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The Vietnam War Era (1949 - 1983)
Seven presidents presided over the Vietnam War and its legacy still casts a long shadow into the present day.
The 2010s - The Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Washington, D.C. at night. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial honors over 58,000 who died in service in the Vietnam War, and those who are still missing in action. The names are listed chronologically on the wall.
1946 is seen as the official year the Baby Boom kicked off.
Between 1954 and 1965 there were four million annual births in North America. The phenomenon is viewed as officially ending in 1964. But during these years, America was in the midst of a prolonged economic boom that would build the nation, give most working citizens a quality standard of living with a car and a vacation attached, and convince the national conversation that America’s destiny was to face down age-old traumas like poverty, racism, and dictatorial politics. Much of this idealism was built up and then dramatically broken in the jungles of a coastal nation roughly the size of New Mexico and within the hearts of a generation whose sheer size determined economic, social, and political factors in a dynamic international juggernaut.
The only age group that can compete with them would be their offspring, the Millenials.
For the purposes of this newsletter, the Vietnam War was hot during the escalation in the 1960s, but its legacy tells a story of a military bureaucracy acting within the shadows ever since most of the Boomers were too young to understand.
Youthful Military Dreams
1949 proved to be a rocky Cold War year from the American perspective. It was another moment that the (still relatively young) nation would have to wrestle with the reality that it can’t control everything happening in the world despite its endowed power. America certainly had to learn that nations of color could determine their own fates and didn’t always have a nefarious angle outside of the organically murky governing incentives and the internal power struggles reverberating from a society’s yearning for post-colonial national determination.
Though, by 1949, America was definitely not at this point and saw the world through a condescending prism of America versus a wide-ranging global communist conspiracy pumping out of the halls of the Kremlin. This was the context utilized when Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China after decades of fighting external and internal opposition. Of course, the Americans supported the opposing Chiang Kai-Shek who fled to Taiwan and set the stage for a contemporary schism in the South China Sea.
The consolidation of Mao’s China inspired communist uprisings in other parts of Southeast Asia and he also recognized the Vietnamese Freedom Movement against the French colonists. In 1950, President Harry Truman received further criticism on his right flank for “losing China” and was incentivized to supply the anti-communist forces in Vietnam (mainly the French and French-friendly natives at this point) with $10 million dollars in military aid. Even though the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during the Second World War grew the Americans’ interest in the nation, the OSS (the precursor to the CIA) supplied resources and weapons to Ho Chi Minh, a revolutionary leader consistently calling for Vietnamese nationalism with his guerilla force.
But now the world was viewed through a different lens, one of anticommunism.
1949 was also the year that the Soviets ignited their first atomic bomb.
Going forward the Truman administration would quietly send advisors and military equipment to Vietnam as the French army became further mired in a bloody war. By 1954, the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu catalyzed international peace talks to be held in Geneva and led to the division of the Vietnamese people into North and South at the 17th parallel. The hope of a democratic referendum uniting the country would be swept away by the corruption of the South’s government, which was not that interested in the people.
Diem’s antidemocratic government would eventually end in a coup in 1963. But speaking of coups, by the time of the French’s exit, Vietnam was thoroughly on the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) radar now. It was always there since the end of World War II (with OSS), but now intelligence on both halves of the nation was a bigger agency priority. It was also known (especially after the release of the Pentagon Papers) that Ho admired the American values of freedom and self-determination and even wrote letters to President Truman urging the Americans to support Vietnamese freedom against external oppressors. There was no response from the administration (or the letters may not have been given to Truman).
Years later, the faux government of Diem would be supported until it couldn’t, setting a pattern for several weak administrations to follow his as internecine battles ring in the Vietnamese countryside (and eventually cities) over the next two decades.
On the other side of the ocean, America was becoming a commercial giant with a new supply of young citizens.
The Baby Boom added 76 million new Americans with 32 million of them being born in 1946 alone. The new generation would grow up in a quietly prosperous nation compared to the transformations happening in every other part of the globe. The youth in particular experienced an economic expansion in the form of cookie-cutter communities of ranch homes (and other general home building), and automobile proliferation, among other suburban amenities.
Most strikingly, the cataclysmic rise of leisure and entertainment industries in the form of theme parks like Disneyland, indoor malls, and multiplex cinema houses were just another testament to the incomes, confidence, and youthful vigor of postwar Americans. That serene childhood of many Boomer Americans (not for all, but in the grand global comparison) was happening on the surface as a clandestine military adventure was ramping up beneath.
By the Gulf of Tonkin incident (and resolution) in August of 1964, the first wave of Baby Boomers (either eighteen or turning eighteen) are at the right age to be thrust into the crosshairs of America’s geopolitical hubris like a widget on an assembly line.
The Jungle of Disillusionment
Even though many young Boomers were expecting a military experience after descending from the soldiers of the “Good War,” young people could sense there was something off about this war. As soon as one entered the nation, there was an aura of mistrust and dysfunction as it was hard to determine who was an ally and who was Vietcong.
While the earliest Boomers were in high school, JFK upped the level of military advisors in Vietnam with little confidence. During this period, Diem’s South Vietnam fell into chaos as the Catholic rulers brutally imposed their will and apathy upon a Buddhist majority. The president of Southeast Vietnam, and his brother, were eventually taken out by a coup after the U.S. government decided to stop supporting him. There have been ongoing discussions about this moment as more is declassified.
Still, shortly after the news out of South Vietnam, those early Boomers would enter young adulthood under the specter of JFK’s ghost and the ensuing questions around his shocking, yet very public, assassination.
Under President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the draft became a factor as the fighting ramped up.
There are numerous resources that go into morbid detail about the battles and missteps in America’s Vietnam strategy. To summarize, this period displays the tragedy of a president (arguably a legislative genius) who wanted to be known for his “Great Society,” but was also beholden to his pretension to overly trust military hawks and show too much pride in the face of considering the loss of one iffy “domino.”
It turns out that maintaining that domino meant losing the struggle to energize youthful idealism in America and in its civic nature.
His successor, President Richard Nixon, would sabotage diplomatic efforts to stop the war just to solidify his political ambitions. Then, after winning and promising to end the war promptly, it was ramped up again with more bombing and an invasion of Cambodia.
By the end of the Johnson administration and throughout the Nixon administration, America was visibly against the Vietnam War. America’s main allies in Western Europe were calling for peace talks since the mid-1960s. Blood was spilled and the landscape was disturbed as ill-advised means to an end of a military giant run by obscenely arrogant (and some bigoted) men who destroyed the lives of so many American families through the use of propaganda. Messaging that was pushed onto much of the young male population - encouraging them to blindly walk into a lethal jungle they did not understand.
The Pentagon Papers were revealed in 1971, which were a collection of documents studying the war’s legacy going back to FDR. It was at the guilty behest of a now-resigned Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. The revelations are a dagger to the heart of Americans and are arguably a major factor in building the imaginations behind advocates of anti-government fervor that animates many who are not passionate about tax policy or industrial policy. The way America’s leaders lied throughout the childhoods of Baby Boomers (sucking up all of the overt and subliminal Cold War propaganda imaginable) was insidious and reality-breaking.
All-in-all, a not-so-secret military operation had been happening in the background of midcentury American youth enjoying the spoils of postwar midcentury life. When young men and women were old enough to put the myths and legends they had been told into action, many used the war in Vietnam to escape their current sense of stagnation (many service members were working class) or chase an abstract sense of heroism in a world of mechanized death traps.
The men and women who survived this traumatic theme park were forever changed.
The war ended as a messy affair. Scenes of people barely fleeing onto American transports were covered by a more sophisticated television news infrastructure in the 1970s.
Vietnam Syndrome was the diagnosis of America’s disillusionment after facing a heavy defeat to a smaller, but tenacious, opposite. This country that once cherished self-government and its own righteous founding was ironically a corrupting force for the same spirit in a coastal Asian nation.
Like many other moments of this administration, President Ronald Reagan tried to wrap a nice bow and positively wistful language around a complex issue. He didn’t believe in what was becoming known as Vietnam Syndrome, like many other conservative hawks, and after the invasion of Grenada, those voices rejoiced in renewed confidence. It was argued communist influences from a Soviet-Cuban connection were behind the recent government change on the island.
Over half a million American troops served in the Vietnam War with over fifty-eight thousand deaths. Grenada featured 400 marines fighting in an airport with much of the rest of the coalition and personnel reportedly not doing much before the island was viewed as liberated.
No matter what side one fell on, the significance of Grenada was that it added to the sense that Vietnam could be discussed, analyzed, and potentially consoled. For one, the 1980s saw a re-exploration of Vietnam in popular culture with films like Full Metal Jacket and Born on the Fourth of July. But more importantly, America was engaging in military adventures to aid smaller nations again.
As people have families and own more assets, they turn a bit inward and no longer wish to pay attention to the wider world with the same energy one harbored in their youth. In 1983, the early crop of Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1950) were between 33 and 37, many with children of their own now. The middle group of Boomers (1950-1956) was experiencing and/or leaving their 20s, while the youngest Boomers (1957-1964) were experiencing the early 1980s at the age the early Boomers were when Vietnam ramped up. Grenada was nowhere near the magnitude of Vietnam, but for people who needed to release the pain and memories, the renewed sense of purpose made their stories easier to tell.
SIDE NOTE: This was indeed a big generation. The front is listening to Beatles records and watching dispatches out of Vietnam while the backside is playing early Donkey Kong and some may be electing Ronald Reagan in their first presidential election.
In conclusion, Vietnam cast a long shadow over a giant generation that altered America through its sheer demographic powers.
Still, Millennials did not escape the patterns of history as the influence of America’s military-industrial complex has been revealed once more within abstract concepts like “The War on Terror.”
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