Vietnam wasn’t supposed to rear its head in 2016. With the election of Barack Obama, the first president to have come of age after the war’s close, many political observers expected that the quadrennial debate over who served and who dodged—an issue in every presidential election from 1992 through 2004—was at last over. Leave it Trump to drag it back into the public square on Saturday, when he derogated the wartime service of Sen. John McCain, a combat veteran who endured five years of torture as a POW in the notorious Hanoi Hilton. “I like people that weren’t captured,” he said.
The Donald, who received a medical deferment in 1968 for bone spurs in his heels, seems genuinely confused by the backlash. It would be easy to write his nescience off as a form of adolescent self-absorption (though, in fairness to adolescents, most probably know how to recognize a war hero when they see one).
But part of his problem owes to a lasting historical legacy of the Vietnam War. Simply put, Vietnam was an internal class war as well as a war against a foreign belligerent. Unlike all American conflicts that preceded it, Vietnam drew sharp lines between those with means and those without. Young men from privileged backgrounds who served in Vietnam, like John McCain and John Kerry, usually did so electively, and as officers. Most working-class men, on the other hand, had no choice. They could join or be drafted, and almost always, they were enlisted.
We tend to lump the “sixties generation” into one undifferentiated cohort. But there was considerable divergence between the experiences of working-class men and those of their more privileged peers. This departure explains much about politics in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as some of Donald Trump’s current struggle.
In September 1967 the New York Times spent several days following a group of 18-year-old students as they arrived at area colleges. Freshman orientation, the paper observed, was a wonderland of “boat rides, excursions and get-together dinners.” From the moment of their arrival, freshmen were greeted with open arms and made to feel like important members of the collegiate community. At Columbia University, volunteers helped them move into their dorm rooms. University administrators hosted teas and lunch receptions to welcome them to campus. At nearby schools like Vassar and Hofstra, students learned that they were free to attend faculty and administration meetings. At Baruch College, part of the City University of New York system, the associate dean assured freshmen that if they had “any problems or complaints, come and talk to me about it. My door is always open.”
Hundreds of miles and many worlds away, young men like Ron Kovic experienced an altogether different rite of passage. Filing off a military bus at Parris Island, South Carolina, in the pitch dark of night, Kovich and his fellow Marine recruits were greeted by a tall, muscular drill instructor who gave them three seconds to line up on yellow-painted footprints spanning the hard concrete parade deck. “Awright, ladies!” the DI barked. “My name is Staff Sergeant Joseph. This is Sergeant Mullins. I am your senior drill instructor. You will obey both of us. You will listen to everything we say. You will do everything we tell you to do. Your souls today may belong to God, but your asses belong to the United States Marine Corps.”
While college deans invited incoming students to join them for sandwiches and orientation lectures, Staff Sergeant Joseph berated his trainees. “There are eighty of you, eighty young warm bodies,” he yelled, “eighty sweatpeas … and I want you maggots to know today that you belong to me … until I have made you into marines.”
Roughly 27 million young men came of draft age between 1964 and 1973—the peak years of American military engagement in Southeast Asia. Of that total, 2.5 million men served in the Vietnam War. Roughly 25 percent of all enlisted men who served in Vietnam were from poor families, 55 percent from working-class families, and 20 percent from the ranks of the middle class. In an era when half of all Americans claimed at least some post-secondary education, only 20 percent of Vietnam War servicemen had been to college, while a staggering 19 percent had not completed 12th grade. “When I was in high school, I knew I wasn’t going to college,” remembered a typical recruit. “It was really out of the question. Even graduating from high school was a big thing in my family.”
Among enlisted men who fought in Vietnam, roughly one-third were drafted, one-third joined entirely out of choice and one-third were “draft-motivated” enlistees who expected to be swept up by the Selective Service and volunteered in hopes of choosing the branch and location of their service. Many recruits who joined of their own volition had few alternative options. Unemployment rates for young men hovered around 12.5 percent in the late 1960s (over double that figure for young black men), and even in places where unemployment was low, companies were reluctant to hire and train young working-class men, for fear they would soon be drafted. “You try to get a job,” explained one such unemployed man, “and the first thing they ask you is if you fulfilled your military service.”
By contrast, middle-class boomers enjoyed a host of options in avoiding the draft. The government extended deferments to students enrolled in college or graduate school, but only to those who were full-time students. For one draftee who was working his way through the University of Hartford, the deferment system proved useless. “I was in school,” he recalled. “But I was only carrying a course load of nine credits. You had to have 12 or 15 back then [to earn a deferment]. But I was working two jobs and didn’t have time for another three credits.” Selective Service snatched him up.
Potential conscripts could also avoid the draft if they furnished military authorities with proof of psychiatric or medical ineligibility, but as a general rule, few working-class families enjoyed regular access to private physicians who could furnish or fabricate evidence of long-term treatment for a qualifying disability. Even something so simple as orthodontic braces were grounds for ineligibility, but few working-class men could afford to pay $2000 for elective dental work.
Because of the built-in bias in the draft system, Vietnam split Americans by class and geography. Three affluent towns in Massachusetts—Milton, Lexington and Wellesley—lost 11 young men in the war out of a total population of roughly 100,000. Nearby Dorchester, a working-class enclave with a comparable population, saw 42 of its sons die in southeast Asia. A study conducted in Illinois found that young men from working-class neighborhoods were four times as likely to be killed in the war as men from middle-class neighborhoods, while in New York, Newsday studied the backgrounds of 400 Long Island men who died in Vietnam and concluded that they “were overwhelmingly white, working-class men. Their parents were typically blue collar or clerical workers, mailmen, factory workers, building tradesmen, and so on.” In 1970, where a man lived, who his parents were, and how he grew up mattered enormously.
For most enlisted men who fought on the front lines in Vietnam, boot camp followed a predictable pattern. “They strip you, first your hair,” one veteran recalled. “I never saw myself bald before. … Guys I had been talking to not an hour before—we were laughing and joking—I didn’t recognize no more. … It’s weird how different people look without their hair. That’s the first step.” New servicemen began a grueling routine of physical and mental conditioning that began each day at dawn 4:00 a.m. and lasted until after sunset. Long hours of pushups, sit-ups, marches and outdoor infantry training were de rigueur.
After basic, new servicemen underwent several weeks of training for their military occupational specialty (MOS) and then shipped off for the balance of their service. For many enlisted men, this meant 12 or 13 months in Vietnam, followed by another six months of stateside service.
From the very start, war was surreal. Rather than send servicemen by military transport, the government contracted with commercial airlines to shuttle fresh troops to Southeast Asia. The sleek civilian jets were “all painted in their designer colors, puce and canary yellow,” remembered one veteran. “There were stewardesses on the plane, air conditioning. You would think we were going to Phoenix or something.” One veteran remembered that “you could cut the fear on that plane with a knife. You could smell it.”