The political legacy of Vietnam

NINETEEN Eighty-five is a year of three Vietnam-related anniversaries. More than just the tenth year since the collapse of South Vietnam, it is also the 15th anniversary of Richard Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the two-decade milestone since President Lyndon Johnson went on television to tell the nation of his plans for a major US troop commitment in Indochina. Somehow, to remember all three -- thus to recall the whole heartbreaking chronology -- seems useful. Against this backdrop, the domestic political consequences also become quite vivid. And so does the lesson for the left: Seeming unpatriotism doesn't pay. To be sure, the antiwar demonstrators who took their cause into the streets directly or indirectly helped to bring down two Presidents -- first, Lyndon Johnson, forced to retire after being humiliated in the 1968 New Hampshire Democratic primary, and then Richard Nixon, forced to resign in 1974 because of Watergate. But these were Pyrrhic victories for the left because the larger thrust of Vietnam was clearly to move US politics rightward.

The circumstances for that kind of result were present from the start. Much of the frustration-driven vote against Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary came from ``win or get out'' conservatives, not simply from liberals. And in both the 1968 and 1972 general elections, large majorities were cast for the candidates representing the ``victory'' or ``peace with honor'' viewpoints -- Richard Nixon and George Wallace took a collective 57 percent in 1968, while Nixon alone (after George Wallace was shot) won 61 percent in 1972. Too few people remember that on the day in May 1972 when Wallace was struck by an assassin's bullet in Laurel, Md., he had been orating to the crowd that ``those liberals got us into the war, and then they wouldn't let us win it.'' In the presidential elections, at least, that liberal record and viewpoint was distinctly rejected.

Watergate, however, changed all that and confused the historians of the 1970s. Indeed, many of the circumstances of Watergate -- not least Johnson White House and then Nixon White House concern over national security and indulgence in electronic eavesdropping -- were closely related to Vietnam and the tremendous internal dissension it unleashed in the United States. So when Watergate finally forced President Nixon to resign, it looked like a war-related triumph of the left, and when Vietnam fell less than a year later, the political right appeared to have paid the price for Southeast Asia. Not a few liberals cheered how the Watergate scandal and impeachment had unraveled the 1972 election verdict.

Yet we now know the liberal revitalization to have been transient and artificial. Clearly, the new Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, owed his election to the Watergate climate and national desire for political exorcism -- how else could we have elected a Georgia Baptist Sunday School teacher given to rhetoric about a government of trust and love? Once in office, though, Carter verged on inability to govern, and in the process he gave liberalism a further bad name. That failure, in turn, paved the way for the electoral success of a President, Ronald Reagan, whose conservative ideology was far more intense and dedicated than Richard Nixon's. As President, Reagan has managed not only to re-expand the military but to proclaim the war in Vietnam a ``noble'' one we should never have lost and to make patriotism fashionable again even among the young.

In retrospect, it's clear that the war in Vietnam was a major factor in the fatal leftward radicalization of the national Democratic party during the 1960s and early 1970s. In no small part because of Vietnam, the Democratic Party became identified with campus violence, with drugs and disorder, with permissiveness, with antipatriotism, and with unwillingness to use force to uphold national interests overseas. And because a majority of Americans disagree with those positions (just as they disagreed in 1968 and 1972), the United States has recurrently moved to the political right to disavow them.

It was always predictable -- and some of us did predict it. The American people have a longstanding pathology of subsequent political reaction against what they perceive to be antipatriotic positions in wartime. Defeatist attitudes in the War of 1812 helped finish off the Federalist Party in the following decade, and similar attitudes during the Mexican War caused a backlash against some Whig politicians and played a role in that party's demise. Sectional patriotism in the Civil War lingered in US politics for a century (and for 20 or 30 years with great emotion). More recently, the patriotic fervor of World War I fueled a late crackdown against dissidents in 1919-20, and Republican attempts to blame the Democrats for the concessions to Russia in the last years of World War II helped create the postwar climate for the flag-waving, anti-subversive era of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

To an extent, of course, the current victory of the right in US politics is nostalgic and illusionary. Public weapons systems and large Pentagon budgets cannot re-create the American global hegemony of the pre-Vietnam era. Yet the lesson for the left is far more chastening: antipatriotism simply doesn't pay in US politics.

Kevin Phillips is an author, commentator, and publisher of the American Political Report.

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