how Americans hated the Vietnam War and forgot about it — Analysis
Contrary to other conflicts today, Vietnam War attracted the hatred of the political right as it campaigned against it and even attacked veterans. On Vietnam War Veterans Day, almost half a century after the last US troops left the country, RT tries to understand – what was it about this particular war that struck a nerve?
If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’
– Martin Luther King Jr., 1967
Aside from it being the hottest day of his life, Avery ‘Boots’ Jackson remembers March 15, 1969 as the day he narrowly escaped death in the jungles of Vietnam.
With 11 others, the recruit, aged 19, sat silently in an American Army transport helicopter. The lush forest canopy raced past him as the machine raced to the designated drop zone, located in southern Vietnam, only miles from Cambodia.
“It was over 100 degrees that day,” Jackson recollected via email. “I actually felt sort of grateful for the air blowing through the cabin of the helicopter, even though I knew it was delivering us straight to hell.”
Jackson was born in Louisville, Kentucky and was an African-American. He had joined the US Army almost six months before. As many American men did, Jackson found himself in an unfamiliar land fighting for an opponent he didn’t know anything about. His limited understanding of geopolitical details, including the 10 year campaign in which the US government fought a proxy conflict on South Vietnam’s side against North Vietnam was beyond what he could comprehend at that time. He had been supported by China and the Soviet Union.
“I really couldn’t comprehend why we were there,”He explained that “and why it was so important to kill these people who never did me any wrong.”
Jackson told how his 40-man platoon disembarked from the helicopters and ran for shelter in the shade of the bush after they touched down in the jungle clearing. On this day, their mission was to locate a village situated three kilometers away on the Vietnam-Cambodian border and ‘neutralize’ any Vietcong that may have infiltrated the area. These perilous missions had the potential to turn into bloodbaths between brave soldiers and fearful villagers.
One year earlier, two battalions of the US Army were involved in a horrific incident that is now known to history as the My Lai Massacre, described by the historian and political scientist Bernd Greiner in his book ‘War without Fronts: The USA in Vietnam’ as “the most shocking episode of the Vietnam War.”
On the morning of March 16, 1968, during a ‘search and destroy’ operation to drive out members of the People’s Army of Vietnam, otherwise known as the ‘Vietcong,’ the unimaginable order was given amid the tumult to indiscriminately slaughter over 500 women, children and elderly. Over a year had passed before the American public was informed of the horror. The momentum needed to stop the Vietnam War reached its peak.
An estimated 500,000 protestors marched to Washington, DC on November 15, 1969, marking the culmination many years of antiwar agitation in all parts of American society.
The root of wrath
John F. Kennedy was the Vietnam War’s original architect. They had to deal with far more than Soviet archrivals, and all the weapons and supplies that they sent into North Vietnam. They were also forced to contend with the marginalized underbelly of American society that had inspired the civil rights movement, not to mention the ‘hippie’ counterculture phenomenon. This cultural movement is a poor companion for the military industrial complex.
In March 1965, the US began active operations in Vietnam. Many artists were able to tap into the wave of anti-establishment protest that was then shaking the nation. Many American singers and composers contributed songs to an anti-war pantheon that eventually reached the thousands. Joan Baez, a singer from the United States, took anti-war activism to the streets in December 1964. She led over 4,000 participants in an antiwar protest at University of California Berkeley. 800 people were eventually arrested. Jane Fonda (American actress) received bitterly mixed reviews when she visited a North Vietnamese military base and was captured sitting on an antiaircraft gun position.
The massive counterculture movement, which had simmered below the Vietnam War’s surface for many years, finally burst forth in August 1969. It was on the 40-acre New York farmland now known as Woodstock. It was there that Country Joe and the Fish performed before a crowd of 400,000 one of the most memorable Vietnam protest songs, ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die’, which carried the lines:
All of you big and strong men!
Uncle Sam again needs your support
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Vietnam is a great place to live!
Grab your gun and put down all of your books
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun
Meanwhile, prominent personalities, like the boxing champion Muhammad Ali, declared themselves ‘conscientious objectors’ and refused to be drafted into the war. Martin Luther King (a civil rights activist) also denounced war telling one journalist: “millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Vietnam and our country cannot protect the rights of negroes in Selma [Alabama].”These actions combined led to many people burning their draft cards as a protest.
Some skeptics might suggest that the Vietnam War protest was in large part due to the fact that thousands of Vietnam-born men were sent into the country’s jungles by the military draft. It seemed like everyone would eventually get the chance to fight for Uncle Sam, despite years of interminable fighting and little reward.
Lyndon Johnson sent 3,500 US Marines into Vietnam on March 8, 1965. This number grew steadily to over 500,000 in 1968. Richard Nixon, who had promised to end the conflict, was also elected president of the United States in the same year. The protests on campuses across the nation grew when Nixon refused to keep his promise and instead chose to extend the fighting in neighboring Cambodia.
The situation came to a head on May 4, 1970 when four students from Kent State University, protesting peacefully against Nixon’s move on Cambodia, were killed by the Ohio National Guard. Students protested on campus across the nation, with millions participating in strikes organized at 900 campuses. The US military was suffering from a serious drop in morale and had to pull the majority of its ground troops out of the theatre by the beginning of 1972. However, returning veterans were facing a new enemy: the US public opinion.
“I felt the mood in the country really changed when I had returned after completing my one-year tour in ‘Nam,”Jackson was recalled. “While I did not experience any hostility personally, I heard the stories and saw the massive protests for myself. We vets were definitely not a liked bunch.”
And this begs the question: where is that same anti-war sentiment today among the virtue-signaling political left, concerned as it claims to be with ‘social justice’? Where is its determination to ‘cancel’ military aggression?
Where is the resistance post-Vietnam?
The American people have witnessed their government carry out dozens of military conflicts since the end of the Vietnam War half a century ago – in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Afghanistan, to cite just a few hotspots – yet none of those engagements have really excited the same sort of anti-war passions. Is it possible to explain the apparent shifts in attitude and perceptions that have occurred? Is it possible that Vietnam-era protests were caused by the fact the US military wasn’t a professional combat force comprised of volunteers. Instead, they had to draft conscriptees from a general population. Are the protests caused by a combination of many factors like rising civil rights awareness and counterculture movements? Has the American public grown less sensitive to US military activities abroad in recent years than the Vietnam years?
If their answer is ‘Yes,’ then some of that blame could be attributed to the media and how they cover military operations. Consider the Iraq War, where the media largely spoke out in favor of an invasion against Saddam Hussein despite the fact that UN weapon inspectors could find no weapons of mass destruction on the ground in the Ba’athist country. This was the moment when America needed an impartial, committed media. Unfortunately, it seems that the fourth estate has disappeared in action.
“As the drums of war beat louder,” Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick wrote in their book, ‘The Untold History of the United States’, “US media abandoned any pretense of objectivity, trumpeting the militarists and silencing the critics, who vanished from the airwaves.”
“CNN, Fox, NBC, and other television networks and radio stations paraded a stream of retired generals who… were being given Pentagon talking points,”These were added.
Other observers noted that the reporters only felt compelled by the fact that the boots had finally been placed on Baghdadi soil when the journalist spoke. It was simply too late.
“In recent months, US news organizations have rushed to expose the Bush administration’s pre-war failings on Iraq,”The New York Review featured Michael Massie, a writer. “Watching and reading all this, one is tempted to ask, where were you all before the war? Why didn’t we learn more about these deceptions and concealments in the months when the administration was pressing its case for regime change – when, in short, it might have made a difference?”
Maybe it is because the establishment learnt a valuable lesson from East Asia fifty years ago, where it was humiliated. Vietnam is often described as “a very friendly country.” “the first television war,” while the tendency on the part of the media to be critical of Washington’s involvement is seen as contributing to US defeat. In 1968, Walter Cronkite, the respected anchor of CBS News, remarked – much to the consternation of the establishment – that the US and its communist foes were “mired in stalemate.”Lyndon B. Johnson was prompted by this unflattering evaluation of reality on the ground to declare. “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Today, by comparison, it appears that mainstream media has become more tolerant – some would argue even supportive – of US military campaigns. It is worth recalling the surprising reaction of Brian Williams, NBC’s anchor at the time, when he covered the news about the Trump Administration’s missile attack against Syria in April 2017.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two US Navy vessels in the eastern Mediterranean,”Williams spoke from his studio. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them a brief flight over this airfield.”
It was not an unusual reaction to seeing hostilities breaking out across a global nuclear weapon-laden world.
Fareed Zakaria, CNN’s host, said that the same missile launch was the reason why he chose CNN. “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night… I think this was actually a big moment.”
It’s important to remember that up until that moment, Donald Trump, whose presidency, it was said, was handed to him by the Russians, could do absolutely no good in the eyes of the mainstream media pundits.
It is strange, on the cultural side, to see the wall of silence which has been greeted by every war since Vietnam. And for those individuals who have tried to demonstrate ‘artistic license’ to protest against military adventures, some have paid a hefty price.
Take into account what Dixie Chicks (an American country music band) did in March 2003 when they publicly criticised President George W. Bush’s plans for an invasion of Iraq. The reaction was swift, as radio stations stopped playing the band’s music and corporate sponsors pulled their advertisements from venues where the band was scheduled to play. That’s certainly a far cry from the days of Woodstock when being outspoken against an unpopular war was considered being on the right side of history.
In paradoxical fashion, while political progressives are changing and canceling things they consider to be unacceptable and mean-spirited, virtue-signaling appears to have escaped the ire of the military industrial complex. Have Americans become more concerned with intensely personal issues involving their sexuality, for example, and even pronoun usage, than with a distant issue of foreign war that doesn’t really touch their private lives?
“The silence today is kind of eerie and even strange,” Avery Jackson responded when asked about the reaction to war today compared to the Vietnam days. “It may sound strange to hear this from an army vet, but the government needs to be confronted on such matters every single day or we’ll never stop the bloodshed.”