How the Vietnam War Accelerated Generational Divides in America


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“It is especially appropriate that we American students, fighting for the right to determine our own future, support the right of self determination throughout the world and call for international opposition to the war in Vietnam.”

The College News, Bryn Mawr College, March 17, 1967

On April 17, 1965, I attended my first antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. I have lost track of how many Vietnam protests I participated in during the next half decade. Usually I drove down with a carful of friends from Haverford and Bryn Mawr. Sometimes I would leave them after a Saturday rally and head to our Virginia farm two hours away to spend Sunday with my family—especially, after my mother’s death in 1966, to see my ten-year-old brother. I never spoke of where I had been, and no one ever asked.

The war would come to consume Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)—and many of us. Vietnam, as the journalist Michael Herr once remarked, “was what we had instead of happy childhoods.” But the April 1965 rally still had an air of novelty and a hopeful optimism that would be replaced as the years wore on by a growing anger and a sense of futility. Both the war and the size of the protests would steadily expand. From the time of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in the summer of 1964, when Congress gave President Johnson essentially blanket authority to wage war in Asia, I had felt growing disquiet about the American presence in Vietnam. I had supported Johnson’s election as the “peace” candidate, yet here he was betraying the very principles he had run on. By the early winter of 1965, a number of us at Bryn Mawr and Haverford had begun to delve into the details of the conflict. We investigated the circumstances surrounding what seemed the highly dubious claim of an attack on American ships that had served as Johnson’s justification for the Tonkin resolution, and we chronicled the impact of American air strikes and atrocities against Vietnamese civilians.

Vietnam was strengthening the already-growing awareness that we were a generation entirely apart from our parents in our values.

Although most of my friends had approved of my trip to Selma, many had reservations about my growing preoccupation with foreign policy. I remember a heated argument with a roommate who refused to believe that our government was misleading us. She insisted that if we did not stop communism in Vietnam, the rest of the countries in Asia would fall like dominoes. What I had seen on my trip to Eastern Europe nearly two years before had led me to reject the pervasive and monolithic anti-communism that was propelling the nation into an ever-widening war. It was clear that we who opposed mounting conflict had a great deal of work to do, even within our own small college community.

After the University of Michigan invented the teach-in in March 1965, we called on the expertise of faculty from the wider Philadelphia area—including Temple, Penn, and Swarthmore as well as Haverford and Bryn Mawr—to sponsor marathon sessions of lectures and panels that often stretched well into the night. Together with thousands of other students and professors on campuses across the country, we explored Vietnamese history and the evolution of American foreign policy, as well as more recent political developments, reaching well beyond what was available in our regular curricula. As one Michigan student observed, “This teach-in shows me what a university has to be.” We were mobilizing our intellectual resources in support of our politics.

By April, some twenty thousand people—the D.C. police said fifteen thousand; we were sure it was at least twenty-five thousand—had been convinced to gather from around the nation to officially present our concerns in a petition to Congress. On a sunny spring day, we listened live to folksingers I had heard only on the records I played in my dorm room. Like many in the crowd, I knew almost all the words and sang along as Phil Ochs insisted “I ain’t marching anymore” and Joan Baez assailed the “masters of war,” in a rendition of Bob Dylan’s angry anthem. It did not escape my notice that these songs—like many others embraced by the antiwar movement—reminded us that in war it was always the young who died. Vietnam was strengthening the already-growing awareness that we were a generation entirely apart from our parents in our values, our aspirations, our music, our sex lives, and—now with the threat of war and the draft—our basic self-interest.

A parade of speakers took the podium to charge that the United States had abandoned its democratic ideals by waging war in support of the dictatorship we had installed and supported in Vietnam. The conflict, SDS’s Paul Potter proclaimed, “has provided the razor, the terrifying sharp cutting edge that has finally severed the last vestige of illusion that morality and democracy are the guiding principles of American foreign policy.” The betrayal of American ideals that had galvanized my engagement with civil rights also lay at the heart of my distress about our involvement in Vietnam. My concerns about racial injustice and about the Cold War were inextricably intertwined. The preceding summer, the civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer had traveled from Mississippi to the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, to demand that her vote be counted. She uttered three unforgettable words as she was turned away: “Is this America?” I now found myself asking that same question about the president’s determination to escalate what I regarded as a cruel and illegitimate war in Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, fewer than ten thousand men were drafted into military service each month. By the end of 1965, that number approached fifty thousand. Escalation in Vietnam brought the war home to American campuses through its direct and growing impact on our own lives. Mounting numbers of troops were accompanied by growing numbers of American casualties. We were increasingly concerned not just with the war’s morality but also with its mortality, with a burgeoning fear that boys we knew—perhaps at some point even our own boyfriends—might be injured or die. Even though I had not known him well, I was stunned and horrified when in the summer of 1967, one of my brother’s former Princeton roommates was killed—in “hostile action…small arms fire…Quang Tin province.”

Deferments that had provided a variety of ways to avoid the draft were gradually disappearing. Being married no longer got you out; graduate school, except for medicine and the ministry, no longer provided exemption; undergraduates were informed that they would need to be in the top half of their class or perform well on a “Vietnam Test,” given by the federal government to assess students’ aptitude for higher education, in order to receive a 2-S classification. A man was eligible to be drafted until he was twenty-six, so a plan to avoid service in Vietnam had to involve a strategy that would be viable for a number of years. The draft and what to do about it became a preoccupation for nearly every boy at Haverford and for every Bryn Mawr girl who cared about him. As we came closer and closer to graduation—and the boys to full eligibility—the discussions became more and more anguished.

The draft was administered by four thousand local boards, and each had its particular approach to Selective Service and its own attitudes about approving deferments. In the South, some boards were outright punitive, drafting civil rights protesters in retribution for their activism, and in North and South alike, young Black men were more likely to be enlisted and sent into combat. The burning or turning-in of draft cards, which gained momentum after late 1965, also put students at risk of being inducted. For many of the boys I knew, it was their draft board’s attitude toward conscientious objection that was critical. Haverford and Bryn Mawr had both been founded by Quakers, but Haverford had retained a direct and explicit connection to the Society of Friends, nurturing a strong pacifist spirit in its students and faculty. A man could receive exemption from the military draft if he could convince his draft board of his opposition to violence. A Supreme Court case in 1965 determined that this need not involve membership in a pacifist religious group such as Quakers or Mennonites, but many draft boards disregarded this ruling.

The real sticking point, however, was that a potential draftee had to be opposed to all violence—not just the Vietnam War—to be granted CO status. I remember endless inconclusive conversations about whether one would have fought Hitler. In addition, conscientious objector applicants had to be ready to answer the question that almost inevitably would be posed in their required interview with their draft board: If someone were attacking your girlfriend, would you use force to protect her? Many of my late nights during college were devoted not to parties but to gatherings of friends earnestly seeking answers to what might prove to be life-or-death questions.

Haverford’s Quaker ties connected the college with a growing network of “draft counselors,” individuals with expertise in how to mount a case for CO status, as well as in many other means of avoiding the draft. The challenge to conscience involved not just the purity of one’s pacifist beliefs but other ethical questions as well. How much could one shade the truth? How far would one go toward outright deception in seeking a medical deferment—starving oneself to be below the required weight level, pretending to be insane, or addicted to drugs, or homosexual? Was the solution to try to join a branch of the service that would keep you out of ground combat—a choice that grew increasingly difficult as the National Guard filled to overflowing? Was the most virtuous decision to go to jail in dedication to your beliefs? How ethical was it to try to avoid the draft in the first place when that meant that many less well-connected and less privileged individuals, without draft counselors or student deferments, would have to serve instead? If it was immoral to go and immoral not to go, should you therefore just serve? Or should you flee to Canada or Sweden to escape the draft, but likely never be able to come home?

War had defined my parents’ and my grandparents’ generations. Now, in a very different way, it was defining mine.

I knew men who made each of these choices and whose lives were shaped by them forever. It was an agony for them, and it was in many ways an agony for the women as well, for our lives were closely bound up with theirs: they were our friends, our lovers, our fiancés, in some cases even our husbands. Our futures were indivisible. But our futures and our agony were also different. I wasn’t going to die in a jungle or a rice paddy. I didn’t have to decide how deep my pacifist commitments really were. In my opposition to the draft, as with my concerns about civil rights, I was in a position of privilege; I was not a direct victim of the injustice I sought to oppose. The Vietnam generation—those of draft-eligible age during the war—included 53.1 million young Americans; 26.3 million of us were exempt because we were female. I had received as a birthright the best and most absolute and permanent draft deferment. “There but for fortune go you and I,” Joan Baez sang in her 1964 hit. That sense of fortune, of unwarranted luck, haunted me. War had defined my parents’ and my grandparents’ generations. Now, in a very different way, it was defining mine. I began to wonder if that was what a generation is: not a biological measure so much as the maximum length of time human beings can forgo mobilizing to destroy one another.

The escalation of the draft radicalized the antiwar movement, pushing it, in its own description, from protest to resistance to rebellion. But our rising anger about the war was not just a matter of opposing conscription and its threats to our control over our own lives. The escalation of the war made us increasingly concerned about the suffering of the Vietnamese people. Johnson steadily intensified the bombing until ultimately the United States would drop more tons of explosives than it had in all of World War II. The government developed “pacification” policies for the South Vietnamese countryside that would require, in the words of one military officer, the destruction of villages in order to save them. Soldiers committed atrocities like the murder of some five hundred civilians at My Lai. But the personal horror of the draft, of having to participate in such a conflict, of forcing men to be soldiers in what seemed an immoral—and increasingly unwinnable—war: this changed the stakes. It brought the war home.

In “The Port Huron Statement,” SDS had in 1962 proclaimed its “abhorrence” of violence in its pursuit of social change. The Vietnam War first eroded and then eliminated those compunctions. In Washington in October 1967, a protest of more than 100,000 people divided into two as a sizable portion of the demonstrators left the Lincoln Memorial to cross the Potomac and march on the Pentagon. The part of the protest I participated in was not very different from the many marches that had preceded it, though the crowds had grown bigger. Phil Ochs and Peter, Paul, and Mary sang; various notables spoke. But on the Virginia side, the demonstrators, who had signaled their intention to commit civil disobedience, were met by the 82nd Airborne, armed with rifles, bayonets, and tear gas. Militant law enforcement clashed with aggressive demonstrators and resulted in 683 arrests—as well as Norman Mailer’s classic account of the confrontation, The Armies of the Night. Several Bryn Mawr students were arrested. The College News editor Kit Bakke wrote of the impact of her experience at the Pentagon: “Everyone seems to recognize that this is a turning point in the movement, away from peaceful mass rallies…and toward more local and more militant action. We have been marching for over two years now and it does not seem to have done much good.”

Both literally and figuratively, I remained on the peaceful side of the river, uneasy about this new and violent turn within student activism. I had a kind of temperamental aversion to intimidation and force, one that had been nurtured by my exposure to Quaker precepts. I was much more comfortable with a politics grounded in debate and persuasion, and with power exerted through democratic expression, than with the new performative and coercive style coming to characterize young militants. I was drifting away from SDS as it abandoned its commitment to participatory democracy in deference to what it called its “action faction.”


Excerpted from Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury by Drew Gilpin Faust. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, an imprint of Macmillan, Inc. Copyright © 2023. All rights reserved.

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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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