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The Domestic Course of the War


Melvin Small

When President Lyndon B. Johnson made the war in Vietnam an American war in 1965, he worried about the impact of his policies on the home front. He could have rallied support for his decisions to bomb North Vietnam and assume the dominant ground combat role by telling the nation that it faced a crisis vital to its national security. But he feared that in response to such a message, the public would demand a full-scale, no-holds-barred war that could have led to Chinese and Russian intervention. For Johnson and his advisers, the Vietnam War was the prototype for future limited wars in the Third World that would have to be fought without arousing public passion. However, by underselling the war, the president presented an opening to critics who asked why he was expending so much human and material treasure in such a remote conflict.

Johnson had another motive for playing down the commitment in Southeast Asia. After the Democrats won by a landslide in the 1964 election, the president believed he had a two-year window of opportunity to push through Congress legislation for his Great Society, the most ambitious set of reforms since the New Deal. He was painfully aware of what happened to Woodrow Wilson's and Franklin D. Roosevelt's comparable reform programs when they fell victim to "guns-over-butter" decisions. Escalating by stealth in Vietnam, Johnson was able to have "guns and butter" without increasing taxes to pay for both projects. This irresponsible decision had a profound impact on the American economy.

Johnson's failure to rally the public around the commitment in Vietnam led to the growth of the largest and most effective antiwar movement in American history. Beginning in 1966, through mass demonstrations, petitioning, teach-ins, electoral politics, civil disobedience, and countless other individual and collective forms of protests, millions of Americans challenged administration policies. Although a majority of the population found aspects of the campus-based movement repellent, it did attract support in many important sectors of the society and contributed to the collapse of the bipartisan Cold War consensus that had held since 1947.

Moreover, on at least two occasions, the antiwar movement dramatically affected policy. After 35,000 mostly young people besieged the Pentagon on 21-22 October 1967, Lyndon Johnson launched a public relations campaign that emphasized how well the war was going. When the Communists launched their seemingly successful nationwide Tet Offensive on 30 January 1968, most Americans felt that they had been deceived by their own government. That widespread public disaffection led to Johnson's decision on 31 March 1968 not to escalate further and not to stand for reelection. He also faced serious challenges for the nomination from antiwar senators Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).

A little more than a year later, Republican president Richard M. Nixon sent an ultimatum to Hanoi to alter its bargaining position at the Paris Peace Talks by 1 November or confront a major escalation. The North Vietnamese called Nixon's bluff, and he did not escalate, in good measure because of the depth and breadth of antiwar sentiment reflected in the largest antiwar activity of the period, the 15 October 1969 Moratorium, a peaceful and dignified protest involving many middle-class adults. Nixon's decision was also influenced by his advisers' determination that no matter what form the proposed escalation (Operation Duck Hook) took, it was unlikely to end the war.

Finally, both Johnson and Nixon were convinced that the perceived popularity of the antiwar movement influenced the Vietnamese Communists. Thus, both presidents' policies were affected, to some degree, by how they thought Hanoi interpreted the success of the movement. That relative success led Johnson, and especially Nixon, to take extralegal and illegal actions against antiwar critics and organizations. Some of those actions became part of the Watergate scandal, the series of crimes and misdemeanors that ultimately led to Nixon's resignation. For example, Nixon first authorized illegal wiretaps in May 1969 to find the leaker who told a New York Times reporter that the United States was secretly bombing Cambodia.

Johnson and Nixon also confronted spirited challenges to their foreign policymaking authority on Capitol Hill. Beginning in the winter of 1966 with hearings held by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.), and increasing to a crescendo after 1968 when the Democratic legislature confronted a Republican president, Congress began to rein in what had come to be called the "imperial presidency." It was true that 95 percent of those legislators present and voting approved of war-related appropriation bills from 1965 through 1972. Nevertheless, during the invasion of Cambodia in the spring of 1970, the Senate voted to repeal the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and to cut off funds for the operation after 30 June. Moreover, from 1973 through 1975, Congress passed several resolutions that restricted the use of troops and airpower in Southeast Asia and rejected presidential requests for further aid to South Vietnam. Most important, in 1973 it passed, over Nixon's veto, the War Powers Resolution, which sought to restrict the president's ability to send American troops into combat without informing Congress or obtaining its approval for an extended commitment.

The war affected as well the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972. In 1968, the candidacy of Hubert H. Humphrey was significantly weakened by the bloody confrontations in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention between youthful critics of the war and the police. In addition, Lyndon Johnson announced a complete bombing halt one week before the election in an "October Surprise," which aided his vice president. For his part, Richard Nixon suggested obliquely that he had a plan (it did not exist) to end the war. In a law and order campaign, he also appealed to those who abhorred antiwar and other unruly demonstrators.

After Nixon was unable to end the war on his terms during his first year in office, he and his aides encouraged the growth of the POW-MIA movement, which was concerned about the treatment of the known prisoners of war (POWs) in Communist captivity and the whereabouts of those classified as missing in action (MIA), some of whom were also suspected to be among those languishing, undocumented, in camps in North and South Vietnam and Laos. Nixon then contended from 1970 through 1972 that during the extended public and secret peace talks, the North Vietnamese were recalcitrant on the emotional POW-MIA issue. Undoubtedly, the president was concerned about how the sort of peace he obtained in Vietnam would affect his prospects in his reelection campaign.

One week before the 1972 election, Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, offered a Republican "October Surprise" when he announced that "peace is at hand." The North Vietnamese forced Kissinger to make this statement when they announced on 25 October that they and the Americans had finally agreed on terms for ending the war. Hanoi went public with the arrangements because it feared, correctly, that Washington and especially Saigon were reneging on the provisional agreement reached on 21 October. What the national security adviser did not reveal then—or even after the election--was that he had been unable to convince the South Vietnamese government to accept the terms he had negotiated with the North Vietnamese. Nonetheless, Kissinger's announcement effectively took away Democratic antiwar candidate George McGovern's most important issue. McGovern had obtained the nomination in good measure because of reforms adopted by his party in the wake of the Chicago riots.

Some of those who opposed the war were driven by the fact that as Johnson's policy escalated, more and more young people were drafted into the armed services and sent to Vietnam. By 1967, almost 50 percent of the enlisted men in the army were draftees. By 1969, draftees comprised over 50 percent of all combat deaths and 88 percent of army infantrymen in Vietnam.

No war since the Civil War produced so much opposition to the draft. Part of the problem had to do with its perceived unfairness. Undergraduates and, until 1968, graduate students could defer military service until they completed their programs, In addition, many young men, often from the middle class, joined the National Guard and Reserves on the likely gamble that they would not be called up for duty in Southeast Asia. Consequently, the Vietnam War appeared to many to be a "working-class war," with draftees and enlisted men coming disproportionately from blue-collar backgrounds. At first, from 1965 through 1967, African Americans especially served and died in Vietnam in disproportionate numbers. By the end of the war, however, they accounted for 12 percent of the combat deaths, a figure close to their actual percentage in the population.

Of the 27 million men eligible for conscription during the Vietnam era, 8,720,000 enlisted, often to beat the draft; 2,215,000 were drafted; and almost 16 million never served. Of that 16 million, 15,410,000 were deferred, exempted, or disqualified, and an estimated 570,000 were draft offenders. Of that number, over 209,517 were accused of draft violations, 8,750 were convicted, and 3,250 were imprisoned. The number of violators swamped the judiciary system.

During the war, the Selective Service System, prodded by the Supreme Court, relaxed its definition of conscientious objection. As a consequence, 170,000 men received that status, of whom close to one-third evaded alternate service. Between 60,000 and 100,000 young men chose exile to avoid the draft, with Canada and Sweden the favorite sanctuaries. The prospect of the draft also affected millions of eligible males' decisions to marry, have children, or continue their education.

Widespread draft resistance--including flamboyant acts of civil and not so civil disobedience that impeded the operation of the system--and severe discipline problems posed by obstreperous and poorly motivated draftees in the field led to dramatic reform. First, on the eve of the Moratorium in October 1969, Nixon removed the unpopular Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who had been in charge of the Selective Service System since World War II. The president instituted a lottery system two months later in an attempt to make the system somewhat fairer. In September 1971, Congress passed his proposal for an All-Volunteer Force, and in July 1973, Nixon terminated the draft.

As important as these reforms were to the American military and society in general in the years from 1973 to the present, the impact of the Vietnam War on the economy during the same period was even more important. For many economists, the last truly good years for the economy were 1962-65, with almost full employment; very low inflation; respectable growth in productivity, gross national product, and national income; and a favorable balance of trade.

On the last issue, an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade, related in part to spending for the war abroad, contributed to an international monetary crisis involving a threat to U.S. gold reserves in 1967-68. That threat helped convince some administration officials and Wall Street analysts that the United States could no longer afford the war.

As early as the winter of 1965, Lyndon Johnson's economic advisers, who worried about the imminent overheating of the economy, recommended a tax increase to help pay for the increasingly expensive war and to hold down inflation. For domestic political reasons, Johnson refused to accept their advice until 1968, when he introduced a 10 percent income tax surcharge, which, economists now claim, was too little and too late.

For most of Johnson's term, however, the inflation figures remained relatively low, reaching 4 percent in 1968. Nixon had to deal with the economic problems caused in part by war spending. His attempts to solve the unique "stagflation," rising inflation and rising unemployment, included a variety of fiscal and monetary adjustments, and ultimately wage and price controls in August 1971 through April 1973. That Democratic solution, which was influenced by Nixon's decision to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold, was one way to stabilize the economy until the 1972 election.

As early as the Johnson administration, the Vietnam War, which civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., called "America's tragic distraction," began significantly to affect domestic reform. Although critics continue to disagree about the design and relative success of the vast array of Great Society programs, there is no doubt that Johnson would have spent more on them had he not had to pay for the war. In fact, Congress would not give him his 1968 surcharge until he agreed to cut $6 billion from non-defense programs.

Inflation, sparked by the war, contributed to the rise in oil prices in 1973 because of the impact of the devaluation of the dollar on oil producers. It also led to the real estate boom of the 1970s, and because of the built-in expectation of inflation, the introduction of variable interest rates and certificates of deposit by banks and offshore banking.

The Department of Defense placed the direct costs of the Vietnam War at $173 billion. To that could be added potential veterans' benefits costs of $220 billion and interest of $31 billion. Of course, veterans did receive educational and other benefits; research and design in certain fields were enhanced; and expenditures in the defense industry provided jobs for millions that might not have been there in other circumstances.

Despite its limited scope, in many ways the Vietnam War influenced the future course of events on the home front as dramatically as the two world wars. Whether the focus is on domestic politics, the economy, the armed services, or even the way presidents have thought about future military interventions, the war profoundly affected all aspects of American life.

From The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Oxford UP.


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