Why there were such different reactions in the USA to the country’s involvement in Vietnam in the 1960’s
The time of 10 years proved to be a decade split into several segments of public reactions. In the early years of 1960, the American public considered price, inflation and racism as the most important issues facing their country. However it was not until 1965 that the people of America finally realised that in actual fact Vietnam was the main threat to their countries well being. Nonetheless by 1960, there were barely any American troops in Vietnam and in fact there were less than 50 thousand troops fighting. The fact that the US death rate was very low ensured that the American public was not too concerned with events in Vietnam.
However they were instead more interested in celebrating the glory of war and the government’s actions towards defending the principle of democracy in Vietnam. The youth of America or “Kennedy’s Generation” in particular, when asked what they could do for their country became excited at the prospect of fighting and representing what their nation stood for. As they thought the superpower of America could not be defeated. Such an idealism of the1960’s left the US unconcerned with the threat of Vietnam, but as we now know, the general consensus, would change during this eventful decade.
With time, the involvement of US troops in the war escalated to a more apparent number. In 1964, under the reign of President Johnson, the number of US troops going to Vietnam vastly increased. By 1965 there were over 100,000 US troops in Vietnam and the US death rate had begun to escalate. Back home in America, the people began to realise that the war was now becoming serious, and Vietnam was voted as the most important problem for the country for the following 5 years. As the number of US soldiers in Vietnam increased so did the death rate.
With this came the realisation by the American people that the war in Vietnam was very real and very dangerous. The peek of American casualties was in the late 60’s and early 70’s and this is where the anti Vietnam activity was at it’s most in America. However the distinct reactions of the American people varied according to many factors. Those included, political differences, the generation gap, age differences, and racial differences and thus causing a split in the nation views on Vietnam and also initiating a period of great rivalry between the people who wanted to end Vietnam, and the people who wanted to carry on.
Several groups decided that the war was morally wrong and uncalled for and unjustifiable. The 1960’s “Hippie Generation” was into making “love not war” and made their views clear in Woodstock ’67 when “Joe Macdonald” sang his famous anti Vietnam song to hundreds and thousands of people gaining world recognition as well as a stronger amount of support for the anti-war effort. The song launched a stinging attack on Vietnam and reflected the mood of the youngsters of America. The generation gap was plain to see. The average age of a combat troop in Vietnam was 19.
The youth of America had learned to question the government and stand up for their rights as young people. They wanted the unnecessary bloodshed to stop, as they couldn’t understand why the war was being fought whilst at the same time sacrificing the youth of America. As a result of this from 1968 there were waves of protests all over the country. Students mainly held these at universities. Some students were even shot by the National Guard during the unrest. Students began to avoid being sent to Vietnam by “Draft dodging”.
Opposing the youth was the “Older generation” which consequently had fought in World War Two. They had pride and faith in the USA and knew that they were undefeated in modern war. They also fully recognised the threat of Communism to America and so they strongly argued that the war in Vietnam was very important in the fight against communism. The political divide lied with the left wing and right wing views of the American senate. The left wing was known as the “Doves”. As the nickname suggests, they were against the fighting and insisted that the war was morally wrong.
By the late 60’s they were convinced that the war was lost and that it should be stopped immediately to stop the killing of American soldiers. The right wing view of the “Hawks” showed no sympathy with communism and was convinced that America would remain undefeated in modern war. They believed communism had to be defeated and the war had to continue for the sake of the free world. As Philip Caputo wrote, the USA had never lost a war and was destined to “play cop to the communist robber”. This in effect shows that the Hawks viewed the USA as the first line of defence against Communism in the world and therefore could not stand down.
Nonetheless, the political views swung towards the left wing view during the 60’s as America realised that the war was being lost and America was defeated. The reactions of the USA were also split by racial differences. Black Americans were outraged by certain facts about Vietnam. For example, more black than white soldiers were dying in Vietnam, in proportion to their numbers in the US. This sparked outrage amongst black people who thought black soldiers were being used as pawns in Vietnam. Hugely prominent black icons such as Martin Luther King instructed black people not to fight in Vietnam.
He felt that black soldiers should not risk their lives for a country that deprives them of their human rights. He believed that the true fight for black people was at home in the USA. This view was also echoed by that of the biggest world-wide ambassador for black people, Mohammed Ali. When Ali refused to go to Vietnam, he acted as an example for thousands of his black admirers. By highlighting that he had nothing against the Vietnamese, and that neither did they. Yet consequently Ali paid the penalty for refusing army service as he was imprisoned.
Although it must be stated that it was evident that his actions acted as a huge blow for the USA in Vietnam. And as a result the efforts of Civil rights leaders caused unrest at home as the war effort led to money being withdrawn from the “Great society”. Subsequently as black Americans on one hang who were outraged faced jail as a penalty for not going to Vietnam, white Americans on the other hand, had a chance for their children to escape Vietnam, as education was a passport out of war. White Americans were richer and better educated. Parents used their children’s education to excuse them from attending the war.
Rich white children were sent abroad by their parents to be educated instead of having to fight in Vietnam. The previous American president Bill Clinton himself was sent to study at Cambridge by his parents and as a result perhaps if this had not happened, he would have fought in Vietnam. Hundreds of rich, young, white Americans were excused from service, something black families did not have the means or money to do. Although reactions were different according to whome, when and where the person was, some events gave the same reactions all over the US. As the war escalated during the 60’s, people’s reactions started shifting against the war.
The most important event in the war in changing US opinions was the ‘Tet’ offensive. The Tet offensive was a huge shock to the US, as it appeared that they were winning the war. Although the Vietcong suffered heavy losses, the US army had been defeated in a big way. It showed that the Vietcong could strike anywhere at any time and the US would be helpless to stop them. This fact left the US in realisation that they couldn’t win the war. This was shown when Richard Nixon promised he would stop the fighting in Vietnam as part of his presidential election campaign in 1968.
The US citizens obviously warmed to this idea as Nixon was elected as president later that year. The numbers of US casualties rose to 160 US soldiers killed each week by 1967. This statistic made citizens aware of how many were dying, and that their relatives could be next. These bodies would be returned to the US in body bags, which was a powerful sight to see when pictures of these body bags were shown in the newspapers. This highlights that the media was a key player in ensuring that the people at home got an explicit idea of what really was occurring in the far was fields of Vietnam.
Drug taking amongst US troops became increasingly common and half a million soldiers deserted the army. In my opinion, if the US were able to control what information reached the US people, there would not have been unrest, as the people would have remained blissfully unaware. This was impossible, as this was the 1st war to be shown live on television and in colour. The exposure America received from Vietnam was enough to disgust the country. In 1965 viewers saw a GI set fire to a peasants hut with his cigarette lighter. In 1968, they saw a Vietcong prisoner shot dead.
Television also showed American GI’s being shot to pieces and in 1969, the truth about the My Lai massacre was revealed along with footage of women and children being stripped and murdered by American GI’s. In all, 58,000 US troops were killed, a huge loss of young life. This figure was enough to justify America’s exit from a war they could not win. All off this proved to be far too much exposure than the American people were ready for and the media proved to be a huge factor in changing the reactions of people towards Vietnam.
It brought the war into the living rooms of the American people. They saw the savagery that their own boys were committing in Vietnam and were disgusted. Reactions to Vietnam were different in the 60’s because the war escalated during the decade. At first, the war was unimportant until the US people realised they could not win the war. Generations, politics and race split the country and this meant reactions would be different depending on where you stood. Because America was so diverse, and the land of “freedom”, reactions would always be different.