How did the Vietnam War affect American society?

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the previous educators have mentioned, the Vietnam War sharply polarized Americans. There were especially sharp differences between young people—those in their teens and twenties—and their parents regarding opinions about government, authority, and patriotism.

In hindsight, the Vietnam War is generally regarded as a mistake, but during the 1960s, the war was popular. Those who opposed the war, such as hippies, were loathed by mainstream society as Communist sympathizers. This resentment was so strong that when four college students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, fifty-six percent of Americans believed that the killings were justified.

I would disagree with the educator who argues that American society was relatively "homogeneous" before the war. American society has always been diverse and has always harbored people with divergent views and lifestyles. The difference is that, until the mid-1960s, white, middle-class Protestants were (and, in some ways, still are) the standard-bearers for American normalcy. That changed after the war, which also made our social inequities more visible. Most of the soldiers who were drafted were culled from the white working-class and minority groups, particularly Blacks and Latinos.

The counterculture was also more vocal and visible than they had been previously. Moreover, that counterculture was on the right side of history on many issues (e.g., civil rights, free speech, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and women's rights), while mainstream America was still beholden to outdated views, such as American opposition to Communism and an idealized view of American government.

pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Vietnam War was a watershed moment in American history.  After Vietnam, Americans did not trust their government as much.  Press briefings from the Oval Office said that America was winning the Vietnam War, but the Tet Offensive in 1968 demonstrated that the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army were still viable forces.  People did not put all of their faith in experts as well--Robert McNamara, Johnson's Secretary of Defense, used data such as kill counts and bomb tonnage in describing the war, yet the daily televised coverage of the war told a different story from that told by the administration.  Young people became more active in politics and demonstrating against the war.  Their active involvement in protesting the war led to the 26th Amendment, which gave eighteen-year-olds the right to vote.  More young men went to college to seek draft deferments, but the increased college enrollment can also be attributed to factories closing all over America.  Also, more Americans experimented with drugs during this era and there are still questions in American society about the legalization of certain drugs.  

The Vietnam War also split society in terms of people's view of government.  Nixon won the White House in 1968 and 1972 by calling on the "Silent Majority" who still supported their government with few questions.  Soldiers and draft protesters regarded each other with animosity for years after the war was over.  The Vietnam War made Americans seriously question whether or not it was proper to criticize the government and what methods should be used to protest.  

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main impact of the Vietnam War was to help drive American society apart.  American society had been relatively homogeneous and united in the 1950s and early 1960s.  The war helped to break this homogeneity and bring on the "culture wars" that we now have.

The Vietnam War helped to split American attitudes towards things like patriotism and authority.  The traditionalists wanted to keep hold of ideas like respect for authority and support for US foreign policy.  People who were radicalized by the war, on the other hand, started to feel that patriotism and authority in general was corrupt and should be resisted.

The Vietnam War helped to force this change in American attitudes, creating a split that had not previously existed.