[This concluding segment of the lecture was the part that, unfortunately in my view, I found I needed to update virtually every year, in order to fit more recent adventures in American foreign policy into the context created by the autobiographical portion of the talk.]
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A preliminary list of the major consequences of the war in Vietnam might look something like this:
1. Over 58,000 Americans died in the war.
2. The average age of those who served in Southeast Asia was 19 (World War II, 26). 27 million American males were eligible for the draft during the height of the war:
a. 2,215,000 were drafted
b. 8,700,000 enlisted (many to avoid the draft)
c. 500,000 evaded or resisted the draft
d. 16,000,000 received deferments, exemptions, or disqualifications
3. To answer complaints that draftees right out of high school were old enough to die for their country but not to vote for its leaders, Congress approved an amendment, which became the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, lowering the voting age to 18.
4. The draft was abolished. This action freed most privileged young Americans to indulge “their distaste for public issues,” according to historian Loren Baritz. Many of them evinced no real concern beyond self. The emergence of the prototypical American of the 1980s, the Yuppie, was just around the corner. Thus, we became, again in the words of historian Baritz, “a nation without citizens, a people without politics.” Since then, we have been defended by an all-volunteer military, which, I think, has made it easier for our Presidents to commit these forces to war: no one they knew, including most members of Congress, actually had children or spouses in the line of fire. Many middle and upper-class class American youths, like future President Bill Clinton and future Vice-President Richard Cheney during the Vietnam War, have had “other priorities” that would not allow them to risk their lives defending their country. Future President George W. Bush transferred from the Texas to the Alabama Air National Guard so that he could help a prominent Alabama Republican seek political office, then somehow managed to fall off the radar screen of his unit. To this day, whether Bush actually attended drills with the Alabama Air National Guard remains a matter of dispute.
5. Angry at the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” and other classified government documents, President Nixon authorized the formation of a group within his administration, nicknamed “the Plumbers,” to stop those embarrassing “leaks.” In the creation of “the Plumbers” lay the origin of the Watergate break-in in 1972 and the ensuing scandal that eventually drove Nixon from office.
6. The so-called “Credibility Gap,” the distance between what a President said and what he actually did, grew to a vast, yawning “Credibility Chasm” during the Johnson and Nixon administrations and ushered in an era of cynicism and distrust between the American people and their leaders that, fed by later events, continues to this day.
7. The Vietnam disaster also dealt a telling blow to our national self-image as “Savior of the World” and made isolationism respectable again. The rallying cry of “No More Vietnams” was fueled by strong suspicion of both current and proposed U.S. military ventures. This dread of making a potentially open-ended, Vietnam-like commitment limited the scope of our foreign policy efforts in places like Central America, Somalia, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, a group of advisers, buried like moles in the bowels of the federal bureaucracy, the so-called “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons,” convinced President George W. Bush and his associates that toppling Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and installing a democratic government in Iraq would be a cakewalk. Realizing, however, that the American people might not be eager to sign on to a crusade to make the Middle East safe for democracy, to justify our invasion the Bush Administration instead conjured up, using either flawed intelligence or outright lies–take your pick–the scary scenario that Saddam possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” We–and the Iraqis–are still paying the price for that ideological miscalculation.
8. The nation’s Vietnam experience hung like an angry black cloud over the Persian Gulf War. The first President Bush promised that Operation Desert Storm would “not be another Vietnam.” There would be no reinstitution of the draft. The President would not second-guess his generals, nor would he limit their ability to prosecute the war. (And yet, that war ended with Saddam Hussein still in power, which helped set the stage for our current involvement there.) There would be no “body counts,” a weekly staple of TV coverage of the war in Vietnam. There would be no media coverage of the arrival at Dover Air Force Base (Delaware) of dead Americans in “body bags” (now euphemistically dubbed “human remains pouches”). [Recently, the Obama Administration changed this policy to allow media coverage of dead Americans being returned to the U.S., but only with the permission of the deceased service members’ families.] And, most importantly, media coverage of the Gulf War would be severely restricted. The U.S. military was convinced that vivid media coverage of the Vietnam conflict turned the tide of American public opinion against the war (a contention refuted, by the way, in a book published a few years ago by the Army’s own official historical branch, but no matter).
9. The activities during the Vietnam era of subsequent candidates for major political offices became a sort of litmus test of a leader’s fitness to commit American troops to future wars. When he ran for Vice-President on the Republican ticket with the first George Bush in 1988, Dan Quayle struggled to explain how he had secured admission to the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War when people without his political connections were unable to do so. During the 1992 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton had trouble explaining a 1969 letter to his ROTC commander in which he seemed to weasel out of a commitment to enter the military. As I said earlier, the lack of documentation supporting George W. Bush’s claim that he had actually served in the Alabama Air National Guard during the Vietnam era was an issue in the 2000 presidential election. Also, in 2004, the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” waged a determined and ultimately successful campaign to besmirch the Vietnam War record of Bush’s Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.
10. Finally, ever since our involvement in Iraq began, there has been a debate about the degree to which our current war is like the earlier one in Vietnam. Clearly, Iraq is not Vietnam, geographically (Middle Eastern sand, not Southeast Asian jungle and rice paddy). On the other hand, there are a number of disturbing parallels: we were told less than the truth by our leaders each time; in neither case did the administration have an exit strategy; and, once things began to fall apart, despite our obvious technological superiority and our ideological certainty, the presidents were unwilling to declare victory and pull out, so we sank deeper and deeper into the mire. Now, we have been engaged in Iraq longer than we were in World War II. Yes, say defenders of the war, but there have been “only” 5000 or so American deaths (an argument which, by the way, ignores Iraqi casualties, which are many times those of the U.S.). True enough; but, once upon a time, there were “only” 5000 American dead in Vietnam, and yet, another 53,000 or so Americans died before we withdrew our forces. How many more Americans (and Iraqis, and Afghanis) will perish before we come to our senses this time?
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For something begun almost casually, our involvement in Vietnam developed a deadly momentum. As is so often the case with war, its legacy must be sorted out, its lessons learned and applied, by the survivors and, especially, by their children. I believe that the Vietnam War was a turning point in modern American history, but I also recognize that, from a historian’s perspective, we are still too close to that era to make definitive judgments. As a preliminary verdict, though, let me offer an assessment from a 1994 book on the impact of the Vietnam War on the United States:
. . .The [Vietnam] war remains a watershed in American history. On one side of that history, America, whatever its rights and wrongs, stands triumphant, its glorious destiny manifest. On the other, America knows defeat, even shame.
From Todd Gitlin’s “Foreword” to Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, p.xiii.
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Selected List of Sources
Baritz, Loren. Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985.
Beschloss, Michael. “‘I Don’t See Any Way of Winning,” Newsweek, Nov.12, 2001, pp. 58-61. [Excerpt from Beschloss, ed., Reaching for Glory, a version of the Lyndon Johnson presidential tapes.]
Fitzgerald, Frances. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Atlantic Little Brown, 1972.
Herr, Michael. Dispatches. New York: Avon, 1978.
Herring, George C. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979.
Kaiser, Charles. 1968 in America: Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
Kaiser, David. American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. New York: The Viking Press, 1983.
McNamara, Robert S. “We Were Wrong, Terribly Wrong,” Newsweek, April 17, 1995, pp.45-54. [Excerpt from McNamara, In Retrospect.]
Maraniss, David. They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.
Santoli, Al. Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War By Thirty-Three American Soldiers Who Fought It. New York: Random House, 1981.
Schell, Jonathan. The Time of Illusion. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
Sheehan, Neil. A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. New York: Random House, 1988.
Spector, Ronald. After Tet: The Bloodiest Year in Vietnam. New York: The Free Press, 1993.
Wells, Tom. The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1994.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject:
Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities: Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)
In Pursuit of Dead Georgians: One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)
I believe that this is my third reading of your Vietnam lecture. Of course I get something new out of it each time. Other than your three part series on the war just completed, I have not read any other historical material regarding the war, on purpose. I watched one episode of Ken Burns’ documentary, and gave it up. I felt that it was terribly skewed. So, George, I have entrusted my entire education about that terrible war to you. No pressure.
I appreciate your confidence in my judgment, Dave, in trying to understand our involvement in Vietnam. But, of course, you’ve actually had a “field trip” to Nam, courtesy of the U.S. government, something that I did not experience. And that means your understanding of that conflict includes factors that mine can not. Thanks for the comment, though.