American and the Vietnam War 58,000 American lives. 300,000 wounded. Large numbers lost to a war that left no answers. The Vietnam War was uncharacteristic of America; it did not follow the pattern of the major wars before it. With the Revolutionary War we gained independence; with the Civil War we gained unity; these wars were fought for a purpose, and held means to an end. The Vietnam War took a great deal out of us and gave us virtually nothing in return but a nation divided and a generation lost. The battles may have been in Southeast Asia, but the war was here; it consumed us, it tore us apart, and all the while took from us the faith of the people and contradicted what America had always stood for: freedom. The most consequential aspect of America’s involvement in Vietnam was the way it divided America’s youth, whose trust was most important and whose role was most essential as it depended on hundreds of thousands of young men to fight; members of the exact same generation were separated by those who served and those who did not, those who were unhappily drafted and those who could avoid it, those against it and those involved in it. As a result, this war we were fighting halfway around the world for the sake of another country’s political freedom in turn wreaked havoc upon our welfare at home. This division is a direct result of the fact that the goals of the United States were unclear from the beginning and therefore when victory did not come immediately, the soldiers did not have much to fall back on; the original purpose was lost to time and defeat. Eventually, the goal came to be to kill as many Vietcong as possible at which point it was clear that the U.S.A would never reach a military solution. It was then the people of America, not the leaders, who recognized and acted upon this hypocrisy of American morals and ethics even as a divided group. The lack of true conviction in the government explanations for getting involved in Vietnam, the existence of the draft, and the strong presence of antiwar sentiments and protests all combined to divide America’s youth and therefore America’s future, creating lasting effects of the Vietnam War for years to come.
The original conflict in Vietnam that eventually leads to the US’s involvement began following World War II. After the war the politics of the colonial world were altered by the appearance of mass-supported parliamentary parties, whose objective was to play the role of loyal opposition. In some regions, notably South Asia, politics had already been further advanced. Gandhi's efforts should be recalled, and parallel in time with them was the growth of a Communist party in Indochina under Ho Chi Minh. In North Africa there were also important political factions demanding an end to colonial rule. Yet by and large, the mass-supported party was a postwar phenomenon, and one born in a promising environment of political change. The major colonial powers, Great Britain and France, were already restructuring their colonial administration and their principles of rule.1
It is true that the French still hoped for a unified and integrated colonial community, while the British moved more toward autonomy and self-government. But both nations recognized that political change was necessary. By allowing colonial affairs to move from administration by Europeans to political participation by local populations, the home governments encouraged the move toward local government. The colonial councils, primarily appointed and consultative bodies in the prewar system now became elective and responsible agents of government. It was in this changed environment that the parliamentary parties of the colonized peoples appeared. As the political intentions of the colonial elites changed, the response of the colonial governments altered also. One after the other, the colonies were granted independence. Where a colonial administrative unit had stood one day, an independent nation stood the next.
There were two instances of severe colonial welfare, both of which proved the dire effects European resistance could precipitate. In both Indochina and Algeria the French were determined to maintain their political status. In both colonial regions the outcome was extended warfare of a bitter sort. Between 1947 and 1954 the French in Indochina fought against the guerrilla armies of Ho Chi Minh. Under both Truman and Eisenhower, the U.S. backed the French. Starting in 1947, vast amounts of Marshall Plan aid went to France for use in the war. .In. 1949, after the Chinese people beat the U.S.-backed Kuomintang, the aid increased. And in 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the U.S. government further expanded its aid and set up a military mission id Vietnam. By 1954, the U.S. was paying about 80 per cent of French war costs. The US knew that France was a hated colonial tyrant in Vietnam but it supported France based on its strategy of stopping revolution in Asia, especially China.
The war was an effort made by the French to prevent the collapse of empire immediately after World War II, and it was an effort on the part of Ho Chi Minh to make the provisional republic he had declared in 1945 a political reality. Finally, the French found themselves in a military debacle at Dien Bien Phu in the winter and spring of 1954. The Vietnamese forces had surrounded the French garrison there and soon were demolishing it. This French failure on the battlefield led to negotiation at the diplomatic table. In July of 1954, at Geneva, the French government recognized the existence of the People's Republic of North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had triumphed, but the war in Indochina would continue again in 1956, this time with the Americans replacing the French.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam stemmed from the interaction of two major phenomena of the post-World War II era: decolonization (the disintegration of colonial empires) and the Cold War. The rise of nationalism and the weakness of the European imperial powers combined at the war's end to destroy a colonial system that had been an established feature of world politics for centuries. Some European nations grudgingly granted independence to their colonies. The French, however, used military force to try to put down a nationalist revolution in Vietnam, sparking in November 1946 a war that in its various phases would not end until April 1975.
What was unique and, from the American standpoint, most significant about the colonial uprising in Vietnam was that the revolutionary movement, the Viet Minh, was led by Communists. Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), the charismatic patriot and father of the Vietnamese revolution, was a longtime Communist operative, and although he and his lieutenants established a broadly nationalist united front, they retained firm control. Among all the former European colonies of Asia, Communists directed the nationalist movement only in Vietnam. This would transform what began as a struggle against French colonialism into a major international conflict.
At the very time the Communist-led Viet Minh was fighting France, the ideological Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was taking form. As part of its Cold War strategy, the United States in 1947 began to implement a policy of containment of Communism--preventing its spread to other countries--and Americans came to perceive the war in Vietnam in these terms. Because of Ho Chi Minh's Communist ties, U.S. officials viewed him and his Viet Minh as instruments of the Soviet drive for world domination, a view that was not seriously challenged until the United States became involved in a full-scale war in Vietnam. In a world seemingly divided into two hostile power blocs, with a fragile balance of power, Americans also concluded that the "loss" of Vietnam would threaten their vital interests.
The United States government gave a few concrete reasons for getting involved in the Vietnam War but had no plan for getting out in the event that they might be hard pressed to find success there. The primary concern for the government was the Domino Theory or the idea that losing Vietnam to communism would result in losing all of Southeast Asia as well. At that time, many believed that the combination of the establishment of the Iron Curtain in Europe after WWII, the communist take-over of China, the Korean War, and the communist victory over the French in Vietnam meant that soon the world would fall to communism. What the U.S.A. would realize much too late was that fighting communism was nebulous; without a set of actual goals to fall back on, victory would evade them. But, to the government, if America could prevent South Vietnam from falling to communism, they would put an end to its spread as a whole, and would once again come out victorious and heroic. So America’s leaders committed the nation and its resources to South Vietnam, claiming that “the United States is conscious of its responsibility and duty, in its own self-interest as well as the self-interest of other free peoples, to assist a brave country in the defense of its liberties against unprovoked subversion and Communist terror. It has no other motive than the defense of freedom”2. Even though there was no immediate, identifiable threat to the U.S., America’s leaders, otherwise known as “The Best and the Brightest”, saw this little country 9,000 miles away as a threat to America’s power, unity, dominance, freedom, and prosperity. Thus, the Vietnam War began with America wrapped at its center in 1963. The leaders could tell the people why, but could not answer how, and the lack of direction and tactic would become America’s greatest demise as it would eventually require more U.S. involvement in numbers, and therefore a greater sacrifice on the part of the divided youth.
The Vietnam War, in its more popular early days, initially called for a few thousand of non-combat American troops, but as it dragged on, the chance for success was equivocated with force and numbers, thus requiring the instatement of the draft to call all those eligible to the armed forces. While only twenty-five percent of the troops in Vietnam were draftees, and only thirty eight percent of those drafted actually served, the draft itself caused a lot of tension and uprisings3. While America was extremely sensitive to racial issues even before the war, the draft further escalated the problems. The draft classifications were erected in such a way that those who had the resources and/or the money to escape it, could and did. Selective Service policy offered deferments for college attendance and a range of vital civilian occupations that favored middle and upper class whites. Seventy six percent of the draftees were poor, undereducated, and urban blue-collar workers or were unemployed.4 This reality hit hard in the African American community. Moreover, African Americans were woefully underrepresented on local draft boards; in 1966 blacks accounted for slightly more than one percent of all draft board members, and seven of the state boards had no black representation at all.5 Clearly, those of lower class and those of color were in a much more precarious position than middle to upper class whites. This problem was felt not only in America but among those already enlisted as well. Racial strife, rarely an issue among combat units because of collective peril and responsibility, became most apparent in rear areas and on domestic installations. White sailors cloaked themselves in Ku Klux Klan-like outfits, burned crosses, and raised the Confederate flag at the Navy base at Cam Ranh Bay, Republic of Vietnam (RVN). African American prisoners, many of whom were jailed for violent crimes, rioted at the U.S. Army stockade at Long Binh, RVN; one white soldier was killed and several others were wounded during the disorder, which spread over weeks.6 These characteristics of the draft for the Vietnam War are responsible for much of the racial and social class divisions among this generation, at home and in Vietnam.
Antiwar sentiments skyrocketed as years passed in this war because a harsh realization among many Americans sunk in: the chance of any military victory against North Vietnam was nearly impossible. Public opinion for the war dropped significantly in 1967. In 1967 alone, 9,353 of the 500,000 American troops in Vietnam were killed.7 It was also in 1967 that “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority” was published in Resist, in which the evils of the war were plainly stated for the American public. It states that “the war is unconstitutional and illegal…it violates international agreements, treaties, and principles of law which the United States Government has solemnly endorsed”.8 With the article’s explanation of all that is ethically and morally wrong with this war, it pleads “upon all men of good will to join in the confrontation with immoral authority” because “every free man has a legal right and a moral duty to exert every effort to end this war, to avoid collusion with it, and to encourage others to do the same”.9 In April of the same year, Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech entitled “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam” in which he looked to strengthen antiwar consciousness among the public. His motive is clear and his explanation simple: “War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons”.10 This sermon states the brutal truth, the truth that echoes the conscience of Lyndon Johnson, the reality that this war had no end in sight. Here, Martin Luther King Jr. foresees the future of America due to our involvement in Vietnam: “if we do not act, we will surely be dragged down the long, dark, shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight”.11 Such predictions of a terrible fate for America only fueled the fire for antiwar actions. To accompany public speeches, printed articles, and spreading pamphlets, demonstrations and protests became a regular occurrence around the country. One took place on April 15th, 1967 at the United Nations in New York, followed by rallies on October 21st, 1967, October 15th, 1969, November 15th, 1969, May 9th, 1970, and April 24th 1971 involving hundreds of thousands of people. These major demonstrations represented hundreds of different protest groups, from veterans of earlier wars, to all black groups, to Native Americans, to women. While the majority of participants were upper and middle class whites because they “had experience speaking out” and trying “to change government policy”, they represented the voices of many.12 Appropriately, the most confrontational and publicized opposition to the Vietnam War came from college students, while the most effective, and sometimes most tragic antiwar occurrences occurred on college campuses. The more drastic these antiwar protests became, the more evidence there was that the U.S.A. was heading down a very ill-fated trail.
At Kent State University on May 4th, 1970, a rather standard war protest turned into a deadly affair as four students were shot and killed by the National Guard in the midst of the antiwar chaos. Perhaps this incident best symbolizes the catastrophe America was enduring where the government had reached a point of such corruption and desperation that innocent American civilians were killed for their discord with the government. Further, this incident illustrates that this generation of Americans was so divided that “President Nixon created a public atmosphere in which students who opposed the war were fair game for those who supported the government”13.
The division of this most essential generation of America sent half of its members to fight and die in Vietnam and left the other half home struggling to preserve the country through certain antiwar tactics. The split in the generation created tension among people of the same ages, of the same status, and even of the same families. David Harris, former Stanford ASSU President, formed a group called The Resistance, named after opposition to Nazi control in Europe during World War II, and claimed to be “in the antiwar movement simply because (they) were right”.14 Much like the majority of other antiwar protesters, Harris could not justify to himself the killing of people in Vietnam, even though his own brother served in the war. He chose to spend time in jail, a three year sentence, instead of obeying his draft card. Harris explains exactly what was so drastically wrong about Vietnam, and what led to such contradiction on the part of the U.S. government: “I was supposed to go kill people. Theoretically, I can accept the notion that there are circumstances in which you have to kill people. I could not accept the notion that Vietnam was one of those circumstances…perhaps the greatest injustice that a human being can do to another- killing them for no good reason”.15 Like David Harris predicted and Vietnam soldiers confirmed, the Vietnam War goals eventually consisted only of killing as many Vietcong as was possible. The mission became so unclear, the original intent so jaded that to kill the enemy was the only measure of success. Lt. Alan Bourne served from January 1968 through January 1969 and he summed up his duties in one single sentence: “our mission is to find VC and kill them”.16 The division among America’s youth is clear when Vietnam soldiers are bragging about how many VC they have killed while college students in America are going to jail so they have no part in that violence, and when David Harris forms a large antiwar group and is known nationwide for his disgust with the Vietnam War while his own brother is over there fighting. President Johnson himself confirms “there is a division in the American house now”. This division would not disappear with the conclusion of the war for it ran too deeply through America as a nation, and affected too much of its future.
The presence of this generational division as well as the overwhelming number of Americans against the war undoubtedly had lasting effects on the United States as a nation. Bernard Edelman, editor of “Dear America” summarizes Vietnam in describing that “young men fought an elusive enemy for a cause that wrenched apart the nation the longer it dragged on, a cause obscured, finally by the absence of victory…succeeded only in leaving a legacy of bitterness and unacknowledged sacrifice”.17 His point rings true, for our country has not since been the same. Our role and eventual failure in Vietnam contaminated the wealthy, prosperous, united country America was before the war. The almost unqualified support of the government and people in power was shattered, and “Americans lost confidence in what their government has told them about their policy”. For Bill Becker, a Vietnam veteran, he and his troops “were just a bunch of kids hoping they had a life ahead of” them.18 He symbolizes the soldier who felt obligated to serve for his country and supported his government, even though the government made their purpose unclear.
Vietnam stands as America’s longest, bloodiest war and still it cannot truly be explained; many who once championed the fighting with utmost confidence and fervor, look back only with regret and remorse. We abused our power as the world’s wealthiest, most powerful country by involving ourselves in places where we had no business. Thus, our part in the Vietnam War contaminated the image of the United States of America through giving the people of our country a reason to lack faith in our government, in our ideals, and our purpose. Vietnam veterans returned to a country brimming with bitterness and spite, violence and separation, void of patriotism and glory. And so, the memories live on. America hopes for reconciliation, reassured by the thought that perhaps now, such grave mistakes can be forgiven. But David Harris would like us to remember that he while he “is outraged still”, he must put his demons to rest. As will the rest of us with our country sometime soon. 19
1 The Vietnam War. http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/vietnam.html.
2 Johnson, Lyndon B., Diem, Ngo Dinh, Kennedy, John F. “Washington’s Man in Saigon: American Commitment to South Vietnam (1961)”. Dept of State Bulletins, June 19th, 1961, pp. 13-14
3 Coffey, David. African Americans in the Vietnam War. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/s_z/stevens/africanamer.htm.
7 Vietnam War Events: http://www.multied.com/Vietnam/67end.html.
8 “A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority (1967)”. Vietnam and America, p. 308
10 King, Martin Luther. “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam (April 1967)”. Ramparts, May, 1967, p. 33-37
12 Starr, Jerold M. “Taking Sides: The War at Home”. 1988, p. 7
13 The Ethical Spectacle. May 1995. http://www.spectacle.org/595/kent.html.
14 Wells, Tom. The War Within. Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1994. p 126
15 IBID, p. 127
16 Bourne, Alan. Dear America. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Jan. 30th, 1968. p. 41
17 Edelman, Bernard. Dear America, Letters Home from Vietnam. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. 1985. p. 21
18 IBID, p. 26
19 McCloskey, Pete Jr. “I am Outraged Still”. http://www.stanfordalumni.org/news/magazine/1997/marapr/lsjournal/bookreview1.html.