Strangely, one of the greatest casualties of the Vietnam War was the American welfare state.
To explain, before the Vietnam catastrophe, the United States was well on its way to becoming a multiracial social democracy with a modern welfare state. Under the administration of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (D-Texas) the United States saw the beginnings of single-payer health insurance Medicare and Medicaid, expansion of the vote to all Americans, expansion of civil rights, and a genuine war on poverty.
Strangely, most Republicans were onboard with the effort to expand the welfare state. Indeed, Johnson’s successor, Richard M. Nixon (R-California) began with his administration with an ambitious welfare state expansion plan.
Nixon was America’s Most Progressive President
In fact, Nixon proposed basic income, universal daycare, and single payer health insurance during his administration. Hence, Nixon was America’s most progressive president before his administration became ensnared in the insanity of Watergate.
One reason Nixon’s progressive push failed was opposition and inaction from Congressional Democrats. To explain, Democratic leaders did not want a Republican president associated with popular programs such as basic income or single-payer health insurance.
Another reason for Nixon’s failure was a lack of support for his programs in the Republican Party. Finally, Republicans did not have enough votes to get anything through Congress on their own in Nixon’s day.
Ironically, Nixon only became President because Democrats had destroyed themselves in Vietnam. To explain, after Vietnam, many Americans no longer trusted Democrats.
Democratic Lunacy in Vietnam
The Vietnam War was the strangest conflict in American history. Vietnam was a conflict no Americans wanted, nobody understood, and nobody wanted to win.
Yet Americans spent $843.63 billion dollars or 2.3% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the Vietnam War. Additionally, around 58,220 Americans died in Vietnam.
Bizarrely, there was almost no discussion or controversy about America’s entry into the Vietnam War. In fact, no major issue in American history has had as little debate or discussion as the entry into Vietnam had.
During the Vietnam War buildup, there was no heated debate or protests as there was before the Iraq War or America’s entry into World War II. Instead, America drifted into war and nobody noticed until combat began appearing on TV.
One reason for the lack of debate and discussion about Vietnam was that most of American’s attention was focused on the Civil Rights movement and the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Almost no American intellectuals or politicians began discussing Vietnam until after combat began.
The Damage From Vietnam
The lack of attention made Vietnam’s effect on the American psyche far worse. To explain, American men woke up one day in 1967 and realized the government could draft them and ship them off to fight in a place they had never heard of.
Many ordinary Americans, especially the white working class, felt a sense of betrayal. To explain, average Americans thought they had a deal with America’s political leaders. The deal was we will only draft you for something serious, such as war with the Soviet Union.
Instead, the government drafted ordinary Americans to fight a colonial war in a backwater nation against a third-world guerrilla movement. Worse, America’s leaders never explained how North Vietnam or the Vietcong threatened America’s national security.
Similarly, America’s leaders never explained the lack of strategy in Vietnam. Why was there no invasion of North Vietnam? Why was it noble for GIs and Marines to die for South Vietnam hamlets but not for Hanoi? Why was it moral to bomb North Vietnam but not to invade it?
Why were 2.7 million US service people needed to crush a third-world guerrilla movement? Why were Americans fighting Communism on the other side of the Pacific, but not in Cuba?
American leaders provided no answers to these questions or explanations for their actions in Vietnam. Instead, the message to ordinary Americans was “trust us we know what we’re doing.” Worse, the only response to legitimate criticism of the Vietnam War was to brand the critics unpatriotic.
Disgustingly, many of America’s leaders treated Vietnam as if were a continuation of World War II. For example, Bob Hope held shows for the troops and the stars of Laugh-In peddled war bonds. Yet it was obvious to a five-year-old that the Vietnamese Communists were not the Imperial Japanese Army.
Finally, elitists such as TV newsman Walter Cronkite compounded the hypocrisy by turning on the war. For example, Cronkite, who had been promoting the war on his CBS newscast for several years, suddenly turned against it one day in 1968.
Effectively, Cronkite broke kayfabe and told the American people “Vietnam means nothing to us. The war there is pointless and wasteful.” Yet Americans celebrated Uncle Walter as a hero. Cynics will wonder why Cronkite did not tell the truth four years earlier, before tens of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousand of Vietnamese suffered needless deatths.
Vietnam kills LBJ’s career
Predictably, the most visible casualty of Vietnam was the career of Lyndon Baines Johnson or LBJ.
In 1964, LBJ won an incredible victory in the presidential election. Johnson received an astounding 486 Electoral College Votes and 42.825 million popular votes. Yet in 1968, Johnson dropped out after losing two primaries to one of the worst presidential candidates in American history, US Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota).
Vietnam was the reason for LBJ’s defeat. Thousands of students flooded into New Hampshire to get “Clean for Gene,” cut their hair and shave their beards, and campaign.
The only issue in the 1968 Democratic Presidential Primary was Vietnam and Johnson had no answers. The election exposed Johnson’s lack of thought about the war. LBJ realized he could not defend the war because he did not know what the war was all about.
Yet the damage was done. Ordinary Americans no longer trusted the Democrats or progressives. Consequently, conservatives whose movement almost died after US Senator Barry Goldwater’s (R-Arizona) humiliating defeat in 1964 rebounded.
Vietnam left Democrats leaderless and disorganized until the rise of Bill Clinton (D-Arkansas) in the 1990s. Yet, Republicans were also disorganized and incapable of filling the vacuum left by the New Deal Coalition’s abrupt collapse in 1968 until the rise of Ronald Reagan (R-California) in 1980.
The Ultimate Casualty of Vietnam
One result of 1968 was that America’s movement towards a welfare state and a social democracy stalled and even reversed. Instead, of becoming a steadily advancing welfare state as Canada, Australia, India, and the United Kingdom became. America made an abrupt shift to the right of the rest of the English-speaking world.
I do not know if America could have become a true social democracy if we could have avoided the Vietnam Debacle. Yet is an intriguing possibility. In particular, I have to wonder what LBJ could have accomplished had he served a full second term undistracted by Vietnam with a full Democratic Congress behind him.
Remember, in his first term, LBJ gave us Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Notably, LBJ achieved all of that before Vietnam became the only issue.
Hence, the damage the Vietnam War did to America was far greater than many people suspect. In the final analysis, American social democracy was a casualty of the Vietnam War.