Why Did the Vietnam War Last So Long: Analytical Essay

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On March 8, 1965, the United States Marines traveled to Da Nang Bay. They were the first military combat troops to arrive in South Vietnam. The United States' intervention in the Vietnam War progressed in small stages over a long period of time. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the one who first introduced the “domino theory.” This theory would lay down the foundation for America’s involvement in Vietnam. The main idea of the domino theory was, “…if one new country went communist in Asia then it would begin a chain reaction that would cause several more Southeast Asian countries to become communist” (Pike). As of right now, the Vietnam War is the second-longest war in United States history. Of course, over such a long span of time, many things have happened and changed drastically. For example, we have experienced skepticism towards the government, a different view of soldiers, recognition of PTSD, changes in entertainment, a counterculture, a liberation movement, and the end of the draft.

One major change during the Vietnam War was the justified skepticism toward the United States government. In March of 1971, the Pentagon Papers have leaked to New York Times: “The Pentagon Papers was the name given to a top-secret Department of Defense study of U.S. political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967” (“Pentagon Papers”). The first story was published on June 13, 1971, by The New York Times. In a BBC interview, Ellsberg said, “In the end, we had some seven thousand pages of top-secret material, staff recommendations, studies, intelligence estimates, and a lot of graphs and actual decision papers from within the office of Secretary of Defense. There were forty-seven volumes.” Daniel Ellsberg leaked these top-secret documents in hopes to encourage public opposition to the Vietnam War. Neil Sheehan was the Vietnam reporter for The New York Times who first obtained the documents from Ellsberg. These two men believed that the American people deserved to know the truth behind the Vietnam War. After the third publication, there was a temporary restraining order against publishing this material: “In the now-famous case of New York Times Co. v. United States, the Times and the Washington Post joined forces to fight for the right to publish” (“Pentagon Papers”). They won the case because their actions were justified under the First Amendment. In the United States Constitution, the freedom of the press is guaranteed. Ellsberg’s trial began in 1973 but was dismissed after the discovery of illegal actions. Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office was burglarized while the White House was attempting to find “dirt” on him. These Pentagon Papers released information that opened American eyes. All of this time they did not know how the presidents made their decisions about troops and strategic moves. The government escalated the Vietnam War but stated the opposite. The papers proved that the reasoning behind the war had to do with the containment of China, not just preventing the spread of communism. Many Americans were hurt by the government’s lies and began to oppose the war. Even today, the Vietnam War is known as the war that killed trust.

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After the Pentagon Papers were published, most Americans believed that the war in Vietnam was a mistake. This led to a different view of soldiers. United States soldiers were not welcomed home; in fact, it was the complete opposite as they were flipped off and spit on. There were no “Welcome Home” parades because “You don’t have parades for soldiers coming home from a war they lost” (Ciampaglia). GI benefits were not a big deal. Peter Langenus was a Vietnam veteran who was treated unfairly after his homecoming. He developed symptoms of malaria but was denied VA health care. After graduating from Notre Dame, he did not get the educational benefits he deserved. Langenus experienced discrimination in the workplace when it came time to find a job. He was, “met with thinly veiled disgust and discrimination from law firms upon learning he was a Vietnam infantry veteran” (Ciampaglia). In the book Kill Anything That Moves there are graphic descriptions of the American soldiers’ actions. The book has sensitive content that may not be for everyone, but it draws attention to the awful things that Americans did in Vietnam. It explained how some soldiers would hack the heads off the Vietnamese, nonchalantly: “Some of these trophies were presented to superiors as gifts or as proof to confirm a body count: others were retained by the ‘grunts’ and worn on necklaces or otherwise displayed” (Turse). It also shows other ways soldiers disrespected Vietnamese bodies by stating, “Many soldiers mistreated corpses in other ways- dressing them up, clowning around with them, or mutilating them, often taking photos of their handiwork and filling scrapbooks with the results” (Turse). Now that American citizens knew about the government's lies, most did not feel the need to respect anyone to do with the war. Instead, they were treated shamefully as the “bad guys.”

Another thing that changed during the war was the recognition of PTSD. The Vietnam War affected American soldiers in more ways than people originally realized. Coming home from this war was different for them because there was not a successful victory. According to an article by Josh Hochgesang and others, “… the Vietnam War became a metaphor for American society that connoted distrust in the government, and the sacrifice of American lives for poorly understood and deeply divided values and principles.” When these veterans returned home, most experienced psychiatric symptoms. These symptoms are now recognized as PTSD, which “… is a development of characteristic symptoms following a psychologically distressing event” (Josh Hochgesang, et al.) Most cases of PTSD are linked to combat experiences, especially in the case of Vietnam veterans. In previous wars, very few veterans reported symptoms of PTSD, so it was not taken seriously then. After Vietnam, PTSD became more recognized because many veterans were now complaining of symptoms. As these veterans re-emerged into civilization, they had a hard time fitting in. In the article by Hochgesang, “You are portrayed to the public as a crazed psychopathic killer with no morals or control over your aggression.” They experienced discrimination, anger, guilt, depression, insomnia, and many other symptoms, but nobody understood their struggles unless they had been to war themselves.

Looking back, it is very obvious that music changes over time. Even today we can agree that today’s music is different than music from the early 2000s. Before the Vietnam War, there were songs to encourage people to join the military. For example, “Songs with titles like ‘We Shall Never Surrender Old Glory’ and ‘Uncle Sam Will Help You Win the War’ used this imagery as a means to encourage participation in the military and industrial ventures for the war effort” (Tomlinson). Radios were readily available, and everyone listened to them, so it was a great way to reach out to the American people. When peoples’ opinions about war changed during Vietnam, so did the war music. Music was now a great way to protest against the Vietnam War. Musicians mirrored American opinions and began to publish popular anti-war songs. One of the first protest songs, “Eve of Destruction,” by P.F. Sloan and Barry, was released in the summer of 1965. Being an anti-war protest song, many American radio stations banned it. Another example of an anti-Vietnam War song is “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish. The upbeat song used profanity as an exercise of free speech. Despite all of the songs against the war, there were still pro-war songs considering that there were still Americans who believed in the “domino theory.”

As if there were not enough changes during this era already, America experienced a counterculture. The Vietnam War led people to freely express their opinions and become who they wanted to be. Americans decided to rebel against the “social norm” and change their way of living. The hippie counterculture was established in the late 1960s and reached its highest when our involvement in the Vietnam War was at its highest. They hated the idea of fitting in with society and pleasing the government. Hippies were known for growing long hair, taking drugs, and striving for a more meaningful life. They believed in having a good time and making their souls happy. Rock ’n’ roll music became very popular during this time of youth rebellion. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles altered their music style and started producing songs that would help spread counterculture messages. Movies started to contain more nudity and sexual content than before, earning “R’ and “X” ratings. When the war came to a close, so did the counterculture movement.

In the liberation movement of the Vietnam War, feminists and other Americans spoke out. Feminists argued against their traditional roles and expressed their desire to gain rights during the sexual revolution. Also, homosexuals fought against the discrimination they had experienced. Hippie women wanted birth control and abortions to become more available to them. In 1973, the Supreme Court gave women their right to control reproduction through the Roe v. Wade case. Women could now have an abortion during the first three months of their pregnancy. In the same revolution, women wanted to become free from oppression. On September 7th, 1968, feminists protested at the Miss America Pageant because they believed that the pageant gave the wrong idea of feminism. During this protest, they threw away undergarments and makeup into the “Freedom Trash Can.” In the book, Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, Part 1, there are many different stories that give an inside view of the war. The book contains the words of Sally Gabb from October 1976 in the final issue of the Great Speckled Bird. Gabb states, “In an early issue of 1969, we had declared our existence as a women’s support group within the staff in an article to our readership” (Wachsberger 102). The Great Speckled Bird was a high-quality underground newspaper that covered topics such as gay rights, women’s liberation, and issues such as racism. For eight and a half years, this newspaper played a key role in the social movement during the Vietnam War.

Despite all of the cons and negative thoughts that come along with the Vietnam War, there were good things as well. In Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign of 1968, he promised to put an end to the draft. This made many Americans regain the hope that they had lost, and President Nixon won the election. Nixon saw that the country was in flames during the war and that the draft made matters worse. The United States draft during the Vietnam War was when young men were forced to join the military and fight, without volunteering to do so. There were many American men who did volunteer to serve their country though. College students during this time could get a deferment keeping them out of the war if they qualified full-time. Families who could not afford college did not believe these deferments were fair. Despite President Nixon’s promise, he was not in any kind of hurry to end the draft. Instead, Nixon passed the issue onto Thomas Gates Jr. to handle. At first, Gates did not think that an all-volunteer military would work out, but he later changed his mind. Nixon also changed his mind and thought that the draft did need to continue so he asked Congress for a two-year extension. The existing draft law was set to expire in June of 1971, but the Nixon administration asked Congress to extend the draft to June of 1973.

As we can see, because of the Vietnam War, things have happened and changed drastically. These changes leave a lasting impact on America. Skepticism towards the government, a different view of soldiers, recognition of PTSD, changes in entertainment, a counterculture, a liberation movement, and the end of the draft, are all experiences that contributed to the way America is today. If it were not for these events, Americans would still believe that the government is always honest and that soldiers are always perfect. Also, PTSD may not be taken seriously like it is now. Americans probably would be afraid to voice their opinions to a certain extent and fight for their rights. It is easy for people to forget about the important ways that the Vietnam War and American History, in general, have impacted the country. Thus, it is essential to always remember the Vietnam War and to be grateful for its changes. Despite the awful things, everything happens for a reason.

Works Cited

  1. Pike, John. “Military.” Vietnam War - The Domino Theory, “Witness History - The Pentagon Papers - BBC Sounds.” BBC News, BBC
  2. Ciampaglia, Dante A. “Why Were Vietnam War Vets Treated Poorly When They Returned?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 8 Nov. 2018
  3. Hochgesang, Josh, et al. “The Psychological Effects of the Vietnam War.” EDGE
  4. Tomlinson, Christina. America’s Changing Mirror: How Popular Music Reflects Public Opinion During Wartime. Campbell University
  5. History.com Editors. “Pentagon Papers.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2 Aug. 2011
  6. Gabb, Sally. “Great Speckled Bird.” Insider Histories of the Vietnam Era Underground Press, edited by Ken Wachsberger, 1st ed., Michigan State Univ. Press, 2012, pp. 101-02.
  7. Turse, Nick. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Co., 2014.
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