The Vietnam War is one of the most controversial and complicated military actions in American history, a confluence of a number of factors that stemmed from post-World War II ideas about America’s place in the world, its relationship with Communism and the Soviet Union, and the increasing presence of the news media in the field of battle. In the Cold War following World War II, in which America turned its attention (and its weapons) to the cultural and ideological threat of Communism. However, the staggering defeats US military forces experienced, combined with the malaise and resistance provided by an increasingly prominent youth counterculture, led to Vietnam being one of America’s most devastating losses in its military history. America’s involvement into Vietnam, while borne of the need to secure American supremacy as a world superpower and stave off the threat of Communism, led to a tremendous ideological conflict between the exceptionalism of the Greatest Generation and the alienation and anti-war sentiments of the 60s counterculture.
The origins of the Vietnam War can be directly related to the outcome of the second World War, and the Cold War that followed. The United States and the Soviet Union, two of the most powerful nations after World War II, experienced tensions both socially and culturally. This is chiefly due to the United States’ concern that Communism would be spread throughout the world by the USSR, eventually arriving at America. The Cold War meant neither nation could directly go to war with one another, chiefly due to the mutually assured destruction that came with their respective possession of nuclear weapons. As a result, the two nations engaged in a series of proxy wars in which they supported other nations experiencing similar conflicts – the Vietnam War was one of those examples.
The tensions that directly led to the Vietnam War stemmed from the Soviet Union arming China, which led to China arming the North Vietnamese along the 17th parallel (Schaller et al., p. 284). Once the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II, the Chinese took control of North Vietnam while the French took South Vietnam (Neale, p. 25). In the late 50s and early 60s, however, the United States chose to protect the South Vietnamese from the encroaching aggression of North Vietnam (Neale, p. 17). More importantly, however, America felt a need to establish its continued superiority as a world superpower, and needed to assert the ideological dominance of capitalism over Communism in order to solidify that status. America’s entry in the war was, in a way, a means to keep the ground they had taken in World War II in world culture as the supreme nation in the world.
The ideological underpinnings of the Vietnam War, however, clashed with the changing sense of culture that was arising in post-WWII America. The baby-boomer generation, children of the war and bolstered by the prosperous American economy, “looked to expand the boundaries of peace, justice and spirituality, as part of their quest for an ever-better good time” (Schaller et al., p. 297). As opposed to their more traditionalist, mainstream parents, the baby boomers formed a counterculture that dealt more with the insular, self-reflective malaise of the modern American experience. From describing the alienation of modern life to turning to lives of psychedelic drugs and free love, the 60s counterculture provided an antithesis to the kind of imperialist and colonialist motivations that were being used to justify the Vietnam War. Combined with the increased visibility of the war due to the presence of cameras on the ground, as well as the immediacy of the draft, young people in America grew to distrust governmental authority and information and formed a significant protest culture (Schaller et al., p. 303). This escalated into the 1968 election, where American opinion about the Vietnam war was still decidedly negative about staying in the war, but was still undecided as to exactly how to withdraw from Vietnam (Schaller et al., p. 322).
One of the most significant points made about the failure of Vietnam as an expression of American values was its inherent hypocrisy in the wake of deepening domestic civil rights problems. While the American government was spending billions of dollars fighting a losing ground war in Vietnam, millions of Americans were feeling unheard and unsupported as the Civil Rights Movement began to wage in earnest. African-American activists and their allies focused on the inherent injustices and systemic discrimination they were experiencing in the wake of Jim Crow, made even worse by the draft sending many young black men to Vietnam (and to certain doom) (Schaller et al., p. 306).
The horrors of war were also transformative in their own ways for Americans thrust into a horrific situation with little ability to actually address these issues: writers like Tim O’Brien addressed these anxieties in stories like “How to Tell a True War Story,” in which his characters experience emotional turmoil about their time in Vietnam. O’Brien writes that “a true war story is never moral,” demonstrating modern America’s ambivalence about violence and war, believing them to be inherently immoral and devilish concepts (O’Brien, p. 523). This is a sensation many Vietnam veterans experienced, such as Halberstam’s recounting of the horrors of war in “One Very Hot Day,” as his protagonist, a war-weary American soldier, becomes disillusioned with the hopeless situation he and his men are trapped in: “A rock and a hard place. That’s where we are, between a rock and a hard place” (Halberstam, p. 65). These literary examples demonstrate the American resentment of a war ostensibly meant to represent and secure American values, thus solidifying the crisis of conscious the US was feeling at that transitional period in its history.
In conclusion, the Vietnam War and its origins and response help to highlight the cultural divides and contradictions that America was going through after World War II. Faced with its newfound status as one of the world’s superpowers, it also had to maintain its economic prosperity and ideological purity by steadfastly quashing Communism wherever it stood. Conversely, however, the act of war itself turned out to be an incredibly harrowing and hellish experience for American soldiers, who felt abandoned by their own nation to fight a proxy war that did nothing but get them killed. As a result of this, as well as the increasing protests over the war and the onset of the Civil Rights Movement, American ideology was increasingly fractured and hypocritical. In essence, the Vietnam War turned into traditional America’s hubristic last gasp at moral superiority, a military action whose casualties were the Americans who most resisted the ideas of war, capitalism and establishment thinking.
Halberstam, David. “One Very Hot Day.” In The Vietnam Reader, pp. 57-72.
Neale, Jonathan. The American War: Vietnam, 1960–1975. London: Bookmarks, 2001.
O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” In The Vietnam Reader. Pp. 513-526.
Schaller, Michael, Scharf, Virginia, and Robert D. Schulzinger. Present Tense: The United States
Since 1945. Houghton Mifflin, 1992.