Courtesy Reuters

Vietnam: The Retrospect: Coming to Grips with Vietnam

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

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