The Vietnam War and American society:
aftermyths of the antiwar movement.
Adam Garfinkle - Researcher
Despite the bow that nearly everyone makes to the need for
historical perspective, contending interpretations of the Vietnam War and the antiwar
movement that began to emerge even before the war ended still define the debate today. The
hawks' version holds that the war was both nobly motivated and winnable, but that antiwar
hippies, the press, and micro-managing civilian game-theorists in the Pentagon lost it.
Had military professionals been given free rein, the hawks contend, they would have been
able to prevail in the field before an antiwar movement spread sufficiently to complicate
politics on the home front.
The doves' version, by contrast, holds that the war was unwise (and
possibly immoral) and unwinnable no matter what strategy was employed. Inasmuch as the
United States was attempting to suppress a genuine nationalist peasant uprising in what
amounted to a civil war, the antiwar movement, in this view, reflected a higher patriotism
and, by forcing de-escalation, spared American and Asian lives. In light of the available
data, examined from a quarter century's perspective, both hawks and doves are wrong on
virtually all their main contentions.
The Vietnam War was likely winnable within a reasonable definition of victory, but
the military strategy adopted by the United States in late 1964, and doggedly pursued
until 1968, was counterproductive to America's own war aims. Hawks are wrong to blame the
antiwar movement or the press for losing the war. Civilian and especially military leaders
at high levels of the U.S. government lost the war. Their failure in battle is what
gradually stoked antiwar sentiments at home, not the other way around.
Likewise, hawks misconceive the nature of the antiwar movement if they depict it
as a subversive force seemingly led by students but in fact manipulated by communists
through various popular fronts. The antiwar movement was never communist in any meaningful
sense. To be sure, professional radical activists led the movement, while the students
constituted its mass and target. But only a minority of the professionals were communists,
and these were divided among Trotskyites, Stalinists, Maoists, and varieties of
"independents." The New Left, moreover, which played an erratic but powerful
role in the antiwar movement as it evolved, displayed an indigenous streak of American
anarchism from start to finish despite eventually developing an authoritarian Marxist
spirit. The sheer disparate quality of the antiwar movement's radical core helps to
explain its fragmentation and self-destruction after 1968. No mere Soviet front could have
been so interesting, or so organizationally inept.
Hawks also content that the Vietnam War and the draft were the underlying
reasons for student radicalism and the counterculture of the sixties. They claim the
"movement" presented no principled or well-thought- out critique of American
society, and its "moral" stance was merely an excuse for adolescent indulgence:
sex, drugs, and stop-the-war. The hawks, once again, have it wrong. Student radicals were
not all spoiled brats, or cowards, or psychological aberrants who hated their parents. The
alienation and anxiety felt by the baby boom generation were real, products of moral
confusion and disillusionment born of postwar materialism, racial prejudice, and the
passionless juggernaut of cold war technocracy. To be sure, the war in Vietnam (and the
crisis over segregation) were central to the radicalism of sixties youth, but as
catalysts, not causes. The real cause was the yawning vacuum of meaning at the core of an
otherwise booming postwar society - which is why the counterculture displayed so many
characteristics of, for want of a better term, a "religious" movement among
youth. Restless and affluent, spared the straggles of their parents and grandparents
against economic depression and fascism, and raised on cold war pieties about "truth,
justice, and the American way," the baby boomers were told by their elders to be
idealistic at the very time when all that once was "sacred" - traditional
religion - had been virtually banished from everyday life. So their chiliastic search
turned to politics, where the godhead has often been sought in modern times. The antiwar
movement, in short, was a sort of modem children's crusade, and it had similarly
Of all the conclusions drawn by hawks and doves, the only one shared by both camps
is that the antiwar movement succeeded in limiting and ultimately stopping U.S. military
activity in Southeast Asia. Tom Hayden, perhaps the archetypal antiwar radical, claimed in
1977: " We ended a war, toppled two Presidents, and desegregated the South."
Joshua Muravchik wrote in 1989 that one positive achievement of the New Left was "the
withdrawal of the United States from Indochina." Irwin Unger claimed that the antiwar
movement "forced the United States out of Vietnam." Jerry Rubin put it this way:
"Our nationwide campaign to build public opposition to the Vietnam War succeeded, and
the war ended." David Horowitz wrote that the radical Left of the sixties "began
as a fringe movement" but:
Our ranks continued to swell until finally we reached what can only be called
the conscience of the nation. . . . Because the American people became so troubled, the
American government lost its will to continue the war, and withdrew. . . . We changed
national policy in the most dramatic way on the most important issue: the issue of war and
peace. . . . In all the history of war, there was no other case of a power so great
retreating from the field of battle because of the moral protest of its people.
Especially striking, many committed observers concur with this view of the
antiwar movement's success while simultaneously acknowledging that the movement
"turned off" a lot of people a reaction that professional analysts of opinion
refer to as a negative-follower effect. "In dividing the Democratic party between
'hawks' and 'doves,'" wrote George McGovern of the radical side of the antiwar
movement, it probably contributed decisively to the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and
his reelection in 1972. In 1968 Democratic doves tended to sit on their hands after the
defeat of Senator McCarthy and the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.
Then, immediately after admitting that the antiwar movement helped to elect
Richard Nixon twice, McGovern was still able to write:
My biased conviction is that the antiwar movement finally saved America from a
moral, political and economic disaster. It is said by supporters of the Vietnam War that
the war was not lost in Vietnam but in the antiwar movement of America. I hope that is a
correct analysis. It would be the highest tribute both to the antiwar movement and to
American democracy if it could be firmly established that organized public opinion and
political actions were responsible for correcting the enormous blunders of the leaders who
took us unto the jungles of Vietnam.
McGovern is not the only one to refer to the negative-follower effect in one
breath and discount its impact in the next. The former radical protestor David Farber
wrote of the most violent members of the movement: "Though few in number, such
zealots gave antiwar protests a negative image and provided ammunition to administration
supporters struggling to discredit the movement as anti-American." Todd Gitlin, a
former member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), likewise admitted that, to
the shock of the protestors present, most Americans sided with the police in Chicago in
1968. He understood in retrospect how wrong antiwar radicals had been to imagine the riots
in Chicago as a victory:
To our innocent eyes, it defied common sense that people could watch even the
sliver of the onslaught that got onto television and side with the cops - which in fact
was precisely what the polls showed. As unpopular as the war had become, the antiwar
movement was detested still more - the most hated political group in America, disliked
even by most of the people who supported immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. . . . Whoever
swung the clubs, we were to blame.
But do Farber or Gitlin conclude overall that the long phase of the antiwar
movement in which radicals were ascendent was counterproductive to stopping the war? On
the contrary, it does not seem to have occurred to them.
Nor, apparently, has the idea occurred to sympathetic academics eager to embrace
the same contradiction. Melvin Small and William D. Hoover, for example, noted the
diversity of the antiwar movement coalition:
The practical, no-enemies-to-the-Left approach, which guaranteed huge turnouts
at periodic rallies and marches, nevertheless contributed to bitter factional disputes and
drew the media's attention to the most extreme and bizarre protestors.
That is correct. But the authors continue as if they had not absorbed their own
Yet one wonders what other approach could have produced the relatively
successful record of the Vietnam antiwar movement.
Without notable exception, aging sixties radicals and their contemporary
sympathizers resist the general conclusion that the overall impact of radical protest was
negative, although they can recite from their own experiences specific observations of the
negative-follower effect. The truth is that the radical antiwar movement made even the
Johnson and Nixon administrations look good, and it helped them maintain requisite public
support for the war despite their own failures to prosecute it properly and effectively.
How is it possible for the same individual to acknowledge the antiwar movement's
strong negative-follower effect and still insist that the movement limited or halted U.S.
military activity in Vietnam by turning opinion against the war? Who can explain how one
gets a "middle" American to oppose the war by telling him - as the radical
antiwar movement did - that his life is empty, his values are criminal, and everything he
cherishes is the scourge of mankind?
One reason that doves and hawks alike over-simplify and misconstrue the nature and
effect of the antiwar movement is that both it and U.S. strategy in the war were in
constant flux, and after twenty-five years it is easy to mis-remember how its phases
The war and antiwar movement moved together through three analytically distinct
phases. In the first phase, before 1966, opposition to the expanding U.S. role in Vietnam
was predominantly liberal and well- represented inside both the Kennedy and Johnson
administrations. It was effective, too: the escalation of the war in 1965 might have taken
place in 1962 or 1963 but for opposing sentiment within the government and opinion elite.
The rationale for escalation in those years differed only in degree, not in kind, from the
rationale that eventually propelled American action in 1965.
In the second phase, between early 1966 and 1968-69, the antiwar movement' s
leadership grew increasingly radical, hence counterproductive to stopping U.S. military
activity in Southeast Asia. At the very time when the war's unpopularity was growing in
the country at large, the image of irresponsibility and antipatriotism conveyed by the
antiwar movement muted what might otherwise have been a louder expression of disaffection
on the part of both elite and public opinion. The antiwar movement's impact in this phase
was doubly hurtful because U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia was itself unwittingly
counterproductive to American war aims. The antiwar movement's inadvertent role in
bolstering the Johnson administration's own stasis thus not only helped to prolong the
war, but also contributed, marginally at least, to losing it.
In the third phase, from 1969 to the fall of Saigon in 1975, the re-
domesticated antiwar movement, now respectably lodged in the political arena, was again
moderately effective in limiting U.S. military activity in Southeast Asia, mainly through
actions taken by Congress to constrain the Nixon administration. But the movement's return
to the mainstream, hence its renewed efficiency, was mainly a function of normal politics
and electoral dynamics. Particularly important in this regard was that Democrats, having
lost the White House, could decry Vietnam as Nixon's war rather than Johnson's.
But this phase of the antiwar movement was injurious, too, because by then the
war had entered a "conventional" post-insurgency phase for which U.S. military
capabilities were much better suited. Had the political situation at home permitted, the
U.S. military might well have performed the task of protecting the Saigon regime
indefinitely, and the upshot might have been a tolerable stalemate of the sort that
emerged in Korea following the 1953 armistice.
Looking at the broader picture, then, it is clear that the normal contours of
American politics, combined with the battlefield situation, drove public opinion and
determined American decisions about escalation and de-escalation more than anything the
antiwar movement ever did in the streets. Those, like Tom Wells most recently, who
continue to argue that the antiwar movement "played a major role in restricting,
de-escalating and ending the war" are just wrong.
Claims of the sort made by Hayden, Horowitz, Farber, and the others about the
efficacy of the antiwar movement sound correct partly because we are so used to hearing
them. But in fact, radical protest created an immense backlash against the antiwar
movement and deterred many Americans from opposing the war sooner because of the company
they would have to keep in so doing. Poll data support an interpretation to the effect
that the antiwar movement was at best sterile, at worst self-defeating, in shaping public
opinion as a whole. They suggest that the war would have been more unpopular sooner, among
a broader and more politically salient segment of the American people, had radical- led
protests not occurred. The politically salient included, perhaps most critically, the
rank-and-file Democratic voter. As Kenneth Heineman put it: "By alienating working-
and lower-middle-class white Democrats, campus activists discredited the causes of peace
and civil rights within that important political constituency."
As a result, the radicalization of the antiwar movement after early 1966 most
likely strengthened the prevailing "middle" view that the United States should
neither pull out nor sharply escalate the fighting, but should maintain troops in Vietnam
while trying to negotiate an end to the war that would leave South Vietnam free of imposed
communist domination. Since that was, in effect, the Johnson administration' s own
attitude, public opinion seems not to have limited the Johnson administration beyond the
limits it imposed on itself. If anything, the tenor of public opinion is most logically
read as having reinforced administration status.
Public unease about the war in general must be distinguished from antiwar
activism, and there is no evidence that the former was generated by the latter. Contrary
to received opinion about the lock-step relationship among the war's dragging on, the rise
of radical protest, and Lyndon Johnson's unpopularity, the data suggest more subtle
relationships. John E. Mueller has shown that there was a decline in the rate at which
opposition to the war increased (after the initial phase of Americanization in 1965)
despite a growing casualty rate. President Johnson's unpopularity was not a direct
consequence of the war, at least not before March 1968. Public opinion was not especially
sensitive to major events, and antiwar sentiment was not much more widespread, even among
young people, during the Vietnam War than it was during the war in Korea. It was only more
Moreover, no single, straightforward hypothesis explains support and opposition for
the war. It cannot be demonstrated that support declined simply because the war dragged on
and casualties mounted. That is partly because there seems to have been a
"sunken-cost" source of support for the war, which is basically the notion that
disengagement short of victory was more sharply rejected because so much had been
committed to victory. But setting aside such difficulties in interpreting the data's finer
points, one can say that, of the roughly two dozen academic specialists who have examined
the relevant opinion data over the last two decades, none has concluded that antiwar
protest was an important factor in molding public opinion against the war - not one.
So what did shape public opinion? A combination of party loyalties and
partisanship; patriotism expressed largely through support for the president; sensitivity
to the war's costs weighed against potential benefits; and, perhaps most important of all,
shifts in administration policies. Support for the war fell sharply after the
Americanization of the effort in 1965, then stabilized for a time. But by the second half
of 1967, support for the administration's policy declined again and never recovered. A
January 1966 Gallup poll of the president's approval rating over Vietnam showed 56 percent
approval, 26 percent disapproval, and 18 percent with no opinion. But by August 1967, only
39 percent approved, 47 percent disapproved, and 14 percent had no opinion.
Within this general opinion trend, some interesting relationships emerge. First,
not all lack of support for the prevailing war policy was dovish. Substantial support
existed for escalatory options to resolve the stalemate. In January 1966, for example, a
Gallup poll asked: "If you could sit down and talk to President Johnson and ask him
any question you wanted about Vietnam, what would you ask him?" The results favored
the ignorant and the hawks as answers fell largely into two categories: "Why are we
fighting in Vietnam?" and "Why don' t we step up our effort in Vietnam?" A
September 1966 poll reinforced this finding. Asked "What should the U.S. do in
Vietnam?" fully 55 percent answered "increase the strength of attack."
Equal numbers (about 18 percent) answered that we should "maintain current
policy" and that we should "begin to withdraw." Seventeen percent had no
In other words, Americans were ambivalent. On the one hand, they wanted either
to win or to leave. On the other hand, they were loath to turn against their president or
country in time of war. The people were in the same quandary as the administration and its
generals, who were faced with excruciating choices and debilitating moral dilemmas.
An April 1966 Gallup poll summed up the matter. The question was: "What are
your overall feelings about the Vietnam situation?" The data broke down like this:
It is important to note that those who favored unilateral U.S. withdrawal
(before the January 1968 Tet Offensive) never exceeded 24 percent.
The same ambivalence appears in a June 1966 Gallup poll that asked the most
famous of all Vietnam-era questions: "Did the United States make a mistake by
entering Vietnam?" Fully 49 percent said no, while 36 percent said yes. But of those
36 percent, considerably less than half favored unilateral withdrawal. In September,
Gallup asked if sending troops to Vietnam had been an error. The results were almost
identical: 49 percent said no, 35 percent said yes, 16 percent had no opinion. On February
26, 1967, Gallup asked if the bombing of North Vietnam should be halted - one of the
central demands of the antiwar movement at the time. Fully 67 percent said no; only 24
percent said yes. Those views were not dissimilar from the views of the individuals then
busy writing the memos that eventually became the Pentagon Papers. While policymakers and
the attentive public were cognizant of antecedent error and future danger, they were
convinced that, with considerable costs already incurred, the United States could only go
forward. This ambivalence was neither irrational nor surprising given the choices
available as the war wore on.
Perhaps most striking of all, opinion data after 1966 show a sharp swing toward
opposing the war effort only after the shock of Tet had sunk in, and especially after
President Johnson's famous March 31, 1968, speech. They show another drop in support for
the war after the Nixon administration, in 1970, placed itself squarely on the rhetorical
path of winding down the war. What this suggests is that during the Vietnam War, most
Americans took their cue from the president. Before President Johnson himself changed
course, an outright majority of Americans opposed unilateral withdrawal. The same was true
in Congress; indeed, as Dean Rusk pointed out, before March 1968 the administration' s
main opposition in Congress came from those who wanted to escalate the war, not from those
who wanted to withdraw. Public opinion as a whole remained opposed to unilateral
withdrawal even in 1970, though the percentage of those who favored unilateral withdrawal
had nearly doubled in the two years since Tet.
So much, then, for the claims that the antiwar movement ultimately reached the
conscience of America and turned public opinion against the war. The data show clearly
that it did no such thing.
Most likely, the majority of Americans interpreted antiwar radicalism within the
framework of their fundamental views of the war. Hawks concluded that escalation in
Vietnam must be the best option, in part because the counterculture opposed it, thereby
undermining American resolve, cheering Hanoi, and exposing youth to the blandishments of
communists. Those already dovish by inclination could bolster their preference for
withdrawal on the grounds that massive dissent was tearing the nation apart. Most
important, the majority of adult Americans, who were partisans and "followers"
of political parties, interpreted antiwar agitation within the framework of their
loyalties; with the antiwar movement vociferously against Presidents Johnson and Nixon and
both mainstream parties, these interpretations must have been generally negative.
So it was in the great middle of American opinion, among the ambivalent many,
that the radical antiwar movement may have had its greatest impact. As the war dragged on,
middle opinion did indeed drift from ambivalently hawkish to ambivalently dovish. But
again, antiwar radicalism, if it did anything, retarded that shift. As Mueller put it:
For a war . . . public opinion is going to be influenced by who is for it and
who is against it. Now it happens that the opposition to the war in Vietnam came to be
associated with rioting, disruption, and bomb throwing, and war protestors, as a group,
enjoyed negative popularity ratings to an almost unparalleled degree. . . . That negative
reference groups can harm a cause's impact . . . is quite clear.
In short, to be associated with a general revolt against authority, with
irreverence and illegality, did not appeal to middle America, whatever its own doubts
about Vietnam. In a mid-1970 Gallup poll, SDS was named as a "highly
unfavorable" group by 42 percent, a higher negative rating than even the John Birch
Society received. The Black Panthers "highly unfavorable" rating was 75 percent
- about the same as that of the Ku Klux Klan. A University of Michigan study in 1968 asked
respondents to place personalities and groups on a 100-point scale. Antiwar protestors
received a zero from a third of all respondents, and only 16 percent put them anywhere in
the upper half.
By the 1968 election, the counterproductivity of the radical antiwar movement was
clear to most professional politicians in both major parties, and those seeking to topple
the Democrats set out very deliberately to harness the ambient anger. There is no doubt
that the backlash against the hippies and flag-burners contributed to Nixon's narrow
victory, not to speak of what it did for the national political career of Alabama governor
As suggested above, the most counterproductive aspect of the racial antiwar
movement may have been within the Democratic Party, the party of labor and the working
class, and it probably occurred before the 1968 election. Latent dovish sentiment was
stronger among Democrats than Republicans, but Democratic partisans were not wont to
betray their party leadership and their president, even though the impulse to do so grew
as time passed. Had it not been for the radicalization of the antiwar movement, chances
are that what happened inside the party in 1968 would have happened earlier, perhaps a
full year earlier. Had that been the case, Lyndon Johnson's decision to reverse course
might have come before the majority of American combat casualties, and it might have come
without his having to leave the presidency.
By slowing the flow of dissent against the war into normal political channels,
the antiwar movement abetted the paralysis of the Johnson administration and gave it more
time to fail. The movement therefore contributed to conditions under which American
soldiers were being killed by the thousands every year, without result.
At the time, of course, Johnson administration officials did not know that their
military strategy was a loser. But they did have the effect of the antiwar movement pegged
right. As McGeorge Bundy wrote to President Johnson in November 1967, just after the march
on the Pentagon: "One of the few things that helps us right now is the public
distaste for violent doves. . . ."
HANOI AND THE WISE MEN
According to some hawks, antiwar protests may have been counter-productive to
limiting U.S. military activities in Southeast Asia in another way: their encouraging
effect on Hanoi. Richard Nixon made this point repeatedly throughout 1966 and 1967; so did
Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Even James Reston argued that "lawless"
demonstrations "are not promoting peace but postponing it. They are not persuading
the President or the Congress to end the war but deceiving Ho Chi Minh and General Giap
into prolonging it." Had antiwar protests not occurred, the argument could still be
made, the war could have been stopped by negotiation or won outright in a much shorter
However intuitive it seems, there is virtually no evidence for this view. While
Hanoi must have been encouraged by antiwar protests, the Vietnamese government has since
revealed that it expected U.S. military failure to produce antiwar sentiment in America,
not the other way around. There is no evidence that North Vietnam ever considered antiwar
activity as a major factor in the war's outcome.
It may nevertheless be true that the antiwar movement indirectly helped to
de-escalate the war by influencing the judgment of President Johnson and his closest
advisors, the so-called Wise Men. Johnson and his colleagues seem to have misread both
public opinion and the power of the antiwar movement at a critical moment in the aftermath
of the Tet Offensive, mistaking the relationship between street protest and the
ever-plummeting popularity of the war and the administration.
During the Tet Offensive itself, support for the war rose briefly in a
rally-round-the-flag burst of emotion. Then in late February came a sharp downward blip in
opinion polls. This downward shift was partly encouraged by Walter Cronkite's first public
expression of deep pessimism about the war, but it also included a "correction,"
so to speak, for the upward spike of a few weeks before. To the Wise Men, however, the
downward spike appeared not as a statistical correction but as a more profound shift,
possibly because, for other reasons entirely, their own views had shifted as well.
The antiwar movement may thus have influenced the course of the war in some
fashion through its influence on the Wise Men at a crucial moment, but if so, the
influence did not occur in the manner suggested by either the movement's detractors or
devotees. It did not subvert government policy but unwittingly helped sustain it. It did
not drive public opinion to oppose the war but retarded its shift in that direction. At
most, the antiwar movement was a once- or twice-removed psychological factor contributing
to the irresolution of a small group of important people already tormented by doubts about
the effectiveness of U.S. policy. But this last possibility is speculation, and unlikely
speculation at that. Other far more important political and military factors probably
influenced the Wise Men to recommend a change of course to President Johnson.
A CONVENIENT AMNESIA
The juxtaposition of the conventional wisdom about the antiwar movement and the
best data we have on American public opinion and government policies leads to an obvious
question; How is this wide divergence possible? How could an unmistakable dynamic like the
negative-follower effect be overlooked for so long, while romantic myths of one kind or
another have remained articles of faith fervently believed by Left and Right alike? The
most probable explanation is that many veterans of the sixties have a powerful personal
stake - a psychological stake - in interpretations that overlook the facts for the sake of
protecting edited memories and emotion-laden decisions made long ago.
The sixties are for many a paradise not quite lost. Many old protestors -
including some who have risen to high positions in academia, journalism, and government -
cannot break emotionally with the halcyon sixties, however much they may have shifted
intellectually or even politically. Such "refugees" from the antiwar movement
and counterculture (including today both the president and the vice president of the
United States) may address other issues with maturity and reason, but memories of youthful
energies and enthusiasms - all bound up with the "cause" that defined them -
still blind them to the realities of the Vietnam era. It is that wistful blindness, in
turn, that accounts for the sometimes perverse avoidance of responsibility for their own
acts, for the presumption that ideological exuberance is self-justifying, without a real
price for the person or nation. Thus, we can understand better not only the persistent
enthusiasm shown for the sixties but the penchant for new enthusiasms, for, in effect, a
"revival." As we saw briefly in the rise of a movement to protest U.S. policy
during the Kuwait crisis of 1990-91, some veterans of the radical movement yearn for a new
New Left and even manage to persuade themselves that the violence resorted to by the old
New Left was perpetrated in the main by FBI provocateurs.
To get beyond the mad clatter of Vietnam may take another twenty-five years. The
Civil War, after all, did not settle comfortably into the American memory until most of
those who fought it were dead, and even today that "war of the heart" raises
hackles. Most sixties radicals will never admit that they were wrong, or used, or
failures. Nor will they admit that their leftward lurch in the sixties permanently
disfigured the liberal project and even the meaning of the word "liberal." Many
hawks, too, will never be able to come to grips with the fact that the Vietnam War was not
lost by deceit, cowardice, or subversion on the home front, but by the very best and the
very brightest U.S. civilian and military officials.
Ironically, then, U.S. government decision makers and antiwar protestors alike
failed to translate their mainly good intentions into positive consequences. The antiwar
movement did not save lives but probably cost them, not by materially aiding and abetting
the enemy, but by unwittingly aiding and abetting the paralysis of the Johnson
administration. On the other hand, American failure in Vietnam was not the fault of the
antiwar movement but of the failed strategies of at least two and perhaps three
Indeed, the Johnson and Nixon administrations and the antiwar movement all made
long-lasting, generative errors that tended to compound one another. At a crucial moment,
the Johnson administration and its fabled Wise Men seem to have accorded a greater impact
to the antiwar movement than it had and may have given it more influence that it deserved.
The administration also underestimated the intellectual frailty of its own military
establishment. The radical antiwar movement, on the other hand, thought itself impotent to
change the course of events in Southeast Asia and underestimated the Johnson
administration's irresolution and confusion. It thus turns out that the Johnson
administration' s misbegotten search-and-destroy military strategy helped the Viet Cong
and Hanoi, while the radical antiwar movement helped the Johnson administration. Had this
not contributed to the deaths of more than fifty-eight thousand Americans, it would almost
be amusing - O. Henry' s The Gift of the Magi applied in sadness to war rather than in joy
Is it true, as Nietzsche said, that "the errors of great men are venerable
because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men"? No. They are only more
horrible. The errors of those who wielded real power, in the White House and the Pentagon,
were indeed more horrible in their consequences than the errors of those whose power was
so modest. How could it have been otherwise? As we rake through the debris of the cold
war's end and remember Vietnam - surely the most painful detour of an otherwise difficult
but successful journey - we would do well to bear this in mind.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation
Source: Garfinkle, Adam, The Vietnam War and
American society: aftermyths of the antiwar movement. , Current, 03-13-1996, pp