The Vietnam War Was Different
The Vietnam War Was a Unique American ExperienceGoing forward, my references to ‘Vietnam,’ go beyond the war and its mission. Obviously, you cannot study the Vietnam War without understanding the battles and the blood-fueled turbulence in Southeast Asia. Nor can you ignore the discord within American society starting in the mid-1960s. The social breakdown that manifested during that period never went away. But when referring to the Vietnam Era, I am really referring to all of those puzzle pieces and more importantly, how every element fits together perfectly to provide not just a holistic image of a tragic human disaster but how that catastrophe impacted every aspect of American society. Of even more relevance, is how that image – the story of the Vietnam Era continues to impact American culture and politics in ways that many do not fully understand or recognize.
Vietnam was the first war that America lost. Certainly, if you lived in one of the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, you had to count the Civil War in the loss column. But Vietnam came on the heels of the total victory in Europe and Japan. The 18 and 19 year-olds that fought in Southeast Asia were the sons of the victors and products of the baby boom which saw massive economic growth following the Axis Powers’ surrender. For white Americans, life after World War was perceived as idyllic, even if families were poor. You know, Americans have a tendency to reflect back on prior ages and view them through rose-colored lenses. The 50s was one such decade. America had very little economic competition in the years following World War II and we used that to our advantage. We poured money into Western Europe and Japan and in doing so, created markets for our manufactured goods. We built a military-industrial complex that created jobs, pensions, and security that the World War II generation had not experienced during the Great Depression. There was no reason to believe that prosperity would not continue.
Social and Political Division
What set Vietnam apart from other wars and movements was its social and political divisiveness. I would not presuppose that America had never experienced internal opposition to public and foreign policy. Of course, we had. But those protests were short-lived and never adversely impacted America’s power abroad. Consider the July 1863 New York City draft riots. Congress had passed new draft laws earlier that year in order to resupply dwindling federal troop levels. But Congress included a “get out of jail for $300” card. Wealthy draftees could pay someone to go in their place, which resulted in a backlash from the working classes. But then, what started as opposition to the unfair burden of the draft, and the war itself placed on the working classes, soon turned into a race riot. Mostly white Irish immigrants turned their frustrations on black New Yorkers.
And while the Civil War was much more culturally divisive than our standard history texts would imply, we know the outcome. We also know what American successes came directly following the Civil War. Massive industrialization, westward expansion (at the expense of the Native Americans of course) and gradual economic and political power rose from the ashes of that devastating conflict. We have been taught not to focus on the failures of Reconstruction Policy or the nepotism and party machines that corrupted politics at the time. We just know that it eventually “worked out,” and America became a world superpower.
That did not happen with Vietnam. Tens of thousands of soldiers fought in that country under miserable conditions and on the side of an ally that was at times, corrupt itself. They were there fighting a war that their country said needed to be won, just like their fathers had done after Pearl Harbor. These soldiers knew they were not winning. They knew the commanders were falsifying body count and covering up war crimes. But they were there because the government said they were needed – or they were forced because their draft number was called. These were kids – the baby boomers – who had been born and raised by a generation that had witnessed what was possible and had come to be convinced that America could do anything if she just put her mind to it. The World War II generation passed that belief on to the next generation – to the soldiers who went to Vietnam, and to the activists that stayed behind. The idea that America could still fail even if we marshaled the right resources, was a tough lesson to learn, once it became evident that despite all efforts, the war could not be won.
The Media, Protests, and Television
All of this played out on television. During previous military conflicts and periods of intense social change, Americans did not see the consequences in their living rooms every day. Certainly, those that lived in urban centers understood the impact of industrialization and poor working conditions. The densely populated cities allowed for faster communication and more cohesive organization leading to collective bargaining, unionizing and strikes. But what happened in the cities was slow to be reported in other parts of the country. Radio and later television changed all of that. Even in World War II, war updates were slow to arrive, as compared to Vietnam. To those born after 1990, the idea of not having instantaneous updates is an insane prospect. But that is how quickly, technology has changed and how quickly it has impacted our cultural and social expectations.
But back in America, while teenagers barely out of high school were fighting a guerrilla war with convention tactics, the world had fallen off its axis. The support and patriotism that had automatically been afforded to those returning veterans from Europe and the Pacific, was noticeably absent to Vietnam veterans. Protests had started in the mid-60s and just escalated from there. For another 10 years, American families would sit down to dinner and watch the evening news to get the latest on Vietnam. Later, they would not only hear the latest body count but also see the violent protests in American streets that the war had provoked. And remember, the riots at that time were not solely about the war. Women’s rights and human rights were mixed with the melee of anti-war demonstrators. The Civil Rights Movement was far from over. The Black Panther Movement, the Nation of Islam and the Weathermen agitated on the far left.
For any American citizen, the chaos of that time had to be surreal, perhaps more so than the disorder we see today. But then factor in what it must have been like for families to have a brother or a husband fighting in the war and then every night, watching American citizens denigrating their efforts. Burns and Novick illustrate these conflicting perspectives throughout the series but the viewer can actually feel the tensions rise between factions (supporters of the war, supporters of Nixon, anti-war activists, far left militant extremists, the military and the “Silent Majority.”). They interview veterans that came home injured and with post-traumatic stress disorder that then turned against the war, choosing to give back medals in a show of anger and support for those soldiers to left fighting in Southeast Asia.
Other returning veterans were more visible and outspoken. John Kerry, who served as a Lieutenant in the Navy from 1966-1970, upon returning to the United States, became heavily involved in the anti-war group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. As its representative, Kerry testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. His testimony was carried out within the confines of the Fullbright Hearings which were held between 1966-1971. As part of standard oversight responsibilities, the SFRC interviewed dozens of individuals about our activities in Vietnam. John Kerry was adamant in his charge that America was losing the war and must withdraw as soon as possible, lest more innocent soldiers die. He testified that the United States had no vital interests in Vietnam and that it was just a war of independence. He also accused the American government of supporting a corrupt region in South Vietnam. When Kerry ran for president in 2004, these words would come to haunt him as Vietnam veterans, insulted by his comments started to question events surrounding his actions that eventually led to several military commendations. The controversies were proven false but their existence helps explain the lasting pain from the Vietnam War.
So yes, Vietnam was different. It was very, very, very different. But I did not fully appreciate the correlation between the Vietnam Era and the divisive discourse we feel today. It was not until that moment in Episode 10: “The Weight of Memory (March 1973 – Onward) when the colored image of the Huey landed on the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, and what looked thousands of Vietnamese, with grocery sacks of belongings begging to be let through the gates, that I started to see the link. Children, not more than three or four years old, lifted over the security fence to Marines with automatic weapons, their parents desperate to follow. The scene was absolute chaos, desperation, and panic. My God, what had happened to the once mighty America, who just 30 years prior had fought and won a two-front war against totalitarianism. Images of the anarchy and disorder as the United States fled and the South Vietnamese surrendered after a failed 20-year commitment was beamed to television sets all over the world. The impact of that image and all that it symbolized, reverberates today.