The events of the Vietnam era significantly defined the generation that came of age during that period and is now emerging as a mature force in American life. How our country finally comes to grips with Vietnam will depend on how the Vietnam generation comes to grips with its own experiences. The results will determine for decades how well America faces up to questions of war and peace, and of international relief, development and cooperation.

Vietnam was both a war abroad and an interconnected series of traumatic changes at home. There was the heady idealism of civil rights "freedom rides," the Peace Corps and the Green Berets. But there were also the war, then war protest; assassinations; civil strife; ascendancy of the women’s rights and the environmental movements; and the disillusion of Watergate—a debacle rooted in the attempts of White House "plumbers" to stop leaks of Vietnam-related information. These events marked the arrival at maturity of most of the "baby boomers": 60 million men and women whose parents grew up in the Depression and bore the brunt of American fighting in World War II. There is a certain tension between the two generations, in the contrast between World War II and the Vietnam War, between the two anniversaries of 1985—the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II and the tenth anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

The turbulence of war and its domestic repercussions tend to govern the later life of the generation that comes of age during the conflict. In Europe, World War I and the caustic effects of Versailles profoundly influenced the attitudes of the generation that was young at the turn of the century and fought that war. The loss of life and bleak experiences in the trenches of Flanders and Verdun affected both the literature and the emerging statesmen of the generation who would become leaders in World War II. Not the least significant result was the strain of pacifism that drove Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. And, on the German side, the ruthless nationalism of Hitler—a World War I veteran—and his Nazi apparatus had its roots in the perceived unfairness of the burden of reparations and the war guilt assigned at Versailles. More recently, we have seen the effect of the attitudes and policies of an aging Soviet leadership, a generation seared by the struggle on its own soil during World War II.

In our own American experience, the archetype is the Civil War, and the decades when Northern veterans dominated American politics. In fact, Americans often compare the domestic divisions and strife of the Vietnam era to those of the Civil War. During the years of construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., speakers on Memorial and Veterans Day referred to the Civil War and, specifically, to President Lincoln’s call in his second inaugural address "to bind up the nation’s wounds." That we built the new memorial with one of the v-shaped walls pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument is symbolic of the parallels we have drawn.

The experience of Vietnam suffuses American life. It is in the minds of our foreign policy makers as they attempt to draw up standards for engaging in combat and to gauge the public stomach for battle deaths. It is shibboleth, memory and curse. Americans have a hunger to remember and to try to understand the events of that era, and this hunger is great among my contemporaries, those who were young in the 1960s.

For old hands as well as for newcomers, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can be a worthy place to begin their examination of how Vietnam shapes America. After the dedication in 1982, it was visited by a preponderance of veterans and their families. Since then I have noticed an increasing number of others in my age group—women, as well as men who did not wear the uniform—and other Americans and foreigners of all ages. The faces and actions of its visitors offer a glimpse of the power of the memory of Vietnam in the living American heart. It is one of the three most visited sites in the capital, often frequented by 10,000 or more people in a day. On Inauguration Day in 1985, in zero-degree weather, the flow was unabated.

Out-of-town business travelers stop by on their way to or from the airport. Visitors fall silent as they draw near. Names are found in the granite. Hands reach out to touch those names. Tears are shed, and small offerings of flowers lean against the black walls. The monument has become a sign of powerful psychological dynamics and personal feelings that do not ordinarily surface in public—though they are often articulated in private. Placing them in the open is a necessary step, both for public understanding and for assuring that these attitudes are seen in proper proportion, as just one aspect of the social currents that influence policymaking.

II

If the Vietnam War is taken as extending from 1959 to 1975 (the official dates of the first and last American casualties), 30 million women and 30 million men reached draft age during the war; ten million of the men wore the uniform, three million of them went to Vietnam. About 300,000 were wounded and nearly 60,000 died. The key question is how the 60 million of us matured, how we were transformed and divided by our journey to adulthood.

An awareness of these Americans as a discrete generation permeates politics and society. In the 1984 presidential campaign, pollsters and columnists found themselves discussing the 30-44 year-old bracket as a separate group—different both from their elders and from the newer voters in the 18-29 year-old bracket. The difference could be clearly seen when the leadership and support of this 30-44 year-old group boosted Gary Hart’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. In the councils of both political parties, the dynamics of the Vietnam generation—their passions, their ideals and the effects of passage through the events of the 1960s—have become a focus of analysis. But this focus must also be turned on the generation’s role and responsibilities in national life during the decades ahead.

In sheer numbers, as well as in their shared experiences and attitudes, the men and women of the Vietnam generation will be a major force in American life in the next three decades. Most have now reached professional maturity, and their active political life will extend into the 2020s. They will be a large and perhaps decisive segment of voters in the next ten presidential elections. Most of those presidents will probably come from their ranks, just as all of our presidents since Truman were veterans of World War II.

Nonetheless, we have, almost all of us, been more comfortable avoiding discussion of how the events of the Vietnam era now affect us. This silence has been one of the most important and unidentified choices we have made in the last two decades—and an understandable one, given the fierce anger of the Vietnam era. It is a sign of how deep the trauma runs, and its force, especially in the 1970s, is hard to overstate. Almost as a cultural imperative of some sort, the word "Vietnam," like the word "cancer," could be uttered only with great circumspection. Just recently, a successful businessman who had been a marine officer in Vietnam wrote me that "when I came ‘home’ [1966] it wasn’t okay to talk about your experiences, and a lot of us, myself included, just went underground."

As a soldier at Harvard with orders to Vietnam in my pocket, I found that no one discussed the war with me. After my return, I was one of two Vietnam veterans at Yale Law School; Jack Fuller, now editorial page editor of The Chicago Tribune, was the other. The taboo was so strong that even in that intimate school we never discovered each other and our common bond—a sharp contrast to the experience of World War II veterans on the same campus three decades earlier. We became acquainted only years later, as we each began to write about Vietnam.

This social contract of silence was not just within our generation. It extended to many of those in the World War II generation who were architects of the policies of the Vietnam era. Though some of them have discussed the war in memoirs, they have not fully grappled with the events of the period—nor have these older civilian leaders reached out to engage the youngsters and soldiers of the period in discussion of the "lessons learned." Robert Muller, founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America, says in The Wounded Generation: "Where are the leaders? Where are the politicians that sent us to war? . . . I can’t see these jokers. They don’t even want to even think about hearing about what it is I’m trying to say on behalf of Vietnam veterans. . . . The total abandonment of those people that sent us to the war is unbelievable!"

Some key Vietnam-era policymakers—including senior generals like William Westmoreland and Michael Davison, who helped in the building of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—have occasionally met informally with veterans to counsel them, and some have been steady, quiet advisers, seeking reconciliation on many levels. On the whole, however, the mood remains one of avoidance.

In the early 1980s we have seen some movement away from the silence, toward an assimilation, albeit delayed, of the experience of the 1960s. Starting with the writings of the veterans themselves, a body of literature on life in the war zone has been created. Political science and history courses on the events of the Vietnam War are now being taught on dozens of campuses.

To date, though, the literature and the courses continue to show an uneasiness about grappling with the deep and present effects of the events of the war years. They are retrospective, rather than introspective or prospective. They focus on the past, on the war zone, on the men who fought, and on Vietnam. In this focus on a time long past, on a place far away, and on others (the veterans), there is a safe remove from difficult or painful questions. The deep and permanent effects on our own country, on those who did not fight, and on America’s future, go largely unexamined.

In parsing the silence, a key thread is in the great divisions within the Vietnam generation, chasms created or widened by the interconnected events of the Vietnam era. Some of these divisions have been hidden and so have not been greatly discussed.

III

The first division is among the men. Many men who were not in uniform in the 1960s feel estranged from the men who were. In The New York Times Magazine of January 13, 1985, psychotherapist Edward Tick writes of his discovery that "I was not the only man who had been happy to escape service in my teens only to feel angry, confused and incomplete years later." Tick had prepared to apply for conscientious objector status; he also considered going to jail or fleeing the country. A high draft lottery number saved him from those choices. He writes of talking with a patient his age who sought help in dealing with post-Vietnam stress: "Sitting across from him, I felt weak, inadequate, physically smaller, although we were the same size. I had to fight the urge to look at the floor instead of directly into the eyes that were avoiding mine." Given Tick’s profession, his analysis is striking: "The warriors, honorable men like Ron who served in Vietnam, suffer, unlike veterans of other wars, because the correctness of what our nation did will forever be in question. Those like me, who, for one reason or another, did not serve, suffer because we chose not to perform a primary and expected rite of passage."

Talking about this division with a group of Vietnam veterans, Atlantic editor James Fallows said:

I think most of my college and graduate school friends are not happy talking about these things because they’re afraid they’re going to be yelled at. They’re afraid that all of you are going to shake them by the lapels and say, "You coward! You weren’t there with us." And that is why they don’t want to talk about this stuff. They would then say, "Well, you war criminal!" I think that maybe the fear is partly unrealistic, partly self-inflicted, but I think I have some experience in this vein, having written about this and having a fair collection of letters.

Fallows’ Harvard College peers do not discuss the subject with him, even though they now know, through his writing, of his second thoughts about having dodged the Vietnam draft by means of a crash diet.

Service in Vietnam is, and will remain, a very touchy topic among American men of my age, since social esteem and rewards appear to be linked to it. Just as those who were never in combat fear the charge of cowardice, many men who did fight think that they are looked down on because of their service in Vietnam. But in fact, the evidence is that most Americans respect the Vietnam veteran, for example the 1980 Louis Harris survey for the Congress on attitudes toward Vietnam-era veterans.

A second division is created by a complex tension between the women and the men of the generation over the choices made during the war years. Memories of wartime choices carry much voltage, and the strongest voltage may be sexual.

On many campuses during the Vietnam era, a willingness to fight at the country’s call was neither fashionable nor, apparently, attractive to women. Men started becoming "flower children," and America saw the proliferation of hippie couples where the men often had longer hair than the women. Simultaneously with the war protests, the women’s movement found new energy—and made greater strides during the Vietnam era than in the preceding century.

This was not mere coincidence. In fact, it appears that the war protest both created the conditions for and fed the eruption of the women’s movement, and that America became a more feminine society. Masculinity went into eclipse during the Vietnam era, while women’s causes and femininity came into ascendancy. The price was paid by men, particularly the men who went to war; and the Vietnam veteran was banished, within his own country, for ten years. In rejecting the war we rejected the warrior.

Some Americans are having second thoughts about the results; in any event, attitudes toward the proper roles of the sexes, and toward the men who wore the uniform versus the men who did not, are in flux. America as a society is rediscovering and redefining masculinity—and the new image of the virile Vietnam veteran is a sign of this. But the interconnections between the war, the war protest, and the women’s movement still make the men and women of our generation edgy. Sparks seem to fly when the issue is raised with ardent feminists. We must avoid recrimination; the point is to figure out what happened so that we can begin to understand American relationships and our capacity for unity.

One price paid by Vietnam veterans is easily seen on the professional career ladder of their generation—and on the path to leadership. The women who chose to become lawyers, investment bankers, economists or government officials zoomed on up the ladder along with the men who did not enter military service. Between these men and women there was competition, and many of the women got a boost from the pressure created by the women’s movement, for example in the banking industry. But the Vietnam veterans all started with several years’ handicap. At an October 22, 1981, congressional hearing on the leadership potential of Vietnam veterans, Charles O’Brien, a Philadelphia lawyer who lost a leg due to battle wounds as a platoon leader in Vietnam, testified: "These men have labored under tremendous disadvantages. They’ve had two to four years taken from them. Persons my age are now partners in their firms. This is a fundamental inequity and yet one that can be worked around."

There is a third great division—internal and individual. I have seen it in many men I know, as well as in myself. As a Vietnam veteran, I take pride in my service. Like most veterans, I believe that going to Vietnam was like going into hell, and that we went in the true spirit of self-sacrifice. But it took years for this self-affirmation to surface and, without it, veterans experienced an unhealthy separation of self from self. I am thankful that this sense of affirmation is spreading.

Men who did not wear the uniform also appear to be undergoing such an internal division, as they take a hard look at their actions of the past two decades and consider their roles in the present and coming decades.

IV

These divisions and fruits of the events of the Vietnam era show the outlines of four likely aspects of emerging American leadership. One is that the men who wore the uniform in the Vietnam era are being accorded a late but strong recognition of their contribution that translates into political authority. A great number of Vietnam veterans can be expected to rise to responsible policymaking positions.

Second, largely as a result of the social turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, and of the consequent strength of the women’s movement, America is becoming the first major culture in history in which women and men share policymaking power. Third, among the women and men who did not wear the uniform, there is an uneasiness and ambiguity about military matters and questions of war and peace. This could lead to deference, perhaps excessive deference, to the opinions of Vietnam veterans.

Finally, the Vietnam generation is still in a somewhat fragile state; the passions of the antiwar protest are insufficiently digested and spent. If, through bad luck or bad policy, another unpopular major war soon erupted, one or both of two things could happen: we could experience an antiwar movement of immense power that would block any successful American participation, or the Vietnam generation could undergo a drastically deeper fracturing along the hawk and dove lines of the 1960s, diminishing for good our hopes for renewed unity, idealism and policymaking creativity. In this regard, our generation is making a conscious effort to heal that rift, to recover our suppleness, and to gain a sense of unity and national stewardship consonant with its maturity and the power now in the hands of its elite. The idealism and passions of the 1960s did not disappear; they were turned inward in the face of the harsh results of the war’s end and of Watergate.

This picture of prospective dynamics within the generation is a rough draft, but one that is already being confirmed by visible developments. Vietnam veterans are emerging as an important source of leadership, although the common thread of their wartime service has been little noticed. Charles Robb is governor of Virginia; Larry Pressler is senator from South Dakota; Bob Kerrey, who earned the Medal of Honor, is governor of Nebraska; and John Kerry was recently elected senator from Massachusetts from his post as lieutenant governor.

Conversely, during his 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Gary Hart was hurt by the fact that he had waited until 1981 to enter military service by being commissioned in the reserves. Bruce Caputo’s 1982 campaign for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from New York ended when he acknowledged that his campaign literature incorrectly claimed he had served in Vietnam. The fact that the claim was made to begin with is itself instructive.

Analyzing the 1984 presidential election results, political polling consultant Samuel Popkin wrote in The Washington Post, on November 11, 1984, about future Democratic Party presidential nominees:

Above all, the Democrats will have to nominate a man who, when he says "we," will be able to convince white men that he includes them too. In the context of the 1980s such a candidate might have to be a Vietnam veteran, or someone too old to have dodged the draft. Only such a candidate will appeal both to the Democratic Party’s new core of blacks and working women and to white men who espouse the new patriotism and extol the competitive spirit.

There are a number of such men. Many executives in the Reagan Administration are Vietnam veterans, notably Robert McFarlane, the national security adviser. They are also emerging in the business world. For example, few people realize that the overnight delivery service, Federal Express, was organized by Vietnam veteran aviator Frederick Smith—using a huband-spoke system like the military airnet in Vietnam.

These men have succeeded despite the fact that America shunned the veterans of its last war. Some of the most harrowing experiences of the Vietnam veteran took place not on the battlefield, but rather after his return home. The way this rejection came about tells both about America and about the veteran leaders.

Our troops in Vietnam succeeded in eliminating the Viet Cong as a principal adversary in the battle of Tet 1968 and then in depleting the North Vietnamese regular forces to the point where the United States could obtain the cease-fire and peace of 1973. This is how the young veterans see the results of their ground battles. They know that they accomplished their military task. They know that the slaughter of civilians at My Lai was an exception to the general rule that American soldiers respected the most complex and restrictive rules of engagement ever placed on troops in a battle zone. Those who were staff officers know that they successfully operated the longest and most complex line of military logistics and communication in history. In the eyes of the veterans, these things are a source of pride.

Consider, in this light, America’s reaction to the battle of Tet 1968, a surprise attack in which the Viet Cong were mauled. Rather than commending the military victory, Americans were instead horrified by the brutal reality of war, and Tet marked the beginning of a radically intensified antiwar protest. From the young veteran’s point of view, it is as if the Battle of the Bulge or Iwo Jima had been reported, and accepted, as enemy victories because of the great resolve and strength the Germans and Japanese had shown as adversaries. Indeed, the Germans or Japanese could have been accorded a political and strategic victory, if that had been the reality Americans had chosen to see.

The Vietnam veterans as a group possessed a willingness to serve their country and a belief that they were in Vietnam because there had been a cry for help from a country in distress, which America had promised to help. Regardless of the geopolitical perspective in national capitals at the time, this was the reasoning of most young Americans in Vietnam for most of the war. It is literally the explanation given to his parents by a friend of mine in a letter written shortly before his death in battle.

But the war these men were fighting, so vividly displayed on television, became unpopular at home. Returning veterans were literally spat upon. Government educational benefits for Vietnam veterans never came close to matching the purchasing power of similar benefits accorded World War II veterans. Our government has been very slow even in taking a thorough look at how Agent Orange defoliant exposure may be affecting the men who fought in Vietnam.

So the emergence of the Vietnam veterans has been gradual, and in conflict with society’s rejection of their role and experience. Their ultimate successes confirm one of the fundamental attributes of most cultures: that those who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of the community earn the community’s respect. America’s shunning of its veterans is a reflection of how unsettling Vietnam was, but it seems to have tempered the young veteran leaders, and somehow, I believe, it has not embittered them.

V

In assessing the qualities and future impact of the veterans who are emerging as policymakers, one must take account of their idealism and relative youth. The average age of the American fighting in Vietnam was 19. His average World War II counterpart was a 26-year-old draftee (though very willing to serve). Most of the Americans in Vietnam during the war were volunteers, not draftees. Wealthy college students tended to avoid the draft, but many sons of senior American commanders served in Vietnam. It is a myth that war service was racial: deaths among blacks were in proportion to black population in the United States.

Politically, the veterans are not clones—their views vary widely, as between Republican Senator Pressler and Democratic Senator Kerry—and their experience of war bestows no more extraordinary wisdom on them than his military experience bestowed on John Kennedy, who brought us the Bay of Pigs. They are also a statistically small segment of their generation—only five percent of the 60 million women and men are Vietnam veterans—yet their expanding numbers in the policymaking elite indicate that their power will be considerable. Because of these men, in the next several decades the United States will be the only major world power whose most senior government ranks include a significant number of men who have experienced war.

The Vietnam veterans will bring to power their common sense about conventional warfare, including an intimate awareness of the importance of logistics and the difficulty of reporting and controlling battlefield events—the improbabilities and frictions that are labeled "the fog of war" in military texts. They have a personal understanding of the guerrilla fighter and they know both the power and limits of technology in confronting him. There is no trace of isolationism among the veterans; they are actively oriented toward strong American participation in world affairs.

On the other hand, they are a permanent witness to the need for sustained domestic support of the men committed to combat and for ensuring that the military objective is married to a sustainable political objective. They are powerful and numerous enough to hold the military and its generals to fine scrutiny—since the generals will be their peers, schooled by the same harsh passage through Vietnam and the return home. They can calmly and clearly assess Soviet actions in the Third World. Knowing, for instance, that our policies in Vietnam never included the deliberate maiming of children that we see in Afghanistan, they can condemn such Soviet policies with a firmness that has often been missing in our society since the Vietnam War.

Finally, Vietnam veterans show no significant sign of the bitterness that created a hunger for military display and reaffirmation of national power in post-World War I Germany. For many, and probably most of them, the combination of war service and the treatment they received at home deepened their idealism and capacity for compassion.

The soaring divorce rates, widespread draft-dodging, casual sex and civil disobedience of the Vietnam era would certainly indicate that the ideal of commitment went into eclipse. As to the question of whether anything is worth dying for, the subliminal answer of most of the generation during the 1960s was "No!" The sexual revolution, the flights to Canada and the environmental and women’s movements, all emphasized living rather than giving up life. For many, the real "dirtiness" of Vietnam lay as much in the prospect of getting killed as in that of killing someone. America’s rediscovery of its Vietnam veterans reflects a general recognition that there are in fact worse things than death, or bringing death.

We have passed through a disillusioning time, but idealism and commitment are still fundamental to the Vietnam generation. The new respect and emerging political voice accorded Vietnam veterans illuminate the generation as a whole. It is a confirmation of two values that are fundamental to a strong foreign policy: the principle of honoring our commitments and the belief that there are things worth dying for.

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  • John Wheeler is Chairman of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the group that built the memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Touched With Fire: The Future of the Vietnam Generation, and currently serves as Secretary of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He is President of the Project on the Vietnam Generation, a non-profit effort to foster scholarship on the generation’s dynamics.
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