A theme of the recent Burns and Novik documentary on the Vietnam War was that rifts had developed in the country during the war and they've never been healed. That is, the war split the country between left and right, and the country's never come back together again.
It's an appealing thesis. But is it true, and if it is, what does that mean?
Let's start with the common image of things.
The sort of general common background to this story is the belief that prior to the Vietnam War, American society was united and existed in sort of an Ozzy and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, state. This society, we're told, had a common set of conservative societal values. Along came the Vietnam War and put that all under stress and fractured the country into a liberal and conservative camps that have diametrically opposed views on everything and are now further apart than ever.
The Cleavers in Leave It To Beaver. . . the way that American society of the 1950s, and earlier, has sort of been imagined. The show ran from 1957 to 1963, so it was set as much in the early 60s as the 50s, but then the early 1950s are in the "50s", as imagined, and the early 1950s, aren't. How realistic was this portrayal anyhow? Chances are, not very, other than that they were a nuclear family.
Is that right?
Well, in order to analyze the central thesis of that, that the war drug a certain demographic (largely white, largely well educated) to the left, where it's kept on sliding to the left, and left another group on the right, which is going further to the right, I guess we'd have to look at the right and the left before that to make certain its true.
And we'd have to even figure out where to start to do that, and that wouldn't be easy, as it turns out.
We'll start therefore in the early 20th Century. We could start earlier (you could arguably start before the Civil War quite easily), or you could start later, perhaps in the 1920s or 1930s. But this is a good compromise point to start.
And the reason that its a good compromise point to start.
The early 20th Century was a time of considerable political and social turmoil. The Progressive Movement, a political movement that sought to address economic and social ills and to spread the vote to women, who mostly didn't have it, was in full swing. Liberal in the context of its time, it was for a stronger Federal government to protect the rights of the average man against ever increasing corporations and against the abuses of local governments. Varying widely in the scope of its views, it ranged from moderately Progressive to fully radical, sometimes during the political life of a single individual. Probably the best example of Progressivism is Theodore Roosevelt, who went into his Vice Presidency and Presidency as a fairly pronounced Progressive, and who finished up his political career as a fairly radical Progressive. The success of the Progressive movement is perhaps also symbolized by the fact that Roosevelt's last campaign, the three way race in which he went down in final defeat, saw Woodrow Wilson, another Progressive, elected.
Wisconsin Senator Robert LaFollette. He'd more than given Bernie Sanders a run for his money on being a socialist. . . he was a real socialist.
Roosevelt and Wilson were not the only left of center politicians in that race by any means. The Socialist Party was on the rise and a serious political party at the time. Part of the rallying cry for Progressives, to Conservatives, was that if the Progressives weren't elected and didn't address the nation's ills then the Socialist would succeed and their medicine would be much more radial. And while that vision was extreme, in reality Socialism of that time was as radical as it would ever be.
Socialism up to the mid 1920s at least was a global movement and it had more than a toehold in the United States. It was a major force in Europe. Communism was also a rising force in Europe, and getting a little toehold in Europe, and because it was a younger and less developed type of Socialism the distinction between the two, which would later become enormous, was not terribly clear at the time. Parties in Europe, like the Social Democratic Party in Germany, weren't Communist but they were so close (prior to coming to power in 1918) that it was hard to make the distinction between Communism and Socialism. And here's where we begin to get into really radical, but fairly widespread, movements that well predate the Vietnam War.
The Socialist movements of the World War One era were extreme in every sense, and also had a fairly large following amongst European working classes and a not inappreciable one amongst American working classes. Believing in the collectivization of labor, they also at their core held a lot of radical social beliefs that would sound familiar in certain circles of the far left today. In Communist circles they were opposed to marriage and were open to "free love", but radically opposed (outside of what would soon be the USSR) to having children. They were open practitioners of abortion. For a lot of their more radical views in this area, and so that I don't have to list them, I'd cite to Whitaker Chamber's life, but it's also worth noting that just about any significant Soviet spy ring of the 20s, 30s, and 40s exhibits a fair amount of conduct that's right out of a sexual sewer. All this existed at a time at which there were genuine problems in the work force and real social inequality, particularly for African Americans.
Whitaker Chambers, who came from a middle class background but had an extremely troubled childhood and early life, turning in course to Communism. His biography on his life as a Communist, and his path out of it, including his efforts to expose it, is one of the greatest biographies ever written. Witness details much of the truly radical nature of the Communist movement in the west, including its depraved nature.
World War One killed the Old Order in Europe leaving nothing to replace it and hugely radical movements came up in the wake of the collapse of the Ancien Régime. The more powerful the forces of the old order had been, and the less democratic they had been, the more radical the movements that flowed in their wake were. Communism took over in Russia and the USSR was born. Communism made a run at the states that bordered the new USSR, resulting in war and civil war. Civil war was fought in German streets where the contesting forces increasingly gave rise to a big swing in the right and the left. Socialism in Italy gave way to a nationalistic socialist political force known as Fascism. The same impulses gave rise to extreme right wing parties in Germany just as the Communist forces were rising and after a while, in the early 1930s, Communist and Nazis would battle in German streets. Communist and Socialist elements in Spain sought to terminate the democratic fragile republic there and the Army rose up, allied with Spanish Fascists, in that country in a bitter civil war in the 1930s. Never every European country had some sort of extreme right wing and extreme left wing political movements, all of which rejected notions of democracy, traditional religious views, and many traditional social views. The time was as radical as any which have ever existed.
That, of course, was partially sorted out during World War Two which saw Fascism first defeated and then completely discredited it as the hateful product of its rule was exposed wherever it had been. That left, of course, the Communist in place where they were. The full horrors of Communism, every bit as lethal, and more, as Fascism would take decades to be really fully revealed and the whole horror of it all would not become fully evident until the 1990s by which time it was expiring.
In the 1930s that horror was not evident and hardcore leftism was therefore not fully discredited. In the United States the Depression saw hardcore leftists come into the Federal Government in some numbers but more than that saw a large element of Federal experimentation in government in an effort to address the ills of that economic disaster. This was followed by World War Two which required a really big government.
And this takes us into the era where we started out.
After the Second World War, we're told, Americans craved to return to normal. And not doubt after the Depression they did. But that view of normalcy may not be what we think it was. Prior to the Cold War really ramping up there were quite a few Americans who retained fairly left wing political views on some things, products of the Depression, accepted left wing politics during it, and World War Two. For example, at that time, a large percentage of Americans were actually favorably disposed towards the evolution of the United Nations towards being a truly world government of a type. Truman was flirting, albeit unsuccessfully, with national healthcare, something the British brought in right after World War Two. Communism wasn't seen as a real global threat up until 1947 or 1948. While the United States was more rural then as compared to now, gun control was widely viewed favorably and according to older polls all the way through the 1950s and 1960s there was widespread support for banning handguns (and, it should be noted, there were considerably more violent deaths of all types then, as opposed to now).
But that doesn't mean that the nation was otherwise socially radical. The nation was coming around to completing the work commenced in 1860-65 in that making sure that blacks had full civil rights, but otherwise people held conservative social views. Divorce was much rarer then than now. Unconventional sexual behaviors were not looked upon favorably or even legal.
The idea however of a united country in favor of military intervention around the world is misconstrued and in fact much about immediate post war international history is misunderstood due to a very successful immediate revisionist effort on the part of the Democratic Party. At first, after World War Two, that was not the view of most Americans or really of either political party. The GOP had been isolationist before World War Two and it still was following World War Two, although it had been anti Communist in both eras. The Democratic Party figured that the war had been won and the world was now in a liberal political state of bliss and wasn't too interested in any foreign involvement. That all ended when China fell and Berlin was blockaded. The shock of those events sent both parties on the same course in regards to international affairs. At the same time the exposure of the penetration of Soviet agents into American government during the Roosevelt Administration was basically shouted down and buried by the Democratic Party which was embarrassed by it.
This takes us to the 1950s. What we find is that the United States, in the 1950s, was internationalist in outlook, strongly anti Communist, and had expressed generally conservative social views while as the same time it was struggling to the bring blacks fully into society. It's really the 1950s, not the 1960s that saw the real strong rise of the Civil Rights movement, but that would complete, at least for that phase, in the early 1960s.
Which we are now up to.
A lot of Americans hold a view of the early 1960s which is basically that expressed in the film American Graffiti, which is of course set in the early 1960s. In that film all of the really significant people are, of course, teenagers or those immediately dealing with teenagers. Those young teens are out for a single evening driving around aimlessly in sort of a motorized courting ritual reminiscent of that which was once common in Mexican towns amongst young men and women of marriageable age in the public plaza on special days or Saturday market days. And frankly there's quite a bit of truth to that (and I need to add that film to my reviewed Movies In History list). The country, in the 1950s, was rich, much richer than it had ever been before, strong, relatively socially conservative, and faced with only one real rival, the Soviet Union.
And then came the Vietnam War.
Well, not just the Vietnam War. Quite a few other things arrived just about the same time the war did, and some other things arrived a little bit earlier and were really making an impact about the time the Vietnam War started to.
For one thing, for the first time ever, university became sort of an expectation of the middle class. That was a byproduct of World War Two.
The United States went into World War Two in the back stages of the Great Depression. Like the United Kingdom, the expectation in the US is that once the war ended, the Depression would return. That expectation proved to be wrong, and the world didn't slide into a global depression following the Second World War, in part because of the war itself an din part because the Depression had been so long, but those western nations that could plan around that expectation did so. That's why the United Kingdom introduced its national healthcare system and that's why the United States introduced the GI Bill.
The GI Bill allowed thousands of Americans to attend college who came from demographics that had no prior expectation of doing so. That ended the era in which most college attendees in the US were white Protestants and opened up college and university enormously. It also brought Federal money into education for the first time. That meant, on the faculty level, that for the first time the paying customer was, in some ways, the public trough and in others a wider cross section of American public. By extension it meant that, for private schools, the need to pay attention class distinctions, even if in a radical subversive way, were lessened and for public schools, the need to pay attention to local industries was reduced. And as any college degree meant employment at that time, the students' long term employeabiltiy didn't merit much attention as it was virtually guaranteed.
Hence, by the 1960s, a large, second and first generation student body that had much less attachment to the economically elite than ever before, and which was also much more certain of economic success, no matter what, than ever before.
They also had less connection with the demographics that produced them.
The GI Bill not only flooded the colleges with new students and government money, it mean that there were now a lot of students who had been born into ethnicities for which college was previously nearly out of the question, in college. First Catholics, and then blacks, started entering college for the first time in large numbers, followed by other formerly blue collar ethnicities. As this occurred some of those ethnicities started to redefine themselves as white collar middle class ethnicities. Irish Americans are a good example as during this period they exited what had been called the "Catholic Ghetto" and sought to redefine themselves as middle class Americans. North of the border in Catholic Quebec the same thing was occurring on a large scale. If the 1968 Chicago Police Riot has been portrayed as father against son, there's a real element of truth to that as Chicago was, to a large extent, as series of blue collar ghettos and the protestors of the 1968 Democratic Convention were largely the college educated sons and daughters of blue collar workers.
All that would have created enough turmoil but added into that there were peculiar social changes that were also afoot, some of which would have been quite disruptive in their own right and others which contributed to the mix. Two of these involved women.
The big change involving women is well known, but grossly misunderstood. By the 1950s (not the 1960s, as so often claimed) women's roles in the office and at home were changing.
This is usually claimed to be a byproduct of World War Two, but it isn't. It was rather the result of the onset of really effective domestic machinery in the home, a process that had been going on since the early 20th Century but which had been retarded by the Great Depression. Greatly improved domestic machinery that would have come onto the market fairly rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s instead simply bust onto the market in the 1950s. This meant that much of the necessary heavy labor performed by women in the house was no longer as labor intensive. For the first time, many women and even girls could seriously consider entering the workplace and not really have to make a choice between a domestic life or that of the "spinster" life.
The same machinery, washing machines, massively improved kitchen stoves, dryers, etc., also meant that younger women could actually leave the household as they were not required for domestic labor. That was a huge change in and of itself. And it also meant that young men were free to live on their own without the close support of their families or living in boarding houses, all of which had been true before and all of which were due to the daily amount of domestic labor just to stay alive. Young men had expanded personal freedom in an age in which there were still a lot of good jobs that didn't require a college degree, even if many were receiving them. Young women were really free to opt for work for the first time. So were married women.
It is really with married women, we should note, that the change was the most revolutionary, although it was generally across the board. Many younger women who entered the work force actually did so only temporarily at the time. But the change was setting in fairly quickly, even if the fact that it was a change was clear to everyone. Using television as a mirror, by 1970 television had gone from the Cleaver family as a subject to the office life of Mary Tyler Moore.
The cast of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which included several women characters, only one of whom was a homemaker.
Mary Tyler Moore (in the 1970s television sitcoms were sometimes simply named after the actual names of the principal actor) was centered on the life of a young female single professional. The casting of Moore, who had previously been casts in roles based on her physical appearance in no small part, was both brilliant and intentional. Moore was the new young working woman of the age, surrounded in part by accepting men and in part not. Betty White was portrayed as an older somewhat radical woman worker, perhaps the first female character cast that way and definitely contrary to her later roles. While using television as a reflection of the times is dangerous, the huge success of the show does demonstrate the extent to which it reflected a contemporary world that was just recently changed. That it was recently changed is evident just from watching it, as so much of the old world remained as a point of reference.
As noted, that would have been disruptive in and of itself, but added to that a combined pharmaceutical discovery and the ooze that Hugh Hefner released operated in concert with a lot of young men and women no longer living at home to start what would ultimately become a disastrous social change that reflected itself differently in different demographics. As has been addressed here before, including quite recently, Hefner managed to exploit an already existing market that had been expanded by World War Two by making it male mainstream. In essence he portrayed the girl next store as dumb, heavy chested, and available. In 1953 when the magazine hit the girl next door was in fact largely unavailable and her reputation would have been ruined had she been, but the male expectation was created. By 1963 however she was living outside of the home in increasing numbers and the birth control pill came out.
Hormonal birth control pills created a revolution in human behavior in the western world that had real negative impacts. Had the same pharmaceuticals come out only today, chances are high that they would not be allowed by the FDA as the physical dangers of them are so well known. At the time, however, that they'd have an impact on behavior to the extent that they would was not anticipated by many (it was by some), nor was it the case that it was known that pressure would develop, and fairly rapidly, for female behavior to be libertine in response. Certainly not all of it was, but in some sectors it increasingly became so over time and ultimately arrived upon a very widespread social expectation.
Now, it should be noted, there's been retreats and adjustments to much of this, so a person can't assume that this is all a straight line in any fashion. But what we're doing is simply setting the stage to ask the question that Burns and Novik posed, and then assumed an answer for.
So, by the late 1960s we have the general conditions described above. And then along came the Vietnam War.
The war did put a section of young people, and some not so young people, out on the streets protesting against the war. And as all of these things hit at one time, there was a section or two of the American population that really formed its ideas about the world at that time. Those sections were largely white (which most Americans were, and are). One section was located in increasingly large cities and the other on their peripheries and outside of the cities. One section was well educated and, over time, increasingly came to have very small families, if any families at all, and had a fair amount of surplus cash and highly liberal views. The other section had more traditional family structure, although decreased from earlier times, and suffered from economic up and downs extensively.
Now, there was a lot of crossing over from one to the other. And both sections had their roots quite clearly in earlier times. But the times did change them as well. Prior to the 1970s real political radicalism in the United States depended upon a radicalized and Unionized working class. That simply ceased to be the case after the 1970s, and indeed unions died themselves. The concept of social change and justice being based on the lives of the common man ended, as instead it came to be centered in the social views of a fairly rarefied section of the wealthy white urban class that had previously made up what were termed WASPs. And that's where we are today.
But is that the fault of the Vietnam War?
Well, at least partially. The war did create a rift that seems to have grown bigger over the years, if we take in a lot of years at a time. But it can't be said that it wouldn't have occurred anyhow. Perhaps the desire of a white upper middle class student body to avoid serving in the war got us to the rift, or maybe it only accelerated it. If it created it, Richard Nixon's behavior in expanding the war late in its unpopularity and then in trying to cover up the break in of the Watergate Hotel didn't help it much. Rampant inflation in the 1970s didn't help much either.
But where this plays out, and how much of the current social viewpoint disparity is directly related is another question entirely. Technological innovation and advancement, changes in the global economy and the like have all played a role and, from the long view, maybe a greater role than something like the Vietnam War.
And I suspect that much of this turmoils is reaching a high tide point, and will start to recede. It always seems to over a long period of time, but that it takes a long time is often missed. Even with all of the current truly odd developments, many of which are deeply opposed to human's actual nature on one hand, and deeply politically regressive on the other, the overall culture of the nations, struggled for as it is, remains there.
So, while Burns and Novik can Quixotically hope that their documentary starts to heal the political and social rift of the country, chances are that something will slowly change all that anyhow, even if it doesn't completely heal any rift, as some rifts have always been there.