Courseworks

Explain why there were such different reactions in the USA to the country’s involvement in the conflict in Vietnam in the 1960’s

In 1960 the US sent increasing amounts of money, military equipment and advisors to South Vietnam. At this time the US perceived it could play a role in supporting democracy in South Vietnam, against the fear of invasion from the communist North.When the war in Vietnam started only a small percentage of the American population opposed the war. Those who initially objected to the involvement in Vietnam fell into three main categories; people who had left wing political views who wanted an NLF victory; pacifists who opposed all wars; and liberals who believed that the best way of stopping the spread of communism was by encouraging democratic rather than authoritarian governments. (Simpkin, Vietnam War). Following success in Korea, patriotic Americans, who had never lost a war largely, supported government policy.Indeed, a 1964 opinion poll showed that 85% of Americans approved of…the war policy. By 1969, fewer than 50% of the population were opposed to anti-war protests. (Smith, The USA 1917-1980)Since the early 1950’s, the US had increasingly become involved in the affairs of South East Asia. President’s Eisenhower and Kennedy supported the Domino Theory, fearing that if Vietnam fell to communism, neighbouring countries, which had important trade links with the US, would also fall. In the US in 1960 Communism was perceived as a real threat to democracy. The Americans had difficulty understanding the difference between liberal or radical ideas and communism, all were viewed with intolerance, and McCarthyism had encouraged the idea that all views outside those of the mainstream could be seen as unpatriotic. President Eisenhower, who had a distinguished career in the army before entering politics, the increasing arms race and the cold war all encouraged a militaristic influence in foreign policy. There was no proper discussion or decision taken as to whether or not America should commit itself to fighting in Vietnam. President Johnson had to decide whether to intervene in a more decisive manner than either of his predecessors. He was ambivalent and viewed Vietnam as ‘a raggedy-ass fourth rate country’, undeserving of American blood and dollars. He could not however, contemplate America being seen as weak to its communist enemies and once he had committed ground forces, refused to consider a pullout, which would leave him vulnerable to conservative attack.Most Americans during the early 1960’s had their eyes fixed on the ‘American dream.’ They wanted a good, steady job, a new car and a family living in a pleasant suburban home. They were not politically active, perhaps not even world-politically aware. The US has a fairly isolationist attitude and fighting a war thousands of miles away did not impinge on most people’s everyday lives. Older people who had served in World War Two or fought against communism in Korea could not understand why young people were unwilling to support the war. The numbers of people under thirty in the US were increasing rapidly. By 1970 half the US population was under thirty (J.McLeary, Modern World History). Eight million baby boomers’ (those born immediately after World War Two) were concentrated in or around higher education institutions.Although most of them were apolitical or conservative students there was a minority of students who were constantly attracting public attention. March 1965 saw the beginning of student unrest by affluent young people at more prestigious universities. These people could afford to be idealistic. Economically secure they did not have to work their way through college. They had been brought up in permissive child-centred homes and had the time, money and necessity to become politically active. They could stay in university and avoid the draft. ‘The War toll fell most heavily on the poor. College deferments, the use of influence and a military-assignment system that put better educated into desk jobs, meant lower class, poor youths were twice as likely to be drafted and twice as likely to be assigned to combat units than those of the middle class’ (J.Mcleary, Modern World History.First opponents to the war in Vietnam came from the Black American Civil Rights movement. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing title after he refused to serve in the war. The war in Vietnam was perceived by the black community as a ‘white man’s war’ (Muhammad Ali). The war was criticised by Martin Luther King who said that the $141billion spent, should have been used to relieve poverty in American cities. He thought it was ironic that the US government was sending poor Black Americans 8000 miles to kill poor Vietnamese. He also criticised the government for ‘taking young black men who had been crippled by our society…to guarantee liberties in South East Asia which they had not found in South West Georgia or East Harlem…Negro and white boys…killed together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.’Until the mid 1960’s, critics of American policy in Vietnam had been few and even these were discounted as being liberal, disloyal pro-communists. The growing influence of the number of US casualties, the horror of the war relayed each evening on colour televisions in homes nationwide, the draining of funds from Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programme and the racial overtones of the war made the anti-war movement ‘respectable’ and one that Washington could not ignore (Harriet Ward, World Powers in the 20th Century) the Revolt of the American Establishment, the University presidents, the Lawyers, the bankers, the corporation heads, who are the articulate elite of ‘middle America’.Senators J. William Fulbright and Robert Kennedy, foreign policy experts George Kennan and Walter Lippmann, Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Martin Luther King JR. encouraged hundreds of thousands of Americans to participate in antiwar marches and demonstrations to Washington in 1967 (J.McLeary, Modern World History). By the spring of 1968 they were convinced that victory in Vietnam was not worth the immense social cost (300 Americans dead a week) and the immense financial drain ($30,000million a year)(Alistair Buchan, The Observer).The Vietnam War was the first media war. As the decade progressed, thousands of television, radio and newspaper reporters sent back to America, reports and pictures of the fighting. Television showed prisoners being tortured, women watching whilst their houses were burned and children injured by napalm. Although the American media had initially been ‘on-side’ and supported the US government in Vietnam, there were real fears about the loss of young life. The world media began to criticise the US war in Vietnam. Martha Gellhorn, a freelance reporter, wrote in the ‘Guardian’ in September, 1966 that to ‘win this war we must win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam…however we are killing and wounding three or four times more people than the Vietcong do, so we are told on purpose…we had better find a new war to fight [this war]. Hearts and minds, after all, live in bodies.’ A statement by Robin Day, BBC commentator, ‘The war on colour television screens in American living rooms has made Americans far more anti-militarist and anti-war than anything else.The full brutality of the combat will be there in close-up and in colour, and blood looks very red on the television screen.’ The US media, heavily criticised for its disloyalty were slow to condemn the war. In 1967, an article in Newsweek, a US magazine stated, ‘Television seems to have encouraged a majority of viewers to support the war. 64% said television had made them feel like backing up the boys in Vietnam. 26% felt moved to oppose the war.'(Source F, Edexcel booklet). Extracts from the ‘New York Times’ began to show disquiet growing in the media. ‘US jet bombers pounded the hills…Many Vietnamese-one estimate as high as 500-were killed by the strikes. The Americans said they were Vietcong soldiers. But three out of four patients seeking treatment in hospital afterwards for burns from napalm or jellied gasoline, were village women.’ (5th June, 1965) This was happening at a time when President Johnson deeming the situation in South Vietnam to be growing rapidly out of control, was escalating US Army involvement, committing the first ground troops in March 1965. (Riddick, The Vietnam War)As the war continued, more Americans turned against it. More and more dead young men were being brought back to grieving US families every week. Seeing South Vietnamese casualties upset people; people who had been burned by napalm or poisoned by Agent Orange. In 1967, under the leadership of Bertrand Russell, an ‘International War Crimes Tribunal’ was set up. This concluded that the US was using weapons in Vietnam, which were prohibited by international law. They were found guilty of torturing captured prisoners and innocent civilians. The massacre at My Lai was photographed and published in ‘Life’ magazine. This influential magazine triggered an investigation into the massacre. The revelations deeply shocked the US public for this was clear evidence that the war was going wrong. It became apparent that there were signs of decay amongst the military. Moral and discipline in US forces was rapidly deteriorating. There were many problems, desertion, drug addiction, and refusal to obey orders, which in a few extreme cases led to the killing of an unpopular officer.By now the American at large, not just students, deserters and draft dodgers were becoming disenchanted by the war. Congress had ignored its constitutional duties throughout the Vietnam War, legislating merely on domestic matters. The President had formulated foreign policy. Once public opinion became markedly anti-war, Congress began to assume its authority, declaring that no funds appropriated for military purposes could be used to widen the war, expressly forbidding the use of ground troops in Laos and Cambodia. Te war had polarised and even the middle ground of ordinary Americans had reached the conclusion that winning the war was impossible. President Johnson’s promise of a ‘Great Society’ was vanishing. The money needed for social justice had been spent on the Vietnam War and angry black Americans and college-aged youth turned to violence to hasten social change.LBJ faced 1968, the election year, in disarray. Violent protests in many black ghettos in US cities led many to believe that troops would be needed to stop revolution in the US. In 1970, universities in America exploded as President Nixon extended the war by attacking Cambodia. At Kent State University, the National Guardsman fired a volley of shots that killed four students and wounded nine others. The protests against the student deaths spread to other universities and two more students were killed, shot by the Police. This was the final catalyst in turning public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

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