The Vietnam War

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Did the Vietnam War handling influence younger Americans' trust in government leaders?

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Younger Americans did increasingly distrust the government from the mid 1960s on, with the Vietnam War as the principal reason, but not the only one. At the same time, older Americans in general retained a greater degree of trust, but it's significant that by the late 1960s, even many conservatives had begun to view the war, or at least the way in which it was being handled, as a mistake.

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Throughout the 1960s, the younger generation of Americans largely lost faith in the government, perhaps mainly because they were the ones affected by the military draft and sent to fight in a war which many of them did not see as justified or necessary. Yet domestic issues were significant in their distrust as well. The civil rights movement revealed a huge inequity in American life in which, given the oppressive treatment of Black people, the US had not lived up to its ideals of freedom and equality. Though the federal government was taking steps to correct this, as with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the basic fact of a massive injustice that had gone unaddressed for so long simply increased a general sense of cynicism about US leadership. It was ironic that President Lyndon Johnson, a liberal and progressive on domestic affairs, simultaneously escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

The older generations, the parents and grandparents of the baby-boomers, had been brought up and reached maturity under different conditions, when world wars and economic depression did not allow the time or luxury to question the traditional ways in which governments operated or the traditional value systems that dictated loyalty and obedience to flag and country. But at least by the year 1968, after years of war in Vietnam had resulted in little or no progress for the US, even many Americans over 30—including conservatives—had begun to see the war as a mistake and to believe it had been mishandled by Johnson, his administration, and the military leadership. This is why the Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, campaigned on a platform that he would bring the war to an end quickly. Nixon was elected, but the war went on for years, including its extension into Cambodia in 1970. The killing by National Guardsmen of students at Kent State University in the aftermath of this escalation solidified the general sense of opposition to government, and increased the feeling, even among the older citizens, that government was failing and was unable to deal with deep-seated dissatisfaction among the American people.

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