How the Vietnam War Divided the US

The Vietnam War was one of America’s most divisive conflicts, frequently pitting young people who opposed the war and the draft against older Americans who wanted to restrict communism.

Oct 10, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA

vietnam war sociocultural effects


As US military involvement in the Vietnam War steadily escalated, the conflict became increasingly divisive. While many older Americans agreed the war was necessary to prevent the spread of communism, many younger citizens saw the war as misguided and oppressive. Conscription, or “the draft,” was of particular contention, which sent young men to fight against their will. By the time America’s involvement in the war ended in 1973, the lengthy conflict had caused tremendous social, cultural, and political changes. These changes were often illustrated in popular music and film during that era and beyond, ranging from protest music to films highlighting the skills and struggles of Vietnam veterans.


Setting the Stage: Red Scare and McCarthyism

joseph mccarthy photo
Senator Joseph McCarthy, namesake of McCarthyism, via Wikimedia Commons


After World War II, the Soviet Union swiftly went from ally to ideological enemy. The United States discovered Soviet spy rings, including within the Manhattan Project that had created the world’s first atomic bomb. Between 1945 and 1950, a series of alarming communist acts of aggression alarmed the West. First, Soviet refusal to leave Eastern Europe prompted former British prime minister Winston Churchill to make his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946, illustrating the stark divisions between the democratic West and the authoritarian communist bloc. In 1948, the Soviets tested American and British courage by blockading West Berlin, resulting in the innovative Berlin Airlift. The next autumn, the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb. Months later, the communists won the Chinese Civil War, resulting in China “going red.”  The following June, communist North Korea invaded South Korea.


Anti-communists, such as US Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), accused the government of being “soft” on communists. McCarthyism was part of the second Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, wherein many Americans were accused, often with little or no evidence, of being communists or communist sympathizers. Faced with Cold War fears of Soviet dominance and expansion, few in Washington challenged Joseph McCarthy’s behavior. Although the McCarthyism “fever” broke in 1954 and the untruthful Senator slipped into disgrace, having been caught faking evidence of communists in the government, many politicians and public figures remained wary of being accused of any communist sympathies. This would affect Americans’ responses to the growing Vietnam War a decade later.


Setting the Stage: Decolonization Movement

decolonization movement post world war ii
Supporters of decolonization in Tanzania, via the Royal Institute of International Affairs


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The end of World War II left colonial powers like Britain, France, and Belgium exhausted. Japan, a major colonial power in Asia, was stripped of its colonies in defeat. Many colonies seized the opportunity to seek independence, sparking a widespread decolonization movement in Africa and Asia. Although France tried to hold onto its colonies in Southeast Asia, known as French Indochina, Britain willingly granted freedom to India and Pakistan in 1947. Politically, it was not a good look for France to try to hold onto its colonies, including Vietnam, by force. After all, the world had just fought a war against authoritarian fascism. Thus, American military aid to France intended to maintain the colonies to prevent the spread of communism in the region was highly controversial.


Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh requested assistance from US President Harry S. Truman in 1946 to end French attempts to retake its former colony. Truman ignored the request and supported France instead, beginning in 1950. Both the United States and the Soviet Union competed to win the hearts and minds of newly independent nations, typically to gain ground in the Cold War. Therefore, many American interventions during this decolonization era between 1945 and 1960 were sometimes criticized as being more focused on suppressing communism than supporting freedom and independence. After Vietnam won its freedom from France in a military victory, the Geneva Accords split the former colony into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. Like in Korea, the Soviets and Chinese backed the communists in the North, and the Americans backed the anti-communists in the South.


Setting the Stage: Conscription, aka “The Draft”

selective service card 1960s
A Selective Service card from the early 1960s, via Madison Historical: The Online Encyclopedia and Digital Archive


One of the most controversial aspects of the Vietnam War for the United States was the use of conscription, or “the draft.” The nation’s first peacetime draft, meaning there was no declared war, was implemented in 1940 to prepare for the growing wars in Europe and the Pacific. The widespread public support for defeating the Axis Powers in World War II meant there was little criticism of the draft, and many men volunteered eagerly for service after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.


burning draft cards vietnam era
A photograph of young men burning the draft cards in protest during the Vietnam War era, via PBS Learning Media


The draft was temporarily suspended after World War II but reinstated in 1948 due to Cold War fears. It was actively used during the Korean War, though World War II veterans were exempt. To help the government better keep track of which men were draft eligible, the Selective Service Act was reauthorized in 1951, requiring all men between 18 and 26 to register. Between the Korean War and the start of formal US military involvement in Vietnam in 1964, conscription decreased significantly, falling to a low of 82,000 men in 1962.


Pro-War Sentiment

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A pin supporting the US war in Vietnam, via Molloy University, Rockville Centre, New York


When the Vietnam War “began” for the United States in late 1964, there was strong public support for military intervention. Through 1965, there remained a strong majority of polled respondents in support of the Vietnam War. Indeed, the early years of the war were seen as a necessity to prevent the spread of communism, similar to US intervention in Korea during the Korean War. However, the pro-war movement began to wane as casualties mounted, and the U.S. did not appear to be accomplishing its goals. Unlike previous conventional wars like World War II and Korea, the guerrilla war in Vietnam prevented the US from capitalizing on its technological and industrial advantages.


Although much less media and academic coverage were devoted to the continuing pro-war movement, there were pro-war demonstrations up through the early 1970s. They criticized the anti-war movement for making the US appear weak and insisted that the US could win the military conflict if it had public support and willpower. Supporters of the war tended to be conservatives and older citizens, such as veterans of World War II and staunch anti-communists of the late 1940s and early 1950s. One of the most noteworthy pro-war demonstrations was the May 1970 Hard Hat Riots, where construction workers brawled with student protesters. Some observers argued that the Hard Hat Riots were a sign that “Middle America” and Richard Nixon’s proclaimed Silent Majority had grown fed up with anti-war activists.


Anti-War Sentiment

anti vietnam war protest
An anti-war and anti-draft protest in 1968, via the University of Washington, Seattle


After smaller initial protests in 1963, even prior to the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and formal US military involvement in Vietnam, the anti-war movement grew rapidly. The movement largely began on college campuses, where anti-war activists held “teach-ins” to explain why involvement in Vietnam was misguided and unfair. As the war escalated and casualties mounted, the anti-war movement spread beyond college campuses and resulted in mass demonstrations. Aside from the general escalation of the war, there were several noteworthy events that prompted public backlash and increased opposition to the war.


In 1966, Lyndon Johnson removed automatic draft deferments for college students, prompting waves of protests. The following year, Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. came out in public opposition to the war. A year later, the surprising Tet Offensive shocked the public with the realization that the enemy was far from defeated, increasing calls to leave the conflict. In late 1969, news of the My Lai Massacre went public and further shocked the public, increasing hostility toward the Nixon administration and the war effort. The following spring, the Kent State Massacre was considered a watershed moment that shifted a majority of public opinion firmly against the Vietnam War. The anti-war movement had won.


Vietnam War & Counterculture Movement

counterculture protestors 1960s
Counterculture protesters, via Grinnell College, Iowa


Culturally, the anti-war movement became far broader than simply opposition to U.S. military forces in Vietnam. Criticism of US involvement in Vietnam became part of a broader critique against the existing power structure. A broad counterculture movement related to the anti-war movement grew during the late 1960s. Typically, this movement consisted of young Baby Boomers rebelling against the social norms established by their parents’ generation. This often took the form of wearing longer hair, listening to more aggressive rock-and-roll music, and experimenting with drugs.


Politically, the counterculture movement was typically described as socially liberal, supported the Civil Rights Movement, and opposed racism and sexism. Thus, the general counterculture movement tended to be both pro-Civil Rights and anti-war. The emergence of television news in the 1960s invigorated the protest movements of the era, which could broadcast their message to millions of viewers. This almost certainly influenced the counterculture movement to be more aggressive about protesting, as protesters could more easily attract media attention and hope to sway public opinion.


Vietnam War & The Civil Rights Movement

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Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (right) openly spoke out against the Vietnam War beginning in 1967, via KQED


Although not as closely linked to the Vietnam War as the counterculture movement, the Civil Rights Movement was also affected by the war. In June 1967, boxing legend Muhammad Ali was convicted of refusing induction into the military after receiving a draft notice. Ali publicly criticized the war and asked why Black men should be sent thousands of miles from home to fight other oppressed people, especially when they were treated so poorly by their own government. In addition to serving prison time, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles, which rallied many other Black athletes to his support and increased the prevalence of the Vietnam War and draft as a civil rights issue.


Martin Luther King, Jr. was opposed to the Vietnam War as early as 1965, but avoided speaking openly to not create a backlash against the Civil Rights Movement. By the spring of 1967, however, King had come out publicly in opposition of the war, which his wife had publicly opposed since 1965. However, King’s shift in focus toward opposing the war did cause some disputes with other leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who did not want to merge the Civil Rights Movement with the anti-war movement. Nevertheless, King continued to merge both movements, proclaiming the Vietnam War to be one of the most unjust wars in history on March 31, 1968.


Anti-War Cultural Changes

all volunteer force post 1973
An image promoting a webinar about maintaining America’s all-volunteer military through recruiting, via the United States Army


Between 1964 and 1973, some 2.2 million men were drafted. The draft also increased voluntary enlistment as a strategic tactic for young men who preferred to pick their branch of service, such as the Navy or Air Force, rather than be forced into the Army. Anti-draft sentiment rapidly increased after President Lyndon Johnson won the election to a full term in 1964 and escalated the war instead of drawing down as he had suggested during his campaign.


Johnson defended the draft in 1965 as necessary to prevent the expansion of communism. Many Americans came to criticize the draft as unnecessary and unfair, as wealthier young men could more easily find deferments. In an attempt to make the draft fairer as anti-draft protests increased, the draft came to utilize a lottery system in 1969 where draftees were chosen by birth date. Balls with numbers on them would be pulled from a machine at random, placing birth dates in order of draft eligibility. The military would progress through the ordered dates until the necessary manpower had been procured.


In 1973, the United States abolished conscription and transitioned to an all-volunteer force.


The 1980s & Pro-War Cultural Resurgence

top gun 1986 promoted heroism
An image of a fighter jet similar to the ones used in the popular 1986 film Top Gun, which valorized military heroism, via the Smithsonian Institution


The mid-1980s saw a resurgence of pro-war sentiment in popular culture, epitomized by iconic films like Top Gun (1986), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and Lethal Weapon (1987). In Top Gun, the protagonist’s father is implied to be a heroic naval aviator killed during Vietnam, downing many enemy fighters before being overwhelmed. The relative secrecy of the father’s death is blamed on politics, with it being implied that valorous American forces were stymied by having to fight with geopolitical restrictions in place. This same accusation is made in Rambo Part II.


Countless action movies in the mid-1980s and later, in the vein of Lethal Weapon, featured a hero who was formed by combat in Vietnam. This was a shift from action movies made during and shortly after the Vietnam War, where the protagonist was more likely to be suffering from various ill effects of combat, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, despite this relative shift toward praising the combat prowess and grit of Vietnam War veterans, there were still many films that portrayed the grim realities of the Vietnam War made in the 1980s, such as Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Platoon (1986).


Long-Term Cultural Effect: College Culture & Attendance

college students graduating
College students graduating, via the Commonwealth of Kentucky


One institution in the United States grew significantly because of the Vietnam War draft: higher education. During the Vietnam War era, more young men went to college than in the years immediately before or after, which has largely been linked to draft deferments for those attending college. Although college enrollment for young men began dropping after 1968, during which the draft was being reduced during Vietnamization, college enrollment for both men and women would remain higher after the Vietnam War than before. In addition to boosting attendance, many consider the cultural turmoil caused by the Vietnam War to have had long-lasting effects on “college culture.”


Some researchers have attributed the openness of higher education to more students as a result of the Vietnam War, with young men who flunked out of college to be eligible for the draft once again. Grade inflation, where many college students receive high grades easily or rarely fail a course, is sometimes linked to the Vietnam War. Many professors allegedly graded leniently so as not to be the reason that a young man was forced from the classroom and into the jungle. This contributed to a liberalization of public colleges and universities during the war, with many faculty and staff siding with anti-war students. Today, this alleged liberalization of higher education has provoked debate over whether most colleges and universities are trying to politically indoctrinate college students and/or discriminate against politically conservative students.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.