The Terrible Consequences of the Vietnam War


By Patrick N. Allitt, Emory University

American casualties, TV footage of American troops persecuting Vietnamese villagers or accidentally bombing children, turned public opinion against the war. American campuses became centers of draft resistance. Let us see what happened in Vietnam and America during the war.

A child's drawing with chalk, showing the sun, a house and the words no war written on a slate.
Many people in America spoke out against the war in Vietnam. (Image: Andrei Metelev/Shutterstock)

The American Military in Vietnam

The American army in Vietnam had become familiar with battle fatigue and the way in which men in combat for too long were gradually drained of energy and will. They therefore introduced the principle that, from the day you got to Vietnam, you’d serve there for one year, and then leave.

Uncertainty about the enemy’s identity, uncertainty about whether the civilian population favored the American military, or favored the enemy contributed to Americans’ commission of atrocities, of which the best known was the My Lai massacre. This was a shocking news story in 1969. Lieutenant Calley, the commander of an American group, was convicted in a court marshal of ordering the killing of 200 civilians.

Morale among the American troops dropped very, very rapidly, and one of the manifestations of this fall in morale was the way in which soldiers would kill their own commanding officers if they thought the commanders were too zealous. This was called “fragging,” because it was possible to roll the fragmentation grenade into the tent where a zealous officer was sleeping and kill him, and then disavow all knowledge of how the action had come about.

An enormous drug trade was going on between Vietnamese people and the soldiers, and within the army as well. There were four times as many hospitalizations for drug addiction as there were for wounds in the hospitals.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Words of “New Journalists”

A new style of American journalism was developing at this time. It was called the “new journalism.” The new journalists rather than trying to be entirely objective, described the emotional effects of being involved in fighting the war.

One of the best of these accounts is Michael Herr’s book Dispatches, written in the informal style of the new journalism, including the slang of the time and the feelings of dread that he had going into combat. Here’s a little passage from Dispatches:

The fear never left you alone. All you could do was look around at the other people on board and see if they were as scared and numbed out as you were. If it looked like they weren’t, you thought they were insane. If it looked like they were, it made you feel a lot worse.

Herr’s book is full of these dramatic passages about the stress that everybody felt in prolonged exposure to combat.

The Resistance from the Young

For the first time in American history, it became socially respectable to be an opponent of the war while it was going on. Big antiwar demonstrations on many campuses and in Washington enabled antiwar demonstrators to say, “We’re opposing this war because it’s immoral.”

Growing numbers of young men resisted the draft, or deserted once they’d joined the army and been through basic training. At some of the American colleges, the faculty became involved as sympathizers, and did what they could to help the students resist the draft in various ways.

High College Enrollments in the USA

A close up of bachelor hat and diploma on American flag.
Student deferments increased enrollment in US colleges. (Image: Ground Picture/Shutterstock)

Student deferments made it possible for you to go to college instead of going into the military, or at least, you knew you could defer your entry into the military until after you had gone through college. Suddenly, all kinds of people found that they were enthusiastic about higher education, and college enrollments had never been higher.

However, that in turn meant that people who simply could not afford to go to college had to take on a disproportionate burden of the fighting. The American poor, particularly minorities, were much more likely to end up in combat positions than middle-class young men from prosperous families.

The Rift and Fury in the American Society

The social support for not going to war intensified “the generation gap” in the American families in the 1960s because very often these were young men whose fathers were very likely to be World War II veterans. The mood had been different in the Second World War, when it was your patriotic duty to go off to fight. A veteran finding his son reluctant to do so would often be horrified by it, and they’d talk across a great gap of mutual misunderstanding.

Unlike World War II, it was difficult to make the case that vital American interests were at stake. The army itself was furious at being denied the chance of overall victory. On the other side, the “new left,” the political organization of the student movement, was furious at the idea of the young and the poor being sacrificed in the name of abstractions thought up by old men who weren’t putting themselves at risk.

The Antiwar Narrative

Martin Luther King spoke out against the war, much to the horror of many of the Civil Rights people who didn’t want him to dilute his energy or prestige. Many writers became passionate opponents of the war. Antiwar intellectuals like Susan Sontag, Mary McCarthy, and Daniel Berrigan actually went to the other side of the battle lines. Sometimes they got so carried away that they started to exaggerate the virtues of their opponent. This is what Susan Sontag said about the North Vietnamese:

People in North Vietnam really do believe in the goodness of man, and in the perennial possibility of rehabilitating the morally fallen, among whom they include implacable enemies, even the Americans.

Divisions inside the United States over the war prompted President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his plans for reelection in 1968. He’d been anticipating running for president again. It was the Tet offensive early in 1968 that really sealed his fate.

Common Questions about the Terrible Consequences of the Vietnam War

Q: How was the Vietnam War different from the Second Word War?

Unlike World War II, it was difficult to make the case that vital American interests were at stake in the Vietnam War.

Q: What did the new journalists describe about the Vietnam War?

The new journalists rather than trying to be entirely objective, described the emotional effects of being involved in fighting the Vietnam War.

Q: Why did President Lyndon Johnson abandon his plans for releection in 1968?

Divisions inside the United States over the Vietnam War prompted President Lyndon Johnson to abandon his plans for reelection in 1968.

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