The Age of Great Dreams Questions and Answers
by David Farber

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What’s a summary of chapters 6 and 7 in The Age of Great Dreams?

Chapters 6 and 7 of The Age of Great Dreams are about the Vietnam War and its impact on the United States. Chapter 6 describes the foreign policy and events that led to the beginning of the war, including Vietnam's struggle for independence from the French and Japanese. Chapter 7 describes the failings of US involvement in Vietnam under President Lyndon Johnson and the subsequent rise of the anti-war movement.

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Chapters 6 and 7 of David Farber’s The Age of Great Dreams: America in the 1960s focus on the Vietnam War and what it meant for the American people. While chapter 6 goes into the genesis of the war, and how powerful vested interests in America shaped US foreign policy, chapter 7 describes the growth of the anti-war movement during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson.

Tracing the path of the Vietnam War from the end of World War II, Farber describes in chapter 6 how the Vietnamese people’s struggle against colonial and imperialist powers was wrongly interpreted by American strategists. The Japanese were seeking control of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, a region that had been named Indochina by the French, who had occupied it since the nineteenth century. In August 1945, the US defeated these designs of the Japanese, giving a boost to the aspirations of the Vietminh,

a largely Communist organization ... an underground political and military force that had been trying to win Vietnamese freedom and independence from foreign occupiers for generations.

The leader of the Vietminh, legendary leader Ho Chi Minh, declared Vietnamese independence from colonial rule at a large celebratory rally in Hanoi, where the American national anthem was played as an expression of gratitude for the US’s help in ridding Vietnam of the Japanese.

Unfortunately, this bonhomie about American endorsement of Vietnam’s liberation from colonial rule did not last. After the end of World War II, America came under pressure from its Western allies, particularly France and Britain, to see Vietnam not as a country that had just achieved liberation from foreign rule, but as a crucial territory for control of the region. They emphasized that Vietnam needed to be kept friendly to Western democracies, in case Japan reached out for help to Soviet Russia. France was fighting an on-ground war with Vietnamese freedom fighters that continued up to 1954 with financial assistance from the US, until the French lost the war in a final battle at Dienbienphu. By this time, America had begun to view Vietnam purely as a necessary element of their geopolitical tussle with Russia. This Cold War perspective was strengthened and maintained by a phalanx of military planners and international relations experts who represented the “military-industrial complex” mentioned by President Eisenhower in his farewell speech in 1961. Farber describes how the Roosevelt and Truman administrations had their policy on Vietnam shaped by financial, business, and government elites who placed America’s “national security goals and international economic interests in the region” above the Vietnamese’s own aspirations.

The opportunity for the US to have a presence in Vietnam came after the departing French forces and the Vietminh signed a peace agreement in Geneva in 1954. Under this treaty, Vietnam was divided temporarily into two parts, wherein the North would come directly under Vietminh rule and the South would be a separate territory for two years, until elections could be held and the country unified. The US saw in this the means to make a non-communist region viable in Vietnam and established Ngo Dinh Diem, with their money and support, as the leader of South Vietnam. Diem, as an upper-class Roman Catholic, was not in tune with the majority of people under him—impoverished Buddhist peasants who had spent decades struggling under French exploitation. While the Ho Chi Minh government in North Vietnam brought in land reform and attempted to rebuild the country and economy, the administration in the South remained disconnected from the people and unleashed authoritarian measures against them. This led to covert attacks on the South Vietnamese bureaucracy by guerrillas from the North.

As a junior senator, President Kennedy had been critical of the US’s failed policy of supporting French imperialism in the Eisenhower years. Even President Johnson, as a Senate Democratic leader, had condemned the sending of American troops to Indochina as a “bloodletting spree to perpetuate colonialism.” However, both these men as presidents were guided by advisors who would present American control of Vietnam as a necessary counter to Khrushchev’s (Russian) influence in the region. This caused them to commit more and more troops and resources to prop up the Diem regime in South Vietnam. Later, after Diem had proved to be an unmitigated disaster, the CIA was brought in to engineer his death in a coup. However, by then, Vietnam had become a prestige battle for America. After President Kennedy’s death, President Johnson continued to press for more American forces for Vietnam and did his utmost to convince the American people that the war was a means of helping a democratic government in South Vietnam resist a communist invasion by North Vietnam.

Chapter 7 details how various sections of American society began to realize that this version of what was unfolding in Vietnam was far from the truth. In fact, American troops who arrived in Vietnam found that they were fighting an enemy who was indistinguishable from the poor villagers they glimpsed from fortified trucks. The Vietminh guerrillas, who enjoyed local support and were sheltered by the poor peasantry, were far removed from the image of the conventional, uniformed enemy that the soldiers would have expected to see. Moreover, US troops were also disturbed by the blank and indifferent faces of those whom they had arrived to protect. There is a particular description in the book where a Captain Mason describes how a man from his unit tripped over a wire and was blown up in front of his fellow soldiers. The scene was watched silently by villagers who stood at their thresholds and were obviously complicit, as they must have known about the wire trap being laid. The complete indifference of the South Vietnamese people to their so-called protectors and their refusal to betray their North Vietnamese brothers was infuriating and maddening for the American soldiers. Farber makes mention of the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968, when three platoons of the US Army entered the hamlet of Xom Lang in South Vietnam and raped and killed over 450 people without provocation. These were some of the most distressing aspects of the failed US policy in Vietnam, along with the raining down of napalm bombs and herbicides being used to clear green forest areas.

This chapter also describes the demographics of the US military presence in Vietnam and those who submitted to the draft or avoided it. A disproportionately high number of American soldiers came from small towns, farms, and the dense inner cities where unskilled workers had arrived in search of jobs in the previous decade. African American men who saw a job in the army as a means to improve their social and economic status made up such a large percentage of deaths in combat in 1965 that their mobilization in combat was subsequently reduced. Upper-class young men who had gone on to have a college education were able to successfully avoid the draft.

As the numbers of people killed began to grow, and it began to be apparent to people that what was being told to them by President Johnson and others in his administration was not the truth, a strong movement against the war began to build up across America. As Farber writes,

To put it bluntly, the Johnson administration and the military command—with the cooperation of the media—lied to the American people about both the nature and the development of the war.

Some of the first places where the lies began to unravel were college campuses, where not only students but also senior faculty members began to question and protest the policies of the government in the prolonged war that was taking such a heavy toll. Apart from the Students for a Democratic Society demonstration of over 15,000 people who came out to the Washington Monument on April 17, 1965, mentioned by Farber at the beginning of this chapter, there were “teach-ins,” beginning with one at the University of Michigan in March 1965 and followed by others at Columbia and the University of California at Berkeley. At these “teach-ins,” scholarly professors urged their fellow Americans not to follow their government’s foreign policy blindly, but to question the direction it was taking and the human costs.

Students protesting against the war began to have larger questions about American policy and whether this stood up to the American ideals of self-determination of people and their rights to life and liberty. Many different citizens’ groups began joining the anti-war movement. Middle-aged women from the middle class organized marches, and a Brooklyn housewife was instrumental in picketing Witco Chemical and Dow Chemical, the manufacturers of napalm. Clergymen also spoke up against the war, and Martin Luther King Jr. made a very influential speech in which he said that he opposed the war because he loved America. By late 1967, President Johnson was greeted by anti-war demonstrators everywhere he went, and the anti-war movement had grown to cover all classes and all regions of America.

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