Question 1: For many Americans, the 1960s began with JFKs Age of Camelot, an era that seemed to exude confidence in American institutions. Yet, by the early 1970s, those expectations and attitudes seemed to be replaced by a sense of bitterness and cynicism. Discuss and analyze the causes and consequences of this profound attitudinal shift.
Question 3: How did official US policy towards Vietnam change between 1950 and 1975? How did American leaders link events in Vietnam to national security interests? How did the American public react to the war in the sixties and early seventies?
Answer: These two questions are so intertwined with one another that combining the two answers is the most efficient way of telling the story. Vietnam was a legacy of Kennedy and a primary reason for the split in American society.
I think one of the biggest reasons for such a change in Americans ideas and confidence comes from a major generational gap. The difference between the WWII era citizens (the greatest generation) and their children (baby boomers) is dramatic and holds within itself some of the keys to the answer. The answer also lies within sociological and political changes that occurred in and around the 60s.
During WWII, America had devoted itself almost entirely to the war effort. Countless numbers of able-bodied men were in the service in the Pacific and European theaters. Millions of women went to work in the factories and industries that had converted to full time war production. Food and raw materials such as rubber and oil were rationed and sacrificed. It is an easy conclusion to draw that WWII had affected every American. Like the previous generation, this last war was seen as the war to end wars. It was the bloodiest in all of humanity. Millions upon millions were killed. Entire European nations were wiped out. In America, returning troops and civilians though America had fought and won the good fight. In the late forties, and entire generation was born into one of the most prosperous times in American history.
This new generation, which would come of age during the 1960s, grew up with a different perspective for America. In such a prosperous time, more people went to college than ever before. People had more time and money to begin analyzing social issues with a greater sense of criticism.
Following the victories of the U.S., Britain, French, and Russian troops, Europe quickly became re-divided. The war torn country of Germany had been subsequently dived into eastern and western hemispheres by the allied powers. Within the center of this division lay Berlin. Russias communist intentions were becoming clearer to western powers. Stalin had no plans to back down from further conflict. In 1946, Churchill delivered the Iron Curtain speech, symbolizing future relations with the communist powers. In 1947, U.S. president Truman established his famous doctrine of containment policy, which outlined in vague terms the wests distain and containment intentions of further communist expansion by Russia. In 1948, Americans witnessed the pressurized showdown in Berlin between western forces and Russian occupiers, which eventually led to the division of Germany, and the construction of the Berlin Wall. Once, the Russians began developing and testing nuclear weapons, and the subsequent development of space flight, Americans placed their lives in the hands of their government to handle this new, Cold War.
The baby boom generation grew up in this environment. They grew up with missile drills and McCarthys witch-hunt of communists within the government. Communism was something to be feared, and America knew it.
The election of 1960 brought hope to much of America, despite the close margin of victory for the Kennedy camp. JFK himself had been a war hero, and was viewed by Americans as determined to win the cold war. JFK was an attractive man, had a beautiful wife, and a seemingly perfect family. The best and the brightest term seemed to hold true. Americans were obsessed with their new leader. More Americans than ever were owning televisions and this new First Family made for great viewing. Within JFKs staff was his younger brother Robert, McNamara, Rusk, etc. All in all there were 15 Rhodes Scholars. Americans had every right to believe in their president and his staff. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was viewed by the public as a great victory over communism. (Americans saw it as a victory, although in truth, there was little victorious about it. According to McNamara, in The Fog of War, Castro and the Russians had already had nuclear war heads ready for deployment before Kennedys naval blockade had occurred. Recently, we have learned the resolution was because of an agreed trade of the pull-out of Russian missiles from Cuba, for the pull-out of an out-dated U.S. missile system in Turkey.) Regardless, Americans were provided more belief that their leaders were doing a good job. Kennedy was strong on social issues. He was viewed as a proponent of Civil Rights. He formed the Peace Corps. He challenged America to put a man on the moon within ten years. He brought America hope and pride.
In Kennedys push to halt communism, he became more and more aware that communists had gained further control of the former French colony of Vietnam. Fearing that China and Russia were feeding the northern Vietnamese, Kennedy saw fit to fund and supports the leader of South Vietnam, Diem Bien Phu. In 1957, free elections were supposed to have occurred in Vietnam, but they hadnt. The Eisenhower administration had placed 600 military advisors in South Vietnam. By Kennedys end, there are 17,000 advisors (along with Special Forces and other secret government agents) in the country.
What seems to have begun the turning of the tide for Americans perception of government is what comes next. In November of 1963, JFK was assassinated in Dallas. In one explosive moment, Camelot came crashing down and died with Kennedy. America was shocked, and events such as Jackies witness to Johnsons swearing in, all while continuing to wear the blood and brain speckled suit, further personified the event.
Johnson was not as liked as a president. He had somewhat of a personality complex. He always wished to be viewed as powerful. He was a tall Texan, and his professed arrogance was pushed on all who contacted him. For example, he had a powered chair lift installed in Air-Force-One so that he could raise himself inches above the people he was talking with. Johnson had always been a strong legislator, and he brought these talents to the white house. He pushed for social issues. He was successful in passing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, followed by the Voting Rights Act shortly later. In November of 64, Americans elected Johnson in a landslide. All of America except for the Deep South seemed to like what he had to say about social issues.
Johnsons own presidency shadows the divide of America. Johnson was brought into the continuing expansion of troubles in Vietnam. Kennedy had supported the South-Vietnamese democratic intentions, but shortly before his own death, the democratic leader of South-Vietnam was assassinated. That event, among others, showed Johnson that escalation of U.S. involvement was necessary.
The credibility gap begins with the Gulf on Tonkin incident. On August 2nd, 1964, a US warship was for sure engaged by a North-Vietnamese warship. Two days later, the incident seemed to repeat itself, but in McNamaras own words, ended up being nothing at all. Regardless, the incident was all Johnson needed to push congress to pass the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which permitted the presidency to have all the powers of war without congressional permission.
This Guns and Butter approach to the presidency ended up engulfing Johnson. His social issues that were the key to his presidency were put on the back burner as his escalation of Vietnam became more than he could handle. Johnson and his advisors were continuing to say to the American people that fighting in Vietnam was the right thing to do, to stop the spread of communism. Messages sent out in the news were positive, and tried to say that the end of the conflict was almost at hand. However, the chasm depended. As the citizens were being told one thing, the situation in Vietnam spiraled out of control. Johnson was unwavering to pleas from the likes of McNamara as they pushed the president to try to slowly end Americas involvement. When the Tet-Offensive occurred in 1968, and the embassy was seized in Saigon, America realized that the credibility gap was enormous. Eventually it was too much for both. As a sign of the further end to Camelot, McNamara quit was secretary of defense in 1968. Johnson also announced that he would not seek re-election and under the advice of the new secretary of defense, Clifford, that he would push to end the war.
Americans began realizing they were being lied to by their government. In the election of 1968, Nixon won on the platform of turning the tide of the war. However, Nixon seemed to pick up where Johnson had left off. Nixon re-escalated the war, and heightened the Naval and Air-Force activities. (By the end of the war, three times more bombs were dropped in Vietnam as there were in all of Europe during WWII). The credibility gap widens in 1969 when American troops enter Laos and Cambodia and the public isnt told about it until a year later. This turn of events breathes new life into the anti-war movement. Protests are heavier in the capital and across college campuses. When the Pentagon Papers were leaked, (these provided evidence that the Gulf of Tonkin was fabricated and that the government had been using Cointelpro to spy on domestic activities), Americans were provided with yet another tid-bit to feed their already heightened distain for the government.
The baby boom generation had become quite active socially. Starting in the early sixties, the civil rights movement was gaining momentum. In the summer of 1963, the Mississippi Summer Project, which involved northern, white students going south to help in voter registration, was launched. In college campuses such as UC Berkeley, student organizations such as the SDS and the New Left became powerful. On that particular campus, a wedge between the new generation and the establishment became deeper as protests and sit-ins erupted over all types of social issues. However the common theme was the protesting of the universitys attempt to silence protest in general.
The civil rights movement had been gaining momentum with the passing of the major civil rights legislations. However in the summer of 65, many American cities erupted in riots and violence as African-Americans began to realize that the government regulations were doing little to change the social norms. In 1967, Detroit erupted and 45 were killed by themselves and the police.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was the boiling point for the new social activism. Every protesting standpoint was represented there as thousands of protestors descended on the windy city. What followed was a never before seen event. Riots broke out and violence erupted. Hundreds were arrested and countless others were severely beaten by police. The sight of the police beating and fighting with students and young people became a great reason for distrust of the government and institutions.
In May of 1970, 4 students were killed at Kent State in Ohio when a war protest went wrong and National Guard troops fired into the crowd. The simple symbolism of the students (American Citizens) and the National Guard (US government) clashing is a prime example of the division between government and the people.
In 1972, America re-elects Nixon on the strength of his trip to China and the strengthening of relations. In the course of the presidential campaign, the rival Democratic National Office is burglarized at the Watergate facility. The burglars are eventually tied to Nixon via an informant named Deep Throat who leaks information to the Washington Post newspaper. The House and Senate each begin investigations into the matter. Congress learns that the conversations in the White House are taped, and they seek to obtain copies of these tapes. When they begin analyzing the tapes, large chunks are missing. The case against Nixon strengthens. In the summer on 74, congress begins to line up for impeachment. Barry Goldwater, a fellow Republican, tells Nixon that the Republicans in Congress wont be backing Nixon. Upon Learning of this, Nixon resigns. This coup-de-tat is the last of the blows to the image of the American Government to the citizens.
Throughout the sixties, the social climate of America changed. The decade started out with hope for the future. Kennedy symbolized youth and prosperity in America. His social beliefs and strong stance on communism allowed Americans to have hope for the future and belief in their government. However after Kennedys death, Johnsons strong social programs were no match for the Vietnam Conflict. As the conflict itself changed from one of containment to one of full scale war, Americans were deceived into believing the war was going their way. As social issues of the day worsened, the new generation took to the streets to protest and become involved. When Nixon became president, the country was given even more chaos and scandal with Watergate and belief in the government failed. All of the events of the sixties symbolize the change from hope and belief in the government to the change to distain.