Make love, not war. Sounds like a pretty good slogan, right? By 1980 we were desperate for a slogan, or better yet, a solution, to end the tumult of the previous decade and a half.
The Vietnam War—commonly referred to as "America's longest war"—grew out of the American commitment to the containment of communism during the Cold War. For approximately 15 years, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) fought against an American-supported Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam).
The 1960s and 1970s weren't the boring, lackluster decades of the late 19th century. No, the '60s and '70s have earned their reputation as an era all their own, with the power to shape the largest generation in American history. From the nation's costliest and most unpopular war to the biggest political scandal in our history, there never was a dull moment during the '60s and '70s. Notably, the Civil Rights Movement and enthusiasm laid the groundwork for a very involved citizenry, one interested in promoting and protecting American rights and making sure America's leadership reflected the desires of the common man.
But the most pervasive issue of the period was undoubtedly the Vietnam War. We slowly, but surely, allowed our Cold War preoccupation with banishing communism from the face of the earth to land us in a losing battle in Southeast Asia. The war dragged on for ten deadly years and cost America not only more than 58,000 American lives, but a sense of pride and belief in our leaders and our role in the world.
The war for the U.S. ended in 1973 with the withdrawal of American combat troops, and two years later, South Vietnamese forces surrendered to the North. With the unification of Vietnam under the communist government of the North, the U.S. had officially failed to achieve its objectives. A nation accustomed to grand victories suffered its first major defeat. The "longest war" was a military, political, and social disaster, one that would haunt Americans for decades.
Anti-war protesters were joined by protesters continuing the fight for racial equality and gender equality. And new to the scene were activists eager to fight for Mother Earth. All this public awareness of social issues was fueled by an increase in accessibility to modern media. The media made everything more visible and catalyzed public opinion on issues from the war to political scandal.
And there were scandals aplenty. This was the era of Nixon's oh-so-false claims of innocence in a political espionage and cover-up act that left the nation outraged.
The shiny, conservative, white-bread world of the 1950s was no more. America had issues. So, pull up a couch and let's delve into them, shall we?
What do you imagine when you think of the 1960s?
Music festivals, "free love," and various recreational drugs, perhaps? Maybe sit-in demonstrations, marches, and picket signs with bold messages?
Oh, definitely tie-dye. We tend to remember this notorious decade in terms of cultural changes at home: innovative music, new perspectives on life and love, glorious causes, and, of course, colorful—very colorful—fashion.
This period in American history is certainly characterized by all of these things, and more often than not, it's with these images that Americans today prefer to remember it. And why not? Nostalgia for the '60s gave us Lollapalooza, poetry slams, retro Volkswagen Beetles, the Across the Universe homage to the Beatles, hoop earrings, great Halloween costumes, and Austin Powers.
But more than any other event, the one that dominated this decade is the same event that many would prefer to forget: the Vietnam War.
"Nam." In the United States, this one-syllable word has come to mean many things for many different people with various class, racial, political, and national backgrounds. This tiny word carries tremendous weight. It can incite a slew of feelings, including sorrow, regret, anger, revulsion, embarrassment, betrayal, and confusion. Many would rather forget it altogether, particularly those who think of this war as one of—if not the—most disastrous periods in American history.
And Vietnam was in fact, a monumental catastrophe. But not simply because it was the first major loss for the U.S., and not simply because the U.S. failed to defeat communism, its most despised enemy during the Cold War. The Vietnam War, a conflict that lasted approximately 15 years—far longer than any previous war fought by the U.S.—was a political, economic, and military nightmare all along the way.
And the mistakes made, lies told, and lives lost continue to haunt Americans today, in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. But why? What makes this war so uniquely awful for the United States?
Was it the loss of life? Certainly it was for those personally affected by a warfront death, but in terms of total casualties, the Vietnam War was relatively benign. Seven times more Americans perished in World War II. In the Civil War, America's bloodiest war, more than 600,000 Americans died—over ten times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Vietnam lost far more of its people in the war; reports estimate that close to 3 million North and South Vietnamese men and women died. That's basically a zillion times more than the number of U.S. casualties (about 59,000).
Was it the fact that five American presidents failed to end the fighting abroad? Yes, in part. Disastrous errors in foreign policy-making in Southeast Asia marred each presidential administration from Truman to Nixon, and all along the way, political leaders strained to hide these mistakes, or at least to dismiss them. As a result, the vast majority of Americans lost a great deal of confidence in their government—a deeply significant transformation that would spark the kind of political cynicism familiar to us today.
Was it that the United States, a nation that had emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on the globe, lost to a small, relatively poor revolutionary militia? Definitely not from the perspective of the Vietnamese, who sought to gain independence, expel the foreign occupation, and reunify their country. For them, the Americans—or any imperial force, no matter how big or strong—stood no chance against their passionate crusade for a free Vietnam.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy for the U.S. wasn't that it made mistakes or that it lost, but that it failed to accept the possibility that it might actually lose. For this reason, five presidents were doomed to grapple with the conflict, and Americans from all walks of life were destined to deal with a new uncertainty about the future.
There's no doubt that the Vietnam War was an extremely confusing conflict, one in which nothing much was clear. In the United States, political and military leaders, G.I.s, anti-war protesters, and pro-war patriots all struggled to wrap their heads around all that was at stake.
Some 40 years later, historians have helped us gain some perspective on it all, but it still remains a complex topic. And while it's quite a tall order, we here at Shmoop hope we can help you sort some of this out.
The Domino Theory, initially propounded by President Eisenhower, suggested that one nation becoming Communist makes it more likely that others will too. Without American involvement, the South would quickly have fallen to the North and the nation, united under Communism, would have joined the Communist bloc. The nation adds its strength and materiel to the forces opposed to the West and to democracy, and becomes a threat to its neighbours – in this case, the unstable regimes of Indochina and Southeast Asia more generally. Communism would spread through these countries, to Indonesia, from whence it would threaten Australia. The USA had to oppose this, not least because their opponents also believed in this theory and the North Vietnamese were being greatly aided by their (often rival) Communist sponsors, China and the USSR. Success in Vietnam would encourage both great Eastern powers to offer such overt support for Communist revolution elsewhere. In the long term, this expansion would threaten the USA itself, by which time it might be too late to act: this therefore was self-defence. Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but at the time the USA’s fears were well founded: the forces of Communism in the world were extremely strong, with conventional forces much stronger than those of the West. Allowing those forces to gain strength by dominating further countries would have been criminally irresponsible. Furthermore, the ability to oppose the Communists in ‘proxy wars’ was a valuable one: it ensured that battles took place away from areas more important for the USA’s national interest (most importantly, like US soil). It ensured that men and materiel that might otherwise have been deployed elsewhere were not. It is true that Communist Vietnam posed no significant threat to its region post-unification: but would this have been true, if the North had not had to engage its forces and strength in years of bloody conflict, merely to achieve unification in the first place? Delay allowed Vietnam’s non-Communist nations time to strengthen their defences? The war gave Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines a breathing space so that they could not be overrun, as Cambodia was. At least in part, they owe their existence as vibrant, free, capitalist nations to the USA’s stand in Vietnam.
The interference in another nation’s sovereign affairs was a violation of international law – hence the absurd refusal to call the conflict in Vietnam a ‘war’. It is only legitimate to attack another nation if they attack you, or possibly if you genuinely think they are about to: nobody would ever suggest that the North Vietnamese threatened the American people in any way whatsoever. Once involved, the USA bombed Cambodia and Laos, too – breaking more laws, with even less justification. These violations of the law undermined the western bloc’s claim to moral superiority, as the USA killed thousands of civilians and bombed Cambodia. Furthermore, history shows the domino theory to have been wrong, since the only nation Vietnam threatened after its eventual unification was Cambodia – which was already Communist. This was predominantly a civil war, one that would have been over far more quickly and with much less bloodshed had the USA not interfered. (There isn’t a single example of an occasion in which it’s been a good idea to get involved in someone else’s civil war.)