Suggesting that American society is divided today is not exactly controversial. Congress is increasingly polarized, and the general population is not far behind. “Negative partisanship,” where one’s political affiliation is determined by how much one dislikes the other party, is on the rise. People in the United States are moving to cities that share their political views.
However divided America is today, it doesn’t hold a candle to the climate during the Vietnam War, which split people in the United States along fault lines that are still visible today. The war and its impact are the focus of upcoming PBS documentary “The Vietnam War,” directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and premiering Sept. 17.
One of those divides was generational. For the World War II generation, when your country called, you answered. For the Vietnam generation, things were different. They were less likely to draw comparisons between “appeasing Hitler” and “coddling communists” and were more likely to look upon McCarthyism with embarrassment.
Many baby boomers did support the war, but previous generations were angered that boomers demanded the U.S. “justify” its involvement in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War also deepened the country’s racial divide. Many prominent African Americans, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Muhammad Ali, came out against the Vietnam War. As more leaders of the African American Civil Rights Movement opposed the war, it became more difficult for people in the United States to support both.
King was concerned that the war would drain resources from President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society social programs. There was also widespread belief that African Americans were being used as “cannon fodder” in Vietnam. Early in the war, this seemed to be the case. In 1965, the percentage of African American casualties was twice as high as the percentage of African Americans in society. Thankfully, these issues were addressed and African American casualties were proportionate by the end of the war.
Many of the early draft’s problems are better explained by the socioeconomic divisions of Vietnam. Due to generations of slavery and segregation, African Americans were disproportionately poor, and the Vietnam War placed a disproportionate burden on low-income and working-class families, whose children were twice as likely to see combat in Vietnam than those from middle- and high-income families.
Whether it was political connections, college deferments, or a letter from a family doctor, those with money had more ways to evade the Vietnam draft than those without.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, low-income families supported the war at a higher rate than high-income families. University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone explains that “at least in the early stages of a conflict,” families with children in combat often support wars because it is “the only way to comprehend and justify the potential sacrifice.” The famous images of construction workers attacking anti-war protesters in the Hard Hat Riot guides much of our understanding of socioeconomics and the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War also tore apart both major political parties, creating the parties we have today. Ideological divisions are expected during wartime and Vietnam was no different. “Hawks” supported the Vietnam War and “doves” opposed it, but those positions did not align with either major party.
Most of the anti-war movement was Democratic, but the Democratic Party was also vigorously anticommunist (the U.S got involved in the war to stop the spread of communism in Southeast Asia). Democratic presidents sent the first military advisors and combat troops to Vietnam. Throughout the war, these so-called “Cold War Democrats” battled, and eventually defeated, the more socially and economically radical wing for control of the party.
Similarly, many Republicans wanted to unleash America’s full military might against communism. During the Vietnam War, however, the Republican Party also included many libertarians who were more isolationist and wanted little government involvement in economic and social issues. These groups fought over the future of the Republican Party, with internationalist, socially conservative Republicans winning out.
These divisions directly contributed to the election of Richard Nixon as president in 1968. Nixon expertly played on these divisions for his own political benefit. He pledged to end the Vietnam War, but expanded it into Cambodia to do so. Three weeks after the Hard Hat Riot, he accepted a hard hat from a delegation of labor leaders. His “law and order” platform in 1968 was designed to attract opponents to the civil rights and anti-war movements.
The divisions in American society caused by the Vietnam War were more complex than any short article could explain. But even this brief examination shows the divisiveness of the war and sheds light on scars left behind today.
Today, both major political parties are fracturing along lines similar to the ones created during the war. The U.S. today is in many ways the society the Vietnam War created.
“The Vietnam War” premieres on PBS in September. Check your local station’s schedule for broadcast dates and times. Or watch online at PBS.org.
Jacob Hillesheim is a Minnesota educator, historian and ice cream enthusiast with master’s degrees in teaching and learning and in history.