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Here’s a hypothesis about the real effect of the Vietnam War on America.

Those who stayed behind changed the face of the country … for many decades to come.

Yesterday’s post provides a potted history of the Vietnam War, which is helpful for those who do not know how the US came to be so deeply involved.

Today’s post examines what happened at home, many from my own recollections and others from documented sources.

It is my contention that those who were of age but did not serve in the Vietnam War changed — and are changing — America for decades to come.

‘Kennedy Husbands’: avoiding call-up

In the 1960s it did not take long for American adults to figure out that not everyone who was eligible to go to Vietnam actually served.

This was a war largely for ‘others’ — working class and poor men — to enter.

In the first half of the 1960s Generation X was born to young couples. In the middle classes the husband was often a university undergrad or graduate student.

This was no coincidence — or necessarily proof of a love of family before having the means to support one (emphases mine below):

two wishes of JFK with regard to conscription. The first was that the names of married men with children should occupy the very bottom of the callup list. Just above them should be the names of men who are married. This Presidential policy, however, was not to be formally encoded into Selective Service Status. Men who fit into these categories became known as Kennedy Husbands. When President Lyndon Johnson decided to rescind this Kennedy policy, there was a last-minute rush to the altar by thousands of American couples.

My grandmother, who rented the upper storey of her house to university students, had two Kennedy husbands in succession who lived there with their families — the children being babies and toddlers — in the mid- to late 1960s.

She knew what was going on. So did my parents, but as Grandma said, ‘They need a place to live, and I’m providing it.’

The second couple who lived there was interesting. The wife grew up in a well-heeled borough of New York City. Her mother came to visit a couple of times. On one of those occasions, my mother and I were there. My mother engaged the mother-in-law in conversation, which Mum quickly steered to the Vietnam War. Was this lady’s son-in-law avoiding being drafted? The answer came, ‘He’s doing what is within the law’.

Thanks to my grandmother, I knew three of these men well enough to say that they did not look happy. It would not surprise me to discover that all of them had marital difficulties by the early 1970s.

They married and started families because they had to, in order to avoid war. They became schoolteachers not because they felt they had a vocation but because they were able to escape going to Vietnam.

Many American men blame feminism for their troubles, but I reckon that wartime arrangements in the 1960s had just as much bearing on their unhappiness.

A plethora of deferments for middle class men

There were other legal ways, via deferment, to avoid call-up.

In 1969, a draft lottery came into effect. The higher one’s number, the less likely the chance of being drafted into military service.

Before that, this is how the draft worked:

Before the lottery was implemented in the latter part of the Vietnam conflict, Local Boards called men classified 1-A, 18 1/2 through 25 years old, oldest first. This resulted in uncertainty for the potential draftees during the entire time they were within the draft-eligible age group. A draft held today would use a lottery system under which a man would spend only one year in first priority for the draft – either the calendar year he turned 20 or the year his deferment ended. Each year after that, he would be placed in a succeedingly lower priority group and his liability for the draft would lessen accordingly. In this way, he would be spared the uncertainty of waiting until his 26th birthday to be certain he would not be drafted.

However, there were several categories of deferments in place during that time:

Here is a list of codes that were used previously (Vietnam era and before):

    • I-A – Registrant available for military service.

    • I-A-O – Conscientious objector registrant available for noncombatant military service only.

    • I-C – Member of the Armed Forces of the US, the Environmental Science Services Administration, or the Public Health Service.

    • I-D – Qualified member of reserve component, or student taking military training, including ROTC and accepted aviation cadet applicant.

    • I-S – Student deferred by law until graduation from high school or attainment of age of 20, or until end of his academic year at a college or university.

    • I-W – Conscientious objector performing civilian work contributing to the maintenance of national health, safety, or interest, or who has completed such work.

    • I-Y – Registrant qualified for military service only in time of war or national emergency.

    • II-A – Occupational deferment (other than agricultural and student).

    • II-C – Agricultural deferment.

    • II-S – Student deferment.

    • III-A – Extreme hardship deferment, or registrant with a child.

    • IV-A – Registrant with sufficient prior active service or who is a sole surviving son.

    • IV-B – Official deferred by law.

    • IV-C – Alien not currently liable for military service.

    • IV-D – Minister of religion or divinity student.

    • IV-F – Registrant not qualified for any military service.

    • Class V-A – Registrant over the age of liability for military service.

Also, a man at university who wished to serve in Vietnam was likely to be fast-tracked to an officer’s commission and the ability to be sent where he requested — a preferential posting.

If a man was lucky and had connections, he could serve at home with less worry about being sent to Vietnam:

Since only 15,000 National Guard and Reserve soldiers were sent to Vietnam, enlistment in the Guard or the Reserves became a popular means of avoiding serving in a war zone. For those who could meet the more stringent enlistment standards, service in the Air Force, Navy, or Coast Guard was a means of reducing the chances of being killed.

Not surprisingly, other middle class men suddenly got a religious calling:

Vocations to the ministry and the rabbinate soared, because divinity students were exempt from the draft.

Elsewhere:

Doctors and draft board members found themselves being pressured by relatives or family friends to exempt potential draftees.

People in the news who didn’t serve in Vietnam

Among those who saw no active service were Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Mitt Romney avoided it, too; he was serving as a Mormon missionary in France. Many young American musicians, some of whom sang protest songs, also avoided military service. I’ll look at one in tomorrow’s post. However, there were future multimillionaires, too, in that group, one of whom will also be profiled tomorrow.

Another who did not see military service was President Obama’s friend Bill Ayers (see here and here).  Ayers now tours the country pushing his radical education plans in a pleasantly middle class way.

One wonders how many paying to listen to him pontificate today know that he was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

Conservative Politics Today explained (covered in my first Ayers post):

Ayers was not simply protesting “against” the Vietnam War. Firstly, he wasn’t against war in principle, he was agitating for the victory of the communist forces in Vietnam. In other words: He wasn’t against the war, he was against our side in the war.

He may have escaped conviction due to a legal technicality (the prosecutors failed to get a warrant during some of their surveillance of the Weather Underground), but this in no way means that Ayers was factually innocent of the crimes. As has been widely reported, after the case against him was dropped, Ayers decribed himself as “guilty as hell, free as a bird.”

Just because Ayers tries to appear respectable now doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a violent revolutionary in the past. In fact, as the text of Prairie Fire shows, Ayers was one of the most extreme extremists in American political history.

Academe adds its voice to the mix

Older academics aided and abetted the anti-war cause. Noam Chomsky was one of them. Anyone who says they read his books just for the notes on linguistics could be economical with the truth. Here is a full version of William F Buckley Jr’s PBS programme Firing Line wherein he debates Chomsky on the Vietnam War. This is anti-war agitprop from Chomsky and television debating at its best from both. The right-of-centre needs another WFB desperately.

There were also Frankfurt School professors who directly or indirectly attempted to turn young American university students against the war, capitalism and, interestingly, the middle class — i.e. their own roots. Herbert Marcuse’s:

critiques of capitalist society (especially his 1955 synthesis of Marx and Freud, Eros and Civilization, and his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man) resonated with the concerns of the student movement in the 1960s. Because of his willingness to speak at student protests, Marcuse soon became known as “the father of the New Left in the United States”, a term he strongly disliked and disavowed. His work heavily influenced intellectual discourse on popular culture and scholarly popular culture studies. He had many speaking engagements in the US and Europe in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Even if he did not like being associated with the birth of the New Left:

He was a friend and collaborator of the political sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr. and of the political philosopher Robert Paul Wolff, and also a friend of the Columbia University sociology professor C. Wright Mills, one of the founders of the New Left movement.

School in general also anti-war

I was in Catholic primary school at the time. Although school for that age group is hardly a highbrow educational setting, we were already being urged not to support the war. The nuns did it more subtlely; the lay teachers were more obvious.

When I was ten, my teacher — a young laywoman — asked all of us to support that week’s anti-war protest ‘moratorium’ — each of which called for a different silent protest tactic — coming up one day. On this occasion, motorists were told to occasionally blink their headlamps if they supported an immediate end to the war. We were to urge our parents — ‘ask nicely’ — to flash their headlamps in protest on that particular Tuesday.

I told my mother, because being anti-war myself (school nearly always trumps home), it seemed like a marvellous passive, non-violent statement to make. My mother liked this teacher, and we were part of a teacher-student-parent group that used to do things for the parish with which the school was associated.

When my mother next saw my teacher, I don’t know what she said in a brief one-to-one moment, but the woman teacher just blanched.

That was the end of our association with this particular group. My mother gave me some plausible excuse, the sort that parents proffer. It didn’t bother me one way or another. I never thought anything about it until now.

War-related discussions starring my mother

Only one of my cousins was eligible to fight in Vietnam. He graduated from university in 1968. I do not know whether he was called up and, if so, if my uncle or aunt — his parents — ‘fixed it’ for him. In any event, he did not marry until after the war ended. I asked him some years later what happened and he said, characteristically of men in that age group, ‘My number was never called. Just lucky, I guess.’

However, I do think that my mother might have broached this subject during a family gathering after his graduation.  She was quite close to this aunt and uncle (one of her brothers, a Second World War veteran), but I noticed that there seemed to be a sudden, unprecedented distance by the end of the day between my aunt and my mother.

A few years later, they invited us to the Pacific Northwest to spend a week with them. They also had a daughter, married to someone in 1969 who, ostensibly, never had a call-up, either — ‘just lucky’, one supposes.

We were all invited to a sprawling beach house belonging to my cousin and her husband for the weekend. They’d also invited their friends from university. It was the closest I’ll ever get to commune living; by Sunday afternoon, I could hardly wait to leave. There wasn’t a moment’s peace: babies, toddlers, nursing mothers, weedy men and constant talking.

After the first day, my mother must have lain awake at night wondering about the age group of this lot — and also the weedy men. She felt increasing conflict over the rights and wrongs of the war, especially young men whom she knew who didn’t do a tour in Vietnam. She was brought up to ‘do the right thing’ and if that meant enlisting upon receiving the letter that began with ‘Greetings’, then, that was what you did.  Her father had done it and her brothers had done it.

Yet, she found herself sidelined. I think she wanted to make sense of it all, and no sense was forthcoming. So she tried to discuss it nicely with family, but they were either opposed to or non-committal about the war.

My dad didn’t think it was a good topic of conversation, but he, too, wondered where society was going in that era; he was more into identity politics, although he didn’t know it by that term. I couldn’t tell you what my maternal grandparents thought about any of it. Or what my two aunts — the nuns — thought. They were all quite sphinx-like in these matters.

Perhaps it is because so many adults were quiet then that this infamous war is never discussed now. Perhaps also it was this group of people whom Nixon had in mind when he coined the expression ‘the silent majority’. Their voices couldn’t or wouldn’t be heard — much less tolerated. And they knew it.

But I digress. The next day at the beach house, my mum — it seems — discreetly passed comment to my aunt on the young husbands there. Instead of reacting like my teacher did, my aunt made it clear, albeit very quietly, that my mother should keep her views to herself. Essentially, she was a guest there and should act like it: ‘Forget about the war — if only this once’.

The pall cast a few years before — which had appeared to be lifting at the beginning of our visit — again descended. I really liked my aunt, and it was only after she died some decades ago, that my mother told me how unkind the lady was to her after that. The rest of our visit, even back in town, was a bit of a damp rag for her now that I think back on it.

My mum got a more accepting and more frank opinion from her employer at the time, a prominent, well-respected member of the community where we lived. One of his daughters was marrying a young professional, also of age to be in Vietnam. My mother floated the inevitable question, but cloaked it in such a way that expressed concern for the daughter.

Mum’s boss replied, ‘Aww, heck, that stupid war. Nobody belongs there. No, I want this young man to marry my daughter and make her happy. Which I know he will. And he did. Vietnam never figured in their life together.

Finally, there was my mother’s tour of Europe in the early 1970s with another relative. The relative not feeling well, my mother went on a walkabout in Bern, Switzerland. She saw a hippie comatose in the park. She must have been staring at him, because a Swiss person approached her and asked, ‘Are you American?’ Mum replied, ‘Well, yes, I am.’ The Swiss person said, ‘That’s one of yours, madam. A draft dodger who became a junkie. Our city is full of them. Please stop the war. Maybe they will go away.’

Who held the keys to the castle?

With the Kennedy Husbands teaching school, modern leftist thought infiltrating universities and seminaries, not to mention apprehensive parents whose memories of the Second World War and Korean Wars were still very much alive, there was no chance that Vietnam was going to be the war of the Middle Classes.

In fact, they did their darndest — no doubt as President Kennedy was anticipating — to keep their children, with some exceptions, away from the conflict.

Thus, it fell to the poor and working class men to be cannon fodder for an unappreciative America. With the exception of my immediate family, for reasons to be explained tomorrow, and a few colleagues and neighbours whose family served, no one expressed one iota of sympathy for American troops who served in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Meanwhile, all the university grads who stayed behind began to settle comfortably into well-paid jobs (the teachers moved on, you can be sure of it) and professions.

If you doubt me, look at the men who were born in the early Baby Boomer years just after the Second World War to see how many did military service. Not that many.

They ended up holding the keys to Castle America, if I may use that word in association with what was once the world’s greatest republic. They became the elite — in greater and lesser ways.

And people think that a rejection of six-day creationism is bringing down the United States? No, not at all.

The rot started around 50 years ago with the general reaction to the Vietnam War which brought the United States where it is today.

Tomorrow: Part 2 — those who went to fight and two who didn’t

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