
Two three four
stick around well tell you more
She was afraid to come out in the open
so a blanket around her she wore
she was afraid to come out in the open
and so she sat bundled up on the shore
Two three four
tell the people what she wore
It was an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
that she wore for the first time today
an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
so in the blanket she wanted to stay
Two three four
stick around well tell you more
Now she's afraid to come out of the water
and i wonder what she's gunna do
now she's afraid to come out of the water
and the poor little girls turning blue
Two three four
tell the people what she wore
It was an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
that she wore for the first time today
an Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini
so in the water she wanted to stay
From the locker to the blanket
from the blanket to the shore
from the shore to the water
yes there isn't any more