Don’t Blame Vietnam

Atrios has a couple of posts up, here and here, that question the myth that being against the Vietnam War somehow destroyed the Democratic Party. He writes,

For the record, in the 1974 election, before the full end of the war but certainly after the Democrats had become tainted by antiwarness the democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, increasing their majority to 291-144. In the Senate they picked up 3, for a total of 61.

This did follow the 1972 election where, yes, they lost 13 whole seats in the House, leaving them with only 242 seats. That year they gained 2 seats in the Senate, giving them a total of 56.

And then came the 1976 election, post-war, where Democrats picked up the presidency, 1 House seat, and stayed even in the Senate. …

…I’m sure someone has written about this, and maybe it reaches back farther than I remember, but this whole “Vietnam destroyed the Democrats” myth seems to be one which has recently taken hold. I don’t remember it from my teens, though I do remember that Jane Fonda sold a very popular line of exercise videos.

I’ve written about this before. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” It is not true, as some would have you believe, that George McGovern lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon because McGovern was anti-war and Nixon was pro-war.

First, unlike our current Creature in the Oval Office, in 1972 Nixon fully acknowledged that it was time to withdraw combat troops from Vietnam and was in the process of doing so on election day. Of course, Nixon could have done the same thing four years earlier, and today the Vietnam Memorial would be only half as wide. (Indeed, as we now know that Nixon sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace initiatives so that he could run against the war, were it not for Nixon the wall would be very small, indeed.)

Nixon was elected to his first term in 1968 in part because he promised to end the war in Vietnam. You can argue that in 1968 Nixon was the “peace” candidate, in fact. His Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, had been Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, and of course in 1968 Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson’s War. I doubt Humphrey would have continued LBJ’s policies, but in 1968 there was widespread belief that he would.

But Nixon’s first term dragged on, and the war was escalated and then de-escalated, but didn’t end. Unlike Bush, however, Nixon was not holding out for some hazily defined “victory,” but rather “peace with honor,” meaning he wanted to wring some concessions out of the North Vietnamese before we left so that the U.S. wouldn’t lose face. But just about half of the U.S. military deaths of Vietnam — half of the people named on the wall — died while Nixon was diddling around. By the time McGovern began to campaign for the nomination, at least some people were saying the hell with honor; let’s just get the bleep out.

But in 1972 Nixon and Kissinger were very openly trying to end the war before the election. And just a week before the 1972 general election and Nixon’s landslide victory, Henry Kissinger held a press conference at the White House and declared that “peace is at hand.” The warring parties were right on the edge of a peace agreement, he said. This announcement turned out to be a tad premature, but Americans didn’t find out until after the election.

So, you see, this was not at all parallel with the current state of affairs.

As I discussed in the original “Don’t Blame McGovern” posts, McGovern’s candidacy had several strikes against it that had nothing to do with the war. Notable among these was the visible dumping of his original Vice Presidential candidate, the late Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. But there were several other problems that you can read about in the old posts and that I’m not going to go into here.

As Atrios argues, although McGovern was badly trounced, election results overall from the 1970s just don’t show a clear pattern of the Dems getting punished wholesale at the polls for Vietnam. The Republican Party didn’t really begin its ascent into dominance until Reagan was elected in 1980. That was seven years after the last U.S. combat troop was withdrawn from Vietnam, and five years after the fall of Hanoi. Saigon.

So why did the Democratic Party fall apart? In short, the party had been sustained since FDR’s time by the New Deal coalition, and that coalition collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Certainly Vietnam was a factor, but so was the counterculture, and the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, and the New Left generally. I’ve spelled this out in detail in the past; see, for example:

“Hey, Hey, LBJ …”

How the Democrats Lost Their Spines

How the Democrats Lost, Period

Can Dems Find Their Mojo?”

There are many factors that came together in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in a weakened, spineless, and soulless Democratic Party. I explain these in detail in the posts above, which I wrote as a kind of series last August. But there are two major factors I’d like to point out:

In the 1970s and 1980s, white voters left the Dem Party in droves and began to vote Republican, mostly because Nixon, Reagan, and others did a bang-up job exploiting racism. I think the racist backlash to Dem support of civil rights and antipoverty programs cost Democrats far more, in the long run, than the war in Vietnam did.

Second, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Left ideologies discouraged young activists from getting involved in party politics. Instead, progressivism broke up into single-issue advocacy movements that competed with each other for funds and attention. The New Deal coalition dissolved, nothing took its place, and the Democratic Party itself lost clear identity and purpose. IMO it’s important to look hard at this second issue, because I see a lot of activists today making the same mistakes the New Left made years ago.

22 thoughts on “Don’t Blame Vietnam

  1. I haven’t read all you links yet, but just wanted to let you know I’d appreciate hearing more about what you say in your last sentence.

    Also, what do you think is the role of declining union membership in this country? Seems to track with falling Dem fortunes.

  2. The one thing I disagree with, is your assertation that Nixon is responsible for half of the dead in VietNam. I believe it’s closer to a third. The final numbers of total dead vary, as do those that died during Nixon’s term, but even with those variances, they all tend to be around a third rather than half. VietNam started with Ike and finished with Nixon. While Ike was responsible for a few, Kennedy and Johnson sent plenty of “advisors” with Johnson outdoing everybody.

  3. So why did the Democratic Party fall apart?

    Well, I’m sure there are many factors, but one factor has to be the message and the marketing. Looking back at my own experience I recall a pervasive sense at the time that others were getting a free ride on my back. I felt oppressed and victimized by society, much like the spirit of oppression that Rush Limbaugh and the right talk radio are continually sowing today. It’s such an easy trap to be drawn into where your ills are the result of another persons irresponsibility. The message is… It’s them lazy Mexicans who are draining our resources, the blacks who refuse to take responsibility for their situation, liberal intellectuals who constantly whine about theoretical injustices from the cloistered halls of academia while never having tasted the burden of reality, women who can’t function in their natural roles and demand an unearned position in the marketplace.
    The Republican message has always been flavored with the theme of responsibility, but in reality, they accentuate and exacerbate the supposed irresponsibility of others, and in doing so, they they exploit a tendency to embrace a victim’s status.
    I think Joesph Goebbels used the same technique by scapegoating the ills of Germany in the 30’s on the Jews that the Republican party used since Vietnam to draw more adherents to their ranks by scapegoating with various elements of our society.

  4. ray — if you’re going to challenge something I say, I’d be so much happier if you’d actually check your facts first. I believe I am right, but right now I don’t have time to figure it out. I found a page that gives dead and sounded year-by-year, however, so if you or someone else wants to do the math, be my guest.

    I believe the “non-hostile deaths” got on the wall, too, so don’t leave them out.

    It’s true that Eisenhower and Kennedy sent military advisers into Nam, and I believe some of those “advisers” were closer to what we call “special ops” today. It’s possible some of them died, but I’ve never seen any numbers, and they aren’t counted as “official” Vietnam War dead.

  5. I don’t tend to dispute anything by pulling facts out of my ass, Maha. I had just done research on this exact matter and I checked several sites for the numbers. Numbers in total and numbers in year by year. Have I checked every single frigging page with numbers? No. But I checked enough to come to my conclusions. To be fair, I didn’t include non-hostile deaths, as they weren’t the numbers used in the dispute I researched. However, if the number of non-hostile deaths does put Nixon at that halfway mark, therein could lie a very sad statement on our military at that time.

  6. Numbers in total and numbers in year by year.

    Then what are they? The total of U.S. troops after the Tonkin Gulf resolution and until the fall of Saigon is something in the neighborhood of 58,135, of which approximately 33,700 occurred from 1965-1968, which would leave about 24,435 left over. Although I am seriously math impaired, I believe is less than half or but more than a third.

  7. “But in 1972 Nixon and Kissinger were very openly trying to end the war before the election.”

    “Openly” pretending is what Nixon and Kissinger (the “Gold Dust Twins) were doing Maha…

    Check out the ‘transcripts’ of what survives from Nixon’s Oval Office tapes…

    At one point in, I belive, October of ’72, Nixon tells Kissinger (on the phone from Paris): “Henry, you make goddam sure they don’t agree to anything before the election”…

    Nixon was always playing the same game…Just as he did when he interfered in the Paris Peace Talks before the election in ’68…

  8. And…As for our “involvement”…It goes all the way back to WWII (if not before)…

    Truman agreed to help the French regain their colonial postion in “Indo-China” after the Japanese ‘surrender’…And our contributions to the French effort grew exponentially when Truman drew the line in Korea…

    American military personnel and “Spooks” ran the air services in IndoChina from 1950 through the fall of Dien Ben Phu…

    And then we slowly took on the whole load ourselves….(And did no better job of it than had the French)

  9. Using your link we have numbers from 1961-1968, total deaths at 35,486. From 1969-1972 (Nixon’s time in office) total deaths were at 20,501. The grand total is 55,987. For some reason, 2,215 are unaccounted for in the charts. Anyhow, using the numbers accounted for, a little less than 37% of the total deaths resulted during the Nixon years.

    My notes have another set of numbers. I have lists deaths from 1956 to 1998. From 1956-1968 I have 36,152 and 1969-1972 gave us 20,695. But just to help you, I will also add on the 1973-4 years of 346 for a total of 21,041. (This figures in all the years Nixon was in office. For reasons to simplify the math, we do not to hold him responsible for any crossover years, as Johnson can be held equally responsible for some of 1969s numbers.) Now my notes also show an additional 1,000 deaths from 75-98. As I mentioned, it would be unfair to include all these years on Nixon’s watch, but they will be part of the grand total which is 58,193. Again, Nixon’s years show roughly 35% deaths on his watch.

    My math figures that each example varies 2-4 points higher than 33% while the other end is a 13-15 points difference from 50%. If we can agree that 33% is a third, you can see how the figures are closer to a third than a half. Both examples include non-hostile deaths.

  10. Ray, Nixon didn’t leave office in 1972; he left in August 1974, and soldiers didn’t stop dying until 1975 (the last American soldier to die in Vietnam was killed April 29, 1975). Probably there were only a handful of deaths between August 1974 and April 1975, but we wouldn’t have been in Vietnam still had Nixon withdrawn troops sooner, so I put those deaths on his head also.

  11. I know that! The 1972 reference you refer to is where your link’s stats end. If you read what my etire post, you would see I included his entire time in office too. I also mentioned there were plenty of deaths after he left.

    “Now my notes also show an additional 1,000 deaths from 75-98.” So while some of those deaths can be accounted for a trickle left behind, many of those were given year of death so the actual death could have happened on anybody’s watch. Yet, if you want to use those against him, my percentage is still closer to a third and you should also subtract a few thousand from up front of his first term as those numbers were more than likely there when Johnson was in office. Surely you couldn’t expect Nixon to step into office on day one and stop the war and pull out every man in the blink of an eye? Although, I can see it’s more important for you to blame a party than to be fair or accurate. I’m disappointed in you, I thought you were above that.

  12. Oh, and just to clarify the “stop the war and pull out every man in the blink of an eye” line, because I know you’ll jump all over that. My point I was trying to make is you are unfairly counting the deaths of soldiers after Nixon left without counting any soldiers that were still in Nam after Johnson left. If Nixon ended the war within months of his first year, without having sent one additional soldier in that time, yes, Johnson would have been responsible for those numbers. But because we can’t accurately know how many were in Nam already and died when Nixon took the reins, I felt it unfair to use every number afterwards on Nixon’s head. While I can understand why one would, you should out of fairness subtract some from the front end in that case.

    When every minutia of data is available to literally connect every dead soldier to each president, regardless of specific time in office, then we can then give precise blame. So for matters of fairness, the years in office versus the years of the actual war were used.

  13. Ray, although you’re probably right that it’s closer to a third than a half, you are being WAY too anal about this.

    The point, Ray, is not about who was most responsible for what deaths. The point is about the political mood of the country in the 1970s and how it impacted the Democratic Party. It is widely believed that there was something about the way the Vietnam War ended that caused voters to walk away from the Democratic Party, and I (and Atrios) are saying that just plain isn’t true.

    First, I want people to understand that the war issues of 1972 were very different from what we’re looking at now. The primary issue was not about whether we should stay in Vietnam and complete “the mission,” or whether we should withdraw. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats were in favor of withdrawing. Nixon and McGovern both campaigned on a promise to withdraw. The question was not if, but how.

    The point about how many troops died after Nixon became president is important only because it illustrates the difference between Nixon’s and McGovern’s position. Again, both of these guys were talking about peace. But McGovern’s candidacy gained traction because Nixon had promised to get us out of Vietnam before he was elected for his first term. Then the four years of his term dragged on, and the war was still going on. And any way you slice it, the number of U.S. troops who died because Nixon and Kissinger were flapping around about “honor” was not insignificant. Whether it was a third or a half is not critical to the point I’m trying to make here.

    When the war finally ended, as I remember it, the enormous majority of Americans didn’t give a bleep about the terms of the peace agreement, other than bringing home the POWs. Nor were most of them distressed when Congress stopped funding the South Vietnamese military in 1974. Once there was a peace deal and the combat troops were pulled out, most Americans just wanted to shove Vietnam out of their minds. Yes the fall of Saigon was distressing, but I don’t recall that anyone blamed one party more than the other for it.

    And, as Atrios documents in the posts I linked, there was no voting pattern that shows Democrats were punished at the polls for Vietnam.

    So where did this myth come from, that Dems lost support of the public because of Vietnam?

    I think this myth was the creation of rightie propaganda generated in the 1980s. All along there was a small but intense core of right wingers who were disturbed about “not winning” in Vietnam and blamed “liberals” for it, but in the 1970s most people weren’t listening to these loons. By the 1980s memories were fading, however, and the young folks who fell in love with Reagan but were a little too young to remember Vietnam (and who seem to be the most active members of movement conservatism now) were ripe for blaming “liberals” for “losing Vietnam.” That’s their story, and they’re sticking with it.

    Remarkably, most of the older punditocracy has bought into this myth, also, including the ones who are old enough to know better. But that’s not what happened.

    That’s my point.

  14. Just to be clear, I stated I agreed with the bulk of your original post, meaning I understood your point, but I only wished to point out the inaccuracy of your math.

    You can say it’s anal, but in the context you used it in, your number tends to put a spin that one man was just as bad as two men, if not worse just because of the proximity of percentages. The fact that Nixon represents Republicans in your post, it deliberately casts a negative light to benefit your argument. Lest you forget, both Kennedy and Johnson did little to end the war at all. While Kennedy’s “domino theory” was a noble attempt to support his needs, it was at best misguided. But that’s easily said using hindsight. While I don’t like Nixon using the war to further his reelectability, I don’t feel it justifies distorting numbers to assist one’s bias.

    And that’s my point.

  15. The myth that Liberals were responsible for losing the war might have gotten it’s foundation from Daniel Ellsberg releasing the Pentagon Papers. Daniel Ellsberg sounds like a Jewish name to me.

  16. While I don’t like Nixon using the war to further his reelectability, I don’t feel it justifies distorting numbers to assist one’s bias.

    I’m sorry you feel I was distorting numbers. I believed I was being accurate at the time. I am massively math impaired — I’m serious — and only do basic computation when somebody puts a gun to my head and gives me a calculator.

    I disagree that I’m biased, however. I blame LBJ for getting us into the bleeping war and make no excuses for his mismanagement of it.

    And when you wrote “Surely you couldn’t expect Nixon to step into office on day one and stop the war and pull out every man in the blink of an eye?” That’s just crap. I didn’t expect Nixon to pull out the troops in the blink of an eye. But Nixon didn’t finish pulling out all of the combat troops for


    Is that clear now? And that’s only to the final withdrawal of combat troops, of course.

    In 1969 I was a senior in high school and didn’t care who won the presidential election, but most people I knew liked Nixon, so I was OK with his election. And if he had done what he’d promised and had brought the war to a close with a couple of years of his first inauguration, I would have been OK with that. But it took him


    during which time he had escalated and expanded the war, and during which time lots of nasty stuff happened. So by the time the


    had rolled around since the last election campaign, and the war was still going on, lots of people were tense about it.

    So, once again, nobody expected Nixon for not ending the war in “the blink of an eye.” But they did blame him for taking


    Is that clear now? And you can apologize to me for dishonestly distorting my opinion whenever you like.

  17. It wasn’t Vietnam the Real Thing that was used to damage the Democratic Party. It was Vietnam the Myth. That is why it wasn’t germane until 1980. And, too, it would not have had the same resonance if it were not for the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Both of these events were portrayed in the press/media, and pounded by the Republicans, as evidence of Democratic ‘weakness’ on foreign policy and alleged hostility to the military.

    A review of the 1980 campaign, beginning with the 1978 mid-terms, would show that, prior to the Iranian hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the centerpiece of the Reagan campaign with respect to foreign policy was the Panama Canal Treaty.

    Another point.

    Everything Barbara says is accurate, but one thing is left out that was a key component of the Republican revanche: the battle of the Equal Rights Amendment. The very first victory, and the organizational model, for what we now can see as the ascendancy of America’s right-wing was the defeat of the ERA.

  18. Again you twist my words into something to fit your argument rather than understand them for what they were meant. If it makes you feel better to do that, then go ahead.

    But if you are so math challenged, then don’t go all snarky on me by saying “I’d be so much happier if you’d actually check your facts first.” I checked my damn facts plus I double checked my math. You reply with more attitude which obviously shows you didn’t even bother to read my whole response. I at least take the time to read your entire posts, lengthy as they are. If I don’t grasp something something, I’ll re-read it. You can’t even extend that courtesy, choosing rather to incorrectly berate me on points I already made.

    Oh, one has to love the irony of your follow up post of factuality and truth.

  19. Ray, I’m going to respond to you once before I ban you for being an asshole.

    You write, “I checked my damn facts plus I double checked my math” Maybe you did, but in your first comment you provided no calculations, no links, no data. You just said, in effect, I think you’re wrong. I asked you for the numbers, and in your second comment you still didn’t provide them. So I took a stab at it, which took up more time than I had, and then finally you provided some numbers. If you had said IN YOUR FIRST COMMENT, I checked the numbers, and actually out of XX,XXX killed, about XX,XXX died on Nixon’s watch, so that’s less than half, I would have been OK with that.

    But you didn’t do that. You just said, you’re wrong. That kind of comments drives me absolutely crazy. Don’t just say I’m wrong; show me where I’m wrong, and show me what the real numbers are. And don’t take up so much of my time. Well, I guess you won’t now, huh?

  20. Let’s give Harry Truman the Final Word on Nixon…

    “He’s a shifty-eyed, lying son-of-a-bitch”.

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