According to Isserman and Kazin, “no legacy of the 1960s had as long and embittering an effect on the politics and culture of the United States as that left by the war in Vietnam” (67), highlighting the significance of this conflict. To understand how the United States got involved, Hodgson’s account is important, as he explains how the emphasis the liberal consensus put on foreign policy led them to war. An establishment of government officials, businessmen and military leadership was in charge who believed that the United States was unique and had a responsibility to use this position to benefit the rest of the world. Additionally, there was little opposition to their decisions, as very few members of this foreign-policy establishment questioned whether they should fight in Vietnam. Due to the absence of a real political left the only debate was about the best approach to the war, not about fighting the war itself. As a result, the potential consequences of the war were never seriously considered either. Initially, most decisions were made in secret and only a select group of people knew the truth about the war; press, public and even Congress were kept in the dark.
These factors help to explain why the United States got more and more involved in Vietnam over the course of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The United States first entered Vietnam after the Second World War, when they helped the French fight Vietnamese nationalists. After the French were defeated in 1954, the Geneva Accords established a temporary division between North and South Vietnam, with an anticommunist regime under Diem in the South and a communist regime in the north. American involvement at this time was mostly motivated by “the belief that they had a special role to play in determining the future of Asia” (Isserman and Kazin 74) and a desire to stop communism, motivated especially by the domino theory. This became particularly important once the National Liberation Front, also known as the Viet Cong, expanded their guerrilla operations in the South, working to destabilize the regime. Under the Kennedy administration, more and more military advisers were sent in, as well as Special Forces, trained to fight guerrillas. The situation continued to escalate, especially after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964 authorized Johnson to take action as he saw fit. The war was further expanded by bombing North Vietnam with Operation Rolling Thunder, starting in 1965, and later ground troops were sent in as well. At this point the United States was officially at war, even if it had been military involved for almost a decade already.
‘The Tet Offensive ended a grand American illusion.’
Perhaps even more important than the way the war itself developed were the domestic consequences, as Vietnam caused major tensions in American society. The rising inflation after 1965 has often been attributed to the costs of the war and it certainly distracted Johnson from other projects like civil rights and the Great Society. Gradually it became clear that the war would not be won as easily as had initially been believed. The main turning point came in January 1968, with the Tet Offensive, a surprise attack that “ended a grand American illusion” (Isserman and Kazin 222) and was a major defeat for the American army. Some were still optimistic, but few believed it would end anytime soon and over the course of that year protest grew, as the New Left became more important and the antiwar movement continued their activism. This was in part due to the fact that many saw in Vietnam a representation of everything that was wrong with society, linking it to race relations and police violence. The very nature of the political landscape began to change, as the “the war became the organizing principle around which all the doubts and disillusionments of the years of crisis since 1963 […] coalesced into one great rebellion” (Hodgson 275), as people focused their anger about other issues on Vietnam.
The war was to go on for several more years, but after the bloodiest year in the entire war, the tide had irreversibly turned in terms of public support and not surprisingly, this caused major tensions in the 1968 election as well. Nevertheless, the antiwar movement, which had been at its peak around 1967, slowly began to unravel around this time. In fact, the literary accounts do not seem to pay too much attention to the year 1968 specifically because they had been opposed to the war earlier. Either way, the war would go on for several more years under the Nixon administration before a peace agreement was finally reached in 1973. By that time, confidence in the American position had been shattered, the country had been shaken up by intense protests for several years, and many people lost confidence in the leadership of the government.