The second major precipitating event for the 60s was the Vietnam War. Detractors of the 60s generation like pointing to pro-communist sympathies by some war opponents, the better to discredit the protests as a whole. To be sure, communists were involved in the anti-war movement. They were usually peripheral and always a tiny minority. Most 60s protesters simply wanted us out of a conflict they believed we had been tricked into by lies. I was deeply involved in the Kansas anti-war movement and neither I nor most other activists I knew much liked communists, either domestic or foreign. I had initially turned against the war while still a political conservative, back when that term still referred to a belief in limited constitutional government.
For the most part we activists pitied domestic communists as people who lacked imagination, freedom of spirit, and heart, as many certainly did. “Red Diaper Babies” such as Bettina Aptheker and David Horowitz simply reflected their parents’ beliefs. Nor did we have any liking for foreign Communists, or the oppressive governments they controlled. But it was convenient for the government to tar us with the communist brush, and much of the media fell into line.
In fact there were plenty of home-grown reasons for opposing the Vietnam War, reasons deeply rooted in American traditions and beliefs. Since memories have dimmed and today’s wealthy media pundits avoid mentioning them, I will list a few.
First, Lyndon Johnson was elected President in a campaign where he repeatedly warned of the dangers of war. His opponent, Barry Goldwater, emphasized the need to aggressively confront Communism. Johnson received over 60% of the vote. The issue of war and peace was a major contributor to his victory. When Johnson rapidly escalated our military involvement in Vietnam, many Americans felt deceived. They were not wrong. From Johnson on, presidents often seem to forget that while their most mindless supporters don’t care whether they are lied to, it does not follow that the same holds for Americans in general.
A second reason was that many anti-war Americans believed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on a deception of Congress and the American people. The government claimed North Vietnamese torpedo boats had launched an “unprovoked attack” against a U.S. destroyer on “routine patrol” in the Tonkin Gulf, and that North Vietnamese PT boats followed this up with a “deliberate attack” on a pair of U.S. ships two days later. There were two alleged attacks on American vessels in Gulf of Tonkin by North Vietnam. The first, in disputed territorial water by a single small boat, was minor, and did happen. It was the alleged second that led to American escalation. Reporting on the second alleged attack, Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon write:
One of the Navy pilots flying overhead that night was squadron commander James Stockdale, who gained fame later as a POW and then Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” recalled Stockdale a few years ago, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there…. There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.”
As Lyndon Johnson commented in 1965, “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
Third, our country’s Democratic and Republican leadership never came clean with the American people. Richard Nixon followed on Lyndon Johnson’s footsteps, with assurances he had a “secret plan” to end the war. Soon after Nixon took office it became clear there was no plan, secret or otherwise beyond further escalation.
Today ignorant people claim America didn’t really try to win the war. Supposedly there was a lack of “will.” This is false. Presidents Johnson and Nixon ultimately dropped three times the tonnage of bombs on Southeast Asia as was dropped on all of Europe during World War II. Had this tonnage been divided evenly among the Vietnamese, each person would have received about 268 pounds of explosive. The claim Vietnam was lost because of insufficient patriotism is analogous to the “stab in the back” lie spread by people with similar mentalities in Germany after her defeat in World War I.
Political leadership matters, and America lacked good leaders. Their venality began to tear the country apart.