Reflections on Vietnam
I'm too young to remember Vietnam. I was not quite four when the Marines left Saigon, and I know no one who fought or died there. To many people, it's a dead issue - it's in the past, and we need to move on. However, as a historian, it continues to fascinate me, especially because we really can't move on and break free of the past, no matter how hard we try.
Vietnam was a disaster in more ways than one, and I'm not going to talk about how it destroyed our national psyche, because I don't think it did. First, the war itself. Why was it fought so poorly? Why couldn't we beat this rag-tag group of guerrillas? The answer is easy, and it's one that good solid patriotic Americans don't want to hear. It had nothing to do with opposition at home, despite what many conservatives who don't like unwashed hippies want you to think. Sure, that was part of it, but there were protests for almost every war we've ever fought it. The reason we lost the war on the field is because the United States military had become too conservative and assured of its own invincibility. We couldn't adapt. We had become the British in the American Revolution, marching rank and file into the slaughter, unable to understand why those lousy rebels were shooting at us from the trees - it wasn't sporting! The Viet Cong knew what any good guerrilla army does - you don't have to win, you just have to not lose. They didn't lose, so eventually, they won.
The legacy of Vietnam is what's fascinating. The United States suffered because it had never lost a war before - even Korea was sort of a victory. All other countries have been able to move on from loss, because they have experienced it over and over - even England, probably the second-most successful country of modern times, suffered its share of setbacks. The damage to the American people was complex, because it manifested itself, I would say, in two radically contradictory reactions - a complete cynicism about government, and a yearning for a paternal government. These two reactions have defined American life since the 1960s.
The cynicism is easy to explain, and is the new paradigm of postmodern America. We were betrayed by our government, and now we can't trust them. I would argue that Vietnam was the first time in our history when the lies of government were publicized so widely, because of the new power of the media. The government had lied to us before, and people knew about it, but because that knowledge wasn't instantaneous, the blow was cushioned a little. Now the lies became obvious quickly, and people reacted against that. My mother voted for Nixon in 1968 because he said, in his campaign, that he would get us out of Vietnam. When he ran for re-election in 1972, she didn't vote for him, because he had lied - he escalated the war instead. The country had gone to war on the flimsiest of excuses before, as well - the Barbary Corsairs in the early 1800s, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Indian Wars, the annexation of Hawaii, the Spanish-American War, World War I, the dirty wars in Central America in the 1950s - but in all of those cases, the excuses were at least somewhat concrete. In Vietnam, the specter of Communism wasn't enough to sustain a decades-long war effort. Why do you think Bush and his gang tried desperately to sell the American people on Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? It's a concrete reason for fighting, while spreading "democracy" in the region is, for many Americans, not a good reason for their relatives to die. Vietnam began this trend of fighting a war for reasons that could not be articulated in simple sound bites, and while some might argue that defending the South Vietnamese against evil Commies and freeing the Iraqis from a madman are more "noble" reasons to fight, nobility tends to go out the window when your son or daughter is dying. If the Bush kids were in Iraq, don't you think our president would have a better excuse for the war than "it's the right thing to do"? If you don't, you're naive.
The problem with cynicism is that it easily leads to nihilism, and the American people aren't quite ready for that yet. Therefore, the second reaction to Vietnam, a counterrevolution of sorts against cynicism and a desire for "Daddy." Government became, in essence, a parental figure, more so than it was before, I would say, although I can't back it up with facts (sorry - this isn't a research paper, just a post on a blog). The successful politicians since Vietnam have been those that have said they would care for the American people, while those who want the American people to stand up and sacrifice and be adults have been sent packing. Gerald Ford never had a chance, but Jimmy Carter was a disaster as president, because he asked people to make sacrifices. America had just gone through fifteen years of sacrifice, and told Carter where he could go - back to the peanut farm. Reagan, Clinton, and now Bush II have all, in some way or another, claimed the "paterfamilias" role in politics, and we have responded. Reagan's avuncular style and determination to "stand up" to the big bad Russians soothed us at a time when we believed we were losing the war against Communism. Reagan said, "It will be okay, America - have a cookie." We did, and were rewarded with the fall of the Berlin Wall. That Reagan had only a peripheral role in the fall of the Soviet Union does not matter, because he was our dad - stern, distant, jocular when he had to be, tough-as-nails when it suited him, and he made the bad things go away. Bush I couldn't keep that up - he also asked, in his own way, for Americans to sacrifice, and we rejected him. Clinton was the polar opposite of Reagan, except he also told us that he would take care of us - the Soviet Union was gone, but the threat of recession loomed, and Clinton said, "Don't worry about it - you'll make plenty of money," and we did, and rewarded him. Bush II understands his father's failings. Without the war on terror, there is no way he would have been re-elected. It would have been a landslide, worse than the one his father experienced. Bush II is trying to be a father figure, and he has latched onto the war on terror, because the seeming randomness of terror attacks has made us children again - we want someone to protect us, and Americans believe Bush II is that person.
It's ironic that the Vietnam War ended with the triumph of Communists on the other side of the world, but drove this country much more in the opposite direction. The Vietnam War was one in which the American government attempted to thwart the will of the people by installing almost fascist dictators in puppet regimes, but the American people didn't rebel against this. They rebelled against the government involvement, true, but not against the policies begin carried out. I have mentioned before that America has never had a true left-wing government. In 1972, the time was ripe - Nixon had lied repeatedly to the American people about our involvement in the war, and the economy was slowly spiraling down the toilet. So what did we do? Re-elect him in a historical landslide. Since Vietnam ended, we have had only one left-leaning government, Carter's, and that ended in disaster. Conservatives may moan about the hippies and Commies who thwarted them in Vietnam, but they're really missing the big picture - those hippies and Commies managed somehow to deliver the country up to the conservative right. Since Vietnam, we have become much more isolationist, to the point that we're almost back to where we were before World War I (politically, that is - economically, we're going global, which may or may not be a good thing). We have become much more anti-union, anti-liberal, pro-big business, and pro-military. Much of this is Reagan's legacy, I know, but I would argue that Reagan wouldn't have been elected, much less re-elected, if he hadn't been able to tap into this fear we feel, this fear that stems from the shattering of American hegemony in the 1970s and the knowledge that some people in this world actually reject "American values." We don't like to think that there are groups of people in this world who don't like us. Therefore, we elect officials who will either ignore those people or eradicate them. Vietnam was a meat grinder, and it didn't have to be if we had had a more enlightened government. Ho Chi Minh, from what little I know about him (he does share my birthday, so I should learn more), was more than willing to work with the United States, but they rejected him because he cared more about making life better for the Vietnamese than for American business interests. However, had the government worked with the North Vietnamese and perhaps "rescued" them from Communism before they got involved in it, the history of American conservatism would have been a lot different. Bush II should thank that narrow-minded God he worships every day for Vietnam, because it has allowed him to push his agenda much more efficiently on a newly-docile population.
The solution, of course, is not to ignore Vietnam, but to understand what had happened as a result of it. We keep giving power to the government, because we live in fear of the strange people at our borders, trying to destroy our way of life. Viet Cong, hippies, Muslim terrorists - it doesn't matter who, they're here to upset us. The government can rescue us, but only if we hand over all authority to it. This is the lesson of Vietnam, and it's why today we "support our troops." If only we hadn't whined about Vietnam. If only we had treated the soldiers better. If only we hadn't questioned everything. If only ... then we would have won, and the soldiers of Vietnam would be treated the same way the soldiers in World War II are treated, and Tom Brokaw would write slobbery books about them. Today, we're told over and over again that the protests back home, not the imbecilic way the army ran the war, was responsible for the loss, and therefore, if you question the Bush Administration, we will lose, and the soldiers will feel bad. This is just like a parent telling a kid to do something, and when asked why, responding, "Because I said so." It's fine for parents (I plan on using it), but it's not fine for a democratically-elected government. Ironically, Vietnam made us question the government much more than we ever had while the war was being fought, but also exhausted us from questioning the government too much in subsequent years. Americans, I would argue, were growing up in the 1960s, and now, they have regressed back to childhood, because it makes us feel better. We're like kids who moved back in with their parents after college because the real world scared us too much. Bush II and his gang feel this, intuitively, and play on our fears. Wouldn't it be nice to stop being afraid of the dark?