The Boomer generation’s view of war and the purposes of war was and is the result of United States involvement in Vietnam. Unlike subsequent generations, Boomers (at least males and tangentially females) were directly touched by the conflict. And almost every Boomer, male or female, is drawing upon memories of how Vietnam divided our generation from our parents. And, how its memory eventually divided our generation and our nation against itself. Whether Boomers participated in the war, protested against, the war tried to avoid the war, or later turned radical (either liberal or conservative), it almost all came in response to memories of Vietnam.
During the summer of 1964, while most Boomers were tweens and teens awe struck with Beatlemania or dancing their little hearts out to that Motown sound, LBJ and his military advisers were trying to find a way to increase America’s presence in South Vietnam. LBJ, despite his better angels (he was pushing the Voting Rights Act and other important civil rights legislation through Congress and his “Great Society” was already on the drawing board – Medicare/Medicaid, Head Start, VISTA, anyone?) had bought LeMay and Westmoreland’s bullshit about the communist threat in SE Asia and the need to “save” South Vietnam to prevent a “domino effect” of government overthrows by communists in countries such as Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. LBJ bought the argument that the only way to prevent such a catastrophe was to fight the Reds in Vietnam – but the US needed a premise, a provocation, a reason – an excuse. Thus came the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
What the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution did was allow President Johnson to wage war without authorization of Congress. The repercussions of that bit of legislative folly still haunt us today. Our current quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan are the direct descendants of that godfather of all quagmires, Vietnam.
But the Iraq and Afghanistan wars pass by the sensors of Millennials with all the impact of, say, the way that epic conflict in Grenada passed by the sensors of Xers. How come Boomers got so exercised by Vietnam?
You all know the answer – say it with me: The Draft.
What sets Boomers apart from those generations mentioned above is Selective Service. And the victory Boomers won was not so much the stoppage of the Vietnam War itself (that didn’t end until 1975, the official closing year of “the ’60’s”) as it was forcing the ending of compulsory military service for American males.
Boomers considered this a great victory of our generation – American kids wouldn’t have to fight wars that seem to serve the purposes of our bete noir – the military-industrial complex. And by ending the government mandated flow of cannon fodder to the military, our generation believed it could eventually end wars.
Our generation, however, in its hubris, failed to consider the power of two things.
One was the craziness of Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, highlighted by that famous quote:
And how easily LBJ seemed able to counter that with flower power.
The second was the inspiration that Goldwater’s failure in 1964 gave to those who have come to dominate political discourse since – eventually even winning over many Boomers – the conservative movement….
Part 5 to come….