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The Impact of the Vietnam War on American Culture, Essay Example

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Essay

Abstract

During the Vietnam War, American culture was deeply impacted in atypical ways as compared with other wars such as the Civil War or World War Two. One reason for this was that the issues of civil rights was in a state of great upheaval in the country, and this was, rightly or wrongly, associated with the actions and consequences of the Vietnam War. As well, live action and commentary on both the Vietnam War and civil rights were being broadcast into American homes by television, with one of the consequences was American college students and hippies starting antiwar protests. With them, the students and hippies brought forth grand idealizations in the form of “sex, drugs and rock and roll”, concepts that died out as the generation aged. This paper will explore one of the reasons for this occurrence.

Introduction

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson established ground troops and aircraft in Vietnam, marking his country’s entrance into the decades-long war. On the recommendation of the National Security Council, three bombing operations were initiated, Operations Flaming Dart, Rolling Thunder and Arc Light. The first operation was divided into two, both four days apart (February 7 and 11, 1965); the second was a longer attack that lasted from March 2, 1965 to November 2, 1968; and the third started on June 18, 1965 and was marked by heavy bombing being initiated from so high up, they couldn’t be seen or heard from the ground and gave the Americans an edge in stealth (Wiest, 2009).

Despite Presidents Kennedy and Johnson’s intents that the war not last long, it did, and was not over until 1975. During this period in American history, Americans were a little war-weary, barely being able to catch their breath after World War Two and the Korean War. To intensify matters, the Vietnam War was the first war to be televised, sparing American civilians no expense in showing every facet of the war, no matter how brutal it was. Finally, the country was undergoing a radical shift in thinking as civil rights issues came to the forefront of American thinking in an explosive way. All of this, combined with the tendrils of McCarthyism smoke seeming to finally be extinguished, left the American population desperate for peace, especially the younger portion (Schrecker, 1999).

The constant bombardment of civil rights and war issues being broadcast to Americans finally brought things to a head, and the college-aged generation retaliated, staging many protests that involved drugs, free sex and music. In turn, this generated a massive feeling of “peace, not war” attitude, quite the opposite of what was being preached by American politicians. With the protests lasting so long, and the music having such a lingering effect, one question arises: What happened to the young men and women’s shift in thinking?

Vietnam-American Relations:

Before the War

Understandably, relations between the two countries were tense as a result of the warring, but for several reasons. The first, and most obvious one, was that war caused strain between them as fighting normally would. The second, and from an American perspective, was that American youth- the hippies- became intensely disenchanted with the idea of fighting for freedom and loudly clamored for peace. But even before the war, tension was present due to France’s attempt at reclaiming the northern portion of Vietnam it had “won” before World War Two and the United States giving aid to France.

Vietnam had been part of the French Empire prior to World War Two but became overrun by the Japanese during the war, and the Vietnamese people could not establish their own governing body. However, once the Japanese retreated, the Vietnamese used this opportunity to place Ho Chi Minh as the leader of their new government. After the war, the French decided they wanted to take back Northern Vietnam and were met with resistance by Minh’s party, the Viet Minh, but efforts were ultimately futile and the French withdrew. They had had the Americans’ help during this time, but were still not successful. As a result, the Vietnamese did not look upon the Americans very favorably.

The History Behind the War

In 1957, the president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, visited the United States in an effort for the two nations to support each other. During this time, Diem was dealing with skirmishes in the south which, for the most part, he had managed to stop, despite controversial rumors that the North was helping the Southern rebels. President John F. Kennedy insisted that South Vietnam should tend to its own matters without American involvement, but the ensuing president, President Johnson, took the different tack of escalating affairs by placing ground troops and aircraft in Vietnam, leading to American involvement in the Vietnam War (Freudenburgh, 1978).

How America Reacted

In 1965, President Johnson initiated his country’s official entrance into the Vietnam War. However, several problems plagued him: decreased morale regarding American effort in the war, increased desertion, and inability to forcefully put a winning end to the war. In 1968, President Johnson attempted peace talks with Vietnam, halting the bombing in North Vietnam briefly and refusing to send in more troops. But instead of the desired effect of his to end the war, it backfired on him and American citizens now viewed his actions as an admission of defeat. President Nixon, who took office after President Johnson, attempted to encourage American support for the war but was diametrically opposed to the growing anti-war movement. With seemingly no other choice, President Nixon began to broker peace talks with Vietnam (Wiest, 2009).

Relations from After the War to Present Time

American troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam between 1973 to 1975 but damage had already been done: President Gerald Ford, who took over leadership after President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, cut financial aid to Vietnam by over half, and the city of Saigon fell in 1975. Although the latter event marked the end of the Vietnam War, it was a rather abrupt ending to the war that left millions of people on both sides in turmoil. For the Vietnamese, this meant that reunification into a communist state was now the most pressing task that lay ahead; for the Americans, they had to deal with a sudden and mass evacuation of their people from Vietnam and dealing with the war crimes committed by their own troops, many of which were particularly gratuitous (Beattie, 2000).

Conclusion

The way in which the Vietnam War ended led to disillusionment in their government by the American people. They had to deal with the ramifications that their country was suddenly one that had not technically lost a war, but hadn’t won it with their usual might and power, either. Instead, it was a kind of bitter stalemate with lessons in humility that resulted from failure (Schrecker, 1999).

In popular culture, American civilian reactions regarding the war shifted from protest to disgust as news of what really occurred leaked out through television broadcasts. Instead of thinking that their government was one that fought tough, but fair, the hippies now learned that the people they had elected were not above dirty tactics and sneaky tricks. This led to an abandonment of the ideals they had so carefully cultivated through sex, drugs and rock and roll during the war, and was replaced with a world-weariness and jaded cynicism (Slater, 1990).

The hope and optimism that had once flourished so brightly during the war was now, ironically, much weaker once the war was over and the hippies grew older.

References

Anderson, D. (2006). One Vietnam War Should be Enough and Other Reflections on Diplomatic History and the Making of Foreign Policy. Diplomatic History, Oxford Journals, 1-21.

Andrew Wiest, M. K. (2009). America and the Vietnam War: Reexamining the History of a Generation. New York: Routledge.

Beattie, K. (2000). The Scar that Binds: American Culture and the Vietnam War. New York: New York University Press.

Freudenburgh, P. B. (1978). Changing Public Policy: The Impact of Public Opinion, Anti-War Demonstrations, and War Costs on Senate Voting on Vietnam War Motions. American Journal of Sociology, 84(1), 99-122.

Schrecker, E. (1999). Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Slater, P. E. (1990). The Pursuit of Loneliness: American Culture at the Breaking Point. New York: Beacon Press.

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