Merge the Great Society with the war in Vietnam, and you get the War on Society. So this slender historical essay demonstrates, making provocative connections with the ’60s and our own time.
The Vietnam War changed the tenor of American politics: thanks to lies spun out of the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon, a sizable number of Americans came to mistrust the government—and to stop voting. Even William Fulbright, that exemplar of enlightened government, said, “The biggest lesson I learned from Vietnam is not to trust government statements.” But just as the war changed domestic politics, writes Small (History/Wayne State Univ.; The Presidency of Richard Nixon, 1999), domestic politics governed the conduct of the Vietnam War. The conflict became a political issue, if a minor one, as early as the 1956 election, when, amazingly, Adlai Stevenson accused Dwight Eisenhower of being soft on communism by allowing the partition of Vietnam. The charge didn’t sway voters. Small suggests that one reason Lyndon Johnson tried to keep the escalation of the war hush-hush was that he knew his political enemies would try to force a choice between his Great Society programs and American military involvement abroad, just as they had forced tax cuts that, in the end, made the costs of both economically disastrous. Johnson (and, in his turn, Richard Nixon) found himself beset by unexpected political dilemmas at every juncture: call up the reserves, where the children of the well-to-do were waiting out the war, and he risked creating a powerful army of antiwar elders; spend more on weapons, and he risked the rise of ruinous inflation. Yet the strangest of the outcomes may have been the rightward drift of American labor, the rise of a Republican South, the alienation of the Silent Majority, and the vilification of all things liberal—the very things, in other words, that make the world safe for today’s neoconservatives.
Pernicious effects all. A valuable account of the impact of international politics on domestic policy.