VIETNAM AND THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN LIFE







"The Indochina wars have cast a long shadow over world affairs.  For the victims, they were a devastating catastrophe.  Their legacy for the United States was substantial, interacting in complex ways with internal developments in American society.  Buzzanco's study examines these themes with skill and insight, informed by outstanding scholarship and enriched by perceptive understanding."

--Noam Chomsky, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
 

"Ranging broadly across the landscape of the 1960s, Robert Buzzanco zeroes in deftly upon the most critical issues of the decade, and illuminates that era with pinpoint quotations and highly effective background analysis.  This book connects the dots between domestic issues and the Vietnam War better than earlier studies have done.  It should be widely read and discussed."

--Lloyd Gardner, Rutgers University 


The Big Chill, Forrest Gump, Austin Powers, hippies, sex and drugs and rock & roll, tie-dye, The Grateful Dead, Woodstock . . . and on and on. These media images of the 1960s are enduring and forceful, reminders of an era that is now part nostalgia, part history, part scapegoat.

In Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life, I've tried to address the events and the meaning of the 1960s, to strip away the media imagery and examine the success and the pain of that period. While Hollywood, the media and Madison Avenue would have us associate that decade with the counterculture, excessive behavior, and the ultimate failure of peoples' movements, the 1960s saw a dramatic transformation of American life as so many groups traditionally out of the "mainstream" or at least out of power--including African-Americans, women, students, the political Left, Mexican-Americans, gays, environmentalists, and many others--tried to stop a war, seek racial and gender equality, create a democracy in which Americans had a voice in making the decisions that would affect their lives, hold national leaders accountable for their deeds and misdeeds--in short, make a new society based on participation and democracy.

In order to examine and learn about the 1960s and these various movements, I've divided this book into two parts: the Vietnam War, and the Movements of the 1960s at home. My overriding theme is that the war came to dominate America's political life and discourse and altered, coopted, strengthened, crushed many of the social/political movements of the day. Vietnam, for instance, replaced the "Great Society" as LBJ's principal objective, gave rise to a huge antiwar movement, accelerated student calls for participatory democracy, took resources and attention away from the stuggle of American blacks for civil and human rights, helped facilitate the emergence of a Women's Liberation Movement, and so forth.


Part I: Vietnam


 


In the first four chapters I provide a narrative of the major episodes in the Vietnam War and analyze the motives, successes and failures of the Vietnamese nationalist-cum-Communist movement and the Americans who waged war against it. When observed over the long term, Vietnam's ultimate resistance and success against the United States was part of a much longer pattern of fighting off foreign invaders such as the Chinese, the Mongols, the Japanese, the French. By the 20th Century, the Vietnamese independence movement had acquired the leader and symbol of its resistance, a man who would link Vietnam to the rest of the world for the next half-century, Ho Chi Minh. (Ho Chi Minh)

Leader of the Viet Minh, the resistance movement formed byHo and associates such as Truoung Chinh, Le Duan, Pham Van Dong, and Vo Nguyen Giap led the nationalist movement against the French and established the political and paramilitary organization that would fight against French colonialism and Japanese occupation, proclaim independence in 1946 only to see France return, with American endorsement, to power after World War II, and ultimately, or so they thought, gain independence after the triumph at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The triumph of 1954, however, was short-lived as the western powers refused to recognize the Viet Minh's victory and the independence of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference. Nor did Vietnam's Communist "allies," the Soviet Union and Peoples Republic of China, do much to support Ho's state. Accordingly, Vietnam was partitioned at the 17th parallel, with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [DRVN] headed by Ho in the north, and the artificial Republic of Vietnam [RVN], invented by the United States and headed by Ngo Dinh Diem in the south. The seeds for furture conflict, however, were sown and more war was seemingly inevitable.

By the early 1960s, the Viet Minh, now called the Viet Cong, was on the verge of victory and the unification of Vietnam. Rather than let the Vietnamese people decide their own future, however, American Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and later Richard M. Nixon, increasingly committed American weapons, "advisors," troops, and huge sums of money to maintain an anti-communist geographical entity below the 17th parallel. By the later 1960s, over 500,000 U.S. soldiers were deployed to Vietnam, fighting guerrillas with high-tech weapons and B-52s while the political situation in the RVN was chaotic and unstable and the majority of people of Vietnam remained committed to ousting foreigners from their land and unifying the country under Ho.(American soldiers patrolling near An Hoa in 1968)

The American government, however, did not waver in its commitment to wage war against Vietnam. Even after the shock of the Tet Offensive in early 1968, which laid barren U.S. claims that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" and that success was likely, American leaders continued to fight. Nixon, elected in 1968 on a promise to end the war honorably, merely withdrew troops but expanded the ground war geographically into Cambodia and Laos while dramatically increasing air attacks against all of Vietnam. His policy, dubbed "Vietnamization," in reality amounted to "changing the color of the corpses"--as Senatory George McGovern charged.(Richard Nixon and family, c. 1968)

Ultimately, even Nixon's destruction of Indochina would be futile. By the early 1970s the American people were clearly wary of more war and the United States thus quit Vietnam in 1973. Though it continued [despite the Paris Peace Accords] to support the RVN until 1975, the DRVN broke through southern lines in a decisive final offensive in the Spring of 1975 and unified the newly-named Socialist Republic of Vietnam. After a quarter-century of efforts and resources poured into Indochina, the Americans had lost.

The Vietnam War also had dramatic consequences at home, prompting millions of Americans to form the largest mass antiwar movement in national history. Beginning with small rallies and "teach-ins" in the mid-1960s and proceeding onto huge demonstrations and global protests, the anti-Vietnam movement kept constant pressure on the government to find some way out of
Vietnam.
(Antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon, 1967, left)
(Demonstrator flipping off Uncle Sam, below)
(
 

(Anti-Vietnam protest, c. 1970)


Part II: The Movements of the 1960s
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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email me at buzz@uh.edu