Rudy deLeon: Vietnam War shook a generation of Americans
Americans facing similar challenges to those at end of Vietnam War, he says
Editor’s Note: Rudy deLeon is a senior fellow with the national security and international policy team at the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense. The views expressed are his own. Watch “The Seventies” episode “Peace With Honor” at 9 p.m. ET Thursday on CNN.
When the 1970s began, I was a 17-year-old in my last year of high school.
The first half of the decade seemed like an extension of the 1960s: the fight for equal rights for all Americans continued; the first moves toward environmental protection were initiated along with Earth Day; the Beatles announced their break-up; and an oil embargo from the Middle East brought long lines at gas stations and soaring prices.
Throughout all this, the American people conducted a vigorous and polarizing debate on how to end the war in Vietnam.
By the end of the decade, America was trying to regain its standing and ideals and recover from a crisis of confidence following the conclusion of a long and traumatic war. It was a conflict that molded the country in many ways, large and small.
But five key legacies of the Vietnam War stand out as having shaped the nation – and indeed, continue to do so today:
Sensing the public’s disenchantment with the war, the White House of Richard Nixon moved to abolish the draft and shifted to an all-volunteer force before the 1972 election. It would take a generation for this all-volunteer force to become the modern, highly capable military that it is today.
1. The end of the draft
But the end of the draft was a significant milestone in the country’s relationship with its military and won immediate favor with the mothers of draft age sons and on college campuses.
2. 18-year-olds granted the right to vote
The cliche that 18-year-olds could be drafted but not vote in a presidential election (although the prime age for being drafted was actually 19 while all 18-year-old men were required to register with selective service) produced a rapid response from the House and Senate.
The Nixon White House, recognizing the electoral significance of this newly enfranchised population, courted the 18-year-old vote with mailings on the end of the draft as well as posters of the presidential visit to China.
In addition, Nixon maximized his appeal to the “great silent majority” symbolized by the “hard hat” construction workers in New York who would become the forerunners of the Reagan Democrats. This initial foray into “wedge politics” would help Nixon win a controversial re-election in 1972 in a landslide. In that election, 55.4% of the newly franchised young voters would go to the polls, the highest in history.
3. Banding together of military families
The families of American POWs and MIAs (Prisoner of War and Missing in Action) joined together to flex their political muscle and to make sure that America did not forget the men unaccounted for in the war. Walking the halls of Congress and the Pentagon insisting that “you are not forgotten,” the POW-MIA league of families ensured that members of the Armed Services of the United States would always be respected for their service, even as the country debated the policies that sent them into war.
To this day, about 1,600 American men who fought in the Vietnam War remain unaccounted for, and their grandchildren continue to assemble in their names. The men and women who serve in the Armed Services deserve and have earned the enduring respect of their nation, even as strategy and policies are controversial.
4. War: Getting out is tougher than getting in
The Vietnam War serves as an important lesson for today’s national security policymakers. Primarily, there is the Vietnam (and now Iraq) lesson, which cautions that getting out of a war is much more complicated than getting into conflict, especially for a democracy such as our own.
During the Reagan years, the Pentagon offered a doctrine on military engagement requiring clear policy objectives, public support before engagement and a predesigned exit strategy.
Indeed, President George H. W. Bush held to many of these principles during the 1991 Persian Gulf War by ceasing military operations and exiting once the core military objective of liberating Kuwait had been achieved. But a decade later, the painful lessons of Vietnam surfaced again as U.S. forces went back to Iraq and found themselves locked into a ground war that lacked a clear political and diplomatic solution.
5. The rise of China and the toll of Watergate
The pressures to exit Vietnam produced two very different but highly consequential Nixon White House decisions.
First, the opening to China was driven by Cold War political realignment as American troops were departing Asia. In many respects, the trip to China had a bigger impact on future events than the moon trips of the same period.
China, fed by its opening to the West in early 1972, has become a global economic and political colossus. But, while the trip to China had a lasting impact, other decisions made at the same time had drastic consequences.
The creation of the plumbers unit to “plug” the leaks on Vietnam planning at the Pentagon led to a constitutional crisis called Watergate, and a confrontation with Congress that led to the only presidential resignation. Together, the China trip and Watergate scandal would shape American politics for decades.
The transformative effect of the Vietnam War on the 1970s is therefore clear as a generation of Americans were shaken by political events at home and abroad.
It’s also worth noting that Americans face similar challenges today: war fatigue from a decade-long engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and the politics of distrust in Washington, a city that seems out of touch with the rest of America.
The question now is whether, as in the 1970s, these events will invoke a renewed sense of conviction to press ahead to build a better America for the future. I am confident that they will.