David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy.
It is the wound that will not heal, the heartbreak that will not end. Mostly, it is the haunting questions that have no answers.
The Vietnam War ended formally 50 years ago on Jan. 27, 1973, with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. In some ways, it is still being fought in the United States, not by soldiers but by veterans, scholars and politicians.
For decades, it has been an American dividing line: when innocence ended, when mass dissent began, when mendacity became the political norm, when the American moral compass went haywire, perhaps when the country’s will failed. There is no consensus on when this crack began to form – maybe in the John F. Kennedy years, and if not that era, then surely during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency.
The war deprived the United States of its governing consensus and provided Canada with an infusion of the idealistic and the iconoclastic. It set generation against generation, splitting families, university campuses, news outlets and religious institutions. A president (Mr. Johnson) manhandled a prime minister (Lester B. Pearson) on a porch at Camp David after the Canadian dared question the Americans’ bombing of North Vietnam. “You pissed on my rug,” Mr. Johnson said.
The 1960s were freighted with enormous upheaval – over civil rights and the role of women, to name just two movements – but the intersection of all the tumult was the war in Vietnam, opposed by Martin Luther King Jr. and the leaders of the feminist movement alike.
Nine U.S. presidents were touched by the Second World War, either through their own military service or their oversight of the war effort, and so it is customarily regarded as the crucible of modern American leadership. But seven presidents were shaped by the Vietnam War (make that eight if you include Donald Trump, who had five draft deferments.) Two of them (Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) managed to manoeuvre away from combat but were nonetheless moulded in large measure by the conflict in Southeast Asia. (There have also been three unsuccessful presidential candidates who served in Vietnam: Al Gore, John Kerry and John McCain.)
The war created a new kind of politics. Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota was a code breaker in the Second World War but, with combat in Vietnam flaring, he broke the code of Cold War America, splitting from Mr. Johnson and challenging the president in the 1968 New Hampshire primary by questioning the conduct of the war.
Soon thereafter, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who had been a Vietnam hard-liner during his brother’s administration, broke with his own past and joined the campaign as an anti-war candidate. The two men’s campaigns broke Mr. Johnson, who declined to seek re-election. The Democratic Party became defined by opposition to the Vietnam War, and in 1972 the party’s nomination went to a Second World War bomber pilot, George McGovern of South Dakota, who as early as 1963 had warned in a speech on the Senate floor: “The current dilemma in Vietnam is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power.”
The war was the beginning of the notion of limits in a country where opportunity, financial success, global cultural influence and geopolitical power had seemed limitless. Suddenly the notion of the “best and the brightest,” a phrase that once was a description of the men who ran the country and in a way ran the world, took on a cynical tinge. In a book that bore that title, David Halberstam described how leaders shaped in the Ivy League and business C-suites had escorted the United States into a war that warped the country that had carried it out and scarred the country it was designed to save.
The war eventually claimed more than 58,000 American lives and killed as many as two million Vietnamese civilians. As it drew a procession of progressives into politics, it also sparked the beginning of a new conservative movement, beginning with Ronald Reagan. The great irony: the modern conservative movement may be the only American winner of the Vietnam War.
Today, the most visited memorial on Washington’s Mall is the shiny black granite wall engraved with the names of the Vietnam War’s American dead. Today, Vietnam and the United States share US$92-billion in annual trade. Vietnam War films such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are regarded as American classics, as are novels like Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes and The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer.
And still today, two of the most searing questions in American life remain unanswered: Was the Vietnam War a mistake? And what were its lessons?
A half-century later, the United States still doesn’t know.