The sour public opinion about the war led to a distaste for returning veterans
Excerpted from Enduring Vietnam: An American Generation and Its War, by James Wright, published by Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press. Copyright 2017
Enduring Vietnam looks at the generation that grew up in post–World War II America and their war. During the 1960s, and likely even more so as the years have passed, many veterans would reject the ownership implicit in calling the American War in Vietnam “their war.” But it was that generation’s war. As youngsters, most joined older generations in supporting it at the outset and many served in it. If not always eagerly or even willingly, they served. They may legitimately deny responsibility for starting the war—their parents’ and grandparents’ generations did that for them—but they cannot deny that this war marked them profoundly. And they marked the war.
More than 10 million baby boomers served in the armed forces in the 1960s and early 1970s. Nearly 10 percent of the men in that generation went to Vietnam. As the war dragged on in the 1960s, the proportion of draftees in the military increased. But the majority of those who served enlisted, willingly as volunteers or less willingly in response to or in anticipation of a draft call.
Certainly all Americans knew about the war in Vietnam at the time, but only a small percentage truly knew it. Politically, culturally, morally, the war and its images overwhelmed the period. People based their views on their assessment of the wisdom—and for some, their judgments about the morality—of this major war. Those opinions seldom were informed by the experience of the generation that was engaging in this war.
The diplomatic and the political developments, the broader global context and the public perceptions of the war are critical elements in understanding it. They all revolved around the question that politicians and their constituents increasingly asked after 1965: “Why are we in Vietnam?” While there had been opposition to the war from the outset, within a few years the war became increasingly a focus of public concern and public dissent. There was growing cynicism about its purported purpose and skepticism about the official narrative of its rationale, its conduct and its costs. Ongoing debates about the Vietnam experience pretty consistently describe it as a mistake—a mistake in commitment or a mistake in execution. Or both.
In the late 1960s, the growing dissent against the American War in Vietnam focused on costs and consequences. Critics increasingly pressed the case for recognizing moral costs and moral consequences. As the scale of U.S. involvement grew and the nature of the fighting intensified, so did the volume of reports and accounts from Vietnam. These led to increasingly negative public attitudes toward the war and, for some, perceptions of the men fighting it.
By late 1969, especially following the public disclosures of the My Lai massacre of several hundred Vietnamese civilians in March 1968, some accounts depicted the Americans no longer as victims but as eager perpetrators of the war, perpetrators often high on drugs. Although neither innocent victim nor cruel participant was a majority public view, those perspectives nonetheless often were dominating ones. Each was a condescending and grossly distorted generalization.
For the troops who served there, Vietnam was a pretty basic world in which they focused on survival as a daily goal. Participants in all wars do that, of course, but in Vietnam it became harder to project this personal goal, to imagine the daily experience, within a broader and grander set of military objectives serving critical national needs.
In the summer of 1969, a veteran reporter covered a group of 8,000 men of the 9th Marine Regiment as they prepared to join the first troops in the drawdown of forces. While they waited at Vandegrift Combat Base in northern South Vietnam for flights to Okinawa, Japan, there was “little gaiety.” In one tent, James Sterba found the men listening to a tape recorder playing Country Joe and the Fish singing their iconic “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” In another tent, men looked at the now-famous June 27 issue of Life magazine with photos of Americans who died in Vietnam during one week’s combat; they found familiar faces. A young Marine said, “The people just don’t understand what these guys have been through.” He predicted, “No one anywhere from now on will be able to tell them anything about fear and bravery and all that other stuff.”
There is an intellectual and even a moral tension in trying to summarize the lives of the Vietnam generation in the decades following the war. One might generalize that despite the searing experience many had in Vietnam and despite the indifferent receptions some encountered when they came home, this generation, by almost every measurement, adapted well. But the tension in this assessment is the danger of a Pollyannaish view that ignores the pain that many felt—and many continue to feel.
They accomplished their successes with little understanding and few helping hands from their contemporaries. Coming home was not a trivial process, and some experienced problems that were more than transitional. And for too many these problems would turn out to be their companions for a lifetime.
Chronic difficulties included physical disabilities, untreated medical conditions, notably those caused by America’s own Agent Orange, the nightmares and personal demons of what came to be called post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol and drug abuse, interpersonal tensions, unfulfilled dreams. One Marine, speaking about the 567 Marines and corpsmen of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, killed in action, said: “To this day, it is difficult to fully comprehend and reckon with the tragedy of these losses. For every death there were at least four times, or five times or maybe six times that many of us wounded. There is no way to know exactly how many. And these wounds included horrible losses of limbs and bodily functions—not the kind you see in the old time Western movies. These were wounds that forever changed your life, and inflicted long-term suffering and misery.”
Far too many Vietnam veterans carried uncomplainingly the hurt of engaging a country that waited too long to say “Thank you for your service”—and then seemed to think the phrase was a magnanimous gesture that provided an adequate gratuity, a sufficient acknowledgment and apology from which all should then move on. One still-angry veteran said, “They’re just trying to make themselves feel better for the way they shit on us 45 years ago. They say it automatically, much the same as people say ‘Bless you’ when some sneeze.” He added, “If those other people had to spend just one night inside my nightmares, they would fall to the floor with tears in their eyes.”
Another said: “People may be more accepting these days, but they still do not want to hear our stories. More recently I am hearing ‘Thank you for your service.’ Mostly from store clerks who seem to say it as part of their training, or from the children and grandchildren of those who scorned us when we came home. When I hear those words, they really seem hollow. I wish they would just not say anything.”
The pain endures. There is a risk of generalizing these lingering hurts into the stereotype of a pathetic, haunted, angry generation. The contrary risk is to ignore the personal agonies of too many. Or perhaps cruelest of all is to dismiss these as personal shortcomings or individual maladies, character flaws that separate the condition from the experience from which it stemmed.
For those who came home in the first years of the war, from 1965 to 1968 or 1969, their encounters and transitions were sometimes strained, generally uncomfortable and often disappointing. But they were rarely hostile. This began to change by 1969, as the image of the men fighting the war was filtered through the more negative view of the war itself. The most common manifestations of this were embarrassing encounters in which the war that had no name was not mentioned. But these sometimes flared into difficult confrontations. From 1969 into the early 1970s, the rapid drawdown of troops from Vietnam increased the number returning at a time when the domestic economy was in a downturn and the stereotype of the Vietnam veteran was the most negative.
Veterans who have felt disappointed or frustrated or angry about their reception are not unusual in American history. But the mutual discomfort and even the abrasions of their homecoming had no precedent, and these were compounded because veterans encountered an American public that too often was disappointed or angry or frustrated about the war itself— its inception, its operations, their perception of its conduct and its conclusion. In retrospect, it is striking that there was not even any pretense of a welcome home except from families and some neighborhoods or communities. These veterans were a symbol of something their fellow citizens and even their family and friends were trying to forget.
The distinguished American historian Frank Freidel wrote in 1980 that unlike troops who served in previous American wars, few of those returning from Vietnam were ever viewed as heroes: “What has distinguished Vietnam veterans from most of their predecessors is . . . that a considerable part of the articulate abhorrence of the war seemed to spill onto them. They returned not as heroes, but as men suspected of complicity in atrocities or feared to be drug addicts. Not only the underprivileged but even the most prestigious were under a cloud.”
By April 1975, those who had served in Vietnam watched on television the last scramble to evacuate Saigon. They were seldom surprised at this outcome, but some nonetheless had an emotional reaction to it. A Marine said simply that he was “glad it was over,” and another said, in frustration, “It stinks.” One soldier who had risked his life once to save his M16 rifle now watched all of that equipment abandoned. He felt guilty about leaving behind all those “we were trying to help.” A veteran watching it on TV with his parents exclaimed: “You got to be kidding me! What a waste.” A Hamburger Hill veteran said the fall of Saigon “just cemented the attitude that the whole thing was a terrible loss of life for no purpose.” A soldier who had seen a lot of death said: “I was appalled and felt tremendously betrayed. That war cost me two years of my young, married life . . . probably 50 years counting the aftermath. However, for over 58,000 of our KIAs, it is a permanent disgrace.” Someone else observed: “I followed the war after we left and wasn’t surprised by the fall and pretty disgusted about the whole thing. Lost a lot of friends there.”
One veteran would continue to insist, “We didn’t lose.” He emphasized his point: “We. Didn’t. Lose.” Instead, “We were withdrawn.” Another described this as coming to terms with the conclusion that “it was like everything we did was for nothing. The year I spent putting my ass on the line over there? It was like it didn’t matter.”
William Ortiz, a Vietnam veteran and vice president of the National Congress of Puerto Rican Veterans, admitted that the war “messes me up.” He often believed that the United States “should step back in and do something, but then I think we shouldn’t because so many lives would be lost.” Beallsville, Ohio, a blue-collar mining and manufacturing community of 450, lost seven young men in
Vietnam. In April 1975, it was struggling more with jobs and its economy than with the impending fall of Saigon. One father, looking at a high school graduation photo of his son who had died there, teared up as he said, “This little boy lost his life for nothing.” His wife added, “He was our only child.”
By a significant margin, most Americans thought we should stay out of Vietnam. In the spring of 1975, only 12 percent thought the United States should send military aid to Vietnam; 78 percent opposed. The veterans of the war did not disagree. They lost again, though, because Americans, in their haste to forget the war, also forget those who had served there. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory had long criticized the war, but she believed the country had an obligation to those who had fought. She caustically asked the nation at the end of 1975: “You remember the Vietnam veteran? There is no particular reason why you should. Hardly anybody does. He had the poor taste to fight in an unpopular war, which made little sense while it was going on and none at all when it was lost.” The prisoners of war received parades and gifts. “The grunt just came home.”
McGrory observed that “defeat has vindicated them and deepened his sense of being had.” And, finally, he could not escape the stereotype: “When he sees a Vietnam veteran on a television drama, it’s likely to be a drug-crazed time bomb or a cleancut baby killer, and that doesn’t add to his self-esteem.” She concluded that on top of all of this, the veteran confronted unemployment double the rate of nonveterans of his age, and the GI Bill was inadequate to meet his needs.
That assessment was a pretty comprehensive summary of the world of many Vietnam veterans in the early 1970s. Most Americans did ignore them—many disliked them for what they represented, and some feared them for the dark anger they believed the veterans harbored. One reporter wrote of the returning veteran, “Silently he is slipping thru the back door of the nation which sent him to war.” There were no parades, “no frenzied homecoming celebrations.” Instead, the veteran has been “vilified, condemned, ostracized. He has been branded a murderer, a junkie, an undisciplined disgrace.” Perhaps most cutting, “for the first time in American military history, he has been labeled a loser.” The stories of “heroism and dedication” had “been lost under a sea of public disgust.”
Following the Paris peace accords, the POWs returned home in the early spring of 1973. It was a powerfully emotional moment. One reporter sat in a San Diego bar with a group of veterans, including a Marine missing his legs who sat in a wheelchair. They joined an elated nation watching the return being celebrated on television. They saw the emaciated POWs coming down the ramp from an airplane, with military and civilian officials waiting to welcome them and their emotional families watching for them, with military bands playing in the background. One of the men in the bar wept. This scene contrasted so sharply with his own homecoming: “Instead of saying, ‘welcome home’ they gave me the finger.”
One veteran in Chicago spoke of the return home from Vietnam: “When you’re over there, it’s supposed to mean something to come home—but it don’t mean nothing. You feel excluded.” Another, who had left a factory job in Yonkers, New York, returned to find his job had been eliminated. “People don’t want to be reminded of you. They don’t want to know you’ve been in Nam.”
Certainly most veterans received a warm welcome from family and neighbors—but even those who cared deeply for them frequently responded with a cold silence or at least an absence of curiosity about their war experiences. One came home just before Thanksgiving, and at a large family celebration he expected to “be bombarded by questions and stuff,” but no one mentioned Vietnam. So he never talked about it—for the next 40 years.
One soldier returned home right before Easter in 1970, and his parents had a big family gathering for him. “It didn’t dawn on me till a couple of days later, but not one person said one word to me about anything. They would have asked somebody that went to Florida more questions about their tan . . . And that’s how it continued. Nobody—when I think back on it—nobody said a word to me about anything.” But another recalled, “First thing Mom asked was to show her my wounds.”
One soldier said that his dad, who had served with the Marines on Iwo Jima in World War II, never once asked his son about Vietnam. Another said his parents never understood or wanted to know about his experiences or asked him why he was having flashbacks. He admitted that he was “pissed that too many people could care less about Vietnam.” An injured Marine “never talked to nonveterans.” He knew that they “wouldn’t understand and didn’t care anyway.”
Another veteran found that “there were two kinds of people…those who were deadset against the war and all of us who were there, and those who were not the least bit interested in my problems.” He admitted that he was troubled by those who “had successfully dodged the draft, how they did it, and what they had accomplished in the last two years.” When Karl Marlantes returned, he was surprised that there were not more people waiting at the airport to welcome him home. “To me, and to my parents, I’d been gone an eternity; to everyone else a flash.”
James Wright is president emeritus and the Eleazar Wheelock professor of history emeritus at Dartmouth College. He is the author or editor of six books.
Published in the December 2017 issue of Vietnam magazine