A mind is a difficult thing to change: Part 4C (Vietnam--change and betrayal)
(NOTE: Links to previous posts in the series can be found on the right sidebar, under "A mind is a difficult thing to change.")
When I try to think of the psychological/political effects of Vietnam, two things come to mind (and I could write them in huge dark capital letters, rather than just italicize them): change is the first, and betrayal is the second.
Back in this essay, I mentioned that therapists consider there are three basic aspects of change: cognition (thought), emotion (feeling), and behavior (action). During the Vietnam era, changes occurred primarily in the cognitive dimension, while the resultant sense of betrayal was mainly an emotional response. Action played a smaller part in the mechanism of change for the country as a whole--although obviously, for those who actually fought the war, it played a much larger part.
All three aspects of change worked in concert with and affected each other. Many people are still heavily under the sway of changes that occurred and perceptions that formed during and after the Vietnam War. So the Vietnam War continues to affect us greatly even today, and wounds and rifts that were caused then have deepened and reopened during the Iraq war and its aftermath.
The Vietnam era represented a watershed of sorts. The resultant changes in attitudes towards the government, the military, the press, and even America's destiny in the world were so great that, for many people, they amounted to a virtual reversal of previous beliefs.
Prior to the Vietnam War (and for the first few years of that war) the press, for the most part, had been on the same page as the government and strongly supportive of the military. World War II had been a terrible war, and attacks by the allies on civilian populations and the decision to drop atomic weapons had come in for some criticism. But that war had had a moral clarity, nevertheless. The press wrote about it in a way that indicated they considered the US as representing the forces of good fighting the forces of evil. Postwar revelations (such as descriptions of concentration camps) served only to increase that conviction.
It was only the most far-out of fringe groups that thought otherwise, and they were relatively easy to discount. The "narrative"--to coin a post-modern phrase--on which we (and our parents and grandparents) had been raised was a consistent one: America might have made a small mistake here and there, but our leaders were strong and decent, our fighting men moral and courageous, and we fought for justice and truth.
Somewhere along the line in the Vietnam era that narrative changed. In Part 4A I tried to describe the process by which that happened in a span of years so short as to be dizzying--the way we became disillusioned and confused about our goals and our methods, and even our morality. I'll just touch on it briefly again here: the military kept saying victory would come soon, but the war dragged on; many of the South Vietnamese leaders we supported seemed corrupt; we read in the Pentagon Papers that the government and military had kept some things secret from us; reports came back that the powers that be had never been committed to fighting an all-out war to win; My Lai, and other allegations made by some returning vets (or people who claimed to be returning vets) made us wonder whether our military was committing atrocities on a regular basis; Kent State made us wonder whether we students had also been targeted as enemies; and Watergate made us lose faith in the morality of the President.
What was the mechanism of delivery for all of this news of change? It was the news itself--in particular, television and print journalism. Vietnam was the first war to be beamed instantaneously into our living rooms via the relatively new medium of TV. This fact has been repeated often enough that it has become a cliche, but I think we still don't appreciate what a huge effect TV had on perceptions of war. Before television, people at home had been much more protected from the reality of conflict, and could idealize it, romanticize it, and distance themselves more effectively from it. Newsreels shown weekly in a movie theater, with grandiloquent narration and footage of far-off blasts, were a totally different thing from what we now saw every evening on TV.
War is not pretty, it is brutal; it involves doing things that most of us don't like to think about and usually don't have to watch. The young in particular tend to be softhearted and vulnerable to the sight of human suffering, not hardened by life experiences (unless, of course, they've been subject to great violence early in life, which the vast majority of us fortunately had not been). That kind of empathy is a good thing, by they way, not a bad one. But those reactions, which are primarily emotional in nature and go very deep, can short-circuit cognitions about why a particular war is happening, and why it might be "the lesser of two evils," despite the horror. So the first change was in feelings about conflict: a more widespread horror of, and sensitivity to, war itself. It came from the fact that we were seeing the war every evening on TV, which was a first in US history--and, in fact, a first in human experience.
Another change was in the type of war being fought. Each war that is waged has tactical differences from previous wars--that is why the old adage that generals make the error of preparing to fight the previous war rather than the current one is so apropos. I am not a military expert, and some of you reading this no doubt know a great deal more about the subject than I (and you no doubt will correct me where I'm wrong!). But it is my impression that Vietnam represented a fairly dramatic break strategically from previous wars, offering new and different conundrums and challenges which were part of the reason the war was widely perceived as unwinnable. It seems fairly clear that a war such as WWII, with conventional armies facing each other and fighting large-scale battles over territory, had become outdated in Vietnam, which (especially in earlier years, when the Vietcong were numerous) was basically a guerilla war that even contained some elements of terrorism. There was also indisputably a lack of commitment, for political reasons, to the full effort that would have been necessary to win it. In addition, there was the insistence that much of the war be directed from Washington by civilians (such as McNamara), an idea that led to many misjudgments. These were all innovations, as far as I know.
Still another change was in the way propaganda was used by the enemy. The North Vietnamese were unusually astute and knowledgeable about the psychological and sociological vulnerabilities of the US. By the late 60s, the enemy was well aware that the US press and public were wearying of the war, and that if they could exploit this fact they could prevail. Propaganda tactics had traditionally been used on one's own people, or on the opponent's military (Tokyo Rose, for example). Vietnam was the first war (at least as far as I know) in which propaganda tactics were also used relentlessly and effectively to influence the press of the opposite side in order to undermine the esprit of its people. The US was attempting to fight a war of attrition in terms of bodies (we kill so many of you that you run out of willing fighters), whereas North Vietnam was attempting to fight a war of attrition in terms of time (we drag the war on for so long that you run out of the will to fight). In Vietnam, the North Vietnamese won this particular war of attrition. As North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, Ho Chi Minh's aide, said to French war historian Bernard Fall in 1962: "Americans do not like long, inconclusive wars—and this is going to be a long, inconclusive war. Thus we are sure to win in the end."
Another change for the US was that this was a war that was conceptually difficult to understand and justify. It was fought for a seeming abstraction: the domino theory, as yet unproven. As time went on (and on and on and on), the question arose in people's minds (with the help of the press) as to whether this might be a mere civil war of local importance only, one we would do well to stay clear of. The Vietnam War was fought as a nasty guerilla war during the years of heaviest US fighting in the mid- to late-60s, with all the problems, questions, and uncertainties that guerilla conflicts usually entail: who is the enemy? what does the populace really want? how can we kill the enemy without killing many innocent people, if the m.o. of the enemy is to hide among them, uniformless? how can we fight on terrain that we are not familiar with, and with which the enemy is extremely familiar? Never had the US been engaged in such a lengthy struggle of this particular type, and the public lacked a context in which to understand it. Lacking that context, which might have been provided by better communication from the government, and better explanation in the press--how could the American people sustain the stomach for it?
Then there was the fact that, despite this lack of conceptual understanding, all of the young men in the country were vulnerable to being called up to serve because of the draft. This particular combination--lack of a strong belief or clear evidence that the war was in our best interests, coupled with the fact that any young man could be drafted to fight it--led to feelings of special frustration and even rage on the part of those who might be called on to make the ultimate sacrifice (John Kerry perfectly expressed this feeling when he asked his famous question about who would want to be the last man to die for a mistake). The war itself was perceived as being so far away as to be almost irrelevant to America, while the danger to the average young man was potentially huge, up close and personal.
This geographic distance, combined with the lack of cognitive clarity about the reasons behind the war, and the powerful emotional valence of susceptibility to the draft, were a new and volatile mix in American history. For many, the combination led almost inevitably to action: antiwar sentiment and demonstrations, many of them pitting the younger generation against the older, whom they felt were callously sacrificing them on the altar of a war whose purpose was murky and whose execution was inept. So another new element (new, at least, in its intensity) was the idea of a generational war that pitted sons against fathers, and vice versa.
The widespread and new idea of the war as a "mistake" was twofold. For example, when Kerry used the word "mistake," he was speaking not only of the reasons behind the war, he was also speaking of the conduct and strategy of the war itself. Some moderates or conservatives (or even some liberals), who had no problem with the first (they accepted the domino theory, or felt strongly about the need to keep the South Vietnamese from Communist domination) were angry about the second--the limited war strategy, for example. So the idea of "mistakes" in this war came from all sides--left, right, and center, for somewhat different reasons for each group.
Somewhere along the line--and most agree it had certainly happened by the Tet offensive of 1968--press coverage of the war turned extremely negative. As far as I can tell, this was another huge change; to the best of my knowledge, it seems to have been the first time in American history that the press turned on a war en masse while that war was still ongoing. There are many studies of the role of the press during the war (Big Story by Peter Braestrup and The Military and the Media by William V. Kennedy, to mention two), and it is a subject far too vast for me to cover adequately here. But the general thrust of coverage changed after the Tet offensive, not because it was a military defeat for us (it was actually a military victory, particularly over the Vietcong, who after that were never again to be a major player), but because the press perceived it for the most part as both a military and a psychological defeat and presented it as such to the American people.
The reasons underlying this perception of defeat were twofold. Firstly, the press corps was mostly untrained in military matters; and, since the Tet offensive involved attacks on many of the cities in which the journalists resided (many of which had not previously been the scene of much major fighting in the war), the press corps itself felt vulnerable and frightened. Secondly, right before Tet, the Johnson administration had been boldly stating that victory was almost at hand, and therefore the huge scope of the Tet offensive seemed to indicate that this had either been a lie on Johnson's part, or a colossal error. The new perception was instead that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong seemed willing to go on forever. This led to feelings of betrayal and depression in the press and in the US, and these feelings only grew stronger as time went on, the war dragged on, and events such as the secret bombing of Cambodia, My Lai, and the Pentagon Papers unfolded.
This article from Smithsonian magazine contains a number of specific examples of the sort of thing I'm talking about. Here it describes occurrences just prior to the Tet offensive:
As the Communists prepared their attacks, the White House was setting itself up for a political disaster with a misguided "success offensive," claiming that victory was in sight. From the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, President Johnson declared that the war would continue "not many more nights." Most tellingly, Gen. William Westmoreland, the handsome, square-jawed commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, said before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.: "With 1968, a new phase is now starting. We have reached an important point when the end begins to come into view."
To show the magnitude of the change effected by perceptions about and coverage of the Tet offensive, here is another statistic, from an article about Tet, written by Steven Hayward : it is estimated that one-fifth of those who had been hawkish in the US turned against the war between early feb and march of that year.
The Pentagon Papers actually represented another enromous change, a shot across the bow in a new and very significant war, the war between the press and the government. A recent book review of Inside the Pentagon Papers (ed. John Prados and Margaret Pratt Porter), written by Anthony Lewis and appearing in the NY Times Review of Books of April 7 2005, quotes professors Harold Edgar and Benno Schmidt Jr. of the Columbia Law School as saying, "The New York Times, by publishing the papers...demonstrated that much of the press was no longer willing to be merely an occasionally critical associate devoted to common aims, but intended to become an adversary threatening to discredit not only political dogma but also the motives of the nation's leaders." This, I think, says it very well: during this time, the press turned from government associate to government adversary, and questioned not only tactics, theory, and judgment, but even the goodwill and motives of those in charge of decisions.
Despite all this change, it's hard to know whether any of it translated into changes in political affiliation. Did Republicans become Democrats (or vice versa)? I have been unable to find statistics on the matter, but my guess is that there were no major trends in either direction. Congress started out as Democratic at the beginning of the war and continued to be Democratic through the end of it, while the Presidency changed from Democrat to Republican. My sense is that changes in political affiliation were not widespread because the Vietnam War was seen as the product of both sides. The details might have been different--the Democrats presided over the years of escalating troops, and Nixon, a Republican, decreased the number of US troops under the policy of Vietnamization--but both sides were seen as culpable. Both parties were seen as making poor decisions at best, and of purposely dissembling at worst. For many people, this distrust appeared to extend to government and political leaders in general, not to one party in particular.
During the Vietnam War era, strong emotions (fear of the draft, revulsion at the death toll) in combination with cognitions ("we've been lied to;" "we're losing the war," "this will go on forever," "the South Vietnamese don't even want us there," "you can't trust the government," "our servicemen are committing atrocities as a matter of course"), led to one overwhelming feeling: betrayal. Betrayal, in turn, often led to rage, bitterness, pessimism, and cynicism. And these cognitions and feelings were especially powerful in people who were young during that time, because youth and early adulthood are times of great emotional intensity. They don't call them "the formative years" for nothing--this is when lifelong attitudes begin to be shaped, sometimes as though in cement.
Betrayal is a very strong word, with a great deal of emotional valence. We can only be betrayed by those whom we once trusted; it always involves a loss of innocence, and a feeling of vulnerability. The greater the naivete and trust at the outset, the greater the reversal, and the more intense the sense of betrayal. Betrayal is generally used only to describe extreme cases--traitors, for example, or the discovery that a beloved husband or wife has been having an affair and lying about it.
But I think the word "betrayal" is absolutely appropriate here, and accounts for many of the still-powerful reactions and repercussions from the Vietnam era. Because the pre-existing trust was profound, the reversal, when it came, was exquisitely sharp also. The loss of trust in our government and military had to be dealt with emotionally and cognitively, and people dealt with it in different ways. The vast majority of liberals seem to have taken that trust and re-invested it--this time in the press, who were seen as whistleblowers, the exposers of the government's lying, cheating ways. That is one way to respond to a loss of faith--by reinvesting in it something else perceived as replacing it (you might say it's somewhat analogous to starting a new relationship on the rebound). Other people had a more extreme reaction, and decided to withdraw trust from both the government and the press, and to place their trust in nothing and became cynics. Still others (leftists) reacted to the betrayal by supporting whomever and whatever was against the US. Many conservatives, on the other hand, withdrew their trust from the press, previously seen as an ally of sorts, but now perceived as an enemy. They also solidified their anger at liberals and a left seen to have ignominiously betrayed the South Vietnamese people and our nation's honor.
However, some feelings were more universally shared. Anger at having been lied to by a previously-trusted government, for example, was a feeling shared by many liberals and by some conservatives (I'm exempting leftists, since they started out feeling anger and distrust towards the government--there was no disillusionment there). The feeling of betrayal by the government because of its lack of full commitment to winning the war was shared by some liberals and many conservatives. The feeling that the soldiers responsible for atrocities such as My Lai had betrayed American values and honor was, likewise, fairly universal.
Some feelings were not universal. A very much smaller subset also felt that those soldiers themselves had been betrayed by their superiors and had been given tacit approval for such actions (this, in fact, was the general stance of Kerry towards soldiers guilty of atrocities--he felt it was the commanders and general military policy that bore the responsibility). Many returning Vietnam combat veterans themselves felt deeply betrayed by other returning combat veterans (or men who held themselves out to be such) who alleged (falsely, according to the first group) that atrocities had been commonplace and acceptable in Vietnam. So there was a sort of vet-on-vet sense of betrayal. Many veterans also felt deeply betrayed by leftist activists such as Jane Fonda, and by those citizens at home who had reviled them for having served in Vietnam (I'll pass over the controversy as to whether returning soldiers were actually spat upon; the point is that they felt disapproval and anger coming from a large portion of the public). A significant number of veterans also felt betrayed by reportage in the press that they felt had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory--for instance, the reporting on Tet. And many South Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans felt that Congress had betrayed them by withdrawing funds from the South Vietnamese military, allowing the North Vietnamese to finally overrun the South after the long, valiant, bloody, and costly struggle.
So, what happens to those who feel betrayed? As I wrote earlier, there are quite a few possibilities: rage, bitterness, pessimism, cynicism. It is human nature to cry, as a result of betrayal, "Never again!" Never again to be deceived. Never again to trust in the person (or institution) that betrayed you. These attitudes, forged in the furnace of such emotions, and at a time of life when emotions are already strong, can become unalterable. If the government is a liar, if the military is a dehumanizing institution inevitably leading to atrocities, if the press is the only trusted truth-teller--well, then, that is the set of beliefs a person has adopted to make sense of what happened, and that set of beliefs can easily be held for a lifetime. That belief system can then be brought to every future situation, applied indiscrimately, and never re-evaluated in the face of new facts about new events (or even in the face of new facts about old events--as we shall see in future essays).
Subsequently, if the press continues to be seen as the truthteller and the government the liar, no number of press releases by the government can ever overrule what the press says about an event. These beliefs have been adopted for a reason--to make sense of a terrible experience, based on the best knowledge available at that time. Part of the "never again" reaction is that it becomes a point of pride to never again let oneself be duped, to never again naively believe. Those who no longer trust in the government are seen as sadder, but infinitely wiser.
But what if, at some time in the future, evidence surfaces that that hard-won knowledge may be wrong? How many people, having lost faith because of a betrayal, and having laboriously reconstructed a new worldview, can revise that worldview again? What if that worldview turns out to have been a house of cards? Who can stand two betrayals--trust having been placed in a rescuer, the press, who is now exposed as having been a liar and a betrayer, also? Who can return to believing that the government--although flawed (there is no returning to the initial state of naive, unquestioning trust)--is now to be trusted more than the press, after all?
For some, one betrayal is enough. They can't even entertain the possibility of a second, or the idea that they may have come to incorrect conclusions about the first one. To say you've been wrong once is one thing; to go through it again ("fooled me twice") is quite another. And the second time it is even worse, because this time you are older and more experienced, and should have known better.
So, just as some generals continue to fight the previous war, so do some people. Over and over.
So far, I've talked mostly about cognition and feelings. But action also had its place in reactions to the Vietnam War. The behavior/action component, for those liberals who were not directly involved in the war itself (and that constitutes most of us), was the demonstration.
Getting together with like-minded people in organizations dedicated to stopping the war tended to reinforce the feeling of the rightness of the cause, in the usual way of groups. Ultimately, the actions of the antiwar liberals (and their far more extreme and far less numerous fellow-travelers, the leftists) had its effect: the withdrawal from Vietnam. And so, young liberals had the heady experience of affecting history at an early age--protests seemed to matter; they worked. Liberals considered this a success, perhaps their finest hour, something to be proud of for the rest of their lives. As I wrote here, the terrible scenes of the American withdrawal, the fall of Saigon, the reeducation camps, the boat people, the killing fields of Cambodia--all these things that came after gave pause to some of us, myself included. But rationalization is a powerful tool, and many of us were able to rationalize that it was not our fault because there had been no alternative, that this outcome was inevitable, and that the only thing that would have occurred had we stayed longer was more American deaths, and more Vietnamese deaths at American hands.
So the investment in believing this particular "narrative" of Vietnam was huge for liberals. As the years went by, decades of beliefs, affiliations, and activities were added to the mix, and the stakes grew even higher. To have disbelieved it all at some later date would have meant facing a profound disillusionment, not just with institutions such as the press and the government, but with the self itself.
The bitterness and polarization of that time had deep roots, as we discovered post-9/11. But that's another story for another time.
[ADDENDUM: For the next post in the series, Part V, go here.]